Southern lakes offer something to do on the water 365 days a year, and Columbia’s Lake Murray is a prime example of a watery playground that can be enjoyed throughout all seasons. Beyond boating, there’s fishing, paddling, paddleboarding, and sailing, and off the water, there’s birdwatching, cycling, and hiking to enjoy. During the warmer months, you can add swimming, water skiing, kneeboarding, jet skiing, wakeboarding, and even scuba diving to the list.
55,000 acres and 650 miles of scalloped shoreline make the capital city's grand oasis easily accessible for a day trip or weekend getaway. “From I-26, it’s an easy trip to the Lake Murray Dam, which has terrific facilities,” says Jayne Baker, Public Relations Manager for Capital City Lake Murray Country. “On the Lexington side of the dam, there’s a beach for swimming; the Irmo side is great for picnicking and paddling. There’s a launch pad that sits just a few inches below the water so you can get on your stand-up paddleboard or into your kayak without tipping over. Both areas have plenty of parking, and the walk over the dam between the two is beautiful.”
The lake’s calm water is just right for a smooth cruise on a pontoon boat with your squad with coolers and snacks in tow. Every weekend, hundreds of visitors and locals alike hit the lake with pontoon boats of their own or rentals. You can be the captain of your own boat by renting one from Better Boat Rental or Aqua Fun Boat Rentals and Tours. If you want to appreciate the marina from dry land, just join the party at restaurants like Rusty Anchor & Catfish Johnny's and Liberty on the Lake that open the decks, bring on the music, and transform the scene into a daylong celebration.
If you prefer the quieter side of the lake, consider spending a day —or several—at Dreher Island State Park, where you can swim from a sandy beach, rent kayaks and other water toys, and fish. You can keep it old school and camp, or spend the night in one of the island's villas or cabins for an experience that's more like glamping. There are also hiking trails, a short nature path, a playground, and even a camp store where you can rent tackle and purchase a fishing license.
The region's temperate climate makes Lake Murray is a fisherman's paradise. Former pro tour fisherman Michael Murphy, who works as a fishing guide on the lake, says that weather rarely keeps him—or his clients—off the water. “The fish are always there,” he laughs. “What changes is where they hang out. If you want to fish on Lake Murray, we know where the fish are.”
Stripers and large-mouth bass are two of the most popular species to catch, but Murphy says that there are plenty of what he calls panfish (fish you can cook in a pan) as well. “Bluegills, white perch, and shell crackers are all plentiful and delicious.”
No matter what type of fish you’re after, Murphy says that the setting at Lake Murray is about the prettiest he’s seen. “The buffer zone is amazing, so you would never know you’re so close to the city,” he says. “We see deer swimming out to the islands, loons in the winter, and wood ducks during the summer. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see the ospreys fishing. They fly up about 100 feet into the air then to into an absolute dive-bomb straight in. It’s amazing they don’t knock themselves out, but they never do. They pull away with a giant fish, one claw on the head, the other on the tail.”
The ospreys aren't the only dramatic bird sightings. Each summer, tens of thousands of Purple Martins—a pretty, iridescent species of swallow—roost on Bomb Island. This former training site for World War II B-25 bombers (including the famous Doolittle Raiders), is not only the largest Purple Martin sanctuary in North America but also the oldest. It serves as a resting spot for the Purple Martins as they prepare to make their way to South America for the winter. The phenomenon begins at sunset when the fiery sky comes alive with the birds, who swoop, flutter and caw as they search the air for insects. The show continues until it gets dark and the birds decide to settle into their nests for the night. Want to experience it for yourself? Private charters, naturalist-led bird-watching tours, and rental boats make it easy for nature lovers to take it all in.