A far cry from the soaring mountains, steaming geysers and vast canyons that many people envision when they think of America’s national parks, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is full of surprises. Established as a national park in 2003, this relatively new entry to the NPS portfolio is unlike most of its more renowned colleagues, and so under-the-radar that most don’t even realize it exists. But what it lacks in elevation gain and crowds, it more than makes up for with majesty all its own, making Congaree among the most underrated national park in the country. Here is everything you should know about this South Carolina park, and why you need to put it on your radar.
The History and Geology of Congaree
The park takes its name from the Congaree Indians who lived here for centuries before Hernando DeSoto mapped it in the 1500s. Their namesake river provided sustenance in the form of fish and game, until a smallpox epidemic wiped them out in the 1700s. Native Americans weren’t the only ones decimated by settlers, however. South Carolina was once home to more than 1 million acres of old-growth floodplain forest, thriving on the ebb and flow of its nutrient-rich waterways. With increased populations and explorations, new generations of South Carolinians attempted to make use of the land in new ways—this involved logging these forests and attempting to establish livestock farms. But nature fought back.
In spite of numerous trees being chopped down, whittling this once-thriving floodplain ecosystem from 1 million acres to 12,000, the terrain was largely unsuitable for farming. And the gigantic cypress trees cut down along the rivers were too heavy to float to sawmills—instead, they sank. Eventually, attempts to completely log this region were stopped, thanks in part to environmental advocates like Harry Hampton and locals urging Congress to protect the land. It did so in 1976, designating it as Congaree Swamp National Monument, before upgrading it to national park status in 2003. It’s also been categorized as an International Biosphere Reserve (1983) and a Globally Important Bird Area (2001), further spotlighting the vitality of this wholly unique South Carolina landscape.
Today, Congaree National Park protects 26,000 acres, which includes the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland forest, lush waterways and the largest trees in the eastern United States, comprising one of the tallest deciduous canopies in the world.
In spite of its initial designation as Congaree Swamp National Monument, this isn’t actually a swamp at all. Congaree is actually a sweeping floodplain, subject to periodic surges from the Congaree River, which disperses natural nutrients throughout the forest to mighty trees and vegetation that thrive in this environment. Among them: behemoth trees like loblolly pines, cypress, tupelo and cherrybark oak.
Flooding is most common in the winter months, but can happen at any time of year, and typically occurs 10-12 times annually. During these periods, the park is virtually transformed—and largely inaccessible. As the river floods, sometimes several feet higher than its usual levels, pathways and boardwalks are completely submerged, and kayak and canoe routes turn into a veritable maze of endless trees. Suffice to say, it’s dangerous and confusing to explore Congaree when the land is flooded.
When the flood waters are down, though, it’s a whole different story. Cedar Creek and Congaree River are both popular treks for kayaks and canoes, and the park even offers free guided canoe trips in the spring (when mosquitos and floods are both usually at bay). Other local outfitters provide guided trips year round, weather permitting, and it’s a great way to get an intimate look at the thick forests as you paddle along the docile creek system. Along the way, wildlife you’re likely to see include deer, turkeys, turtles, snakes and river otters. Feral pigs and bobcats are present but less common, and even if you don’t see them, you’re sure to hear birds like owls and woodpeckers.
For better or worse, hiking at Congaree consists entirely of flat trails with practically zero elevation gain. This isn’t the place to hike if you’re looking for a challenge, or to practice for a thru-hike, but it’s great if you want to hike for several miles on end and drink in the dynamic scenery, with nothing but chirping birds as noise.
Start with the most iconic fixture of the park, the Boardwalk Loop. It’s a 2.4-mile elevated wooden walkway that weaves through trees and along Cedar Creek, with enlightening history points along the way explaining more about the geology and history of the forest. Along the boardwalk, several trails branch off and provide a more all-natural environment on solid (and sometimes muddy) ground. The King Snake Trail, Weston Lake Loop Trail and Oakridge Trail are all popular forays, providing plenty of photo ops next to gigantic, centuries-old trees. One of the longest hikes in the park is the River Trail, which takes tireless hikers all the way to the edge of the park at the Congaree River.
In case you’re still thirsty for South Carolina history, Congaree is conveniently close to the state capital. Only about 20 miles away, the state’s second largest city is rich with history all its own, plus distinct architecture and plenty of quality eateries and bars. Start with a trip to the South Carolina State Museum or a guided tour of the gorgeous South Carolina State House, then meander down Main Street through the pulsing heart of the city. Bourbon is an incredible cocktail bar located just a few doors down from the State House, with intricate craft cocktails and Cajun-inspired small plates to savor. For seafood, Pearlz Oyster Bar is a local favorite, while Tin Roof keeps things casual with a beachy vibe and hearty American comfort food. For oenophiles, head further down Gervais Street toward the Congaree River to Gervais & Vine, where wine and tapas abound.
History can be found, heard and tasted in many forms in this unique region. Journey through these hallowed floodplain forests to experience it for yourself, and feel the majesty of this enduring ecosystem.
All photos by Matt Kirouac