Congaree National Park

June 25, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Congaree has to be one of the lesser known national parks in the system. It is a very small park and preserves just 11,000 acres of old growth bottomland hardwood forest - the largest tract left in the United States. Congaree is what remains of the 30 - 50 Million acres of flood plain forest that used to cover the entire south east of the United States but was logged for timber in the late 1800's early 1900's.  The trees growing in this floodplain are some of the tallest in the Eastern United States (home to several "National Champion Trees" forms one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world. The park is located just outside of Columbia, South Carolina and is home to all the things that make me cringe - spiders, snakes, mosquitoes and is very swamp-like.

During the year the water levels easily fluctuate 16 feet and much of the park can be flooded. When we went in May things were relatively dry and the water levels had lowered by two feet in just the previous 48 hours. Like we do in all parks, we decided we must hike! We arrived at the visitor center, watched a film about the park and then got a trail recommendation. We opted for the 7 mile loop that included a portion of the 2.4 mile boardwalk that leaves from the visitor center and then goes beyond to trail out near Weston Lake and the Oakridge Trail. While we were out there, it was quite obvious that the constant flooding and fluctuating water levels makes it nearly impossible to maintain trails. We often had to seek out the trail and walk through significant amounts of Poison Ivy. 

Normally a 7-mile day hike is on the shorter end for us and we considered (before leaving on the hike) to extend it out to 10 miles or so to see the Congaree River. However, as soon as we stepped off the boardwalk, we squashed that thought like the mosquitoes swarming around us. The quantity of mosquitoes that day were unbelievable and resistant to repellent. They swarmed us - even when moving. And when stopped, forget about it. After a few minutes of that, the cameras got put away and photos were limited. Any photo taken was a sacrifice and resulted in at least 2 - 3 bites. It was MISERABLE. Given how horrible the bugs were, we nearly wanted to run along the trail to finish it as fast as possible.  But, the 21 species of snakes (three of which are venomous) living in Congaree made that impossible. We had to carefully watch our step until we were back on the boardwalk a couple of hours later. Just as we were concluding the trail portion of our hike, I let my guard down and when the trail widened, I went left when Lee went right and nearly stepped on an enormous Red Bellied Water Snake. I'm sure my scream could be heard for miles. I learned that day I am not a jungle/swamp girl. Give me the mountains and bears any day.

After our hike we drove to Columbia where we checked into our hotel, showered and ate dinner at Mr. Friendly's. A southern-style restaurant that came highly recommended. And it was delicious. As with everything we ate in the Carolinas, most things were fried. But boy did I fall in love with fried-green tomatoes! And Lee had enviable buttermilk fried chicken.  After dinner we headed back to the park and the mosquitoes. In mid-May to mid-June, Conagree is one of two places in the United States that hosts synchronous fireflies during mating season. While we were there just a week early, we were able to see the phenomenon and it was AMAZING! After dark, the fireflies come out and the males all flash at the same time, with weaker responses from the females. It was very cool to witness.

The following morning we returned back to the park to make good on our coveted reservations for a free ranger-led canoe trip along Cedar Creek for a few hours. The group wasn't larger than 10 - 12 people and we were able to canoe on the creek seeing the trees and wildlife up close and personal. Lucky for us, the mosquitoes were somehow more tolerable on the water than they were on the trail  - making that morning much more relaxing. We did follow the rangers advice and steered straight down the middle of the creek and avoided hanging tree branches and the banks where snakes reside and can easily drop into one's canoe. Our tactic paid off and while we saw snakes, we did not have one in our boat. We also got to see some pretty birds and yellow-bellied slider turtles. It was very cool. Definitely the way to see Congaree. 

This visit makes 27 of 59. We might be interested in returning to see the fireflies again one day, but otherwise we can check this one off our list. No more swamps and snakes for me!


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