By Gray Bostick / Original Photography by Judy Quick Sharon
How fortunate we are in the Pee Dee to be blessed with such a wonderful balance of Nature’s gifts: generally temperate seasons and the day-to-day incomparable beauty of South Carolina’s Sandhills and Inner Coastal Plains regions, with the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the shores of the Atlantic Seaboard just a couple hours away.
But relative few know that just as close as those two natural escapes lies another, just as enchanting and interesting in it’s own right, and just as fascinating and spell-binding; a jewel with perhaps even more to boast than the more-noted mountains or shore. A hidden gem where Native Americans hunted and trapped and lived for thousands of years, thousands of years ago; where Hernando DeSoto became the first white man to explore its dark waters four centuries plus past; and where General Francis Marion, the famous “Swamp Fox,” later repeatedly hid from and then ambushed British troops controlling the area during the Revolutionary War.
All just up the road a bit in Hopkins, South Carolina, an easy and relatively short car ride away.
At 26,276 acres, just over 41 square miles, Congaree National Park contains the largest single tract of bottom-land hardwood that remains in the the world, and the lush trees that grow in its floodplain forest are some of the tallest and oldest in the Eastern United States, if not the world, and form one of the highest deciduous canopies on the planet.
The park, which is named for the Congaree River which flows thru it, is also home to many state and national champion trees, and is, in fact, one of the largest concentrations of champion trees in the world, boasting the tallest known examples of 15 species. Champion trees within the Congaree NP include a 167-foot loblolly pine, a 157-foot sweetgum, a 154-foot cherrybark oak, a 135-foot American Elm, a 133-foot swamp chestnut oak, a 131-foot overcup oak, and a 127-foot common persimmon.
And it was almost lost. But for some concerned environmentally-minded businessmen and basically a grassroots campaign, what is now a marvel of the South would be but a memory. The modern story begins post-Civil War when reconstruction set the stage for an ever-increasing demand for lumber. And in the late 1800’s,the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, owned by Francis Beidler and Benjamin Ferguson of Chicago, took to the almost-impenetrable Congaree swamp in search of fresh timber. But only a couple decades into the venture the nearly inaccessible terrain forced the two men to call a halt to all logging activities or attempts, before completely abandoning their plans in 1914 and terminating their partnership, with Beidler’s family retaining ownership of the land.
Fast forward to the 1950’s, when Cedar Creek Hunting Club member and The State newspaper co-editor Harry R.E. Hampton joined with fellow club member Peter Manigault of the Post and Courier of Charleston to seek preservation of the Congaree floodplain. In 1961, Hampton formed the Beidler Forest Preservation Association, and as a result of their advocacy, a 1963 study conducted by the National Park Service reported positively on the possible establishment of a new national monument.
Very little change was registered – or required – on the Congaree tract during the 1960’s, until late in the decade when renewed logging by the Beidlers in 1969 prompted the formation of the Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association (CSNPA) in 1972. The CSNPA soon joined forces with other environmentally-concious groups, such as the Sierra Club and other like-minded organizations, to seek federal legislation to preserve the tract. South Carolina Senators Strom Thurmond and Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings introduced legislation in 1975 for the establishment of a National Preserve, and on October 18, 1976 legislation was finally passed formally creating the Congaree Swamp National Monument to protect the area.
Since that time, two-thirds of the national monument has been designated an official Widerness Area, and in 2001 it was formally recognized as an Important Bird Area. Bowing to increasing public demand that the demeaning-to-many term “swamp” be dropped from its name, Congress ultimately redesignated the monument as Congaree National Park on November 10, 2003.
A queen finally properly crowned.
And what a royal treasure it is. Forested wetlands, oxbow lakes, slow moving creeks and sloughs provide ample habitat for fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, insects and other aquatic life, with trails and boardwalks – some elevated – of various lengths that can lead you to and thru stands of magnificent old-growth trees, or along waterways such oxbow lakes, Cedar Creek, or the Congaree River.
Visitors to the park generally walk along the Boardwalk Loop, an elevated 2.4-mile walkway through the swampy wetlands that protects the delicate ecosystem. Other hiking trails include the Bluff Trail (0.7 mi), the Weston Lake Loop Trail (4.6 mi), the Oakridge Trail (7.5 mi), and the King Snake Trail (11.1 mi), where hikers may spot deer, raccoon, oppossum, or even the occasional bobcat. Other animals visitors might glimpse in the park included deer, feral pigs, coyotes, armadillos, or turkeys.
Another great way visitors may explore and experience Congaree National Park is by traveling along Cedar Creek via canoe or kayak. This waterway passes through an old-growth forest containing some of the tallest trees in eastern North America and opportunities to view wildlife such as river otter, turtles, wading birds, various snakes. and even the occasional alligator in their long shadows are frequent and always thrilling.
And while a peaceful float trip sounds delightfully relaxing, just keep in mind that whether you are a novice or an experience paddler, preparation BEFORE you arrive is vitally important to having a safe and enjoyable trip. Critical info such as current conditions, water levels, what to bring, and what to expect can be ascertained by contacting the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where National Park Rangers stand ready to assist them. There are also a limited number of ranger-led canoe trips.
Visitors to the park will also find the Hampton Visitor Center, which boasts a book and gift store featuring books about the history and nature of the park and surrounding area, as well as essentials such as oft-forgotten insect repellent, a helpful resource for maps and other assistance, or to inquire about ranger or volunteer-guided programs, hikes, or tours, available as staffing allows. Restroom facilities and water are also available at the Visitors Center 24 hours a day.
Fishing is allowed in Congaree National Park, but those wishing to wet a line must be properly licensed and all South Carolina Department of Natural Resources regulations are enforced, and anglers should note that some special Park Rules also apply.
And if you find you’re just having too much fun to leave, or decide to plan an extended stay, Congaree NP can accommodate that also, offering both front and back-country camping opportunities and boasting two designated camping areas: Longleaf and Bluff Campgrounds. Campers should note, however, that there are strict regulations regarding matters such as campfires, materials allowed into the campground, and length of stays, so interested parties are encouraged to call ahead to ensure that space is available and that all permits have been obtained and all guidelines have been followed.
Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round, unless circumstances dictate closure, and there is no admission fee, nor any charge for camping or any ranger-led activity or event. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open 7 days a week, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and is closed on all federal holidays. Pets are welcome on all trails and in all campgrounds with only the most basic rules of courtesy and respect for others applying.
So, what’s your excuse? Spring will soon be upon us, Congaree National Park and its world-renowned forests, cloud-scraping giants, spellbinding beauty, and peaceful tranquility, lies less than a ballgame’s time away. Make a plan, and get out of the house. Nature is calling.
Congaree National Park may be contacted at 803.773.4396, or at http://www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm