Floating along the Saluda River in an inner tube, surrounded by lush green foliage draped in Spanish moss, a great blue heron stepping along the banks -- it's hard to believe you're in the middle of South Carolina's capital city.
The rivers that run through Columbia are some of the city's gems. But until recently, the lack of access kept regular folks from enjoying all the waterways have to offer.
Families and groups with no whitewater experience are able to rent a tube and spend a couple of hours floating down the Saluda from a launch site near Riverbanks Zoo to downtown Columbia -- where the Saluda and the Broad rivers come together to form the Congaree.
We spent a recent summer Sunday on a float trip with Palmetto Outdoors, one of several outfitters that rent tubes, kayaks and canoes, in the Columbia area.
They take care of all the logistics and make it easy to enjoy the day.
For starters, you leave your car at the lot near the West Columbia amphitheater just over the Gervais Street bridge. You sign a waiver, pay $15 for a tube and a lifejacket and board a bus for the ride to the riverfront near the zoo. There you take a short walk through the woods, climb over a few rocks and plop down in the tube for a float down the Saluda River.
Yes, the water's pretty chilly (it's released from the bottom of Lake Murray, but on a famously hot Columbia afternoon, you'll welcome the shiver.
The 2-mile self-guided trip will take you through a few rapids but nothing too stressful. You‘ll get wet and the kids will squeal a little bit, but then it‘s back to a relaxing float. We got stuck on some rocks a few times, but with a little maneuvering we were quickly on our way. Tubes can be connected to each other -- perfect for young kids and groups that want to stick together.
"Really, this is Columbia's water park," said Tyler Keane, the manager of Palmetto Outdoors, which has been renting tubes on the river for the past several years.
"We get tons of kids, tons of them," Keane said. "And we get some older people, too. They all love it. It's for everybody."
The trip can take two hours or all afternoon, depending on your pace. Keane said some floaters will pull out on a sandy beach or climb onto the rocks for a picnic. Some people even rent an extra tube to hold a cooler or picnic basket.
On our trip, we saw turtles sunning on the rocks and all sorts of birds. Ospreys and red tail hawks flew overhead. Cranes and egrets strolled the riverbank. Some floaters have reported seeing river otters, bald eagles and other wildlife along the route.
On summer Saturdays, tubes are rented hourly from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sundays and weekdays you can rent them from noon through 4 p.m. Everybody must be off the river by 7 p.m.
The company rents tubes daily until about the end of September. Kayakers stay on the river most of the year, even when it's cold.
Try a float trip before the weather cools off. You'll get a taste of the wild outdoors, in the shadow of the city's skyline.
Several outdoor outfitters offer rentals and trips in the rivers around Columbia. Here are a few to check out:
Adventure Carolina, 1107 State St., Cayce, 803-796-4505, www.adventurecarolina.com. Offers sales and rentals of equipment along with guided trips. Trips include an after-work paddle down the Congaree, a full-moon trip and dinner paddles where you'll stop to grill on the riverbank. See the website for the full schedule.