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Trip Ideas: Explore the Southeast U.S. on a Road Trip Through Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

I recently had the chance to visit with family in Florida and decided to make the return a journey a proper Vander road trip in the southeast U.S. Part of the appeal of traveling in a campervan is that it provides unmatched independence and autonomy; the itinerary conforms to your interests not the other way around. Call an audible, take time to investigate an unexpected find, the plan can always adjust down the road. Nevertheless, it is useful to have a general theme or line of interest in mind to help structure and orient your wanderings. On this particular trip, I decided to focus on National Park Service sites and other points of historical or natural interest. Of course, there are limitless options for this type of trip, the only constraint is the time set aside for your wanderings. The stops on this trip represent a small sampling of what could await you on a trip up or down the East coast.

Campervan under palm trees overlooking an intercoastal waterway spanned by a roadway bridge
Sunrise near Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

After leaving the Tampa area, the road wound north and east across central Florida toward Melbourne. The trip would have been faster on the major arteries, but when time allows, I much prefer to take the rural two-lane roads. Going through smaller communities bypasses all of the same fast food chains and gas stations that inhabit every interstate exit across the country, and instead soak up the authentic local flavors. A trip across the Florida backroads affords a wonderful glimpse into the Florida that exists beyond the cities, beaches, and theme parks. You get to see farmland, citrus orchards, and plenty of charming little communities.

Upon arrival in New Smyrna Beach, the first stop was the Mary McLeod Bethune Beach. This beautiful stretch of beach has a rich history, established as a Black-owned and -operated beach resort that offered a welcoming holiday destination for Black people during the segregation era. The beach also features wonderful ocean views, sea birds, and great surf. The park is open during daylight hours and you can enjoy the free public restrooms and showers to freshen up from the road.

Spanish-era stone fortification on the water south of St. Augustine being visited by a tourist boat
Fort Matanzas National Monument viewed from across the water

Heading north, the next stop was the NPS historic site for Fort Matanzas National Monument. This small Spanish outpost was built by Spain in 1742 to protect the southern approaches to St. Augustine from British attackers. It is a cool site and only accessible by a ferry boat. The boat ride out to the fort is by reservation only, and the park ranger said that most of the seats are usually reserved by 10am.

Signs at the Fort Matanzas National Monument ranger station providing information about ferry visits to the fort.  The placard indicates that all seats on the boats are reserved for the day.
Get there early or miss the boat!

Naturally, I missed the boat, since I didn't arrive until the afternoon, but there is a short walking path to an observation point across the river where you can clearly see the stone fort with the Spanish imperial flag flying from the rampart. Lesson learned: plan your stop at Fort Matanzas early in the day to make sure you can get on the boat ride out to the fort.

Bridle dog standing in front of the stone ramparts of the Spanish fortress Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine, Florida

After that short visit, it was back on the road to St. Augustine. This little tourist

town has been a favorite of mine since visiting many, many years ago as a kid during a family vacation. The town was founded by Spain in 1565 and is anchored by an impressive stone fortification, the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The fort was built from coquina stone, a kind of cement-like sedimentary rock composed of crushed shells, which turned out to be very resistant to British cannon fire. The rest of the town is very touristy, but in a kind of charming way that made me feel nostalgic for family shore trips. Stopped by Bog Brewing Company on the way out of town for a cold beer, I found the Euro Pilsner to be a refreshing treat.

The morning sun shines in the blue sky over palms and the water by the Huntly Plantation national historic site in the Timucuan National Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Continuing north past Jacksonville, the next stop was the Timucuan Ecologic and Historic Preserve, a collection of several points of interest. On this trip, a visit to Kingsley Plantation provided a very respectful and insightful glimpse into the life of enslaved people during this period of American history. The property is well preserved with an informative self-guided tour of the grounds, which sit on a serene stretch of river. Next time through, the Fort Caroline National Memorial will certainly be on the itinerary for a flavor of French ambitions on the southeast coast.

A cannon crew demonstrates the employment of a Union cannon beneath the American flag inside the brick ramparts of the Fort Pulaski National Monument.

Savannah, GA won a coin flip with Charleston, SC for the next stop up coast. Savannah is such a lovely town with its quirky vibes and unique botanical array of squares and monument. The true stars of this visit, however, were further east out toward Tybee Island. There near the mouth of the Savannah River, you can find all kinds of interesting historical places, such as the Fort Pulaski National Monument, an old masonry coastal fortification that fell to modern Union artillery during the advance on Savannah. The Tybee Island Lighthouse is worth a visit, as well as the Tybee Island Beach to get your feet wet in the surf.

A campervan in front of The Crab Shack seafood restaurant on Tybee Island east of Savannah, Georgia, under trees wrapped in green lights.

No trip to Savannah and Tybee would be complete without a meal at the one-of-a-kind Crabshack (not to be confused with Joe's variety), "where the elite go to eat in their bare feet." Do not miss out on the excellent Low Country Boil outside on the deck while soaking up the tiki atmosphere. I also really love the chowder.... if you are into soups, I highly recommend.

A boardwalk trail in the Congaree National Park submerges under flood waters in the wetland area.

The last touring stop along the way was at Congaree National Park in South Carolina. A 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk trail lets you admire the vegetation and wildlife without getting your feet wet, unless of course the water is up, which it was during this visit. Even so, the park was still open, you just need to turn around when the boardwalk dives beneath the murky waters. Good tip, Congaree is well known for its synchronous fireflies (lightning bugs), that actually flash in time with each other. The fireflies are at their peak in May and the NPS awards night passes on a lottery basis every year. Go to their website to find out when the lottery is active, you may get lucky!

Blue campervan parked under a large tower shaped like a sombrero and a sign advertising fireworks at "Fort Pedro" at the South of the Border travel stop in South Carolina.

The rest of the way home was pretty much straight line interstate driving, although I did make a long overdue stop into the "South of the Border" travel stop on the South Carolina-North Carolina line. I have driven by this place my entire life, but finally made the stop to see what it was all about. Roadside America can provide fun and entertaining little interludes to break up the monotony of getting from point to point. Some of these attractions are subtle gems, others are loud and in-your-face (looking at you Pedro...). The bottom line, is don't just drive somewhere, make your travel a part of the experience. The possibilities are limitless.

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