Congaree National Park
Flowing down from North Carolina through the Piedmont of South Carolina, the Broad and Saluda Rivers merge in Columbia forming the Congaree River. For just over a mile, the Congaree flows over the same bedrock riverbed forming rapids and shoals until it abruptly passes the fall line and enters the Coastal Plain.
The river bottom changes from the bedrock of the Piedmont to the sandy and pliable river bottoms typical of the coastal plain, so any large obstacle like a downed tree can change the rivers direction. From here the Congaree begins to meander forming bends that lead to oxbow lakes. About 18 miles down river, the meandering nature of the Congaree and the level terrain create the geography of what’s now the Congaree National Park.
Oxbow lakes are formed when a “U” like curve is formed in a meandering river, the wide mouth of the curve gets cut off, and then an unconnected body of water is formed. The flow of the river moves away from the lake leaving it freestanding with no streams flowing into it. Eventually the lake silts up becoming a boggy swampy area before completely evaporating. Oxbow lakes are constantly forming as the river flow changes, but the shifts are so gradual that they take many lifetimes to create.
Is Congaree Park really a Swamp?
Called a swamp by locals, it’s really more of a bottomland forest. Swamps are permanently saturated with water, while the Congaree Forest floods on average 10 times a year. During the rainy season, Congaree Forest looks just like a swamp. Trees have adapted to living where the soil is underwater for much of the growing season, and other plants and animals typical in swamps are found in the Congaree Forest. But after the flooding, the forest is more like any other low lying wetlands.
History of the Congaree and SC Expansion
Because of its regular flooding, the Congaree floodplain has remained nearly untouched for centuries. It’s harsh environment has proven itself time and time again to be unsuitable for long term human habitation. Archaeologists have combed the swamp looking for signs of human activity and found very little. Most of what they’ve found points to transitory occupation of the swamp as opposed to anything permanent.
Indigenous Peoples and the Congaree
Long before Europeans arrived on the Carolina shore, the area around the forest was occupied by the Congaree Indians. They too only used the swamp for brief periods. The archaeological evidence points to them just entering the forest to hunt or gather resources. Although experts admit that the changing nature of the river and surrounding wetlands could mean that artifacts are hidden under a tremendous amount of silt. There could even be cultural sites under an oxbow lake. It’s most likely that they only entered the forest to gather resources.
Unlike most of the Indian Nations in South Carolina, the Congaree didn’t speak the Siouan language. That left them as an outlier among their neighboring peoples like the Catawba, Wateree, and Waxhaw who were all part of the same language family. This leaves us with no oral history, so everything we know about their relationship with the swamp comes from the archaeological record.
Like all native peoples, the Congaree, having no acquired immunity to the new infections diseases brought by European settlers and explorers. Smallpox ran rampant through their communities and by 1701, the Congaree were relegated to a single village of a dozen homes. Soon after that they disappeared. The last survivors most likely joined other groups eventually finding themselves living with the Catawba before the English began settlement in the Midlands.
Early in the 18th Century, Europeans began moving out of Charleston. This migration was encouraged by the coastal plantation owners who were fearful of Indian attacks and slave rebellions. Settlements to the North and West of Charleston were designed to provide a buffer zone. The wealthy landowners thought that if Indians attacked, they could be fought in the surrounding area leaving their own homes safe.
In 1730, they were successful in convincing Robert Johnson, the first Royal Governor of South Carolina, to set up towns along interior rivers and encourage immigration to those new towns. Small farmers, immigrants, and anyone else who wasn’t wealthy moved to these interior towns. This migration helped create the schism between the coastal elites and the Carolina Backsountry that would explode in years to come.
Within 10 years, the settlements had reached the Midlands and the Congaree Forest where settlers found rich farm land surrounding the area rivers. While much of the land surrounding the swamp was cleared, the swamp itself resisted any attempts to contain its wild nature, and it remained largely intact throughout this first wave of settlement. But that didn’t mean that the threat went away.
Congaree Swamp in 19th Century
After the American Revolution, the rich farm land in lower Richland County caught the eye of the wealthy planters in Charleston. They started purchasing land from the small farmers who had been forced away from the coast and brought the plantation system to the region. Congaree Forest then faced its first real threat.
Using large numbers of slaves, they hoped to clear the swampland to grow cash crops like cotton and tobacco. But the expense of clearing the land and maintaining barriers to keep food waters from destroying crops led most planters to abandon large scale agricultural activities along the Congaree flood plane.
Small scale agriculture, however, continued until the 20th Century. A number of earthen dykes were built starting in the 1840’s to protect crops from flooding. Some sill exist today and have been examined by archaeologists studying the swampland.
The more prevalent use of the land surrounding the Congaree was for livestock grazing. Raising livestock played an important role in the life of backcountry residents. The meat was an important part of the small farmers diet as well as a source of money when selling livestock in the fall.
The hardwood forests filled with oak, hickory, and chestnut trees provided plenty of acorns and nuts for the livestock, so the animals were allowed to roam free in the forest. To protect the cattle and other livestock from floods, farmers had large earthen mounds built that rose above the high water line. The animals could take refuge on top of the mounds during floods and the open area encouraged the growth of vegetation for grazing.
As the new century dawned, another attempt at large scale exploitation of the swamp was made. This time it came in the form of the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company owned by Francis Beildler. The company bought a large tract of land along the Congaree and Santee rivers with an eye to harvesting the old growth Cypress trees in the swamp. But logging in the floodplain proved to be much harder than anticipated. Not to mention many of the Cypress trees sank on their way down river further cutting into profits. Attempts to harvest trees in the swamp were soon abandoned and the company stooped all operations in 1914, but the Beidler family retained ownership of the land.
Harry Hampton and the Road to Protected Status
After the lumber company left, life in the swamp returned to normal, just as it has after so many other failed attempts to tame its wild terrain. Locals would visit the swamp to hunt and to fish. Some even took advantage of the isolation afforded by the swamp to distill illegal alcohol during prohibition. There’s even the remnants of a still visible today from the Boardwalk Trail at the National Park.
But one of the most frequent visitors to the forest during this time was Harry Hampton. As an avid hunter, he spent much time in the Congaree floodplain and became convinced of the need to protect it and other natural areas around the state. After taking a job with The State newspaper in 1930, he wrote a regular column entitled “Woods and Waters” where he used his soapbox to advocate the preservation of South Carolina’s natural lands.
In addition to his duties at The State, he brought together other hunters, fishers, outdoors people, and conservationists to form the South Carolina Wildlife Federation (SCWF). Through the SCWF, Hampton helped gather support for the creation of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Department which in 1994 became the basis for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
But Harry Hampton’s biggest success was the preservation of the area of the Congaree Floodplain owned by the Beidler family. As early as the 1950’s he advocated for the protection of the swamp, not just for its environmental diversity but also because it was the home of some of the tallest trees in the United States. For almost 20 years he pushed for the Congaree’s protection in his writings, speeches, and whenever else he was given a chance but with little success.
Then in 1969, there was a renewed interest in logging along the Congaree River, and things began to move quickly. More people started listening to Hampton’s pleas for the Congaree and in 1972 the Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association was formed.
Thanks to the increased pressure and with the help of Senators Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings the Congaree Swamp National Monument was established in 1976 with the purchase of the Beidler Tract. In 1988 Thurmond and Hollings again worked together to expand the protected area of the monument to 22,200 acres. Finlay in 2003 the name was changed to Congaree National Park. The visitor center at the new national park was dedicated to Harry Hampton for his decades of work in helping establish the wildlife refuge.
Visiting Congaree National Park
Today Congaree Nation Park, less than 20 miles southeast of Columbia, encompass over 26,000 acres of woodland with 15,000 of those acres designated as wilderness area.
Flora in Congaree National Park
It’s home to not only one of the largest but one of the last tracts of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. The national park contains the tallest trees in the eastern half of the country and maybe even the tallest trees in a temperate broad-leaf forest found anywhere in the world.
Fifteen trees in the Congaree Forest are the tallest known examples of their respective species. In fact, Congaree has the largest concentration of “Champion Trees” in the world. The champion designation is reserved for trees that are special either due to being prime examples of the species or due to their size or age.
Trees in the swamp include bald cypress and tupelo trees. The “knees” of the cypress can be seen throughout the floodplain of the park. Other trees include old-growth oaks and massive loblolly pines as well as a pine forest just above the floodplain.
Other plants found in the different ecosystems throughout the national park include switch cane – similar to bamboo but native to the Carolinas, dwarf palmettos, and numerous shrubs and vines.
Fauna in Congaree National Park
The swamp ecosystem also supports an impressive amount of wildlife, many of them either threatened or endangered like the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and southern fox squirrel. Other small animals that have found sanctuary in the park include a variety of turtle, snakes, lizards, the American beaver, armadillos, turkeys, and numerous types of squirrel like the common gray squirrel and the flying squirrel.
Larger wildlife like deer, bobcats, feral pigs, and coyotes. Alligators have even been spotted in Weston Lake accessible along the Boardwalk trail.
Bird watchers will appreciate the many different types of bird that call Congaree Forest home. With eight different species of woodpecker, Blue Grosbeak, Great Blue Heron, Mallards, and up to 200 other species. Raptors too have found a stable home in the park. Red-tailed Hawks, Coopers Hawks, Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Osprey along with several species of owl can be found within the park boundries.
Things to do at Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park Hiking
Congaree offers about 10 trails ranging from easy to difficult. Most people start off with the Boardwalk Trail. It’s the most accessible of all the trails and follows a 2.5 mile loop around a swampy area of the park. Well maintained with benches along the way, it starts as an elevated boardwalk but soon drops down to just inches above the forest floor, and is wheelchair and stroller friendly.
Before heading out be sure to pick up a Self Guided Boardwalk Tour brochure and a park map at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. If you don’t see a volunteer or a ranger, check on the wall in the open air pass through just opposite the restrooms.
If you’re looking for something more adventitious or want to get away from the crowds and get up close with nature, check out one of the backcountry trails. Most pass through the wilderness area of the park and are prone to flooding and obstructions, so check on trail conditions at the visitor center before starting out or online at https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/Trail-Information.htm .
Camping at Congaree National Park
Tent camping is available at two designated campgrounds as well as backcountry camping along the trails in the wilderness area. Longleaf Campground is located close to the parking area, while Bluff Campground requires a one mile hike to reach. Both are have fire pits and picnic tables at each campsite.
While there aren’t any designated backcountry camping sites, campers are allowed to set up wherever there is appropriate space, but open fires are not allowed. Campers can reach the wilderness either on foot or by kayak.
The park has as 20 mile marked canoe trail on Ceder Creek. There aren’t any canoes or kayaks to rent, so you either have to bring your own or rent from a local vendor near the park.
Recreational fishing is allowed in the park with a South Carolina fishing incense, but not within 25 feet of any man made structure. So you can only look at the fish swimming under the Lake Weston Overlook and then set out along the lake loop trail to find your own fishing spot. The park encourages catch and release sportsmanship
Final Thoughts About Congaree Park
Before visiting Congaree National Park, be sure to check current conditions. Since it’s on a floodplain, flooding is a common occurrence. And be sure to bring plenty of water, especially if you’re hiking on a hot day. Another thing you really don’t want to leave at home is bug spray. The standing water is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other biting insects. Hiking trails are well marked with reflective trail blazes, but be sure to stay on the marked trail.
Read Congaree National Park Field Report for more about our visit.
Fast Facts About Congaree National Park
|Admission:||Free, but fees for camping|
|Location:||100 National Park Rd, Hopkins, SC 29061|
Things to do: Hiking, Camping, Picnicking, Canoeing/kayaking, Bird Watching, Wildlife Viewing