Congaree National Park is home to the largest contiguous expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. If you’re not too tired from reading that sentence then go take a visit. It’s located in the heart of South Carolina only 3 hours from Atlanta. Planning your visit can be difficult if you want to paddle though. If the water level is too low there’ll be impassible portages and if the water level is too high trail markers and banks become covered. Why so much uncertainty? Well until 2003 this area was called Congaree Swamp National Monument but it’s really a floodplain which basically means it’s a flat land that experiences periodic flooding.
It soon became a weekly task to review the Cedar Creek gauge at nps.gov/cong. One Saturday in February ’16 after waiting out the long, hot and buggy season I decided to go for it. The water level was higher than the recommended 4-7 feet but I had a gps so I wasn’t worried. I first stopped at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to make sure I had everything I needed and to buy a patch of course. I think it goes without saying that you should stop at every parks visitor center before exploring it. Also check for alerts at nps.gov and remember you can always call and speak to an all-knowing park ranger ahead of your trip.
From the Visitor Center I warmed the legs up by taking the Boardwalk trail which is an elevated, wheelchair accessible walkway in a mystical fairy tale. Some areas were not accessible to anyone because of…you guessed it, flooding.
It felt like a trip back in time. I’m very glad the Sierra Club pushed for this area to be preserved back in 1976. Some of the 75 species of trees hold national records for their size! Some even call it a scaled down combination of the Redwoods and Everglades. There are all kinds of fascinating stats about Congaree but to get the real experience you’ll need a vessel.
I started at the South Cedar Creek Landing where the water is slow moving so paddling down or upstream is an option. Where I parked is also a trail head for the Kingsnake trail. As I brought my kayak to the water there was a Boy Scout group having lunch. They had planned on hiking part of the 11 mile trail but it was underwater. They were really wishing I had about 10 extra kayaks.
Paddling here was quite easy and it was never too hard to follow the creek. The natural tranquility nearly put me to sleep until I heard a loud splash from what I first thought was a gator. After seeing it come out of the water a few more times it was no gator, it was the biggest otter I’d ever seen. I swear it’s head was bigger than mine but knowing it was just a river otter put me back at peace. I ended up seeing a bit more wildlife which in Congaree is usually described as creepy, crawly or nocturnal. I don’t think I witnessed one of the 4 poisonous snakes but I did see a few of their relatives.
It was a short trip but it really got me interested in seeing other swamps and odd parks like the Okefenokee and the Everglades. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest going out of the way to visit Congaree but it’s amazing and worth a day/weekend trip. If you’re looking for an intro to swamp(flood) life then this is the perfect destination. Places like this which by the way is also recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area are vital to our planet! It makes me happy knowing this park is one of the big 59 and even a quick visit will show you why.