updated 3/8/2007 3:25:45 PM ET 2007-03-08T20:25:45

You've probably been to at least one of the major national parks, places like Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, but there are other, lesser-known jewels out there, places with unique scenery and history. They're often good starting points for exploring surrounding regions such as central South Carolina.

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Like big trees? According to the Web site, Congaree National Park has a 16-story-tall loblolly pine that is the tallest of its kind in the United States, and it's not the only tall monarch protected here. The park touts more than 20 miles of backwoods hiking trails, canoe tours guided by rangers, camp sites and fishing. While many vacationers head for South Carolina's seacoast, Congaree is right in the middle of the state, just outside Gadsden and about 20 miles from downtown Columbia. You'll have to work to find details, starting by clicking on "Plan Your Visit," then on "Things to Do."

You'll definitely need to take your camera to Congaree, and maybe shoes that can take a little mud. Visit Terragalleria for scenes of the swamp and forest.

The park is in Richland County, which also includes Columbia. The Visitors section at the metro area Convention and Visitor's Bureauhas a convenient "Top Ten Reasons to Visit Columbia," where No. 1 is Southern Hospitality. The Top Ten list also boasts of a long selection of parks and gardens and waterways for boating and fishing. And shopping; there are enough entries on that list to keep you busy for several days. For more, go back to the main page of the visitors section and explore "See & Do," which includes several suggested itineraries, plus the photo gallery and nightlife. Golfers will want to run down the list on the left side of the page for the entry on the Masters Golf Tournament just over an hour's drive away in Augusta.

On the other side of the Columbia metro area, visit Lake Murray Country where you can rent a boat to relax on the water, go shopping for antiques, and play golf. Click on "Things to Do" for directions to attractions such as the 1780 James Butler Bonham house, or the 50-acre State Farmers Market. And if you want to get away from motels, click on "Places to Stay & Dine" for bed & breakfast inns, or campgrounds and lakefront cabins.

Congaree National Park is on the Congaree River, naturally, and across the river lies Calhoun County, part of Santee Cooper Country — a tourism promotion area jammed full of lakes and rivers that stretches to the coast and the city of Charleston. If fishing isn't your thing, they boast of hunting, more golf and camping. Click on "Nature-based Activities" for details on forests, wildlife refuges and parks including the Old Santee Canal Park.

The "Nature" page mentions the Palmetto Trail, a hiking and biking route that eventually will extend 425 miles from the mountains to the seashore. You need to click on the trail logo on the left side of the page for details.

Hit the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for hunting and fishing licenses and boating regulations, and South Carolina State Parks for more places to camp, fish and just relax.

Then, if you have any time and money left, drop by the state's official tourism Web site to learn more about things to see and do. Be sure to click on "Shop, Eat, Drink" for the link to South Carolina Dining, their new guide to regional specialties ranging from seafood to South Carolina-style barbecue.

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