Discover South Carolina: Congaree National Park

Eighteen miles southeast from Columbia, SC – as you travel meandering backroads, you’ll discover a ‘city’ of giants – Congaree National Park.

This wild heart of South Carolina is a home to the largest intact expanse of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.

Congaree is a confluence of ecology, biodiversity and human history – where the waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through this floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate the ecosystem.

At first glance the dense forest swamp looks ominous, but as you hike the 2.6 mile boardwalk loop into the heart of Congaree you’ll discover this ‘swamp’ is full of life and unrivaled beauty. Congaree is a forest of giants – state and national champion trees make this the largest tract of tall trees east of the Mississippi.

Many of these trees were around when the indigenous Congaree and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto roamed these lands – 500 year old bald cypress..the graceful giant – The Loblolly Pine, to American Holly, Water Tupelo and dozens of other species create a tapestry of forest community.

Our trip:

My mom and I arrived at Congaree just after eleven a.m. on Black Friday (November, 25th 2022) – while I love a good sale, spending a day in the forest was just the medicine we needed during the long holiday weekend.

My maternal side of the family has strong ties to South Carolina, having first settled in Charleston in the 1670s, so I grew up driving through Columbia and yet Congaree eluded me. This gem of a National Park, is often overlooked, considering its convenient location to Columbia (SC’s State Capital) and within a few hours of major cities like Raleigh and Atlanta.

Perhaps because Congaree’s beauty is a demure gracious spell, hidden and secluded – as though time forgot it. Congaree isn’t advertised as a major tourism push from South Carolina – many locals I spoke with were only vaguely familiar with the park. That is a shame, because it is a champion – an ecosystem that binds the heart of soul of the regional landscape together.

So while Congaree might be overlooked given the lack of advertising outside of the region, perhaps that is the park’s finest quality because you truly see a landscape that the NPS is worked to preserve and protect. You feel as though you travel back in time, when the first indigenous nomads found a home here.

I recommend you begin your tour at The Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Inside you’ll be able to engage in interactive exhibits about the park’s natural and human history. The 20 minute video is a MUST-VIEW – it gives a detailed overview of the park’s history and biodiversity, while providing excellent aerial drone footage of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. This footage gives a bird’s eye view of the grandeur and expanse of the forest.

After speaking with the helpful park ranger staff, we decided to walk the accessible 2.6 mile boardwalk loop. This guided trail highlights different aspects of the forest, history and landscape. The walk took about an hour as we stopped often to read our tour brochure (wooden markers align with the tour brochure – making it great for families and adults).

Park overview:

The story of a National Park...

I love trees, but I’ll admit I often get confused on the different types of trees and their impact on an environment…the museum exhibits made it easy to understand the entire ecosystem of Congaree and WHY it is a National Park. Download your Congaree Tree Guide here

  • Congaree is a treasure because it is one of the last bottomland forests in the US. It includes old growth trees that are over 500 years old (up to 1000 years old!) and have witnessed everything from fire and floods, wars and rebirth, industrialization and conservation.
  • 15 National Champion Trees in height reside here – some loblolly pines are over 17 stories tall!
  • At one time, old-growth bottomland forests like Congaree once covered 30 million acres across the southeast, while longleaf pine Savannah’s covered an estimated 90 million acres!
    • While we can often think of fire and floods as devastating to the forest ecosystem, the founds bring in rich soil deposits and fuel growth. Fire protects the forest from overgrowth. The floods and the swampish bottomlands created rich land and biodiversity – clean waterways to fuel life and community.
    • Perhaps not intentionally, but as a response to heavy industrialization in the mid-to-late 1800s many of these tall century old forests were destroyed. The land drained for farmland and the wood built the industrial revolution.
    • Most of these bottomland forests have vanished.
  • How did Congaree remain?
    • God’s grace and an unbridled wilderness of swamps and difficult territory made this tract of forest difficult to navigate.
    • Francis Beidler of Chicago purchased 15,000 acres of the Congaree floodplain to harvest the stands of immense old-growth cypress trees. However getting the trees cut down in Congaree was time consuming and costly. By 1917, logging operations ceased. The land was safe for now…
    • A Champion for the FOREST: Newspaper editor for The State in Columbia (SC), Harry Hampton spent time exploring his local Congaree…interested in conservation issues, Hampton began to use the ‘power of the pen’ to advocate for Congaree’s conservation.
      • From 1930 to 1964, Hampton wrote his Woods and Water column, emphasizing outdoors and conservation topics. He also helped create a fish and game association that evolved into the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
      • Through is constant advocacy – he and other friends of Congaree built a foundation for Congaree to be preserved in 1976 as Congaree Swamp National Monument by Congress
    • Congaree was upgraded to National Park status in 2003 with additional federal protections to ensure this world biosphere would continue to thrive and be protected for years to come.

Congaree is a story of people, rivers and trees…

  • Humans have lived in the Congaree flood plain for over 12,000 years!
    • Earliest settlers where hunter gather nomads, who eventually began to build more permanent villages and experiment with crops and pottery
    • With the introduction of corn, beans and squash, many of the regional tribes united into large chiefdoms with large territories.
  • Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto interacted with these chiefdoms when he explored the area around Congaree in 1541.
  • English surveyor John Lawson traveled up the Santee to the confluence of the Wateree and Congaree river in 1701, where he interacted with the native tribe – The Congaree – from which the part derives its name.
  • Unfortunately little is known about The Congaree who succumbed to European disease and were absorbed into other tribes.
  • The land was settled by Europeans who farmed indigo, rice and other cash crops. While plantations were built, much of this was the ‘frontier.’ Ferries were built to help navigate trade from the Upcountry to Charleston and Savannah ports.
  • This area was key in the fight for American Independence as patriots like Francis Marion ‘The Swamp-fox’ hid in the cypress swamps, to evade The British. I recommend taking time to reach about South Carolina and North Carolina’s roles in clearing the road to victory at Yorktown. The guerrilla warfare battles in the swamps of Congaree and throughout the southeast have a fascinating history.
  • Slavery is a terrible legacy of South Carolina – some escaped slaves made a home in Congaree’s swampland as ‘Maroons’ – this was a harsh life of living off this untamed land and living in constant fear of discovery. I recommend reading about this important history of the park here.

Biodiversity and Wonder:

Congaree is designated as an International Biosphere…the old-growth floodplain forest is home to:

  • 81 species of trees including 15 species of oak; During our hike we spotted these species just off the boardwalk
    • Sweetgum
    • American beech
    • Swamp chestnut oak
    • American holly
    • Water tupelo
  • Congaree has 15 species of shrubs
  • It is home to the dwarf palmetto – a smaller and distant relative of the state’s Palmetto tree
  • 23 vines grow here..

This all provides a habitat for unique wildlife:

  • Thousands of birds migrate to Congaree every year…
  • The fox squirrel with is white facing and unique gray and black markings is a favorite to spot throughout the park.

Quick tips:

  • Camping in the park is limited, so I recommend staying in Columbia and driving in.
  • Bring snacks and plenty of water, including a water bottle for the trail
  • If you are coming in the spring, summer and early fall – MOSQUITO REPELLENT is a must. They even have a mosquito meter at the visitor center because this is mosquito central in the summer.
  • In the summer it is going to be hot and humid – so where wicking clothing with SPF and you’ll stay cool. I recommend a hat too!
  • If you can visit in the fall or winter – it is cool and while many of the deciduous trees are barren you really can enjoy the weather and walking without bugs!

Suggested Itineraries:

You can spent several days in Congaree – the park is over 26,000 square miles…most of which is backcountry access.

If you only have one day in the park, I recommend:

  • Stop at the Visitor Center:
    • Learn about the history and biodiversity through interactive exhibits and park ranger talks
    • Watch the intro video at the visitor’s center
  • Walk the entire (or part) of the 2.4 mile boardwalk trail and enjoy the sound of the trees in the breeze and crackling of fallen twigs as fox squirrels and other animals run across the forest floor. Enjoy the atmosphere of the swampish waters and 500-1000 Cypress Trees. Just breathe in and let your mind imagine – what stories can they tell?

If you have multiple days, I recommend trying one of the longer backcountry hikes and/or going on a paddle trip. Water fuels Congaree and paddling the ancient rivers tells stories and provides a different perspective than the forest path. Click here to book a paddle adventure with a NPS authorized concessionaire.

Helpful links:

Friends of Congaree – Non-profit helping the park

NPS Official Site – Congaree

In our next adventure, we’ll explore Columbia’s in-town state park and dive into the history and culture of South Carolina’s Capital City.

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