Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Photo: Congaree National Park, National Park Service
Photo: Congaree National Park, National Park Service

What’s your favorite spot in South Carolina? Do you prefer the cities with their historic architecture and completely unhealthy yet mouthwatering food? The gorgeous coastline with little fishing villages and windswept beaches? Or the Blue Ridge Mountains with their winding roads and stunning viewpoints? These are all good reasons to return to the Palmetto State again and again. But there’s another reason you seem to have overlooked. It has a vastly underrated national park.

Congaree National Park is the only national park in South Carolina. That’s right, there’s only one. It’s located southeast of Columbia, the state’s capital, along the Congaree River. The swampy area was once the home of the Congaree people, who hunted and fished under the high canopy. Their community was decimated by smallpox when Spanish explorers arrived in the 18th century though. But the land remained undeveloped thanks to a campaign by the Sierra Club. It was named a national monument in 1976, a biosphere reserve in 1983, and finally a national park in 2003. Today, the more than 26,000-acre park is known for having one of the oldest hardwood forests in the county, as well as some of the tallest trees on the East Coast.

So what’s your plan once you reach Congaree? Start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to see exhibits about the park’s natural history and learn about the efforts to protect the land. The main building of most national parks is overflowing with visitors; you could probably hear a pin drop here when the orientation film concludes. Pull a kayak into the water at Bannister’s Bridge to follow the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. The marked trail is tranquil and beautiful. It starts out narrow and slowly widens as you paddle downstream. The water is high right now after months of winter rain. Downed trees and floating logs create obstacles along the way. While a small flock of ospreys wades through the side floodplains.

Take a break at Cedar Creek Landing when you reach the iron bridge. Between navigating down the river all morning and the hike you have this afternoon, you need to hydrate and eat lunch. Rushing water, rustling trees, and songbirds fill the otherwise silent woodlands. Consider your options for your hike. Animals lovers usually go to the Weston Lake Loop to look for otters or the Oakridge Trail, where lots of wild turkeys and white-tailed deer like to roam. Birders prefer the gorgeous views along the Kingsnake Trail. While history buffs follow the Bates Ferry Trail to see where colonial ferries crossed.

But your heart is set on the Boardwalk Loop. At 2.4 miles, the trail is relatively short, but the elevated walkway meanders through the swamp, past hidden fungi, around loblolly pines, and down to the famous bottomland hardwood forest. A hawk hovers overhead as you go. Plus barred owls start calling to each other before you reach the end of the trail. It’s almost eery way out here in the woods—and certainly unlike any other place you’ve explored in South Carolina.

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