Congaree National Park

January 30, 2008
Filed under Destinations

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Congaree National ParkMosquito-infested thoughts and wet, sticky images most likely fill the minds of travelers when they hear the word “swamp.” These soggy locales are, after all, similar to bogs, mires, sumps and sloughs, and few RVers are inspired to load up their rigs to visit destinations laden with quicksand (at least according to the Tarzan movies). So it’s understandable that Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina didn’t draw tourists to its natural charms the way, for example, a seashore might. And technically, since standing water does not dominate the park for the majority of the year, Congaree is not truly a swamp. It is a forested flood plain that floods repeatedly throughout the year, which makes the name change and official designation in 2003 as Congaree National Park both more accurate and more alluring.

Currently consisting of 24,180 acres in central South Carolina — southeast of Columbia — Congaree derives its name from the Native American people who lived in the area long ago. Smallpox decimated the Congaree people in the 18th century, then loggers led the charge into the region, bringing on repeated boom-bust cycles. Much later, Hurricane Hugo took its toll on the hardwood forests. Yet despite its travails, and through the efforts of dedicated conservationists, the terrain has been preserved and declared both an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.

Water hickory and loblolly pines soar skyward, and Spanish moss drapes the branches of the plentiful bald cypress, whose knobby “knees,” according to legend, are really night-dwelling wood elves. On more solid ground, bobcats and wild boars roam the backcountry, and birders can train their binoculars on woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hole-borers both. In fact, friends of the feathered will rejoice along the 11.7-mile, out-and-back Kingsnake Trail, which begins at the Cedar Creek parking area and explores the remote eastern section of the park.

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Birders and non-birders alike should take the time to absorb nature along the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail, which leads to Weston Lake and other trailheads. Along the path, upland pines and hardwoods soon give way to old-growth loblolly pines. In all, 20 miles of hiking trails, all color-coded for easy navigation, wend through the forest. Three Saturday walks allow visitors who prefer guided tours to learn about their surroundings from rangers.

And yet as appealing as the walking routes are, canoes and kayaks deliver the best views of Congaree National Park. Since motorboats are prohibited, paddlers negotiate the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in engine-free silence. Travelers in their own boats — or those who rent from an outfitter in Columbia — will likely paddle past river otters and deer. Every Saturday and Sunday, intrepid boaters can explore these still, secluded waters with park staff, who provide canoes for the excursions.

Two no-frills campgrounds in the northwest section of the park accommodate smaller RVs, and travelers willing to forsake their beds can throw down sleeping bags in the backcountry wilderness area, once they’ve secured a free permit. Either way, visitors needn’t worry about
the Swamp Thing.

Congaree National Park, (803) 776-4396, www.nps.gov/cong

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