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Traveling - Carolina Geography

Carolinas’ Heartlands
Row, Row, Row your Boat, gently down the stream (or river, or lake). There’s so much water in the Carolinas’ heartlands – and so many ways to take advantage of its liquid presence. Join a club and get started.
Photo Credit: Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau

Okay. Here's what we don't have: A volcano, a desert and a prairie. Nor do we have a bayou, or a New York or Atlanta. But, here's what we do have:

Rolling green hills. These are a paradise for cows and other cudsy creatures - and the car-bound humans who pass them and sigh.

The ancient Blue Ridge Mountains, the oldest on the continent. They're yellow, red and orange in the autumn, green in spring, summer and winter, and blue from a distance.

Waterfalls both grand and unassuming sparkle in the sun. Get a cabin and experience it first hand, or take in the air on the balcony of a mountain inn.


The seductive Atlantic Ocean - 500 miles of coastline means plenty of dunes, sea oats and salty fun for millions of visitors and residents.

"North Carolina has it all from the mountains to the sand," Jule Garrish sings in "Touring the Outer Banks." This tune, included in a collection of songs from Ocracoke, the southern island of the Outer Banks, could be the anthem for those who love a trade winds lifestyle.

Rivers galore. Some are mighty, some are mild. They're good for fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and white water rafting.

Most are pretty darn cold, although the Edisto in South Carolina, the longest blackwater river east of the Mississippi, is wonderfully refreshing in the summer. It also has a firm white sandy bottom. In other words, no squish factor.

Forests. Thick and green, many are well marked with trails. Books on Carolina trails abound. This is your chance to get a mountain bike and learn how to recognize poison ivy.

Lakes. Some are natural, some are man-made. All offer amenities for nearby communities, and often mark borders between states or counties. Rent a houseboat and do some reading, fishing, swimming or just vegetating. You've got hundreds of choices.

I think one central characteristic is diversity," reflects Dr. John Winberry, geography professor at the University of South Carolina and associate dean of its graduate school. "We have mountains up to 3,500 feet in the northwest of South Carolina to the seacoast, with a range of geographic expressions in between. And it's the same in North Carolina, except on a larger scale."

Blue mountains, green valleys, crystal sparkling lakes and wide sandy beaches.

Dr. Winberry, a New Orleans native, finds the Carolina terrain "fascinating." Although his move from the Big Easy 30 years ago was anything but easy - he even calls it "traumatic," Dr. Winberry says Columbia is home now. "It's intriguing when you think about how much I've come to enjoy and think highly of and even love the Carolinas," he says. "I've traveled the county and country roads and stopped and talked to people and they've been very friendly, receptive and open."

By touring back roads, Dr. Winberry can trace the connection between Carolina geography, history, people and their lifeways. "There's always something one will encounter," he points out. "There are remnants of some industrial feature, like a cotton mill, and towns that have disappeared except for some storefronts, and homes that have been abandoned and schools that have changed. And these are all a part of the Carolinas."

The hard-scrabble textile culture of the upper Piedmont gives way to the lower Piedmont's cotton plantations that were abandoned in the mid-20th Century. North Carolina's vast tobacco farms in the Coastal Plain spill into the Pee Dee of South Carolina.

Students of geography will note that the Carolinas are divided into three physiographic regions: the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont Plateau and the Mountain Region. The latter is composed of the Appalachians in western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge mountains in South Carolina's northwestern corner. The three counties of Oconee, Pickens and Anderson call themselves "The Golden Corner," and signal the northern part of "The Freshwater Coast."

"I came here 31 years ago thinking I'd stay three or four years and then go to a better place. Then I discovered I'd gone to a better place."

Distinguished by the lengthy Savannah River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia, The Freshwater Coast capitalizes on its fine fishing, thick forests and clear lakes formed by the river.

The most dramatic terrain can be found in North Carolina. "Variety Vacationland" was the Tar Heel tourism slogan for years, and John Florin, associate professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, says it's perfect. "I came here 31 years ago thinking I'd stay three or four years and then go to a better place. Then I discovered I'd gone to a better place."

Like Dr. Winberry, Mr. Florin says diversity is the most distinguishing factor of Carolina geography. And the human environment the diversity has spawned provides plenty of fodder for classroom discussion. "The most remarkable thing is the way in which we are spread across the state in a large number of smaller cities and towns, rather than being concentrated in larger urban areas. For instance, half of all the people in Georgia live in Atlanta."

That's not at all true of Charlotte, North Carolina's largest city, or Columbia, South Carolina's largest. In fact, North Carolina ranks 49 and South Carolina 43 of states with cities that hold its largest populations.

Several moderate-sized cities and many small towns create a very livable environment, Mr. Florin believes. "We are more likely to have a population that lives in a rural area and works in an urban area, because our cities are spread out and they're accessible. We have a whole array of regional centers, and none of them grew to dominate."

All this variety makes it tough to decide where to take that quick weekend getaway or extended family vacation.

Because North Carolina's coast was harder to reach than South Carolina's and Virginia's, it never established the aristocratic low country cities that were based on the plantation culture, Mr. Florin says. But the mountain areas in the Old North State are more populated than in the Palmetto State, and as appreciated as the coast. "The students we get from the mountains have an uncommon tie to place," he observes. "They love home, and they love the mountains and respect the mountains, and have an uncommon sense of the beauty of where they're from."

Still, a typical North Carolina question is, "What's your favorite beach?" For Mr. Florin, it's Sunset Beach, which he loves for its old-fashioned bridge and proximity to Calabash's string of seafood restaurants. Because South Carolina is smaller, a mountain dweller can reach the ocean in 250 miles. It's 500 miles from the mountains to the coast in North Carolina.

All this variety makes it tough to decide where to take that quick weekend getaway or extended family vacation. Will it be a week at the beach in a rustic cottage with wooden floors - windows flung open to let in the air? Or a wintry stay in a mountain chalet, with skiing and hot chocolate?

Decisions, decisions. Life here is just so hard.

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