Waccamaw river reflections.
Waccamaw river reflections.

(Next) Best Paddling Towns: Conway, S.C.

Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.

Photos courtesy GatorBaitAdventureTours
Story by Natalie Warren

With a rich history as a riverboat city, it is not surprising that Conway, South Carolina attracts modern river rats to paddle and explore the lazy, blackwater stretches of the Waccamaw River. The Waccamaw travels 140 miles through wetlands and cypress forests from Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina, snaking past Conway to Winyah Bay, just south of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

"It is hot here in the summer," said Laila Johnston with American Rivers’ Waccamaw River Blue Trail, one of the most successful water trails in the country. But in the heat of summer, Conway has the hottest commodity of all: shade. Paddlers and beach-goers flock to Conway to escape the sun and explore the dark, mysterious waters of the Waccamaw River.

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If you're looking for wildlife, launch at Pitch Landing just south of town and meander through the backwaters of the Waccamaw in Cox Ferry Lake and Pitch Lodge Lake. Relax and keep your eyes open for osprey, woodpeckers, egrets, wood ducks, otters, tree frogs, snakes, alligators — OK, don't relax too much! "The alligators are afraid of kayakers." assured Paul Laurent from Black River Outdoors Center. "We're lucky to see one on a tour!" If you need a canoe or kayak, or have your own and want to paddle with local experts, Black River Outdoors is your gateway to an in-depth on-water experience.

During paddle excursions, amateur photographers can create beautiful images from the reflections of the cypress trees in the still waters of the swamp. Photographers from across the county can get their nature photography fix on the Waccamaw River.

Day-paddlers can also venture from Wacca Wache landing to Sandy Island, the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the East Coast. "If you launch two hours before high tide you can ride the tide to the island, take a hike into a unique coastal island ecosystem, and ride the tide back to the launch," explains Laurent. That's right – downstream, both ways!

For the more adventurous overnight paddler try your hand at the 44-mile journey from Conway to Georgetown. If the water level isn't too high, you can pitch your tent on the sandy banks of the river. If it is high, you'll need to apply for a permit to camp on Nature Conservancy-managed land. Before launching from Conway make sure to carbo-load at The Crafty Rooster for the best burgers in town. On either end of your trip there are iconic bed and breakfasts right off the river in Conway and Georgetown with modern comforts and hot showers, or cold showers for those of you paddling during summer.

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Whether you are in town for a day-paddle or just stopping on a longer journey, hop off the river for an easy jaunt on the river walk into historic downtown Conway, lined by majestic oak trees that locals consider Conway's oldest residents. Historic Conway is also home to locally owned shops and boutiques, the Horry Historical Center, and the famous Luvan's Old South Fish Camp, featuring fresh, locally sourced seafood.

If you land in Conway on the right day in September, you might just happen upon the annual Crady's Mac and Cheese Bake-off — Conway's creative twist on the traditional southern chili cook-off. Conway plays host to a variety of festivals and events every year. Most notably, the Conway Riverfest in June draws a water-loving crowd to celebrate the river with beer, food, music, and fireworks. Instead of pulling up a chair at this show, float your kayak on the Waccamaw River for the best view.

What's next for Conway? American Rivers, in partnership with local conservation groups and the city, is trying to create a conservation corridor that will connect the city, the university, and the National Wildlife Preserve. This corridor will give the community, tourists, and students at the university greater access to the Waccamaw River. Keep an eye out for new and improved access points, new businesses along the riverwalk in historic Conway, and a new park along the river.

Visit Conway for your paddling vacation or hop from riding the waves on South Carolina's beautiful beaches to riding the tide, both ways, on the Waccamaw River.

Helpful Resources:

Black River Outdoor Adventures
The Crafty Rooster
Conway Chamber of Commerce
American Rivers: Waccamaw River Blue Trail

— Each month, Natalie Warren will highlight a different North American town making positive strides toward community and infrastructure developments catering to recreational paddling. In 2011, Warren was one of the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, recreating Eric Sevareid's route from Canoeing With the Cree. The journey earned a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards' 2012 Expedition of the Year.
Warren's nonprofit Wild River Academy works with communities across the country to increase paddlesports tourism and experiential learning opportunities on their local rivers, presenting 'urban' rivers as a natural, dynamic classroom for youth. Currently a River Steward for Wisconsin's St.Croix River Association, Warren has also worked with the River Management Society, finding ways to increase awareness about the economic benefits of water trails, and with it, paddlesports tourism.

Check out Warren’s previous installments of the (Next) Best Paddling Towns:

— A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.

— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland

— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan

— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns