Congaree National Park
100 National Park Road
Hopkins, SC 29061-9118
Established as a national park in 2003, Congaree is a primal forest on the river of the same name. The park is situated about 20 miles southeast of Columbia Airport in central South Carolina and contains some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. Park visitors can follow a canoe trail down Cedar Creek, the preferred exploration method in Congaree. However, travelers should be aware that they must bring their own canoe or kayak, as the park does not rent or provide them.
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor center: Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open daily, except on December 25.
Other services: A ranger station
- After Hours Campsite. Open year-round. A free camping permit must be obtained from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
- Bluff Campsite. Open year-round. A free camping permit must be obtained from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
- Backcountry camping is also available.
Visiting Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park contains the largest contiguous tract of old-growth floodplain hardwood forest in the United States. Because of the diversity life -- hundreds of species of plants and animals -- supported by the Congaree ecosystem, the park is designated an International Biosphere Reserve. Keen observers may note river otters and box turtles paddling in the creek, or catch a glimpse of a red-headed woodpecker foraging for food. Other common sightings include the white-tailed deer, skinks, and brown water snakes.
The 75 species of trees that grow in the bottomland forests of Congaree National Park provide a life-sustaining habitat for all kinds of mammals, fish, reptiles, and birds. Continue to the next page to learn about wildlife you can see at the park.
Sightseeing at Congaree National Park
The soaring trees of Congaree National Park are some of the tallest in the eastern part of the country; together they make up one of the highest forest canopies in the whole world. Types of trees run the gamut from cedar to cypress to pine; there are 75 species in all. The most commonly encountered trees and shrubs are tupelo, laurel oak, ironwood, American holly, loblolly pine, cherrybark oak, paw paw, water oak and bald cypress.
Among the forest, there are four national champion trees (largest of their species), including the impressive loblolly pine at a soaring 167 feet. These aren't the only tall trees in the park; many are over 140 feet and have 3 to 4 foot trunk diameters. Sadly, some of the largest trees were felled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
The park draws recreational visitors in the form of boaters, hikers, anglers, and campers. While the park has several well-developed trails, the canoe is the vehicle of choice for those who want to see Congaree's pristine heart; administration has marked several canoe trails that vary in length and difficulty. Cedar Creek is the body of water of choice here, as there is no vehicle access to Congaree River.
Beyond the numerous recreational opportunities, many visitors come to the park to try to catch a fleeting glimpse of Congaree's abundant wildlife, highlighted by about 175 bird species. On that long list are eight woodpecker species perfectly adapted to this dense forest, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The park's mammal checklist includes such creatures as river otters, mule deer, opossums, bobcats, flying squirrel, and wild boar. There are 19 snake varieties, including the cottonmouth, copperhead, canebrake rattlesnake, and coral snake, which are poisonous. Visitors may encounter any of 10 kinds of salamander, 19 frog and toad species, 8 turtle varieties, and 5 types of lizard.
Whether travelers are hiking, canoeing, or following a ranger-led owl prowl or tree trek, they should take a moment to check the Mosquito Meter before they head out. Ratings range from All Clear up to War Zone, and visitors will want to apply their bug spray accordingly.
Congaree National Park Photo Opportunities
The floodplains of Congaree National Park are inhabited by a profusion of wildlife that plant and animal lovers alike can spend hours viewing. Here are some suggestions for capturing the park's highlights on film:
- Low Boardwalk: Follow the Low Boardwalk for a fascinating journey through a primeval bald cypress and water tupelo forest. Mysterious cypress knees abound, and their unusual gnarled formations provide fodder for the imagination -- as well as interesting photos. Although no one is certain what purpose the knees serve, there is speculation that they help aerate the roots of the cypress trees.
- Oakridge Trail: This four-hour moderate trail traverses a rich stretch of old-growth forest, including an abundance of large oak trees. Hikers will encounter several small creeks, called "guts," that carry floodwaters in and out of the park.
- King Snake Trail: A wildlife enthusiast's path, the King Snake Trail passes through a remote section of Congaree. Giant cherrybark oaks grow on the second half of the 11-mile trail, and animal tracks are on display where deer and raccoon have passed by. Bird watchers should keep their binoculars out, too, in case a Swainson's warbler flits overhead.
The floodplains of the Congaree National Park region once stretched from the East Coast all the way to the eastern border of Texas. On the next page, we'll examine the events that transformed the terrain, eradicating most of the bottomland forest outside of Congaree National Park.
The History of Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park has existed since only 2003, but the beauty and importance of the wilderness there were recognized long before then. When the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area in 1540, he wrote about its intriguing wildlife in his journals.
A century and a half later, native Congaree Indian inhabitants were effectively wiped out by the arrival of smallpox with European settlers. The lands were subsequently granted to Europeans, who attempted to establish farms and grazing fields.
Unfortunately, the area was continually flooded and agriculture was consequently unsuccessful. But trees thrived in the excess waters which renewed the soil, and by 1905, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company had acquired much of the land. Its logging efforts were stymied, however, when many cut trees, surrounded by perpetual dampness, remained too green to float down the river for processing.
Thus the land was ultimately left untouched for many years. Logging operations eventually resumed in 1969, but seven years later, Congress designated the area as the Congaree Swamp National Monument under pressure from local environmentalists and the Sierra Club.
Hurricane Hugo hit the land in 1989, toppling many of the tallest trees. What was first a disaster eventually became a boon as sunlight pierced the previously impenetrable leaf canopy, stimulating new growth on the forest floor below. In 2001, Congaree was recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area. Two years later, it was designated a national park.
Once upon a time, the bottomland forests of Congaree National Park flourished from the Chesapeake Bay to east Texas. Today only 13,000 acres of floodplain exist in South Carolina, where once there were 1,110,000 acres. Congaree National Park encompasses 11,000 acres of the surviving southern bottomland forest.
Park visitors often remark on the absolute silence that permeates Congaree. A wilderness respite just miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Columbia, Congaree National Park provides an atmosphere of solitude and beauty.
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