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Big Fun Around Congaree National Park

From hiking and paddling through old-growth forest, to camping and mountain biking at nearby Poinsett State Park, adventures abound in this overlooked corner of South Carolina sandhills.

“I saw your bikes,” said the campground host, Rusty, nodding toward our site. “I can tell you’re into riding.”

It was an early spring morning at Poinsett State Park in South Carolina’s High Hills of Santee. Our first stop on a month-long road trip that would take us through the Smokies, around Kentucky, onward to Big South Fork, and end near Brevard, N.C. Along the way, we’d be biking, hiking, paddling, and camping. With about 20 miles of moderately rolling singletrack, Poinsett seemed like a good place to ease back into things before reaching the mountains. 

“Well… we try.” I explained my wife and I were not in great biking shape. Due to a family emergency, this was our first big road trip in several years. 

Rusty said the trails were fast and fun. But other than the mostly weekend bikers from Columbia and Sumter who maintained the system, he often had no one to ride with.

“We’ll ride with you,” I blurted. 

Before we were ready, Rusty was kitted out and riding circles in front of our camper. So off we went, with our new friend leading the way through a scenic forest of towering pines and oaks draped in Spanish moss. For being in his mid-sixties, the retired host rode an impressive pace. We zipped along, rising and falling with the sandhills. We mounted the park highpoint. Passed shelters and cabins, originally built by the CCC in the 1930s. We ended at the pond, where an old mill race dumped tumbling water into a creek. 

“Woah,” I shouted, swerving to avoid a huge cottonmouth. The snake seemed just as surprised as us that we were having so much fun, darting toward the pond and dropping into the water. 

After three hours of riding through rising temps, my wife and I were overheating. So much for easing back in. We said an exhausted goodbye to Rusty, and I agreed we would bike again before we left. My wife’s fatigued glance said speak for yourself. Then we scarfed down lunch inside our bug shelter and fell asleep in our gravity chairs.

We awoke midafternoon and decided to reenergize with a trip to nearby Sumter. A half hour drive took us to the wooded Dillon Park, where we stretched our tired legs with a fun round of disc golf. The next stop was the historic downtown, with its 19th-century brick buildings now dwarfed by the newer Sumter Original Brewery. For a relatively small Air Force and college town, discovering this three-story, 30,000-square-foot establishment was a pleasant surprise. We climbed the stairs past a second floor filled with bar games. Happy hour was in full swing on the rooftop, with a classic rock cover-band warming up. Over a side of fries, my wife had a sweet and tasty berry sour, while I went with the citrusy Mr. Hops IPA. We might have stayed for dinner, but we headed back early to rest up for the next big day. 

Hiking and Paddling at Congaree National Park

Low but runnable was the paddling report from the young ranger at Congaree’s visitor center. Cedar Creek was at three feet on the gauge near Gadsden, S.C. If we wanted to paddle the upper section through the heart of the old growth, we’d probably have to portage a few downed trees. 

That didn’t sound too bad, but it contradicted the story told by two frustrated paddlers who I’d met in the Poinsett campground. A few days before, they’d put in at Bannister Bridge and encountered a trickle of water through beefy log jams. Annoyed, they retreated and drove to the lower put-in. 

So my wife and I decided to hike through the old growth forest and scout out this mysterious creek. As it turned out, this “scout” was big fun. The route was a mix of boardwalks and dirt paths, though the latter would likely be impassable after rain or high water. The bald cypress and water tupelo, with their triangular bases, were very impressive. The loblolly pines were over 150 feet tall, like a half-sized Redwood National Park for the swampy Southeast. 

And upper Cedar Creek? Well, at three feet on the park gauge, there wasn’t much of a creek. There were sections of stagnant water that occasionally disappeared under log piles or soil hammocks before reappearing elsewhere. In one cluttered segment, the best option was to portage boats along the trail for a quarter mile. Perhaps, the creek was once passable at this level and recent flooding altered the channel. Since stick gauges measured in feet are so subjective, it’s unclear what a realistic low-end cut-off should be. Maybe four or five feet? I’d like to go back someday at higher water and find out. Until then, I remain skeptical about planning a trip around paddling this upper section. It would have to be a last-minute decision when conditions seem right. 

Fortunately, there’s a lower paddling run, so we drove over to the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing. The slow water is deeper here, possibly backed up by the larger Congaree River downstream, which works well for an out-and-back. After carrying our kayaks down to the launch, we first tried paddling upstream, toward the heart of the old growth, but soon encountered a massive tree blocking the channel. 

Next, we turned downstream for a few miles of pleasant paddling on lower Cedar Creek. The bald cypress and tupelo rose scenically overhead. Hidden in the dark water off our bows, feisty longnose gar snapped their tails, producing startling splashes. We chatted with a half-dozen fellow paddlers and a few fishermen who had walked the creek-side trail. We came away feeling that paddling at Congaree is certainly nice, but the bigger highlight was walking the boardwalks and dirt trails through the heart of the park. The low water may have colored this impression, and, as a silver lining, the dried up mud opened more paths to explore the forest. 

Fireflies and Friends at Poinsett State Park

For our last day at Poinsett, the decision seemed obvious. Rusty and I rode away from camp when the morning was cool, and dew was dripping from the trees. Our goal was to knock out the full system and tack on some adjacent singletrack in Manchester State Forest. Along the way, we hopped a section of the Palmetto Trail. This long-distance hiking and biking route is about 75 percent complete, running hundreds of miles across South Carolina from coastal Awendaw to the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

 Once inside Manchester, we flew along a rough forest trail out to Campbell Pond. During a break at a picnic shelter, Rusty explained that his month-long shift as campground host was nearly over. He wasn’t excited about heading home, a few hours away.  

“I never really fit in much there,” he said in a reflective moment. “Everyone’s into hunting and fishing. They think I’m nuts ‘cause I just want to bike.”

“I get it,” I said. 

We talked about how Rusty grew up in the region, while we moved to the Low Country for my wife’s university job. Now I scour the Coastal Plain looking for anything that resembles a trail. We agreed there’s more outdoor adventures here than people realize, but they’re not always easy to find. It was the kind of honest conversation between new friends that happens more easily in the outdoors than the paved world. 

A few minutes later, we were riding back toward Poinsett when my rear tire rolled over a sharp root and punctured with a loud gasp. Glancing back, I saw a burst of sealant shoot into the air. I practically slapped my helmet. I had forgotten to pack a spare tube, and my penance was pushing my bike back for four miles.

After dark, my wife and I watched the nightly display of fireflies dance around camp. Twenty miles west, a similar show was happening at Congaree’s firefly viewing. This popular occurrence happens nightly for several weeks during springtime. At the national park, you need to win a lottery. At Poinsett, you just need a camping reservation. Meanwhile, I replaced the tire on my bike and reassembled my repair kit. 

The next morning, we had planned to leave early. But Rusty and I had unfinished business on the trails. The mountains could wait a few hours. They say you should never leave fun to have fun, and the remote and swampy area around Congaree and Poinsett was bigger fun than we expected. So off we went for one last ride. 

All photos by Mike Bezemek

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