Experience natural marvels like synchronous fireflies, purple martin migration and majestic trees

December 15, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Long seasons of great weather draw visitors to outdoor pursuits in Capital City/Lake Murray Country, where the azure waters of Lake Murray and the swampy ecosystem of South Carolina’s only national park provide bucket-list opportunities to experience one-of-a-kind natural marvels. This four-county region anchored by Columbia and the surrounding counties of Lexington, Newberry, Richland and Saluda is the perfect setting for discovering hidden gems. Conveniently located off Interstates I-77, I-20, and I-26 in the central part of South Carolina, it’s a destination for boaters, fishing aficionados and wildlife watchers.

Connecting the four counties is Lake Murray, a sparkling jewel and South Carolina’s biggest best-kept vacation secret, with 650 miles of shoreline and plenty of amenities and attractions for lazy and lively aquatic adventures. “Boating Magazine”calls Lake Murray one of the country’s “Top 10 Boating Destinations and Places to Live,” yet it’s relatively uncrowded. The many forested coves provide shelter for fauna year-round and staying at a vacation home rental might provide you with an up-close glimpse of some of Lake Murray’s natural residents. From delightful dining spots to marinas and landings, visitors will fall in love with Lake Murray’s many recreational and dining opportunities. A wide array of watercraft is available for rent from local outfitters or visitors can bring their own. Some guests combine a Lake Murray vacation with visits to picturesque small towns, farmers markets, antiquing and agri-tours. Others love its close proximity to entertainment, concerts, museums, and dining just 30 minutes away in Columbia.

One of the many intriguing features of Lake Murray is Dreher Island State Park, a three-island outdoor wonderland covering 12 miles of shoreline. Visitors will find picnicking, camping, lakeside villas, recreational water activities, nature trails and prized fishing spots for striped and large-mouth bass. A tackle and gear loaner program is even available.

Fish a Tournament Lake

Professional fishing league competitors and those who just love lake fishing are drawn to South Carolina’s Lake Murray for more than 12 species of fish, including crappie and the superstar, largemouth bass. In 2023, Bassmaster named Lake Murray the “Top Lake in the Southeast” and the #4 Lake in the Country for Best Bass Fishing. Some visitors plan their vacation to coincide with top-tier national fishing tournaments; others make plans to visit during less busy times. Professional guides are ready and available to help both novice and expert anglers reel in a big catch, and there are plenty of marinas and landings providing access to the water. Some offer wet and dry storage, picnic areas, waterfront dining, and live entertainment.

Explore Astonishing Biodiversity 

South Carolina’s only federally designated park, Congaree National Park, is just a half hour from Columbia. Astonishing biodiversity exists in the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern U.S. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers carry nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support not only wildlife but the growth of national and state champion trees.

One of the best ways to enjoy Congaree National Park is to paddle through the swamp-like ecosystem along Cedar Creek. Self-guided or outfitter-guided tours are available of this 15-mile-long waterway. Opportunities are plentiful for viewing wildlife, such as river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and even an occasional alligator. Glide through intriguing wooded waters on marked canoe paths and pass through a forest containing some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. The trees average more than 100 feet; the tallest is about 17 stories high.

Explore the Congaree Wilderness on land via 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. The boardwalk loop trail provides access to Weston Lake and other trails that wind through the Congaree floodplain. Ranger and volunteer guided programs are led on Saturdays year-round. Wheelchairs are available to loan free of charge from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center during standard operating hours. Can’t get it all in one day? Pitch a tent under the stars at one of the park’s many campsites. Make a camping reservation by calling 1-877-444-6777, NPS.gov. (100 National Park Road | Hopkins, SC 29061, 803-776-4396; nps.gov/cong/index)

Timing is everything for bucket-list phenomenon

Any season is perfect for a vacation, but dazzling nature displays are available for limited times only. Plan ahead to experience these unique events.

Mid-May to June

Witness the magical, mesmerizing sight of synchronous fireflies only found in a handful of U.S. habitats, including Congaree National Park, southeast of the Capital City of Columbia. Unlike familiar sporadic backyard blinking, thousands of lightning bugs flash in a spectacular choreographed mating display. Guidelines have been set up to ensure the sustainability of this unique natural wonder. Check the timing, view lottery, and learn more at the Capital City/Lake Murray Country firefly page, which will be updated as 2024 details are announced.

Late June to early August

From late June to early August, the skies over Lake Murray come to life as a million Purple Martins arrive to roost on Bomb Island, exploding up and out to greet the sunrise and swooping and wheeling at sunset. This sanctuary provides the ideal layover before the birds make the long journey south to their winter home in South America. Rent a boat or take a Purple Martin cruise to the middle of the lake near the largest sanctuary in North America to see this bucket-list phenomenon.


Take a guided kayak/canoe swamp tour of the Congaree National Park in cooler weather. Guided tours provide wilderness and shoreline views of river otters, bobcats, deer, owls, and wild boar in this preserve of some of the oldest, tallest hard-growth trees in eastern North America. Weave in and out of oxbows, discover labyrinthian channels, and paddle past cypress knees.

If You Go

Stop by the Lake Murray Country Visitors Center in the historic Lorick Plantation House (2184 North Lake Drive, Columbia, South Carolina 29212; 803-781-5940) to discover more hidden gems and trip ideas Or, contact [email protected] for suggestions with trip planning. Online, visit LakeMurrayCountry.com.