South Carolina’s top national parks

The Palmetto State has more than its fair share of sites that showcase key moments in American history, as well as a national park that showcases astounding champion trees. 

At these attractions, you can take your sweet time strolling nature paths, listening to the birdsong and admiring nature’s beauty – while learning about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Here are the best national park experiences in South Carolina.

Explore the planet’s most surprising adventures with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. A boardwalk leads through the forest of Congaree National Park, South Carolina, USABeautiful Congaree National Park contains North America’s largest concentration of “champion-size” trees (aka the biggest of their species) © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Admire the majestic trees of Congaree National Park

Discover the towering scope of ancient trees with a visit to South Carolina’s only “scenic” national park. Primordial cypresses, giant upland pines and water tupelos count among its towering specimens – the highest concentration of “champion-size” trees (aka the biggest of their species) anywhere in North America.

Look out for the massive loblolly pine, which rises to over 170ft tall. If that’s not enough, the park also protects the eastern US’s largest tract of old-growth bottomland forest, low-lying land that’s periodically covered by water throughout the year.

The best way to see the trees – and to admire the beauty of this unique park – is along the 2.6-mile elevated Boardwalk Trail. You can also paddle along the Congaree River, its dark, tannic-dyed waters hiding turtles, frogs and other watery life. 

Bring your own canoe or kayak, or join a paddling tour led by a park ranger. You can also rent a watercraft in Columbia, a 30-minute drive away.

Historic re-enactors in 18th-century costumes at Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina USACowpens National Battlefield is an evocative destination for anyone who appreciates American history © Carrie A Hanrahan / Shutterstock

Feel the Revolution at Cowpens National Battlefield

If you thought the Revolutionary War didn’t extend to the Southern states, think again. Among several battles that took place in South Carolina, one of the most significant took place at Cowpens. 

The battle occurred on January 17, 1781, near present-day Gaffney. The site was, literally, a wide-open woodland (or “cowpens”) where early cattle drovers would camp overnight.

On the fateful day, Gen Daniel Morgan strategically deployed his Continental troops here against Lt Col Banastre Tarleton’s forces. The end result: more than 1000 losses for the British and about 150 for the Americans. 

The park includes a visitor center and a walking tour through the battlefield.

Inside historic Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USAFort Sumter was the site of the first battle of America’s Civil War © Gabrielle Hovey / Shutterstock

Consider Charleston’s role in American history at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park

Two forts guard the entrance to Charleston’s harbor, emblems of South Carolina’s roles in both the Civil War and Revolutionary War. 

The more famous of the two is Fort Sumter. On April 12, 1861, the Confederate Army opened fire on the Union fort: the first battle of the Civil War. The bombardment ensued for 34 hours, followed by a Union surrender.

The Confederate troops occupied the installation, making it a symbol of resistance – though constant shelling from Union troops over the course of the war virtually destroyed it. Visitors today can see the cannons and fortifications that remain and hear lots of stories about this crucial fortification. 

On nearby Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie is where Col William Moultrie’s South Carolinians warded off a British attack in one of the Revolutionary War’s first Patriot victories.  

The only way to visit both forts is by boat shuttle, departing from Liberty Sq in downtown Charleston and Patriots Point across the harbor. 

Trace the steps of patriots at Kings Mountain National Military Park

Thomas Jefferson called it the “turn of the tide of success.” During the Revolutionary War, American and Loyalist soldiers clashed on this isolated ridge, just below the North Carolina line, on October 7, 1780.

Fighting tree to tree with rifles and bayonets, the rebels won the first American victory to occur after the British invasion of Charleston.  

The park preserves important battle sites, with markers and monuments that detail the action. At the visitor center, you can watch an introductory film, see exhibits and consult a map of the walking trail that winds through the battlefield. 

Explore more along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, a 330-mile route through Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina that follows the path of the American militia leading up to the battle of Kings Mountain.

You might feel under siege at Ninety Six

In addition to the famous Yorktown, the town of Ninety Six presents some of the Revolutionary War’s best remnants of original siege lines anywhere. Established in the early 1700s, this crossroads town was so named because of its location 96 miles from the nearest Keowee village. 

Twelve roads passed through it – more than in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863 – helping it to flourish in terms of commerce, trade and transportation. Then the war came along. 

In November 1775, Americans and Loyalists faced each other in a three-day battle here, ending in an uneasy truce. The Americans built an important post, subsequently seized by the British in 1780. 

Another battle erupted in 1781, when Gen Nathanael Greene’s army arrived to take the British fort, initiating what became the war’s longest siege. Greene’s forces ultimately failed – though the British were so weakened, they moved their post to Charleston.

Today, the visitor center has exhibits on the site’s history, while walking trails wander past earthworks, cannon and exhibits. 

Learn about plantation life at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

As a child, Charles Pinckney split his time between the family’s Charleston mansion and Snee Farm, a rice and indigo plantation just outside of Charleston where enslaved individuals toiled. 

Pickney is also known for his political involvement in the revolutionary cause: he contributed at least 25 clauses to the U.S. Constitution, before serving four terms as state governor and Thomas Jefferson’s ambassador to Spain.

But as a member of one of the state’s wealthiest and most politically powerful families, Pinckney inherited the plantation (as well as the Charleston mansion) in 1782 and continued to run the “family business” – thanks to, per the 1810 census, 58 enslaved people. 

While much of the plantation was sold off over the years, the NPS has preserved 28 acres of it as the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, a quiet place sprinkled with ornamental gardens and pockets of moss-draped live oaks.

A visitor center occupies an old 1828 farmhouse, offering exhibits on Pinckney the politician, the African people he enslaved and the operations of the plantation.

There are walking trails and archaeological displays to explore: for instance, archaeologists have unearthed delftware and pearlware once used by the elite. Archaeologists also uncovered a bounty of colonoware – unrefined, handmade earthenware widely used by enslaved people on the property. Farm tours are also available.

Confront one of the US’ most momentous eras at Reconstruction Era National Historical Park

Many historians claim Beaufort County in the Lowcountry to be the birthplace of Reconstruction, the tumultuous, post–Civil War era (between 1861 and 1898) when the reunited nation faced the economic and social legacies of slavery. 

Established only in 2019, Reconstruction Era National Historical Park is a work in progress, its aim to spotlight nationally important places and events throughout Beaufort County that reflect this stormy time. 

The park includes four sites in and near Beaufort. Penn Center on St Helena Island was founded in 1862 by Northern missionaries as the first school in the South for formerly enslaved West Africans. Today, the historic building houses a cultural and educational center. 

Enslaved people constructed Brick Baptist Church on St Helena Island for white planters. After emancipation, the edifice became a school for formerly enslaved individuals, and today it hosts an active church congregation. 

On New Year’s Day in 1863, Union Army Gen Rufus Saxton publicly read the Emancipation Proclamation to 3,000 Black soldiers and formerly enslaved people at Port Royal’s Camp Saxton. 

The Old Beaufort Firehouse in downtown Beaufort serves as the new park’s visitor center and offers a good starting point for your visit.


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