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Whether you're exploring this South Carolina treasure by foot or paddle, don't forget to look up.

By Katie Strasberg Rousso
March 08, 2021
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Ask any national park enthusiast, and they'll tell you the same thing—there's nothing like a hidden gem. While there's no denying the majesty that made Yosemite or Yellowstone household names, there's a unique allure to stumbling upon one of our nation's lesser known wonders and not seeing any other visitors for miles.

Though incredibly close by—just 18 miles from Columbia, South Carolina—Congaree National Park has managed to stay under the radar since its national park designation in 2003. One step inside the nearly 27,000-acre park and visitors are transported much further back in time. Here, Spanish moss drapes from bald cypresses in the largest expanse of old-growth hardwoods in the United States. The vast floodplain is covered by a towering canopy of ancient pines, elms, oaks, hickories, maples, and cypresses more than 100 feet tall–higher than the Amazon rainforest.

Boardwalk Loop Trail Congaree National Park
Credit: Zach Holmes/Alamy

The trees alone inspire a sense of tranquility, but the land's biodiversity keeps things interesting. Woodpeckers swiftly knock on hardwoods while river otters play among the water by day. At night, rangers lead "owl prowls" for visitors hoping to hear barred owls and spot bioluminescent fungi growing on the great cypresses. In fall and spring, avid bird watchers flock to the park for a glimpse at the area's world-renowned migrations. Early summer brings its own magic too: The park is one of the few places in the South where you can witness synchronous fireflies. During the two-week show, the bugs light up the sky simultaneously in patterns that feel downright practiced.

Hit the Trails

If you're ready to explore, we recommend starting with a hike along the Boardwalk Loop Trail. This easy, 2.4-mile walk winds through some of the oldest trees in the park. Birders and wildlife photographers may want to explore the Kingsnake Trail too. The longest trail in the park, it clocks in at more than 11 miles, but the trail takes you deep into Congaree's pure wilderness.

Grab a Paddle

Shift your vantage point by heading to the water. Try coasting among the tupelo trees, with trunks that stretch wide into the water, through Cedar Creek. This leisurely canoe trail winds through the heart of the park beneath a sky-high canopy, but keep your eyes peeled for fallen limbs and logs. They can create quite the waterway maze. Cruising the Congaree River is also a popular kayaking or canoeing spot for paddling enthusiasts. The river runs all the way from Columbia and offers sandbars for camping.

Stay the Night

Serious campers will love Congaree's primitive camping options. Both of the park's campsites are tent-only locations with limited to no amenities. Permits are regularly available for background camping you can access by trail or water too. Those less eager to forego running water may find comfort in Columbia or cabin rentals in the surrounding area.