The guest log book at Congaree National Park on any given day includes entries from all over the world — England, Japan, Korea, Norway.
Invariably, those visitors remark on the beauty of the giant trees and the variety of plant and animal life in the old growth forest. Most days, there are more names from outside the Midlands than from locals.
I can’t count the number of times friends and co-workers, knowing I write about the outdoors, have greeted me with some version of “I went to Congaree National Park (or Sesquicentennial State Park, Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve, the Riverwalk, etc.), and I had no idea this incredible place was there.”
To which I often reply, “You need to get out more.”
Anyone who has lived here long enough to curse the spring pollen or summer heat has been here long enough to discover what makes this place special for outdoor recreation. When newcomers — or those new to getting out of their houses — ask my get-out advice, they usually have to cut me off after 10 or 20 minutes.
If they have young children, I aim them to the Cayce and West Columbia Riverwalks, three miles of curving paved trails ideal for a family walk.
If I’m in need of a quick hike and don’t have much time, I head to the Riverwalk. If I’m not in a hurry, I head down Old State Road in Cayce to the Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve. You feel like you’re miles from a big city on the well-marked, 2.4-mile dirt trail loop through the old Guignard clay quarry property.
For a family hiking middle ground, head to Congaree National Park boardwalk. It’s impossible to get physically lost on the 2¼-mile loop, though you can lose yourself in the park’s natural wonder. My favorite longer hike is the 7.5-mile Oak Ridge Trail, which offers a mix of huge oaks on high ground and bald cypress in low-lying areas.
For a gee-whiz geological lesson, Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve with its sandstone formations has a couple of fun hiking loops.
If you’re into mountain biking, most locals would tell you to head to Harbison State Forest, the mountain-biking hotbed of the Midlands, with more than 20 miles of winding, rolling trails. But I don’t like crowds, so I usually do my mountain biking on the less-crowded, less difficult trail at Sesqui. Many bikers don’t like Sesqui’s sandy patches. They fit my slower style.
For March through October, I prefer water to dry land. I like to paddle on the rivers and creeks. My recent favorite is the trip from just below the Columbia Canal diversion dam on the Broad River to the Barney Jordan Landing on the Congaree River. You get natural wonders like the Rocky Shoals spider lilies and giant striped bass, and, if you hug the right side of the waterway, the joys of all three local rivers.
You start in the warm, brown Broad, catch a little of the cooler, clearer Saluda, then finish in a stretch of the Congaree that includes huge boulders and a historic set of navigational locks.
If I could do only one of these trips, which would I do? Depends on the time of year, the weather and the people traveling with me.