Congaree National Park - Hopkins, SC
Diverse Ancient Forest Protected in Congaree National Park
Harry Hampton, a reporter and editor for the newspaper The State and an avid outdoorsman and hunter, began a campaign in the 1950s to save the old-growth forest of the Congaree River floodplain. Because he and many others fought for it, Congaree was protected, and upgraded in 2003 from a National Monument to one of the country's over 400 National Parks.
Congress has protected much of the park as a wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness forever protects the land’s natural conditions, opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, and scientific, educational, and historical values.
Champion Trees of the FloodplainClick thumbnail to view full-size
"Home of the Champions"
This national park is known as “home of the champions” due to its unique array of giant trees that hold records for the size of their species. These species found at Congaree include loblolly pines, hickories, and bald cypress.
The champions' growth depends on the floodwaters of the Congaree and Wateree rivers. Floods are essential to the park’s entire wetland ecosystem because they deposit soils whose nutrients support the park’s unique plant communities. The floods occur when heavy rain falls within the Congaree and Wateree river watersheds, which in turn drain over 14,000 square miles of northwestern South Carolina and western North Carolina.
Flooding typically occurs in this floodplain several times a year, usually in winter and early spring. The floodplain of the park is relatively flat, with only a 20-foot drop over 23 miles of river.
Changes of only a few feet in elevation cause differences in how long an area is flooded and dramatic changes in soil conditions. These differences allow diverse associations of tree species to grow in the floodplain.
- Along stream and river banks grow sycamore, cottonwood, and hackberry trees, whose roots tolerate periodic flooding.
- In low areas of standing water, bald cypress and tupelo grow, along with water ash and red maple.
- On better-drained flat land, overcup oak, laurel oak, and green ash are abundant.
- On drier soil, trees that thrive are cherrybark oak, water oak, sweetgum, and holly.
- On slightly higher ground, loblolly pines grow.
Congaree National Park has much floodplain biodiversity. It ranks among the most diverse forest communities in North America. It has over 20 different plant communities. Preliminary surveys have found over 80 tree species, 170 bird species, 60 reptile and amphibian species, and 49 fish species. These numbers will likely go up as the surveys continue.
- One loblolly pine over 15 feet in circumference and almost 170 feet tall ranks among the park’s champion trees. Loblollies here represent several age groups, with many trees living hundreds of years. In the floodplains, the combination of loblolly pines with hardwoods is uncommon. Past disturbances of normal forest growth patterns enabled the loblollies to gain a foothold. It remains a mystery of the exact cause of sequence of disturbances that encouraged loblolly generation.
- The largest bald cypress in the park is over 27 feet in circumference. Buttressed bases and knees, which are part of the root system, make this tree easy to identify. Knees over seven feet high have been found here.
Height in Feet
Historical Facts About Congaree Park
- In 1919, when the 18th Amendment was passed, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States, moonshiners and bootleggers found refuge in places like the Congaree River floodplain to earn a living. There are traces of an iron box of an old still that was used to make alcohol. Water and corn squeezings were used to make a sour mash. The mash was then heated and distilled through copper tubing to produce moonshine. The Congaree floodplain’s difficult terrain and tall trees made it a perfect place for moonshiners to hide stills and produce their illegal liquor.
- On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo blew through and left its mark on Congaree, leaving large open gaps in the canopy. Many large trees did not survive, but seedlings and vines sprouted afterwards due to the abundant sunlight reaching the forest floor. Disturbances like these play an active part in forest renewal.
Along the Boardwalks at Congaree National ParkClick thumbnail to view full-size
South Carolina Documentary—A Quick Overview of Congaree National Park
Stop at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center
Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no entrance fee. The park's trails, campgrounds, and paddling trail are always available, no matter what day of the week you choose to visit.
The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Tuesday through Saturday, and is closed Sunday, Monday, and all federal holidays. Trail maps, brochures, Exhibits, a film about the park, a bookstore, and gift shop are all available. Restroom facilities and water are always available in the Visitor Center breezeway. Call (803) 776-4396, or email the park for more information.
Especially you are planning an overnight trip at the park, check the park's website to get camping regulations, safety information, and maps.
From I-77 take exit 5 onto SC 48 (Bluff Road) and follow the signs to the park.
Mosquitos can be really bad in the summer. The staff have placed a “Mosquito Meter” next to the bathrooms to indicate the severity of that day (see photo). Take plenty of bug spray with you.
Free ranger-guided programs are available and colored blazes (markers) make trails easy to follow. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible to Weston Lake and there is foot access to the other trails that meander through the floodplain.
Elevated Boardwalk (1.3 miles). Winds through an unusual mixture of bottomland hardwoods and upland pines. This forest, particularly the massive pines, was heavily altered by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. You can hear woodpeckers hammering away in the tall trees above. The Elevated Boardwalk stops at Weston Lake, which is an old channel of the Congaree River. Steps and a ramp lead to the Low Boardwalk.
The Low Boardwalk (1.1 miles). This boardwalk is much different from the Elevated Boardwalk. This Low Boardwalk passes through a swampy area dominated by bald cypress and water tupelo. You will see cone-shaped cypress “knees” that protrude from the forest floor which adds a mystical quality (see photos). The knees, which are part of the tree’s root system, are thought to help aerate the roots and anchor the cypress in the floodplain’s wet soil.
Bluff Trail (1.7 miles). This trail is an upland trail that forms a large half circle north of the Visitor Center. A spur provides access from the after-hours parking lot to the Visitor Center and the Boardwalks. The Bluff Trail passes through a young forest of loblolly pines and mixed hardwoods.
Weston Lake Loop Trail (4.4 miles). This loop goes through an old-growth forest as it skirts the edge of Weston Lake, and runs alongside a cypress-tupelo slough, and follows the northern park of Cedar Creek before connecting to the Low Boardwalk. Cedar Creek is the largest channel in the floodplain and wildlife is often spotted along its banks. Here you can most likely see river otters and beaver swimming in the waters.
Oakridge Trail (6.6 miles). Passes through a rich stretch of old-growth forest. This is a moderate 3 to 4 hour hike. The trail crosses a number of small creeks that carry floodwaters into and out of the park’s floodplain as the level of the Congaree River rises and falls.
River Trail (10 miles). Leads to the Congaree River, which is the lifeblood of the park’s great natural diversity. Approximately ten times a year, floodwaters from the river cover nearly 80% of the park. When the river is low, much of the sandbar is apparent. Much of the forest along the river was logged prior to the park’s establishment and vegetation here is notably denser than that of other trails.
Kingsnake Trail (11.7 miles). This trail goes through a more remote area of the park and offers excellent bird watching. Hikers may spot deer, raccoons, opossums, and bobcat tracks. About midway, the trail passes a large cypress-tupelo slough. Giant cherrybark oak trees stand near the trail.
Scenes Along the Kingsnake TrailClick thumbnail to view full-size
For Your Safety
- Pets must be leashed; they are allowed on all trails except Boardwalks.
- Be alert for poison ivy, stinging insects, snakes, and mosquitoes.
- Fishermen must have a South Carolina fishing license. Minnows and fish eggs are prohibited as bait.
- Bicycles and motor vehicles are not permitted on trails.
- Littering, digging bait, picking plants, and disturbing wildlife are not permitted.
- For firearms regulations, check the park website.
- For emergencies, call 911.
Other Scenes During the Hike at Congaree National Park, Including Wild Hogs!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Congaree National Park does not charge entrance fees. The park does charge the following nominal fees for camping in the park's campgrounds:
Longleaf Campground: $10 for a regular tent site; $20 for a group site
Bluff Campground: $5 for a regular tent site
(Senior and Access Pass holders receive a 50% discount on the above fees)
Backcountry Camping: FREE
Check water levels before proceeding with any boat trip in the park. You can explore Cedar Creek in your own canoe or kayak. You can also rent canoes and other gear from outfitters in the Columbia, SC area. For the latest information on canoeing please visit the website http://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/canoeing.htm
Recommended Place to Eat After Your Hike
Our group went to a restaurant called The Lizard's Thicket. It is a very odd name but their food is really good. Just about anything you want, you can get here including good old fashion Southern cooking! Their website is www.lizardsthicket.com. Check out the photos I took while dining there.
Based on This Article and the Video Documentaries, is Congaree National Park a Place You Would Like to Visit?
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© 2015 Michelle Dee