The much-maligned swamp - a notorious haven for snakes, spiders, mosquitoes and the occasional slimy monster - is not the muddy wasteland it's made out to be. Think of it as a flooded forest where beautiful bald cypress and tupelos rise out of water as black as tea.
There is a restorative power to this haunting place. Far removed from the trappings of civilization, one can find order in the cosmos and enjoy the simple pleasure of serenity. In the swamp, it's just you and Mother Nature's disparaged few.
Here are five spectacular paddling destinations to experience the mysteries of the swamp:
1. Sparkleberry Swamp in Rimini
Located on the north end of Lake Marion in South Carolina's Santee region, this submerged cypress and tupelo forest is a secluded wonderland with an abundance of wildlife, including ospreys, egrets, owls and alligators. It's easy to get lost among the moss-draped trees, so it's best to paddle with a mapping GPS, or take a guided tour with Nature Adventures or Blueway Adventures.
Once used to flood the rice fields of Dean Hall Plantation, this 80-acre blackwater swamp features an easy-to-follow self-guided water trail that takes you through wide expanses of lily pads and under picturesque footbridges. The $10 admission to the gardens includes free use of a flat-bottom wooden boat. If you'd rather have a guide paddle you around, it's just $5.
Owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, this ancient forest is located within the Four Holes Swamp. Guided canoe tours are offered in the spring when the water level in the floodplain is high enough to paddle among the 1,000-year-old cypress trees.
4. Stumphole Swamp in Elloree
Stumphole Swamp sits at the tail end of the North Santee River, where it flows into Lake Marion. This submerged forest is more open than Sparkleberry Swamp, making it easier to navigate through the trees. The area is inhabited by a large variety of birds, among them anhingas, yellow-throated warblers, eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, American coots and ospreys. Blueway Adventures offers guided tours of the swamp, or launch your own boat from Stumphole Landing.
Boasting the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States, Congareee National Park features bald cypress trees, some with circumferences as big as 26-plus feet and "knees" reaching 7.5 feet. A 20-mile canoe trail runs through Cedar Creek, a slow-moving blackwater tributary that flows through the floodplain. If you don't have your own boat, sign up for a ranger-guided canoe tour.