Congaree National Park
Some national parks hold large animals and wide-spanning views that become crowded with visitors. Not Congaree National Park. Like the unique ecosystem it protects - an ancient alluvial floodplain so deep and dense that it provided safe shelter for slaves from nearby plantations as they made their first steps toward freedom - the park stands with regal stoicism as it awaits exploration. Whether you're meandering along the boardwalk or giving yourself a bit more of a challenge take our insider tips and don't forget some water or the bug spray!
There are three ways to take in South Carolina's only national park. The first is to stroll the BOARDWALK, a 2.4-mile loop that meanders through stands of massive bald cypress trees with their distinctive “knees,” over creeks that move so slowly they resemble a swamp (but, technically, are not) and past turtles, snakes, alligators, deer, woodpeckers, deer, wild pigs, river otters and even bobcats - some of which you will see, but many of which will be invisibly watching you. Wide, handicapped-accessible and sturdy, the boardwalk allows exploration without getting dirty, wet or lost - a bonus for the direction challenged or parents of young children.
For a bit of adventure, hop off the boardwalk and hike a section of the SIMS TRAIL, which runs from just past the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to WESTON LAKE, remaining within the boundaries of the boardwalk the entire time. Challenge yourself even more and hike into the park’s wilderness, an area of nearly 22,000 acres.
You’ll find about 25 miles of marked trails, but they’re primitive: one of the ways that Congaree National Park maintains a pristine environment for all the senses is by prohibiting power tools, which change the nature of the park with their noise and smell. For hikers, this means that when a huge tree falls across the trail, it’s often left there to be climbed over or walked around. Fast-growing plants and vines, thanks to the park’s nutrient-rich soil, also tend to spill into paths, necessitating long pants and proper hiking boots.
The second is to take to the water: a marked, 6.6-mile canoe and kayak trail follows CEDAR CREEK as it twists and turns through the park’s northwestern sector. It’s a safe, but challenging, course, bursting with both low-key natural wonders - silent owls, slithery snakes, champion trees - and a bevy of obstacles that include vines, fallen trees, live trees, more cypress knees and outstretched limbs. It’s quiet, but not, thanks to the steady hum birds, insects, frogs and creatures rustling through dry leaves.
You can explore on your own or participate in regularly-scheduled paddles led by the park’s team of rangers, who come armed with facts, stories, lore and history. It’s known, for instance, that runaway slaves set up communities within this unforgiving landscape, living “free” but remaining close to enslaved family members, who risked their lives to provide food and clothing until the family could be reunited. Later, during Prohibition, these deep woods attracted bootleggers, who found an easy place to hide their stills and, thanks to the river, transport their moonshine.
Camping is welcomed (and free) in the park, and the riverbank is a glorious natural campsite, particularly if you stumble onto a sandbar large enough for your tent. The four-or-so-mile WESTON LAKE LOOP, for instance, leads to a point on Cedar Creek that just happens to be a favorite with river otters. The ten-mile long RIVER TRAIL leads all the way to the Congaree River, a curling ribbon of placid water that forms the park’s more than 25-river-mile long southern border. Along the way, there are sandbars, ancient bluffs and all manner of wildlife. Camping is also permitted in the high-ground section of the park, where an actual campground means you can have a fire.
An easier way to catch a glimpse of the Congaree River is to hike the BATES FERRY TRAIL, a just-over one miler that opened in 2015 at the far eastern end of the park. The shady path leads to the site of BATES FERRY, which shuttled travelers across the river for decades.
However you choose to experience Congaree National Park, don’t forget to look up. The startlingly tall canopy, which changes with the seasons from summer’s green veil to the sunset shades of fall and, finally winter’s stark sculpture, is remarkable to behold.