Inky-black water, dyed with tannic acid leached from decaying plant matter. Bone-white cypress stumps like the femurs of long-dead giants. Spanish moss as dry and gray as witches' hair. Congaree National Park protects the largest contiguous, old-growth bottomland forest in the eastern US, and there's nothing like canoeing through its unearthly swamp to make you feel like you've stepped into a Southern Gothic novel.
The park stretches over nearly 27,000 acres, offering excellent camping and ranger-led canoe trips and hikes.
Casual day-trippers can wander the 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk. Look carefully at the Blue Sky mural in the visitor center – the scene seems to change as you move. From mid-May through mid-June, the Photinus carolinus, a rare species of firefly, blink in unison, turning the forest floor into a twinkling light show. The phenomenon only occurs in a handful of spots around the world. Columbia-based River Runner Outdoor Center can get you on the water.
The park is just a 30-minute drive from downtown Columbia.