Congaree National Park

It’s really nice when you expect that you’re going to have a good day, and then it turns out to be a great one!  That describes Saturday, November 15th, the day we visited Congaree National Park outside of Columbia, South Carolina.  Congaree is the 17th National Park we’ve visited together in our quest to visit them all, and honestly, we had never even heard of it until we started familiarizing ourselves with the 59 parks and where they are each located.

Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park
Bald cypress and water tupelo trees with their wide bases that serve as buttresses grow in the lower elevation floodplains along the creeks, sloughs, and oxbow lakes in Congaree National Park

Ranger Jon beside the second oldest loblolly pine in the country.  This 250-year-old beauty stands 157' tall and measures 15' around.
This 250-year-old loblolly pine stands 157′ tall and measures over 15′ in circumference.  It’s the second largest loblolly in the country; 27 times taller than Ranger Jon here!

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States.  At one time, there were over five million acres of this forestland in the U.S., but early in the twentieth century, loggers began harvesting the giant trees found in these hardwood forests.  Cypress was particularly in demand as ‘wood eternal,’ for it doesn’t rot.  

Over time, millions of acres of trees were clear cut to meet the demands of a growing country, leaving very few hardwood forests behind.  Fortunately for the Congaree Swamp, early efforts to harvest the trees here were short-lived and unprofitable, so these trees survived.  

Today in Congaree, only 26,000 acres remain, and as this is the largest tract of its kind left, it is not surprising that the giant trees here are among the tallest in the United States.

Back to our day… we arrived at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center with plans to take the 10 a.m. ranger-lead interpretive walk and found we weren’t the only ones who had this same great idea.  

In fact, a large group of nice teens and their adult leaders from a Venturing group [a co-ed adventure program run by the Boy Scouts of America] were there, so bundled up in warm coats, hats and gloves as the Arctic Blast cold spell hit us down south here, too, some 25 of us set out with Ranger Jon Manchester to explore the park.

Our 2.7-mile walk started out on a portion of the nice boardwalk loop trail in the ‘high grounds’ where Jon explained what types of species did well in this area – several oak species, sweetgum and holly.  Further walking brought us to the floodplains area where water tupelo and bald cypress trees with their ‘knees’ had both adapted for growth in floodplain conditions.  It’s a good thing we had a boardwalk to walk on; the muck looked like it could swallow us up!

Lots of bald cypress trees and their entangled web of 'knees'
Bald cypress trees and their entangled web of ‘knees’
Switch cane growing along the boardwalk
A mere one-foot elevation change allows undergrowth like this switch cane to grow

Just a bit farther up the boardwalk, with only about a foot in elevation change, we came to another section of the forest that was just dry enough most of the time to support undergrowth like the switch cane we saw growing, and then other oak varietals and ash trees in these better-drained flats.  It was fascinating to see these changes in the forest and to really understand them.  Ranger Jon also pointed out other signs of healthy life in a forest – the sapwells of the woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (a fun bird name; also in the woodpecker family) and the burls that trees grow on their bark to protect themselves from disease.

We ended our walk at Weston Lake where I added a new vocabulary word to my list – oxbow.  An oxbow is a lake that used to be a river.  Sometimes, changes in the environment force a river to reroute, and when a part of the river gets cut off, it becomes an oxbow lake.  While most oxbow lakes usually dry up over time and become sloughs, Weston appears to have a water source that allows it to remain a lake.

It was really a wonderful hike and we got so much more out of it because Ranger Jon guided us and shared his knowledge with us.

Lake Weston in Congaree NP
Lake Weston in Congaree National Park

 Walking back to the Visitor Center with him after our official tour had ended, we came upon a pile of feathers – light gray with pinky-reddish ends.  These were clearly the remnants of lunch for some creature in the forest!  Jon photographed the feathers and looked them up when we got back; it appeared to be a cardinal – past tense.  In addition to the 80+ species of trees here in the park, there are some 170 bird species, 60 reptile/amphibian species, and 50 kinds of fish.

Paddlers enjoying the park
Paddlers on Sunday in the park

Fred and I ate a picnic lunch, then decided on a second, longer hike (4.7 miles) for our afternoon in Congaree.  We looped out farther from the Visitor Center and saw more of the forest and floodplains, and we certainly understood and appreciated the area much better.  We saw just a few more people out in the park – very likely because of the cold near-winter day – but a few brave souls were out, including Neil, and his sweet dog, Wolfie, who shared some of the afternoon trail with us.  From our research, we could see that a very popular use of this park is kayaking and canoeing, an activity that’s all but over now for the winter, but would surely be another wonderful way to enjoy the park.

For this remarkable place, it seems we all owe a lot of gratitude to Harry Hampton, the conservationist, writer, and outdoorsman for whom Congaree’s Visitor Center was named.  Back in the 1950s, he began a one-man campaign to preserve this hardwood forest tract.  His tireless efforts and those of others who joined his unpopular-at-the-time cause paid off; in 1976, this sanctuary became Congaree Swamp National Monument, then in 2003 it became Congaree National Park, most of which is now a federally-designated wilderness area.

So while we knew we would enjoy our time here in this national park, as we do in each of them, we had no idea just how truly great of a day this would be!  This majestic wilderness of towering trees is a magnificent place to hike, canoe, fish, birdwatch, and stroll the boardwalks.  And while Congaree is always in motion as water levels constantly change, it is a place where stillness and tranquility can still be enjoyed.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through pictures of our lovely day in Congaree National Park:

Congaree National Park