Top 2 Ways to Explore Congaree National Park
Check out my blog post on What to Bring When Visiting A National Park here.
"A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people."
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
Where is Congaree?
Congaree National Park is the only national park in South Carolina and just two hours Northwest of Charleston. This makes Congaree National Park a perfect stop going to or from Charleston. Also, only a 40 minute drive from Columbia, SC, the capital of South Carolina, Congaree NP can easily be visited as a side day trip.
History of Congaree NP
Congaree National Park is named after the Native American Indian tribe that once roamed this land, the Congaree tribe. These early inhabitants lived off this lush land by hunting, foraging and fishing. Archaeological facts have been discovered and show that people have inhabited this area for nearly 10,000 years.
Nearly 20,000 acres of land/forest constitutes Congaree National Park. It is home to one of the largest, contiguous, old-growth flood-plain forests amidst enormous sized trees in the United States. This type of flood-plain is essential for the many diverse plants and animals that live here. Believe it or not, the U.S. had nearly 35 million acres of old-growth flood-plains, but after humans decimated these plains by cutting trees down for industrial and personal use, only 1% remains. To protect this old-growth flood-plain forest in South Carolina, Congress declared it a National Monument in 1976, and later proclaimed it a National Park in 2003.
When to Visit
The Mosquito Meter was made for a reason! Located at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, you can see just how annoying these blood suckers are. Mosquitos can be an uncomfortable reality in the summer months, especially when visiting a swamp, which is an ideal breeding site for these creatures! We visited in the spring and had the pleasure of an, 1) All Clear visit !!!!! If visiting while mosquitos are plentiful, make sure to bring bug spray.
Also, in the summer months, temperatures can reach 90° - 100°, which can make visiting this park even more uncomfortable. In addition, South Carolina has a humid subtropical climate, therefore, be prepared when visiting in the hot, summer months.
Hiking Congaree NP
The first way to enjoy Congaree National Park is to hike one of the many trails. Connected to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center is an easy and educational hike, the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Only 2.6 miles roundtrip, this hike is easy and is wheelchair and stroller friendly, with benches along the way to take a respite. And pets are welcome to join you on your hike! At the visitor center, you can pick up a self-guided pamphlet to learn about the trees and areas on this hike.
One of the coolest features of this forest are the majestic bald cypress trees and the "knees" that they produce. The "knees" rise up from the roots of the tree and are seen all over the forest. Bald Cypress trees can live over 1,000 years and they are water and rot resistant. Congaree tribes used this wood to make canoes because it was easy to use and very strong.
There is so much beauty to behold in Congaree National Park. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is a lovely way to experience the essence of Congaree. Bluff Trail connects to the Boardwalk Loop Trail and is another easy trail to enjoy. Bluff Trail is a 1.8 mile, roundtrip, trail that is not on a boardwalk. It is a great hike to see many of the Loblolly Pines that thrive in this park. Loblolly Pines can reach over 90' in height and are massive beauties with a scaly bark. One Loblolly Pine tree in Congaree forest is 167 feet tall, making it one of the many champion trees of Congaree. Champion trees are the largest specimen of its species. Other champion trees in Congaree NP are sweetgum, American Elm, and the swamp chestnut oak tree, just to name a few.
To explore more areas of this park, check out the National Park Service's website for more hiking trails at Congaree NP.
Exploring Congaree in a Canoe/Kayak
Because Congaree is part of a flood-plain and a lot of this forest is under water, another great way to see this park is in a canoe or kayak. There are a few outfitters that are permitted to provide a guided canoe/kayak tour on Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in Congaree NP. Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is only a five minute drive from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
As an alternative, if you have a canoe or kayak you are welcome to experience the waterways on your own. I chose to book a guided canoe tour with Palmetto Outdoor. Our amazing experience with Palemetto Outdoor lasted about three hours. While touring Cedar Creek on a canoe, we were able to explore a vast 4 miles, roundtrip.
Our guide, Andy, was very knowledgable and hard working. He tirelessly helped every person on the trip to board and disembark their canoe without getting wet. There were hopes of seeing water snakes, Barred Owls, and beavers, however, we only saw a banded water snake along the bank. Just an FYI- some of the snakes that live in this are are called water snakes because they do swim in the water. However, when we went in mid-March, the water was too cold for snakes to get in the water. Keep this in mind if water snakes "aren't your thing". Until our turnaround point, the canoe trip was effortless and tranquil. We leisurely paddled the peaceful water downstream, while searching for wildlife and admiring the beauty of this serene and diverse place. After a little more than midway, we docked our canoes along the bank to have a little rest. You can bring snacks and water with you to enjoy at this time (and utilize outdoor plumbing). At this area, Andy took us on a short hike to showcase some of the land features of this terrain.
This time out helped fuel our needed energy to paddle the remainder of the way upstream. While not too hard, you will notice the good workout your arms are getting. Our guide, Andy, jetted past us in order to help us with our disembarking from our canoes. Therefore, we took our time to simply enjoy our remaining time on Cedar Creek until we arrived back where our journey began.
In all, I highly recommend both hiking and canoeing Congaree National Park to enjoy all of the diverse features in this beautiful and underrated national park. My only advize would be to plan a trip here in the spring or fall when temperatures are cooler and mosquitos are not at their peak. In addition, check the Congaree NP website to make sure flooding has not adversely affected the trails you choose to hike. Also, a heavy downpour can cause the creek to rush and become too high for canoes or kayaks.
Walking and canoeing among the gigantic Champion Trees in this serene forest is a pleasure for all of the senses. Listening to the sounds of the wind rustling through the leaves while birds chirp, smelling the fresh, crisp air, all the while gazing at this natural habitat will leave you tranquil and refreshed. Visit this beautiful and unique landscape to see what much of our nation looked like before humans altered it. After all, we need trees to survive. As Munia Khan once said, "Trees exhale for us so that we can inhale them to stay alive. Can we ever forget that? Let us love trees with every breath we take until we perish."
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