Traveling to the south to escape the winter chill around the holidays, with the added bonus of exploring another National Park, made a return trip to South Carolina inviting. We chose to make the most of our available travel days by heading to the midlands of SC-south of the mountains, west of the Atlantic coast-and our time there was nothing short of perfect. Despite the flooding in Congaree National Park, as well as a government shut-down, we were still able to get a significant introduction to a NP we will make time to return to. Visiting 3 bonus state parks added to the experience.
Day 1 – Drove to Lexington, KY
Day 2 – Drove to Columbia, SC; explored Greenville, SC
Day 3 – Explored Congaree National Park and Sesquicentennial State Park near Columbia
Day 4 – Returned to Congaree National Park; Visited Santee State Park
Day 5 – Left Columbia, SC; Lightly explored Caesar’s Head State Park (SC); drove to Louisville, KY
Day 6 – Louisville, KY to home
Travel to South Carolina
We chose to split the trip into 2 parts – what was roughly a 13-hour ride was cut in half, and after driving through the Smoky Mountains on Day 2, we made a stop in Greenville, SC to take some time in the warmer weather. Greenville is a reasonably small city centered around the beautiful waterfalls at Falls Park. The park is located on the Reedy River, which bisects the downtown area. We spent a few hours, first exploring the paths around the park, then wandering the downtown to stretch our legs, before the last 1.5 hours to Columbia.
Congaree National Park
We chose to stay 3 nights at an Airbnb located on the outskirts of Columbia, about 40 minutes from Congaree National Park (CNP), which was our primary focus of this trip. The area surrounding CNP is pretty rural, though a few gas stations exist within about 20 minutes. I would suggest packing lunches/ snacks, as we did not see any food stops within the immediate vicinity.
We have not visited many other parks like CNP – 2 miles of planked paths hover above the swamps, which are surrounded by tall pine forests with additional paths. Our visit coincided with a government shut-down, which limited the amenities generally found in National Parks – guidance, maps, washrooms, and in the case of CNP, kayaking. Through talking with other visitors, we found only two paths were open due to recent flooding. First was the planked path, officially called the Boardwalk Loop Trail, which was partially open, and second was Bluff Trail.
I’ll start off by saying we completed both trails and enjoyed them enough to return a second day to repeat them – and given some heavy rains and a significant rise in temperature, the paths were different experiences each time we hiked them. The Boardwalk Loop felt like a journey onto the set of Jurassic Park. Steam rose over the muddy waters as tall trees, anchored in the water below, canopied the swamp. Throughout our walk, we frequently heard and saw a variety of birds, capped with an owl landing nearby. The whole path was one of the more unique trails that we’ve been on in the National Parks. Simply stellar!
Bluff Trail, which hugs part of the Boardwalk Loop, takes hikers just above the swamps and into a dense pine forest. The 2 miles of the trail were a pretty easy walk – the only difficulty was trying to gaze beyond the density of the pines. About a quarter of the way into the trail, the towering trees, with their charred bases, literally obscured what exists beyond. I’m not sure we have ever seen this type of tree density before.
CNP is less than two hours from both Charleston, SC and Charlotte, NC, and under three hours from the Smoky Mountains. Given its proximity to those locations, this is a can’t miss experience, and though there are many additional trails when not flooded, 1 day at the park would provide anyone with a love of nature an amazing experience.
SC State Parks: Sesquicentennial, Santee, and Caesar’s Head
We bookended our days at CNP with visits to reasonably close State Parks we had read about. Our first full day in Columbia ended with a few hours to explore Sesquicentennial, a park located within Columbia’s city limits, about 30 minutes from CNP.
Sesquicentennial State Park (SSP) was a beautiful place, given its location on the edge of town. The park is centered around a picturesque lake, and has opportunities for hiking, biking, and kayaks (rentals appeared to be available.)
We walked a two-mile loop around the perimeter of the lake, and though a different experience from CNP, it was a great way to end the day. SSP receives rave reviews online, and though we did enjoy the experience, it would probably not make the cut for a return experience. However, if you are traveling with kids in warmer weather, it did seem like more of a “destination”-there was a playground and splash pad available.
Santee State Park
Santee State Park, located about an hour east of CNP and on the large Lake Marion, seemed more of a complimentary experience for CNP and was well worth the drive. Though we only spent 2 hours at Santee, we walked two trails. The first was a forested path which was fun, if not quite amazing.
The second path, the Sinkhole Pond Trail, was stunning. Though only a mile, we found ourselves moving through what felt like a haunted forest guarded by moss covered oaks, before coming across two small, swampy ponds.
Perhaps it was simply the time of the year, but the white film which covered the black waters of the ponds made for quite the eerie experience, compounded by a surprise visit from one of the local gators who, though still as stone, leered at us from about 20 feet away. I mention surprised as we were told it was very unlikely to come across gators in the winter, despite the 70-degree temperatures. This trail alone made the trip to the park worth it.
Caesar’s Head State Park
Caesar’s Head State Park was our choice for a stop on our return home. Located right near the state line with North Carolina, we thought heading up into the mountains would put a great finishing touch on an amazing trip.
The formal park starts at the top of one of the mountains, which required a 30-minute drive up. Once at the top, a number of trails lead to different areas. We hadn’t realized how exhausted we were, and ended up only taking a brief walk to see the park’s namesake rock formation, and gaze out at the vistas from up high. Back down the mountain, we stopped at an impressive waterfall right off the side of the road. I could only guess if we had made this stop on our way into SC we would likely have spent a number of hours here.
We didn’t spend too much time in Columbia itself – our days at parks tend to leave us fairly exhausted. We did enjoy an amazing Ethiopian dinner at Harambe located in downtown Columbia.
The midlands of SC don’t get much press, being sandwiched between the coast and the Smokies, but Congaree National Park is a “can’t miss.” I can only imagine what an amazing (as well as muggy and buggy) experience it would be in the spring or summer. This is a park which will most certainly command a return visit.