Congaree National Park

South Carolina
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree National Park, South Carolina  (iStockphoto)

It’s easy to mistake Congaree National Park for a swamp. The 27,000-acre park, which sits almost squarely in the middle of South Carolina, is an ancient marshland filled with bald cypress trees whose gnarled knees emerge from murky waters. The Congaree River carves the southern border of the park and is fed by slow-moving creeks cutting through the old-growth forest. The river floods half a dozen times a year, giving Congaree a primeval, swamp-like setting, but because the park isn’t permanently submerged, Congaree isn’t technically a swamp. It’s a bottomland forest.

No matter what you call it, Congaree is one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the eastern United States, with the impressive designations to prove it. In addition to being a national park, Congaree is an International Biosphere Reserve, a Global Important Bird Area, a National Natural Landmark, an Outstanding National Resource Water, and a federally designated wilderness. It’s also home to the oldest old-growth floodplain forest on the continent, boasting one of the tallest tree canopies in the world, with swaths of forest that stretch 120 feet into the sky.

Hiking and Backpacking
More than 20 miles of hiking trails cross Congaree National Park, ranging from short boardwalks to 11-mile backcountry paths. The Elevated and Low boardwalks combine for 2.4 miles of easy hiking through an old-growth forest. The Elevated Boardwalk sits six feet above the ground and ends at Weston Lake, a 25-foot-deep pool that was once part of the Congaree River. The Low Boardwalk passes through a bald cypress and water tupelo forest, giving hikers easy access to the knobby knees that have made Congaree famous.

Oakridge Trail passes by massive oaks and small creeks that locals call "guts" on a 7.5-mile loop. Follow the 11.1-mile King Snake Trail to access more remote reaches of the park on foot. The wildlife and tree species are the draw here, with evidence of deer and bobcat, and massive cherry bark oaks and cypress trees in abundance.

Paddling is the preferred method for exploring Congaree. Park rangers guide free canoe tours on weekends. For a self-guided tour, follow the blazed canoe trail on Cedar Creek as it cruises through large bald cypress and water tupelo thick with Spanish moss. The canoe trail extends from Bannister Bridge on the western end of the park, 27 miles to the 601 Bridge on the Congaree River south of the park. You can access the trail at either point, or at the Cedar Creek Landing in the middle of the trail. Paddle the seven-mile stretch between Bannister Bridge and the Cedar Creek Landing, which passes through a tight, twisting creek before widening into a forest of oaks and loblollies that reach near-record sizes.

The Congaree River Blue Trail, a 50-mile National Recreation Trail for paddling, runs from Columbia through Congaree National Park. There’s a choice 25-mile section of the trail forming the southern border of the park with its own designated backcountry campsite.

The Longleaf Campground has eight free sites with fire rings, grills, and picnic tables. Backcountry camping is free as well; just set up at least 200 feet away from any trail or water source. Bluff Campsite, also free, has six group campsites that can accommodate up to 30 people. Get free permits (required for any kind of camping) at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

Published: 2 Feb 2012 | Last Updated: 22 Jun 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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