I didn’t know about Congaree National Park for a couple of reasons. I live on the West Coast and it’s near the East Coast. It’s not the newest National Park, but it wasn’t created until 2003, the year Ruth & I moved away from the Midwest. Ruth and I were in Columbia, SC, when I saw it on a map. It seemed fairly far from town, but then I realized that it was only 18 miles from our hotel. We had to go. It turned out to be a memorable, 5 Compass experience.
Congaree’s glory is its nose-pleasing pine scent and eye-filling trees. After intense logging by pioneers, some of this ancient flood plain forest survived because, when logging operations were about to resume in the late 1960s environment-minded people resisted. Congress finally declared the area a National Monument in 1976 with the word swamp in its name That it was a swamp saved many old-growth trees because they were difficult to harvest and often surrounded by water. As a result, the largest tract of unharvested bottomland hardwood forest in the United States survived.
Congaree’s Visitor Center is one of the finest I’ve been in. It’s unexpectedly large with a helpful and knowledgable staff, excellent displays, and a fine introductory film. Ruth and I could have spent hours there, her staring at the massive tree that delights teachers with information about what inhabits a fallen, dead tree and me admiring a Belted Kingfisher and learning about the rich variety of trees-loblolly pine, bald cypress, sweetgum, etc.-that exist in this National Park’s 27,000 acres. One display informed me that Congaree’s tall trees beat old-growth forests in Japan, the Himalayas, and Europe and are similar to those in the southern regions of South America.
However, a ranger named Jonathan showed me a brochure for a 2.4 mile, self-guided boardwalk tour that ended back at the visitor center and we were off on an adventure. He told me to pay special attention to #11 of 20 stops to see one of the tallest (over 150 feet) loblolly pines in South Carolina. Once the state champion, experts now suspect that taller ones exist in Congaree’s vast expanse. On the walk Ruth & I delighted in dwarf palmettos, bald cypress knees (one theory is that these projections seen below are part of the tree’s root system and support it in swampy areas) that were like nothing we had seen before, oxbow lakes, etc. Those we met and talked to on this boardwalk-German tourists, a group of teenage girls who knew about feral pigs, field trip groups, etc.-were as excited to be there as we were. At the end of this hike, we wished we had time for other trails. Congaree has 25 miles of them and is also quite popular with canoeists.
We were very lucky to have a beautiful autumn day for our walk. Congaree experiences floods about 10 times each year, and boardwalks are sometimes under water. Some evidence of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo can still be seen on the walk. After we left, we learned that 3 species of fireflies light up Congaree in late May and early June giving us a definite reason to return to this magical place.