Some national parks overwhelm you with towering mountains and fantastic vistas. But Congaree National Park near Columbia offers its beauty modestly, shyly, just waiting to be discovered by those patient and observant enough to give this massive swamp a chance.
Hug a tree, if you can
Not just any trees: the biggest trees east of the Mississippi. Congaree is the largest tract left of the towering old-growth hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. In this pocket of forest, looped off and protected form logging by the Congaree River and its frequent floods, the park now contains more than two dozen "champion trees," or trees that are the largest of their kind ever found.
Even an easy walk on the Boardwalk Loop trail from the visitor center will take you past trees whose height and girths seem impossible. So hop off the boardwalk and try to throw your arms around one of these giants; there's no reason to not get off the trail. There's an excellent chance your arms won't reach. In fact, there's a loblolly pine tree right off the boardwalk with a trunk is so wide that a family of four can barely encircle it. See if you can find it, and then rest your face against it, thinking of how much time this one tree has passed through.
See the synchronized fireflies
One of the rarest natural phenomenons in the world happens in Congaree National Park. On warm nights at the end of May and the beginning of June, for one magical month, the synchronous fireflies of Congaree light up the forest at night in a have-to-see-it-to-believe-it sight. Thousands of fireflies all light up at precisely the same moment in a breathtaking show. It will startle you every time they light up and then go dark at the same moment. It seems like an optical illusion or prank but no. It's one of the most rarely glimpsed shows in all of nature.
Wait for the swarm of turtles
Stand on the platform overlooking Weston Lake and let your eyes wander over the still water. Within a minute, you'll notice little ripples in the water, all pointing to where you stand. Wait just another minute, and you'll realize that turtles from all over the pond are making a beeline for you. Wait a full five minutes and you'll have a dozen turtles happily hanging out in the water below you. Most will be moderate-sized like the slider turtles and river cooters but keep your eyes open for the enormous, dinosaur-like alligator alligator snapping turtles who likes to come visit, too.
Prowl for Owls
One of the very best ways to experience Congaree is to actually close your eyes and just stand in the silence. You'll very quickly come to realize that the swamp isn't silent at all. Birds fill the park with noise. Woodpeckers knock on the trees, and more than 40 species of birds sing and call.
The most thrilling sound, though, might be the piercing "Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you" call of the barred owl as it echoes off the still water and through the massive trees. National Park Service Rangers take visitors on "Owl Prowls" on some evenings in the spring and fall. But even if there's no formal prowl going on, just stop and listen. You're bound to hear the owls calling you to dinner.
Overcome your fear of bugs
You know that cliché about swamps being full of bugs and snakes? Well, it's true. And Congaree National Park is a swamp. It's full of bugs. But what bugs they are! Give them a chance, and you'll see that the creepy-crawly creatures of Congaree are actually some of the most beautiful.
Look up and you'll see massive and beautiful golden orb weaver spiders relaxing on their wide webs all over the park. Thick black millipedes as long as your hand stroll down the handrails of the boardwalks. A rainbow assortment of beetles, moths and caterpillars crawl and fly through the still air. And mosquitoes. Yes, mosquitoes. Even they can be a natural wonder if you have a sense of humor and big can of bug spray.