Monday, November 25, 2013

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park in South Carolina has the largest remaining old growth bottomland forest remaining in the country.  The trees get so big because the area floods several times a year, bringing in nutrients, and the result is the high concentration of “champion” trees.  I visited the park for the first time this weekend on an overnight backpacking trip with my friend Susan.  We loved the impressively tall trees, gorgeous bald cypress and tupelo floodplains, and the fun off-trail opportunities.  It was remarkably different, though no less spectacular, than my other favorite spot to see big trees, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina.
Tupulo and bald cypress.
Craning our necks to take in the impressive height of the trees.
After obtaining our backcountry permit, we purchased John Cely's map of the Congaree at the visitor’s center.  This map is an exceptional hand-drawn map with exquisite detail not only of the trails and the water features, but also the large trees, forest types, muck, and old roads.  A highly knowledgeable ranger showed us where to find the famous big trees in the park- some can be seen from the boardwalk and established trails, but we were surprised when ranger encouraged us to go off trail to find some more remote ones as well.  The trip became a fun bushwhacking treasure hunt!!
Cely's map with the park ranger’s color-coded annotations was priceless for exploring Congaree.
We set out to find the Harry Hampton Cypress tree, leaving the established trails to follow our map and compass.  We felt like explorers in this pristine forest. (Is this what the country looked like back in the days of John Muir or William Bartram?)  There were enough water features and fallen giants to navigate around to make it challenging, and because old growth forest is more open, it was (relatively) easy walking (compared to more mountainous areas of the southeast).  We log-walked, waded through, and leaped over “guts” (the local term for small creeks), and squished through the muck.  The rewards were solitude and the feeling of utter exhilaration at successfully arriving at our intended destinations.  After the freedom of bushwacking, it’s always a bit sad to go back to established trails.
Harry Hampton Cypress tree with 7 foot tall “knee”
After locating a few giant trees, we set our compass bearing for the Congaree River with the intention of camping along its banks.  It took us longer than we anticipated to get through some of the deeper guts.  We also spent time watching the wild pigs rooting around- fascinating to see how strong they were as they dug up the ground, leaving a wake of destruction across the forest floor.
No wet feet for us!
 As it started getting dark, we kept on bushwacking in the fading light.  We were encouraged by subtle changes in flora that indicated we were getting close to the river-  more pawpaw, a few patches of privet, a few more tangles of vines.  I kept straining my eyes ahead to see if I could spot an opening in the canopy to signal our proximity to the river.  (And I pulled opened up my new iphone and used the Gaia GPS mapping app to check our location- something new for me for my PCT plan).  And, finally, there it was, the glimmer of setting sun sparkling off the Congaree River. 

A few rain sprinkles didn’t amount to much and it was warm enough to sit out in the dark- incredibly lucky for November.  We listened to crickets and owls, and watched the glowworms for several hours after the sun went down.  The temperatures plummeted overnight but at least it cleared up for a view of the moon.
Sunrise over the Congaree River
Fall was an ideal time to visit the park because there were no mosquitoes and and the colors were gorgeous.  There were a few asters blooming and a lone lady's tresses (sorry photo didn’t turn out- please bear with me as I learn to use the camera on my iphone).

While two days allowed us to do many of the trails, Congaree is definitely a place I'd love to explore more in the future and it'd be great to go back with a canoe or kayak.
Beech providing some lovely fall color.
Trip Details
-We hiked the 2.5 mile boardwalk, Oakridge Trail (some of the largest trees were here), and Kingsnake Trails (lots of solitude).  These established trails are highly recommended, adequately blazed and signed at all junctions.  Bushwhacking was even more fun, but be sure to be come prepared with compass, navigational skills, and gaiters. 

-If you go, call ahead because several times a year the area floods so trails can be underwater or muddy. 

-Get a free permit for backcountry camping and stop by the visitor’s center to buy John Cely’s detailed map (note it is not waterproof so bring a large ziplock to keep it dry).

**Special thanks to some of the Nature Ramblers for recommending Congaree to me and for the tip about John Cely’s Map***


  1. WOW...until now I ad never heard of this place and it's so close. Might have to check it out in January. Umm that's if it isn't flooded cause I'm a ground dweller :-)

  2. You'd love this place for sure! Bring your kayak. January... Hummm...

  3. Very nice! Reminds me of other places I've been. And yes, walking through the dry swamps are so nice/clear and different than through forested areas.

  4. Hi Misti- yes, we were really delighted how open the forest was and how it made for such easy walking. What other areas do you know of like this?

  5. ooooh the kayak and I have two…hint-hint.

  6. Can you please edit the first paragraph so it tells you what state this is in? Never mentioning the location was frustrating to me. Yes, you can look it up, but one of the rules of blogging is to keep people ON your site, not immediately send them elsewhere. Thanks -- this place looks beautiful! I think cypresses are my favorite tree: such an elegant sweep from roots to trunk.

  7. Sorry about that, Luke- I updated it. Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, those cypress trees sure are gorgeous!

  8. Hey Joan,
    I really enjoy your trip reports. Congaree is a favorite place of mine.


  9. Hey Swampfox! So nice to hear from you! Congaree is one of my new favorites too.