At Congaree National Park, visitors not only look out across this flood plain swamp but up as well.
Up into the forest canopy that rises to 160 feet high. The Congaree canopy, formed by towering old-growth trees, is taller than that of any forest in the East.
The giant trees include a 167-foot-high loblolly pine. It’s the tallest tree in this wet-and-dry park, the biggest tree of its kind anywhere and taller than the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh.
A sky-seeking cherrybark oak and a swamp tupelo fall short of the pine by just 5 feet. The former is the biggest such oak in South Carolina and the latter is a national champion, the biggest tupelo of its species.
Congaree preserves these super-sized trees and thousands more in this bottomland hardwood forest near the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers south of Columbia. The trees were spared from possible logging when a public campaign to conserve the privately owned forest succeeded. Congress in 1976 created Congaree Swamp National Monument with 15,000 acres. In 2003, legislators upgraded the preserve to a national park, which now covers 26,715 acres.
Visitors may hike on 2.4 miles of elevated boardwalks and along 37.8 roundtrip miles of trails, fish Cedar Creek and oxbow lakes and tent camp in a campground or in the backcountry. Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trails.
In mid-February, two Charlotte-area backpackers spent three days hiking and camping in the swamp in their first visit to Congaree.
“It was just about trying to find some place south rather than going to the mountains,” said Sasha Timkovich of Huntersville, hiking with Matthew Cross of Mooresville. “It’s a chance to see a different ecosystem. We’ve really enjoyed some of the old-growth trees.”
They spent the first night by the River Trail, which loops beside the Congaree River, and the second night off the Kingsnake Trail in the interior. Wildlife includes wild hogs, river otters and barred owls. Timkovich and Cross reported seeing owls and hawks.
Canoeists and kayakers can paddle Cedar Creek, which flows through the park. But fallen trees intermittently block the channel, requiring haul-outs. The visitor center’s bulletin board listed 12 to 23 portages on the 10-mile-long creek. The park will offer guided canoe trips on weekends beginning in April.
(The visitor center also contains a wooden “Mosquito Meter.” On it, an arrow points to one of six levels of mosquito activity, ranging from “all clear” to “war zone.” It’s now at “all clear.”)
Congaree soon will go from brown to green. Superintendent Tracy Stakely said last week that trees are greening up and wildflowers are popping out. Synchronous fireflies will put on shows in May and early June.
The park was relatively dry in mid-February. Stakely said it floods eight to 10 times a year. A two-foot rise in the Congaree River can send floodwaters a mile or two into the park. Flooding brings in nutrients that fertilize the trees.
Congaree’s ancient forest boasts 25 champion trees. Six are national champions – deciduous holly, laurel oak, water hickory, sweet gum – as well as the loblolly pine and bald cypress. The rest are state champions. The formula for scoring takes in circumference, height and average crown spread.
The stoutest is a mammoth bald cypress whose girth surpasses 27 feet. Some bald cypresses may be 700-1,000 years old, according to the National Park Service.
The park has the tallest overall tree canopy in the Eastern U.S., Stakely said. Congaree’s height exceeds that of old-growth forests in Japan, southern South America and Eastern Europe, according to the park’s website.
Congaree champs can be dethroned abruptly. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 flattened the national champion Shumard oak. Park officials estimated its age at 140 to 165 years, which means the venerable tree began growing sometime between the presidency of John Quincy Adams and the Civil War.
Jack Horan is co-author of “Paddling South Carolina/A Guide to River Trails of the Palmetto State.”
Want to know more?
Congaree National Park is 15 miles south of Columbia, S.C. See www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm.