Sure, you've been to South Carolina's popular vacation destinations - Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island, Greenville...
But have you discovered our coolest natural attractions? Some of these wildlife wonders are unique to our little corner of the world. So, get out your pencil and GPS. Here's a bucket list of South Carolina's curious marvels of nature and the best season to see them:
This delicate bell-shaped wildflower, first discovered in the southern Appalachians by a French botanist in 1788, is found in just a few isolated locations-90 percent of them in an area of the Upstate known as the Jocassee Gorges. The most accessible area to see colonies of the elusive plant is in Devils Fork State Park on the 1-mile Oconee Bells Nature Trail. During the peak blooming season from mid-March to early April, the park hosts a guided nature walk, offering visitors the opportunity to learn more about this beautiful botanical gem.
Prepare to be dazzled. It's not every day you see bugs working together to put on a light show like this. As part of its annual mating ritual, a special species of firefly synchronizes its flashing light pattern so they all blink at the same time. Congaree National Park near Columbia is one of a very few places in the country where you can see the luminous nighttime spectacle, which typically takes place within a two-week period between mid-to-late May and early June.
Rocky Shoals Spider Lilies
A federal endangered species, this rare native wildflower grows only in a few select rivers in the Southeast. The world's largest population of the aquatic perennial can be found among the shoals in the Catawba River. You can see them in full bloom from mid-May to mid-June from the 1.5-mile Canal Trail at Landsford Canal State Park. The flowers also grow in the Broad River in Columbia. Local outfitters offer guided spider lily kayak tours when the flowers are in bloom.
Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve near Myrtle Beach is one of the few places in the world where the insect-eating Venus flytrap grows in the wild. You'll find the carnivorous perennials along the edge of another mystery of nature-the Carolina bay, an elliptical depression of uncertain origin. Lewis Ocean Bay has 23 of these isolated wetlands. In the bay's poor soil, Venus flytraps survive by eating insects.
Bomb Island on Lake Murray is home to the largest purple martin sanctuary in North America. Each evening in July and August, hundreds of thousands of the migratory swallows descend upon the uninhabited island to roost in the trees. When they leave at daybreak to feed on bugs, the sky is so thick with birds it appears on weather radar images. To witness the phenomenon, take one of the purple martin boat tours offered by Lake Murray Adventures on its 40-passenger Osprey Tour Boat.
In this spectacular foraging behavior practiced only in the South Carolina Lowcountry and coastal Georgia, a group of bottlenose dolphins will work as a team to herd a school of fish or shrimp onto a sandbar or beach, then launch their bodies onto the shore to feast on the seafood dinner. Most often strand feeding takes place around low tide in tidal creeks. Your best bet to catch the dolphins at work is to take an eco tour with an outfitter in coastal areas like Hilton Head Island, Charleston, Kiawah, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms.
Every fall, hundreds of migrating raptors make their way across the 13,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, putting on a show as they catch updrafts and circle skyward in the 3,000-foot deep gorge. The Blue Ridge Escarpment is the only place in the South Carolina mountains with the natural characteristics to create the thermal columns of air. The best seat in the house is on the easily-accessible overlook at Caesars Head State Park. Check the park's event schedule for Hawk Watch programs led by interpretive rangers.