America’s National Parks are home to some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth, from the highest mountain in North America in Denali National Park to the plunging cliffs of the Grand Canyon. Hundreds of millions of visitors flock each year to see the geysers of Yellowstone, the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, and the crashing surf along the shores of Acadia. America became the first country in the world to establish a national park system in order to protect the most pristine and beautiful scenery found from coast to coast, and today we have a total of fifty-nine parks. Combined with the other units in the national park system such as national historic sites and national monuments, over eighty-four million acres are now preserved for visitors to enjoy.
While the giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada and Hawaii’s rivers of lava enjoy endless popularity and serve as icons of the national parks, many other parks offer wonders just as breathtaking but fly under the radar. Ever heard of Black Canyon of the Gunnison? How about Dry Tortugas, or even Voyageurs? These are all national parks, located in Colorado, Florida, and Minnesota respectively, that are every bit as magical as the peaks of the Grand Tetons. Congaree National Park, located just four hours away in Columbia, South Carolina, is another park which offers a multitude of wonders for those who make the trip into its forests.
Located just thirty minutes south of downtown Columbia, the woodlands of Congaree make up the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the entire United States. 27,000 acres may sound small compared to western parks, but Congaree packs an astounding amount of biodiversity and habitats within its borders. The trees here are some of the tallest in the eastern U.S., with record-breaking loblolly pines, tupelos, and sweetgums towering more than one hundred fifty feet to jut high above the forest canopy. Within the many streams and lakes that dot the park live an abundance of wildlife, from river otters and bullfrogs to alligators. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker swoops through the trees, and dwarf palmettos blanket portions of the forest floor.
Unlike many parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains, Congaree is almost devoid of roads. Even approaching the park you’d almost have no idea that it was there. No crowded highways, tourist towns, and neon lights are lined up at the entrance to welcome you. Small signs point the way through residential areas until you reach the main park entrance.
National Park Road is only about a mile long and leads to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, named for one of the individuals who spearheaded the campaign to protect Congaree. As at most national parks, here you can stock up on maps, get your national parks passport stamped, and pick up the activity guide for the Jr. Park Ranger program. Be sure to ask the rangers what the current trail conditions are, or better yet, call before you go. We enjoy chatting with the local rangers who always show the love they have for their job. Ranger Rachel Post was great and swore us both in as Jr. Rangers, something no other park has done before.
Since the majority of the park lies within the Congaree River floodplain, wet weather can lead to many of the park’s trails becoming unpassable. Even when this does occur, the park’s interpretive boardwalk trail is usually open. This 2.4-mile loop passes through a variety of the park’s unique ecosystems. Numbered stops and a free guidebook at the visitor center help explain the different areas you pass through. If you start by going to the right, the lower portion of the boardwalk will go through a forest comprised of water tupelo and bald cypress. As during our trip, this area is a swamp much of the time. Occasionally the waters rise to cover even the elevated boardwalk, so once again check with a ranger before venturing off! As it loops back towards the visitor center it passes by the tranquil waters of Weston Lake and then climbs through some dryer terrain. Here you’ll find the loblolly pines which are the stars of this ancient forest.
If the trails are passable, there are miles of them which delve deep into the wilderness areas of the park and provide access to the river itself. During wetter periods visitors’ best choice for exploring the park is by canoe or kayak. Check out the park’s website or chat with a ranger to get an idea of the areas which are accessible and which of those you would like to explore. The park serves as the terminus for the fifty-mile Congaree River Blue Trail, a blue way which begins in downtown Columbia and allows residents of the area to experience nature within the city.
Of course, the park offers many other activities which are expected at national parks if hiking isn’t your thing. Fishing is allowed almost everywhere, just be sure to bring artificial lures as live bait isn’t allowed. Rangers lead regularly-scheduled activities on almost a weekly basis which can help to spark children’s interest in the outdoors. Two campgrounds are available for only a nominal fee and are free of the crowds which descend on many of the Smokies’ camping areas. Birding is also a popular activity, as the park is renowned for its profusion of feathered inhabitants which make there home here.
Take the time to explore this biological wonderland, and we’re sure that you’ll leave just as awe-inspired as we were. It doesn’t always take towering mountains to capture the emotions which we humans naturally hold for mother earth. Sometimes the flash of a red-headed woodpecker, the whisper of the wind through Spanish moss, or the towering crowns of a loblolly pine are more than enough to remind us how precious the natural world really can be.
Photo: Visitors to the park can enjoy a 2 mile walk on the elevated boardwalk through the many different terrains the park offers.