Congaree is one of America’s newest national parks, becoming the 58th such protected area in 2003. Comprised of 26,276 acres, Congaree protects the largest intact old-growth bottomless hardwood forest in the U.S. We spent two days in the park’s swampy floodplain forest exploring several trails and camping in a primitive campsite.
In the late 1800s there were over one million acres of floodplain forest in South Carolina alone. Since that time, much of the land has been logged. Congaree’s swampy conditions made it difficult to cut trees, and it was largely left alone. But during the 1970s, the question of logging the Congaree area was raised again. Efforts to protect the area resulted in the establishment of Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, prior to it receiving national park status 27 years later.
Congaree is located just 20 miles south of South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia; yet it is one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2016, 143,843 people visited Congaree, ranking it 50th out of 59 national parks. Upon arriving in the park, we headed to the visitor center, where we verified our hiking plans with the ranger on duty. A couple of trails were closed, narrowing down our choice of possibilities, but still leaving us with plenty of places to explore.
The Boardwalk Trail, beginning from just behind the visitor center, served as our introduction to the terrain of the park. True to its name, the 2.4 mile trail is entirely on boardwalk, with part of the path on ground level and the other portion running eight feet above the swampy forest.
We learned that changes of only a few feet in elevation can dictate how much an area floods, and therefore, what types of trees may grow in standing water versus a drier soil. There have been over 80 tree species recorded in the park, making it one of the most diverse forest communities in North America. Along the boardwalk we saw a forest comprised of loblolly pines and bald cypress, as well as oak, ash, and hickory trees. Congaree’s tree canopy, rising up to as high as 130 feet, is one of the tallest in the world.
The most interesting trees to see were the bald cypress, many of which are in areas that flood several times a year. It was beautiful to see the cypress growing in standing water, and we were fascinated by the wood “knees” next to them. The knees, which can be up to seven feet high, provide the trees with extra structural support during flooding and high winds.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the area, creating gaps in the canopy. We saw dwarf palmettos growing in those spots, which receive more sun than the rest of the forest. The dwarf palmetto is a relative of the cabbage palmetto, which is the state tree of South Carolina. As we hiked, the boardwalk crossed guts, low channels in the forest that help disperse water when the river floods. Eventually we reached a point where the boardwalk was under construction, closing that section. We added on another trail to take us back to the visitor center, increasing our total hiking distance to three miles.
The only camping available in the park is in one of two primitive tent-only campgrounds, both of which must be walked into from a parking lot. We camped at Longleaf Campground, walking about five minutes from our car to a site that had a picnic table and a flat area to pitch our tent. As we settled into our tent at dusk, we were treated to the sight of several fireflies illuminating off and on around us. We were too early to see Congaree’s synchronous fireflies, which usually appear the last week of May. What makes these fireflies unique is that they are synchronized, meaning they blink on and off at the same time. After dark we were serenaded to sleep by a chorus of croaking bullfrogs.
The next morning we hiked the 4.4 mile Weston Lake Loop. The flat trail ran along the edge of an oxbow lake, originally part of the Congaree River that runs along the southern end of the park. We were the only ones on the trail, as evidenced from the spider webs we continuously encountered while hiking. Along the lake and the adjoining Cedar Creek we saw a barred owl and turtles, caught glimpses of deer and river otters, and heard the snorting of a feral pig.
Congaree boasts 21 different kinds of mosquitoes within its boundaries and, while they weren’t as bad as those we encountered in Everglades National Park, we still had to swat the air every time we stopped hiking to take a picture. Nevertheless, the unique beauty of the swampy floodplain forest and tall canopy made up for the inconveniences that we faced.
Next, we will journey to one of America’s best known (and popular) protected places: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.