The thought of traveling south to escape the late-December chill, with the added bonus of exploring a National Park famous for its swamps, made planning a trip to South Carolina (SC) 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, we were still able to get a significant introduction to the National Park. 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 driving the last 1.5 hours to Columbia, SC, our home base for the next 4 days.
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 that are surrounded by tall pine forests strewn with additional hiking paths. Our visit coincided with a federal 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 Boardwalk Loop Trail, a planked path that was partially open, and the second was Bluff Trail.
I’ll start off by saying we completed both trails and we were excited to return for a second day to repeat those hikes. Given the heavy overnight rains coupled with 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, about a 1.5 hour leisurely stroll, was one of 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 pines. About a quarter of the way into the trail, the towering trees, with their charred bases, literally obscure views of what exists beyond. I’m not sure we have ever seen this type of tree density before. This was the second trail we did on the first day, and at that point we favored it, despite being more similar to our prior park experiences. For our second visit to the park, in the higher humidity and rising temperatures, the Boardwalk Loop outshined Bluff Trail. Both trails are spectacular additions to anyone’s National Park bucket list.
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 Cesar’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, 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 we were surprised as we were told it was very unlikely to come across gators in the winter, despite the 70-degree temperatures. This trail alone makes the trip to Santee worth it.
Cesar’s Head State Park was our choice for a stop on our return home. Located near the state line with North Carolina, we headed up into the mountains to 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 spider-legged off 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 think 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 most certainly commands a return visit.