December 2, 2021
The Congaree National Park was formerly known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument. But, repeat after me…Congaree is not a swamp, it’s a floodplain.
That’s the first thing I learned.
The gift shop at the visitor center was open, but the museum portion was not. The restrooms were, thankfully, also open.
Before you head out to explore the park, make sure you check the Mosquito Meter…
As you can see, we visited on the rare All Clear day. Woohoo!!
The second thing I learned was that Congaree NP is a remnant of what once was 35,000,000 acres of floodplain forests, stretching from southeast Texas, along the Mississippi River into Missouri, and along coastal rivers from Mississippi to Virginia. Less than 1% of our floodplain forests remain. From our wanderings around the country we’ve learned that too many of our pristine natural areas have disappeared.
The third was that the Congaree is rich in human history. Native Americans thrived here. During the Revolutionary War, Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox”, used the Congaree as a base to harass the British. Before the Civil War, escaped slaves sought sanctuary here.
The Congaree River forms the southern boundary of the park. Cedar Creek flows through the park and into the Congaree River. For most of the year, the park is (mostly) dry. When heavy rains fall, small channels, called guts (don’t ask me why they’re called that), fill and the water rises. When both the Congaree River and Cedar Creek overflow, much of the park can be flooded.
The best way to get to know this park is to hike the 2.4 mile, handicapped accessible, boardwalk trail. Don’t forget to snag the Self-Guided Boardwalk Tour pamphlet near the visitor center. Along the way you’ll encounter numbered signs that link to an entry in the pamphlet.
Bald cypress knees abound here, but not much is known about their function. Cypress trees can live up to 1,000 years. Because it was rot and water resistant, Native Americans used cypress wood for canoes. In the late 1800s, bald cypress were extensively logged and used for shingles, docks, bridges, etc., which is why few old growth bald cypress forests remain.
As we walked along the boardwalk we saw pools of grayish Dorovan muck, a mixture of leaves and mud up to eight feet thick. The health of the floodplain relies on this muck because it filters the water and traps and converts pollutants into harmless compounds. I wouldn’t recommend trying to wade through it.
Most of the park is designated wilderness area. Several trails are accessible from the boardwalk trail. Trails can also be accessed from points along Cedar Creek and the Congaree River. We hiked about a mile of the Weston Lake Trail, past Weston Lake to Cedar Creek and back again. Our feet stayed dry.
We met another couple at a Cedar Creek overlook and they took us to a massive loblolly pine. While it’s unusual to find loblollies in wetlands, they can tolerate the soggy conditions. The one we saw had to be well over 150 feet tall, so I’d say that’s true.
The trail eventually took us to the very slow moving Cedar Creek. If you’re looking for a nice, calm float, this could be the creek for you. If you’re more interested in roaring rapids, look elsewhere.
If you’re interested in paddling you can enter Cedar Creek at the Bannister Bridge Canoe Landing on Old Bluff Road at the northwest corner of the park. A 6.6 mile paddle takes you to the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing on South Cedar Creek Road.