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

Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

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

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

It’s Clearer than Ever That We Need our Parks and Natural Areas

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 escaping their homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty. Because so many of us have been seeking out nature, in some places, it’s difficult to maintain social distancing.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A new national park visitation trends tracker from U.S. Travel Association, Rove Marketing, and Uber Media indicates that visitation at select national parks is climbing as people seek healthy ways to travel and #RecreateResponsibly. As the overall visitation numbers begin to climb more than two-thirds of all park visitors are out-of-town travelers and more than half journeyed a distance of more than 200 miles.

Francis Beider Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parks and natural areas are a valuable asset in the effort to promote and improve public health. A large body of evidence correlates time spent outdoors with improved physical and mental health. Access to the outdoors has been especially treasured during a pandemic in which many of us have had to deal with health and economic stress. The benefits of that access are so clear that, even in this time of social distancing, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is underscoring the importance of outdoor activity:

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others.”

Madera Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During a time of national stress such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or just in everyday life, we need to access parks and take a healthy walk, clear our heads, or simply enjoy the serenity of a forest, marsh, or lake.

Take a look at some of these amazing parks and natural areas and don’t forget to bring your sense of adventure—and your hiking boots.

Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Canyon, North Dakota

Located in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Painted Canyon is one of the most photographed areas in North Dakota. Painted Canyon Overlook affords views of the Canyon, and a one-mile walking trail dips down below the rim to offer views of the unique strata.

Francis Beider Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

The National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest in Four Holes Swamp contains within its 18,000+ acres the largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress/Tupelo Gum swamp forest left anywhere in the world. One thousand year-old trees and native wildlife abound in this pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia. A 1.75 mile self-guided boardwalk trail (handicapped accessible) allows visitors the opportunity to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp…to see it the way nature intended!

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, Arizona

Madera Canyon, found just twenty-five miles southeast of Tucson is a hiker’s paradise. This natural area is nestled in the northwest section of the Santa Rita Mountains between Mount Hopkins and Mount Wrightson. Madera Canyon has campsites, picnic areas, and several hiking trails. Climbing towards the top, the mountain vegetation ranges from grassland, palo verde bushes, mesquite trees, and saguaro cactus to Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. At 9,453 feet, Mount Wrightson is the highest mountain in the area.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Located in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is one of South Dakota’s biggest outdoor wonderlands. With 71,000 acres to explore, you’ll never run out of things to see and do. There’s biking, boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, wildlife watching, and swimming. There are nine scenic campgrounds available throughout the park.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Kentucky

Are you looking to connect with nature? Bernheim is the place to do it. With over 15,000 acres of land, there is an adventure waiting for everyone, no matter what your interest. The largest protected natural area in Kentucky, Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees. Over 40 miles of trails with varying degrees of ease and difficulty weave their way through the forest at Bernheim.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a huge area consisting of multicolored sandstone cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante. This is a huge area consisting of a maze of sandstone cliffs, canyons, and plateaus.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, Louisiana

A reproduction Acadian Farmstead is situated along the bank of Bayou Teche. The Farmstead is an example of how a typical single-family farm would have appeared around 1800. The site includes the family home with an outdoor kitchen and bread oven, slave quarters, and a barn. In the pasture located adjacent to the barn, there are cattle typical of those raised by the Creoles and Acadians at that time.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania

The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania, ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake, is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

The Refuge is 57,331 acres along the Rio Grande near Socorro, located at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert. The heart of the Refuge is about 12,900 acres of moist bottomlands—3,800 acres are active floodplain of the Rio Grande and 9,100 acres are areas where water is diverted to create extensive wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and its long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several geysers, boiling pools, steam vents, and boiling pools to visit. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

Worth Pondering…

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein