Did you know there is a national park in the middle of South Carolina? Well, I didn’t—not until about three years ago. While perusing a book about all the national parks, I discovered Congaree National Park. I said to Grammi, “Hey, there’s a national park in South Carolina. We’ll have to visit it at our next opportunity.” That opportunity came when we headed north from Skidaway Island State Park. Congaree National Park will be our 33rd national park in our pursuit to see them all.
Congaree National Park is one of the least visited national parks. It serves to protect the largest old growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America. It is home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The giant hardwoods and towering pines create one of the highest canopies in the world. Many people think Congaree is a swamp, although technically it is a floodplain where water rises and recedes several times a year. Its complex biodiversity provides an unique experience for visitors.
There are two campgrounds in Congaree National Park for tent camping only. There are no RV campsites inside the park. If you have an RV, the park’s website recommends you camp at one of the state parks in the region. We stayed at Santee State Park.
Santee State Park is located on Lake Marion—the largest lake in South Carolina. Known for its excellent fishing, anglers congregate to try their hand at catching bass, crappie, and catfish. The majority of people in the campground were there for the fishing. I can imagine that the evening conversations around the campfires included many embellished fish tales.
There are two campgrounds at Santee State Park—Lakeshore Campground and Cypress View Campground. All sites come with water, electric, picnic table, and fire ring. We stayed on site 31 in the Cypress View Campground.
While at Santee State Park, we were joined by our close friends Brent and Karen. After seeing all the fun Grammi and I are having traveling in our camper, they decided to buy a travel trailer too. Their delivery date was pushed back more than once, but after waiting for four months, they finally picked it up just two days ago from Lazy Days in Tampa.
The original plan was for them to join us from the start, but because of the delays in getting their new travel trailer, they had to drive ten hours to catch up. They arrived at sunset and had to set up in the dark—not a good first time experience. With Grammi and my help, the mission was not impossible.
The next morning was one of those slow, lazy mornings. Our friends slept in. They needed the time to recuperate from their long drive. Once everyone was up and moving, I cooked breakfast outside on the Blackstone griddle. The aroma of bacon drifted through the air. Pancakes, hash browns and eggs accompanied the bacon for a hearty breakfast. By the time we got the breakfast dishes cleaned up, it was almost lunch time. Jeez!
We didn’t leave the campground all day. Brent and Karen took time to get acquainted with their new travel trailer. Of course, a shake-down trip closer to home would of been more ideal, but that didn’t work out for them. There were some issues. The most disheartening was the slide ripped the vinyl flooring when it went out. After waiting four month for delivery, they will have to take it back to the dealer for who knows how long when they return home.
Later in the day we went on a hike. We went down to the boat ramp, walked out on the fishing pier, and browsed the camp store. We saw some cabins on pilings over the water. How cool it must be to rent one of those cabins and pull your boat to the front door? As evening fell, we enjoyed a warm campfire.
It was a forty-five minute drive to Congaree National Park and we were up and headed out much earlier than the day before. When we arrived at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, I noticed the small parking lot was about half-full or half-empty—depending on your outlook. There was no overcrowding at this national park. A ranger stationed outside provided assistance and answered questions. We learned that due to recent rains, the bottomland was flooded. Many of the hiking trails were closed.
The ranger recommended we take the Boardwalk Loop Trail that begins just behind the visitor center. “It is the easiest and most beautiful trail in the park”, he said. But, he also said the flood had washed out a section of the boardwalk and we would have to turn around at that point. Brent and Karen do not often do hikes and we thought this trail sounded perfect as a first time hiking experience in a national park.
An elevated wooden walkway traversed above the flooded forest floor. There was water everywhere. The flood waters encircle huge bald cypress. I can understand how this could be viewed as a swamp. The sounds of birds filled the air. A woodpecker could be heard hammering away at a tree. Two owls were having a conversation. Hoot hoot came from a distance and a closer reply followed.
I asked a lady, who was standing alone looking through a small pair of binoculars, what she was looking at. It turns out the lady was an avid birdwatcher. She had spotted a rare bird, I don’t remember what she called it, but she said she has only seen it here in the Congaree Forest. I got a quick glimpse of the sparrow size bird as it flew by. “There, did you see it”, she said.
We posed for a picture on the overlook at Weston Lake. It seemed like the thing to do at this picturesque setting. A little further from the overlook was where the boardwalk had washed out. I suppose we could have rolled up our pant legs and continue on, but we followed the rangers instruction and turned around at that point.
It was a leisurely hike and a good introduction to the park. There were stops along the way and benches to sit if needed. Don’t be like us and forget to grab a self-guided brochure that describes the scene at numbered locations around the loop. Fortunately, a kind lady read from the brochure aloud when she saw we didn’t have one.
After the hike, we found a picnic spot for lunch as we talked about what to do next. There are plenty of other hikes ranging from less than a mile to eleven miles. Other than the primitive camping, birdwatching, and picnicking, one could take a canoe trip down Cedar Creek. In fact, that is the main attraction—a twenty mile marked canoe trail meandering through the cypress. We were not up for that—not that day. Though we did not spend much time there, the consensus was we had seen enough.
Only 3½ hours away from the Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited national park, Congaree National Park is among the least visited national parks in the United States. It is ranked fifth as the least visited national park in the lower forty-eight states. I suppose there is a reason why it is on the list. However, it is not because it is remote and hard to get to. I found it easy to get to. It is not because it does not possess a unique beauty only found in an undisturbed flooded virgin forest. It is not because it is a new national park. It was dedicated in 2003. I think, other than the fact there is no RV camping, cabins or lodge to stay at, it is because there is no main attraction like a waterfall, canyon, or mountain range. There is not a massive cave nor a spectacular rock formation. There are no herds of bison or elk. There is not an amazing architecture feature like a bridge or an arch. Though it is a pretty place, there is not that iconic feature that draws people in. It is simply a flooded forest. Albeit the largest old growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America.
Until next time…Happy days and safe travels.