Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

The unique floodplain ecosystem in central South Carolina is home to some of the tallest trees on the East Coast

There’s a perfect refuge in the midst of the Southeast: Congaree National Park, a 41-square-mile patch of old-growth forest. Congaree is the last stand of a forest ecosystem that was long ago cleared to supply timber and to make room for farmland and development.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The vast majority of the original forest has been destroyed, something that occurred over several centuries. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s that local folks realized they had something special you couldn’t find anymore.

Today, Congaree is what’s left of a 30-to-50 million-acre forest that once stretched from Maryland to Florida and as far west as Missouri. The timber industry was active in the area until the 1970s when a coalition of conservation groups worked with South Carolina’s U.S. Senators to get a national monument designation for the park. It was expanded, designated as a national park in 2003, and later as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. 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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The East Coast isn’t known for its uninterrupted wilderness. But when you start to consider the understated beauty of places like the Okefenokee Swamp—a shallow, 438,000-acre, peat-filled wetland—or the Everglades, or even the northern woods that cover much of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, the eastern wilderness concept makes sense.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park sits roughly in the middle of a giant triangle formed by three busy interstates connecting Columbia (the state capital), Sumter, and Santee. The farther we traveled from the asphalt of the city, the thinner traffic became. The state’s rural areas felt alive. But the pace seemed slower, too, as we drove along the mostly-empty roads.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other than a handful of signs here and there, you wouldn’t know there’s a national park nestled amid these hundreds of acres of old growth forest.

For a long time, not a lot of people did know. According to Park Service statistics, Congaree attracted fewer than 96,000 visitors annually 20 years ago. That number has crept up a bit—146,000 people found solace there in 2018—but it’s a trickle compared with the millions of people that visit the Grand Canyon National Park or the Great Smoky Mountains every year.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some reason, people are not familiar with the park or even this part of the state. A lot of people who come to South Carolina want to go down to Charleston. The middle of the state is a lesser-known entity.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those who do make it to Congaree National Park are in for a treat. The entry road winds toward the visitor center through a thick canopy of trees. More than 20 miles of trails and more than 10 miles of the Congaree River snake through the park. About 15,000 of its 27,000 acres are designated wilderness areas.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the bald cypress trees have been here for centuries. The average canopy height is 130 feet and among the tallest trees are a 167-foot-tall loblolly pine, a 157-foot-tall sweetgum, a 154-foot-tall cherrybark oak, and a 135-foot-tall American elm. The forest floor is teeming with wildlife—everything from bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, and otters to turtles, snakes, alligator gar, and catfish. It is also an important hub for migratory waterfowl.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree is a floodplain forest, so it’s a unique ecosystem most people aren’t familiar with. At any given time of the year, the forest floor could be dry, muddy, or flooded with a foot of water. Regardless of the season and the amount of water among the trees, anytime is a good time to visit because there are so many different ways to experience the park. All the different seasons and phases are beautiful.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a warm November day we enjoyed an afternoon walk on the raised boardwalk that cuts a 2.4-mile loop around the north end of the park. There were several places to descend from the boardwalk onto solid ground.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One thing to keep in mind is that conditions can change from month to month and even from day to day. One day, you might need a pair of walking shoes; another, a kayak might be a better bet. There’s a canoe and kayak access trail for the days when the river floods large parts of the forest.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Rachel Carson

Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

There are plenty of ways to enjoy nature

In an earlier article I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods including enjoying nature.

In his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson dives into the healing powers of the wilderness. “In the presence of nature,” he wrote, “a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time outdoors has been linked to increased brain function, amplified vitamin D intake, reduced stress, and more. Yet the average American spends just 7 percent of their lives outside. Looking for some new and exciting ways to reconnect with nature alongside friends and family? Check out this list of fun and healthy ways to enjoy nature.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Trails

If you already take a walk or go for a run each day, getting back to nature can be as simple as changing your location. Rather than hitting the treadmill, take your walk or run to a local park. You can hit a paved path through the park or opt for a hiking trail for an even greater challenge.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding

Birding is a great way to keep a healthy outlook—physically and mentally—and get outdoors with some level of exercise. Birding activity often includes walking, but it can easily include biking, canoeing or kayaking, hiking or backpacking—it’s up to you. Birding may be the secondary focus of such exercise outings or it may be your primary interest while you know you will get some exercise in the process. A little sunshine and fresh air and interesting avian action will make any day better.

Canoeing at Stephen Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exercise in Green Space

Trees produce phytoncides which help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost immunity. The microbes in forest soil have been found to reduce depression and may contribute to the health of our microbiome. A 15-minute walk is all it takes to reap the benefits but researchers have found that a weekend in the woods improves immunity for up to a month while an afternoon walk somewhere green means better sleep at night.

Hiking at Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a Hike

There are a lot of places where you can hike—national and state parks, trails and footpaths, nature preserves. Being out in nature, you’ll enjoy different types of flora and fauna. Hiking usually requires that you move uphill, so it’s good exercise, too.

Photography at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take photos

Taking photos outside requires a focus on nature around you. Look for unusual colors, patterns, or animals to photograph. A botanical garden is a great place to visit for photography since the displays are usually arranged in eye-catching shapes and patterns. You can also visit a nature preserve and looking for photo opportunities with animals or plant life. Simply look for scenes that you find interesting including colorful leaves on the ground, spring flowers, or a stunning sunrise or sunset.

Camping at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentuky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Camping is not just a weekend escape or a less expensive holiday. Camping comes with many health benefits. In addition to physical exercise, it is also great for your mental health and social wellbeing. There are numerous options when it comes to camping such as a tent, camper, travel or fifth-wheel trailer, or a motorhome—all of which promote a healthy lifestyle.  

Photographing a green jay in South Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Up a New Outdoor Hobby

Hiking, trail running, camping, and photography are all great hobbies that will get you outdoors and moving. But if you’re looking for something a little more exciting, consider mountain biking. Before you hit the trails on two-wheels, learn more about this exciting sport and the gear that you’ll need to stay safe.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Bathing

Ok, so this one is a little esoteric, but bear with me here. Shinrin-Yoku is a Japanese term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It started in Japan in the 1980s and has become an important piece of their preventative health care measures.

Sequoia National Park, California

The idea is pretty straightforward… When you take time to visit a natural area and take a walk in a relaxed way, there are rejuvenating, restorative, and calming effects on your mind and body.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Outside and Enjoy Nature Today

Get outside today! Any of these outdoor activities can be a great way to spend quality time with friends and family while helping to inspire healthy, active habits.

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

—John Muir

Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Our collective “back to nature” response to the coronavirus outbreak is an important reminder of the irreplaceable value of our parks and natural lands

It took an event that forced the nation to stay at home to remind us how much we need to be outside. The spread of COVID-19 has required that we limit our contact with other people leading many of us to seek out connection with the natural world. From national parks and state parks to local hiking trails, Americans have been pouring out of their homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In an earlier article I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods including enjoying nature. Subsequently, I listed numerous fun and healthy ways to enjoy nature including forest bathing.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tonic of the wilderness was Henry David Thoreau’s classic prescription for civilization and its discontents, offered in the 1854 essay Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shinrin-Yoku is a Japanese term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It started in Japan in the 1980s and has become an important piece of their preventative health care measures.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest bathing is taking time to unwind and connect with nature to improve your health. Simply put: Forest bathing is retreating to nature to immerse in the forest atmosphere. The idea is pretty straightforward… When you take time to visit a natural area and take a walk in a relaxed way, there are rejuvenating, restorative, and calming effects on your mind and body.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Healed By . . . Trees?

Spending time walking in a forest has positive effects on your body and mind. Following are some conclusions based on various studies conducted by doctors and psychologists.

Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Physical benefits of a walk in a forest:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Enhanced immune response
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep
Myakka River State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mental benefits of a walk in a forest:

  • Improved mood
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Restored mental energy
  • Improved concentration
  • Enhanced creativity
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How can walking in a forest do all that? Scientists say some of it has to do with the chemicals plants give off to protect themselves from insects and to fight diseases. These chemicals have antibacterial and antifungal qualities and when we inhale them our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell that kills tumor- and virus-infected cells. Another reason is simple: Forests reduce stress, the root cause of many ailments.

Raccoon State Recreation Area, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simply living around trees and looking at them is beneficial as well. A medical study found a 12 percent lower mortality rate for people who lived near green spaces with fewer incidences of a wide variety of diseases than people who lived in urban areas.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (See poem below), North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, next time you’re near a swath of towering timber go right on under their welcoming limbs and take a hike.

Worth Pondering…

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer

Unplug & Recharge

Take a walk in the woods for better health

To “unplug” used to mean take a step away from your daily routine and forget about life’s worries. It also means something more literal—to pull the cord on the electronics in your life, turn off your dang phone, stop checking texts and email, and get off the ’gram.

Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This all is increasingly difficult to do, but it’s critical. Our digital life connects us in ways never before seen, but it also has health ramifications, from psychological addiction to disrupted sleep.

In Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, Wild, her mom tells her that the cure for much of what ails her is to “put [herself] in the way of beauty.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turns out she was right, at least according to the latest science. Time in nature is an antidote to the ill effects of stress, prevents, and in some cases even helps cure anxiety and depression and enhances creativity. Though the exact causal mechanisms are not yet known, researchers speculate there is something unique about nature—perhaps related to the fact that we evolved to be in it—that puts both our bodies and minds at ease, promoting physical and psychological restoration and subsequent functioning.

Cherohola Skyway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long before smartphones and self-driving cars, Japan deemed “forest bathing” an essential part of its national health program. With forest bathing, the soaking isn’t literal. Bathing takes on a new meaning—immersing oneself in the natural environment.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The concept stems from Japanese Shinrin-Yoku Forest Therapy and goes back to 1982. Over three decades later, the goal of forest bathing is still to reintroduce people to the healing power of nature. Much study and research has confirmed what the Japanese have long believed—nature benefits wellbeing in many ways.

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the problems of modern society, the importance of nature, and restorative benefits of spending time outdoors. “We need the tonic of wildness,” he wrote in Walden, after spending two years in the woods.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here in the 21st century, an increasing number of health experts agree with Thoreau. The varied physical and mental health benefits that seem to come with spending time in the woods or other wild and green settings is the subject of an increasing body of study and some scientific research.

Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good old walk in the woods has been credited with reducing blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety, while improving mental health, cognitive abilities, and sleep patterns. Yet the average American spends just 7 percent of their lives outdoors. Looking for some new and exciting ways to reconnect with nature alongside friends and family?

Hiking to Clingman Dome, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a hike. There are a lot of places where you can hike—parks, trails, nature preserves. You’ll be out in nature, so it’s a great way to enjoy different types of plants and animals. Hiking usually requires that you move uphill, so it’s good exercise, too.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As Winnie-the-Pooh once wisely said, “When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an adventure is going to happen.” Whether it’s hiking in the Smoky Mountains, the Sierras, or the Rocky Mountains, follow the thoughtful bear’s sage advice and pack your biggest, comfiest boots for a real adventure.

Photography at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take photos. Taking photos outside requires that you focus in on the nature around you. Look for unusual colors, patterns, or birds to photograph. A botanical garden is a great place to visit to take photos, because the displays are usually arranged in eye-catching ways. You can also visit a nature preserve or wildlife refuge and look for photo opportunities with animals or plant life.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Up a New Outdoor Hobby. Hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, fishing, and photography are all great hobbies that will get you outdoors and moving. But if you’re looking for something a little more exciting try mountain biking.

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain biking in Utah is an endless-crazy-fun adventure. Head to the mountains or red rock desert trails. Singletracks, dirt roads, steep climbs, and rolling hills dominate the state’s beautiful landscape. Mountain biking is an invigorating and intimate way to experience the west. Located just north of Moab, Slickrock is perhaps the most popular mountain bike trail in the world boasting over 100,000 visitors per year.

Get Healthy, Get Outdoors

Rockport, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find time today to venture outside and take advantage of the health benefits of the outdoors. Replace time spent inside on electronic devices with a bike ride or a walk to a local park. Take up forest bathing or gardening as a new hobby. And remember outdoor recreation can be enjoyed alone or as a family.

Reconnecting with nature in Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no wrong way to get outside and so much to be gained by exploring the natural world. You know why being outside is important. It’s time to reconnect with nature. Your body and mind will thank you for it later.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau