COLUMBIA — The ways to enjoy outdoor recreation in the Columbia area are constantly expanding, but the region still lacks a common ground to add regional and national visitors, according to industry players.
The waterways running through the Midlands in particular are a big plus, especially as they run through the city centre, with better access for boaters and walkers being added recently.
Given these recreational options, it’s probably time to tell this story more widely, said Mike Dawson, executive director of the nonprofit River Alliance.
“We’ve had great success marketing to locals, but how can we expand that?” Dawson asked.
Add to our assets
At the center of the attractions is the Three Rivers Greenway, the network of trails the Dawson group has championed, inviting people to get down to the water to walk, bike or launch a kayak or tube.
The addition in the past two years of the Saluda Riverwalk running along Interstate 126 to the river’s junction with the Broad has added more ways to access the water.
Access used to be a challenge along the Saluda, with kayakers and tubers having for years to use the Riverbanks Zoo parking lot or other locations and descend to the water.
The long city park and the path along the shore make it much easier.
Those in other areas already, especially Florida, are noticing Columbia’s rivers as a place to come and recreate, said Mike Mayo, owner of Palmetto Outdoors, a river recreation company.
The company gets visitors from all over the United States, mostly for the hits, Mayo said. About 10% of their customers in 2022 were from Florida, according to the company’s survey results.
Of these, about half came to Colombia primarily to surf the water, which is the closest river with substantial whitewater for many Floridians.
Other places in the mountains have more spectacular whitewater, sure, but they’re not as well set up as Columbia to accommodate visitors. Often, Mayo said, river rapid sites have a hotel and restaurant nearby.
The Congaree River is at the center of a vast network of places to paddle, from Lake Murray, through a major set of rapids near the town center and all the way through Congaree National Park.
“Congaree National Park has been a big draw for people across the country and abroad,” said Guy Jones, longtime owner of the River Runner Outdoor Center in the Vista.
Goods other than water
Even so, those visitors might not hear about Columbia’s other outside assets, Jones said.
These attractions will soon include Capitol Climbing. It is a room dedicated only to climbing which plans to open in February or March in Cayce.
Chris Neal, who helped run Columbia’s last wall in a gymnasium years ago, is behind the new one.
“I’m generally surprised that Columbia hasn’t had one for this long,” Neal said.
He sees long-term demand in the Colombian market for rock climbing and other types of outdoor sports.
(Plans to add rock climbing or other outdoor recreational activities to the revamped downtown Finlay Park appear to be on the back burner for now.)
A third attraction for the Midlands is hiking, with the Palmetto Trail crossing the region on its way from the mountains to the sea.
In January, work began to complete the final stretch in the Midlands, adjacent to Fort Jackson, according to Palmetto Conservation, which oversees the project.
Once this section is completed, the Palmetto Trail will be available for uninterrupted hiking from northwest Columbia to the coast, according to the nonprofit.
What else is needed
Outdoor recreation received a substantial boost during the COVID-19 lockdown as people sought safer ways to spend their time, Scott Powers said. He is the executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, which is responsible for promoting the Midlands as a sports destination.
A major challenge to scaling up those efforts, Powers says, would be measuring those dollars spent by travelers.
Unlike a traveling team that buys tickets to use a facility in the Midlands, a group of kayakers can visit the local water in a city park, restaurants and hotels, but not be easily identified as spending money. money for sports.
That makes it harder to market the area to attendees with public funds, Powers said. Experience Columbia SC Sports must be able to document how the marketing it undertakes leads to more visits.
The agency has used events to draw attention to the Midlands’ outdoor assets, such as sponsoring a televised kayak fishing tournament on Lake Murray.
It looks like it’s time to get more visitor data and more collaborative marketing of the region underway, Powers said.
Promoting the area’s strengths in outdoor recreation will take more teamwork here than in a place like Greenville, where the Swamp Rabbit Trail for running and biking runs through a county and a town, he said. -he declares.
Columbia’s assets are dispersed across many counties and cities, bringing more groups to the table for any teamwork.
The area’s water resources could also be better showcased for visitors, with both more comprehensive maps and better signage, said Anna K. Wallace, deputy director of River Runner.
The lower parts of the River Saluda are right in the heart of Midlands navigable waters, but a good map isn’t easy to come by, she said.
“It’s a little confusing if you’re new to the sport and looking for places to go,” Wallace said.
Newcomers can also have trouble locating boat ramps unless they have a place to help them, she said. Signs are rare and sometimes a bearing is referred to by more than one name.
Another local Midlands asset is a group to teach newcomers the sport called Whitewater 101, Wallace noted. It offers equipment rental and expert river courses.
Another piece of the puzzle is on the way: a bridge over the Congaree to connect river trails near downtown Columbia, making it easy for people to walk, run or bike.
A donation from the Darnall W. & Susan F. Boyd Foundation helps finance the bridge, which is in the authorization phase.
The bridge will potentially serve to connect the thousands of people who visit attractions such as the zoo and the state museum with both sides of the river, Dawson said.
The main mission of the greenway projects has been to give local people better access to the river and its banks, he noted.
“Now we have quite a large collection of public assets that can be traded,” Dawson said.
Mayo of Palmetto Outdoor has been enjoying the waters around Columbia since he was 6 years old and his dad took him kayaking.
He and others believed the area had assets that would attract visitors from all over and beyond South Carolina.
“Turns out we were right,” Mayo said.