Go to nps.gov/findapark and you can find a list of U.S. National Parks. They also can be found in our “sightseeing by state” list. Chances are very good you will have never heard of some of them.
Until the latter half of the 1800s, there were more than 52 million acres of floodplain forests across the Southeastern United States. Indeed, there were over one million acres in South Carolina alone. But they were cut for lumber and agriculture use or flooded in reservoirs. An area near the Congaree River escaped because it was swampy and so hard to get to. Efforts to log it were abandoned in 1914.
But as technology improved, logging the area became viable in the 1950s. Harry Hampton, a local conservationist, organized a program to protect it. The public campaign led to the establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument. It was declared a National Park in 2003.
The park, located just southeast of Columbia, has 26,000 acres of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, the largest such area left in the United States. It ranks among the most diverse forest communities in North America. There are 22 different plant communities in the park.
The Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1.
There is a boardwalk raised roughly up to 8 feet off the ground. It is 3 miles from the Congaree River, and floods over about every 4 to 5 years. The boardwalk meanders through the forest, and the Park Service offers maps and a guide to what you are seeing. Our first visit was in the fall when the water was low. This visit was in the spring. The water was high, touching the bottom of the boardwalk in places. Not surprisingly, where recent repairs have been made, they often use recycled plastic planks which resist rot.
It is a place to take your time and just look.
The first 1.1 miles consists of a low boardwalk through bald cypress and water tupelo. Cypress knees poke cones out of the water. Naturalists speculate they provide support, and possibly aerate roots.
Wind storms, old age & “other events” bring down trees all the time. 1989 Hugo hit the pines hard. 1989 Hugo hit the pines hard. Indeed, on this visit one area was closed and we had to backtrack, so we walked 2.7 miles. But there are other trails through the park that will take one much further.
The park has many “champion” trees, the largest of their species, including bald cypress, loblolly pines and hickory. The bald cypress is over 27 feet in circumference at its base. There is a 169-foot high loblolly pine and a 162-foot cherrybark oak. In 1988, over two-thirds of the park became protected wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Therefore, it is not completely explored, and there may be many large trees yet to be discovered. Trees over 130 feet tall, numbering in the thousands, have yet to be measured.
Walk through the forest looking at the changes in types of plants. The differences are caused by small changes in elevation. But as you walk, also imagine those who have gone before. Hernando de Soto marched through the area in 1540. Congaree Indians hunted and fished until the tribe lost most of its members to smallpox in 1698. Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” and his troops are believed to have hid there from the British during the Revolution. Loggers lusted after it, but couldn’t get the trees out. And on our previous visit, we saw the remains of a bootlegger’s still in the distance.