In our quest to visit all 61 National Parks, Congaree National Park in South Carolina became our 54th National Park. “Congaree Swamp” is a large floodplain swamp on both sides of the Congaree River, in the heart of which is the 26,000+ acres of Congaree National Park. Originally established as Congaree Swamp National Monument, Congaree gained national park status in 2003 at which time the word “swamp” was dropped from the name. The number of visitors increased significantly without that unappealing appellation, but the park is rather off the beaten path and the day we were there, we had the trails very nearly to ourselves. Congaree is one of the 15 least-visited national parks, having only 145,929 visitors in 2018.
Being a floodplain and flooding about ten times a year, the park is truly a swamp much of the time. A 2.4-mile elevated boardwalk loop trail from the visitor’s center allows access during times of high water. When we visited the area had been experiencing a drought so water depth was not an issue at that time.
We took the boardwalk trail and added the Weston Lake Loop Trail to make a good 5-mile hike. The trail was easy to follow with no elevation change and surprisingly few mosquitoes. It was very warm and humid and we luckily finished our hike and were back in the car when it started to rain heavily.
Congaree includes the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. There are 93 species of trees in Congaree. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain with nutrients and sediments that support this ecosystem and the growth of national and state champion trees. Having seen the Redwoods and the Sequoias, I’m afraid we weren’t as impressed with the sizes as we could have been but the diversity and density was fascinating. As Tom said, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
The Loblolly pines and the Bald Cypress are easily identifiable. The pines tower above forming a super-canopy. One of the few needle-leaved deciduous trees, the bald cypress with its Spanish-moss covered limbs, its buttressed base and its weird knees epitomizes the image of a swamp. Cypress knees are distinctive structures forming above the roots but the function of the knees is unknown.
Congaree is home to nearly 200 bird species including 8 species of woodpeckers. I was really hoping to see a red-cockaded woodpecker and, even though we could hear the rat-tat-tat nearby, we never caught a glimpse of the bird itself. Similarly, there are 40 species of mammals in the park and 45 known species of reptiles and amphibians but we only saw a small black snake and a lizard – the green anole.
Every year, Congaree National Park hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. Only three out of 2,000 species of fireflies experience synchronous flashing. We were a little too late to take part in the Firefly Festival (organized by the park not the fireflies). The ranger told us there were still some fireflies in the park but not many and not synchronously flashing.
People have been using this floodplain for over 13,000 years as a home and a refuge. From prehistoric natives to Spanish explorers (DeSoto and the conquistadors in 1540) to Revolutionary War patriots (including Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”) to escaped slaves (establishing maroon communities) to loggers and conservationists, people have played a role here.
This old-growth forest was actually saved by an unlikely source – a lumber company. In the 1880’s Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, founded by Francis Beidler, acquired large tracts of swampland for the purpose of harvesting the virgin cypress. The lumber operation did not prove to be profitable. For some reason, the Beidler family kept much of the swampland they owned, the so-called “Beidler tract” of Congaree, and it sat idle for decades. Through the efforts of journalist Harry Hampton and local conservationists, the Congaree Swamp National Monument was created in 1976.
We only saw a small portion of Congaree National Park as much of it is wilderness but we enjoyed its old-growth forest, trees standing in ponds of water brown from tannins, variety of flora and its solitude.
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