Rafting Columbia South Carolina
Credit: Photograph by Chris M. Rogers

Columbia, South Carolina, has long been considered the municipal equivalent of a flyover state. "Two hours to the mountains, two hours to the beach, minutes to nowhere," a Charleston 'Post and Courier' columnist recently sniffed about the 130,000-person state capital in the Carolina Midlands, a sandy-hilled region halfway between the coastal Low Country and the Blue Ridge mountains. Compared with Charleston's gas lamp–adorned cobblestones and four-star restaurants, Columbia is best known for high-rises and the occasional University of South Carolina Gamecocks football extravaganza. But scratch the surface and you'll find a growing adventure and foodie town worth visiting – before the word gets out. "When Charleston folks need to get away from the tourists for a weekend of whitewater and biking, they come here," local kayaking guide Kevin Geddings says. "Our river system is the state's best-kept secret."

Day 1: Whitewater, Civil War Relics, and Oyster Shooters

Founded at the confluence of three rivers – the Saluda, Broad, and Congaree – Columbia has been gaining attention for its whitewater, singletrack-veined bluffs, and 160-foot Congaree National Park hardwood trees (the East Coast's tallest), all within 25 minutes of its laid-back downtown. A long weekend should revolve around the water, and late fall – when the triple-degree summer weather mellows to the 70s – is the best time to visit. The first river on my itinerary is the city's wildest: the Saluda. Local outfitter Adventure Carolina offers guided trips on Class II and III runs accessible to even the most casual paddler. From the vantage of my kayak, the southern Piedmont country is transformed into more rugged western environs. Buick-size granite outcroppings lean out from dense wooded cliffs. Trout race against the current. The reverie is broken as we paddle past the remnants of a bridge burned in 1865 by Confederate troops attempting to stop the Union Army. "You won't see this on a river in Colorado," Geddings says. "We've got history with the adrenaline."

On the 3.5-mile trip, we run four sets of rapids, our kayaks passing submerged boulders and riverbanks draped in Spanish moss. For the smooth final leg into town, I transition to a stand-up paddleboard, which offers better views of blue heron taking flight and groves of beaver-gnawed trees. Where the darker-colored Broad River joins the Saluda, they form the Congaree, which whisks me beneath the city's iconic Gervais Street arch bridge to our downtown takeout point along the city's 10-mile (and growing) Three Rivers Greenway – a riverside network of lanes and amphitheaters recently designated a national recreation trail.

That night, I trade river stories with locals at Pearlz Oyster Bar. With redbrick walls and oyster-adorned ice beds behind the room-length marble bar, Pearlz has the ambience of a coastal pub – families and young professionals spill out onto the sidewalk patio. The bartender shucks briny Malagash oysters from New Brunswick and pours an oyster shooter (black-pepper vodka and lemon-juiced cocktail sauce topped with a raw oyster). "You should try our tequila version," he says. "Hoo boy!"

Day 2: Mountain Biking and Carolina Caviar

On my second day, I explore the Broad River – from 10 stories up. While the slow-moving Broad doesn't have the Saluda's whitewater, the river is bordered by steep bluffs ideal for mountain biking through Harbison State Forest, a 2,137-acre preserve within the city limits. At a lunchtime, we devour a pimento cheeseburger from Pawleys Front Porch. (Often called "Carolina caviar," pimento cheese is a mix of sweet peppers, cheddar, and mayonnaise, and the burger bearing its name was purportedly created in Columbia in 1954.) Afterwards, I pull into the state forest with a trail bike rented from Outspokin Bicycles. The Columbia landscape is relatively flat, but Harbison has 18 miles of teeth-chattering singletrack for all levels of biker and trails undulate from leafy glades to precipitous cliffs. "With the hardwoods and rock outcroppings, you could be in the mountains," Outspokin owner Brian Curran says. "It's pretty unique in this part of the world."

Day 3 : Paddling a National Park and Four-Star Scallops

On the last morning, I rise early to kayak in Congaree National Park. Situated along the Congaree River, the 26,000-acre park contains the largest swath of old-growth floodplain forest – including 160-foot-tall loblolly pines and 140-foot-tall bald cypress trees – left in the United States. Thick oxygen fills my lungs like a warm humidifier. The giant cypresses are surrounded by "knees," aboveground root systems breaking the water like swampy stalagmites. While visitors sometimes see alligators, wild hogs, and bobcats, I only catch sight of a water moccasin – and keep my distance. To gain a different perspective, visitors can walk the 2.4-mile boardwalk, an elevated wooden walkway through the floodplain's black-water heart. "Don't run through here," ranger Joe Merritt says. "You'll miss the whole point."

I cap my visit with drinks and dinner at the upscale Oak Table in downtown Columbia. Opened last year by the group behind Charleston's James Beard Award–nominated restaurant the Macintosh, the Oak Table has wood walls, exposed industrial ductwork, and locally sourced dishes such as pan-seared scallops with Edisto Island chanterelles and okra-ringed quail. "We'd looked at opening a restaurant here before," co-owner Jeremiah Bacon says, "and we decided Columbia was finally ready for it." The food is great, but the best part about the Oak Table may be its bar. An after-dinner cocktail like the Lumberjack (bourbon, hickory water, maple syrup, and lemon juice) is best sipped from a stool while staring through floor-to-ceiling windows at the majestic front steps of the South Carolina capitol building. Afterward, I grab a nightcap at the Hunter Gatherer, a brewpub in a renovated 1913 auto garage, where tattooed bartenders pour drinks beneath African art and a stuffed wild dog. "People are starting to come here from all over because of the small-town – but cool – atmosphere," bartender Brent Wilkinson says, offering me a just-made pale ale. "We're the state's hidden gem."