Congaree National Park, the Most Underrated US National Park

Water tupelos amid the floodplain's seasonal pools

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Dubbed by some as America's worst national park, Congaree National Park is one of the country's least visited congressionally designated protected areas. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to its unflattering reputation, the park is awash with otherworldly sights, a plethora of wild animals and most notably, oddly shaped trees enchantingly steeped in the floodplain's murky waters.

History and Basic Info

Spanning across 108 square kilometers or 26,692 acres, Congaree National Park is nestled along the Congaree River, less than 20 miles from Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. For centuries, this forested area was inhabited by native tribes and later, also served as a safe refuge for African slaves who managed to escape the close-by plantations.

 

By the turn of the 20th century, the lush woodland was owned by logging companies which harvested its incessant supply of cypress trees. It wasn’t until 1976 when the area was first granted a protected status, initially as a national monument. In 2003, following a long and fervent campaign by environmental activists, Congaree was officially incorporated to the National Park Service and renamed “Congaree National Park”.

 

The park is home to the largest remaining old growth-bottomland-hardwood forest across the US, where deciduous trees lie amid a massive floodplain which is seasonally inundated with water due to its low elevation. For obvious reasons, the park has been frequently confused with a swamp, nevertheless, as the forest floor is not found underwater all year round, it can not be qualified as such.

 

The abundance of water, nutrients and sunlight bestowed upon Congaree Park is best reflected in the sheer height exhibited by many of the trees here. In fact, the park boasts some of the world’s tallest deciduous canopies, with some trees reaching upwards of 50 meters, taller than a 15-story building. With less than 150,000 annual visitors, Congaree is among the country’s least visited national park, making it an off-beaten-path attraction in spite of its federal status.


Flora and Fauna

As a bottomland hardwood forest, a significant portion of Congaree National Park consists of floodplains, where the ground is being periodically submerged under meters of water. Therefore, each and every type of plant that calls this area home is not only extremely well-adopted to the wet environment, but also learned to thrive under those conditions.

 

Over 75 species of trees flourish across this ancient woodland, many of which are designed to tolerate the excess water. Perhaps the most conspicuous of all is the majestic bald cypress tree. This type of tree features knee-like roots around the lower part of the trunk, whereby according to some theories it manages to stand firm amid severe floods. Thanks to its sturdy properties, the bald cypress has been long coveted as a material for canoes, cabinetry, roof shingles and even bridges.

 

Another dominant species of tree is the water tupelo, which is plentiful throughout the wettest parts of the forest. Those trees are easily distinguishable by their swollen trunks which are more than often carpeted with moss. Recognizable by its gray smooth bark, the American beech is a similarly widespread tree across the floodplains. Back when the area was inhabited by indigenous tribes, they regularly used the beech nuts as a food source, grinding them into flour for pastries and bread.

 

As you walk across the forest, you’ll notice dozens of dead tree trunks lying on the forest floor, usually in a state of decomposition. While no longer alive themselves, those dead trees are in fact full of life, serving as an edible stuff for a host of species, including fungi, moss, insects and quite ironically, other trees as well. This cycle of life and death is crucial for the health of the forest, which otherwise would be left out of the much-needed nutrients for its rich biome.

 

Any hike along the park’s multiple trails is constantly accompanied by a live orchestra of critters, yet when it comes to actually spotting the source of sound, things get much trickier, given the forest’s dense vegetation. If you do get lucky though, you can see here feral pigs, coyotes, bobcats, armadillos, otters and turkeys, the latter tends to be particularly noisy.

 

Among Congaree’s 200 species of birds and 75 species of amphibians and reptiles, is a considerable number of aquatic animals who seek refuge in the ponds, creeks and lakes across the park. The most notable of which include the common snapping turtles, yellow-bellied sliders and alligators.


Trails and Points of Interest

While the park spans across vast tracts of land, only a fraction of which is accessible to the public. There are several trails that the traverse the forest, each with its own distinct character. Situated right next to the parking lot is the park’s main entrance, where Harry Hampton Visitor Center greets travelers on their way in. The visitor center offers a couple of free maps and guides with insights about the park’s ecosystem as well as a handful of essential advices provided by smiley rangers.

 

The first trail you are most likely to take is the 2.4-mile boardwalk. Stretching a couple of feet above the forest floor, this elevated wooden walkway provides a glimpse of the park’s floodplains, where a medley of bald cypresses, loblolly pines and beeches jutting out of the swampy waters. The canopies’ sheer height and density form a cooler and darker environment down below, a refreshing respite from the otherwise scorching South-Carolinian sun.

 

Due to its relative flatness and multiple benches, the 3.7-kilometer-long loop trail is accessible for practically anyone and takes about 40 minutes to complete. The boardwalk has several points where it branches off to other trails as well as a spectacular lookout at Weston Lake. This deep-forest lake is a vestige of the everchanging course of the Congaree River, which 2,000 years ago has flowed where this body of water now stands. As you gaze at the lake, you’ll easily spot numerous freshwater turtles who charmingly wade through the water.

 

In contrary to the boardwalk, where visitors are kept away from the surrounding nature, the Weston Lake Loop and the Sims Trail offer a wilder experience, best-fitted for intrepid hikers. The two trails, which intersect with the boardwalk, crisscross Congaree’s dense forest as well as multiple pockets of murky water. Alternatively, one can go kayaking at Cedar Creek, where a close  and fascinating encounter with the park’s aquatic fauna and flora is guaranteed.

 

Take note that Congaree National Park is infested with mosquitos and other flying insects during most of the year, thereby applying mosquito repellent prior to your visit is the only way you can avoid this utter nuisance, at least partially. As the park lacks any kind of artificial illumination, it is imperative to plan your time accordingly and avoid the forest’s complete darkness at all cost.