America’s National Parks are home to some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. Hundreds of millions of visitors flock each year to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains.
While the giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada and the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon enjoy endless popularity, many other parks offer wonders just as breathtaking but fly under the radar. Ever heard of Lassen Volcanic? How about Pinnacles? These are national parks located in California that are every bit as magical as the rock formations of Arches. Congaree National Park is another park which offers a multitude of wonders for those who make the trip into its ancient forests.
The woodlands of Congaree make up the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. Congaree packs an astounding amount of biodiversity and habitats within its borders. The trees here are some of the tallest in the eastern U.S., with record-breaking loblolly pines, tupelos, and sweetgums towering more than one hundred fifty feet to jut high above the forest canopy.
Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees. Within the many streams and lakes that dot the park live an abundance of wildlife, from river otters and bullfrogs to alligators. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker swoops through the trees, and dwarf palmettos blanket portions of the forest floor.
Unlike many parks, Congaree is almost devoid of roads. Even approaching the park you’d almost have no idea that it was there. No crowded highways, tourist towns, and neon lights line the entrance to welcome you. Small signs point the way until you reach the main park entrance.
The National Park Road is only about a mile long and leads to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, named for one of the individuals who spearheaded the campaign to protect Congaree. As at most national parks, here you can stock up on maps, get your national parks passport stamped, and pick up the activity guide for the Jr. Park Ranger program. Be sure to ask the rangers what the current trail conditions are, or better yet, call before you go.
Since the majority of the park lies within the Congaree River floodplain, wet weather can lead to many of the park’s trails becoming impassable. When this occurs the park’s interpretive boardwalk trail is usually open. This 2.4-mile loop passes through a variety of the park’s unique ecosystems. Numbered stops and a guidebook help explain the unique areas you pass through. The lower portion of the boardwalk wind through a forest comprised of water tupelo and bald cypress.
This area is a swamp much of the time. Occasionally the waters rise to cover even the elevated boardwalk, so once again check with a ranger before venturing off. As it loops back towards the visitor center it passes by the tranquil waters of Weston Lake and then climbs through some dryer terrain. Here you’ll find the loblolly pines which are the stars of this ancient forest.
If the trails are passable, there are miles of them which delve deep into the wilderness areas of the park and provide access to the river itself. During wetter periods visitors’ best choice for exploring the park is by canoe or kayak. Check out the park’s website or chat with a ranger to get an idea of the areas which are accessible and which of those you would like to explore.
Congaree is unique in the East. You can go out and it’s just you and nature. Even on a busy day, you don’t have to go too far to get away from folks.
Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. The visitor center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on federal holidays
Take the time to explore this biological wonderland. Sometimes the flash of a red-headed woodpecker, the whisper of the wind through Spanish moss, or the towering crowns of a loblolly pine are more than enough to remind us how precious the natural world really can be.
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.