Congaree National Park
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There’s literally nothing like it on the planet. Set on a pristine tract of land close to Columbia’s sprawl, but seemingly a galaxy away, Congaree National Park (100 National Park Rd., 803/776-4396, www.nps.gov/cosw, daily dawn–dusk, free) contains the most ancient stands of old-growth cypress left in the world. It is, quite simply, one of my favorite places. And like any truly great experience, it’s free.
Adjacent to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center (daily 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m.), which has a great gift shop in addition to good educational exhibits, you’ll embark on a system of elevated boardwalks and trails (20 miles all told) that take you into and throughout a good portion of Congaree National Park’s 22,000 acres. A well-done self-guided tour brochure explains the fascinating aspects of this unique environment, almost unknown to the civilized world today.
You’ll see cypresses towering over 130 feet into the air (Congaree National Park is said to have the tallest forest canopy on Earth, including the arboreal forests of Canada and the Himalayas). At ground level you’ll see hundreds of cypress “knees,” parts of their root system that jut aboveground. You’ll see unbelievably massive loblolly pines—a larger, immeasurably grander species than the sad slash pine tree farms that took over much of the South’s available acreage with the arrival of the big paper plants in the 1930s.
You’ll have the rare experience of seeing what an old-growth forest actually looks like, and why it’s so peaceful: Because the canopy shuts off so much light, there is almost no understory. You can walk among the great trees as if you were in a scene from Lord of the Rings. You’ll view gorgeous Weston Lake, actually an oxbow lake that was once part of the Congaree River itself, isolated as the river changed course over time. You’ll see—and much more often, hear—a wide range of wildlife, including owls, waterfowl, and several species of woodpecker, including the rare red-cockaded woodpecker.
You can kayak the Cedar Creek, or take one of the free guided canoe tours every Saturday and Sunday, with canoe provided. And the serious hiker will enjoy the expansive series of trails that go even deeper into the wilderness than the standard boardwalk loop (sorry, pedal-pushers—no bikes are allowed on the trails or boardwalks).
As you experience Congaree National Park—its name was recently changed from “Congaree National Swamp”—take in some deep breaths. Notice the crisp, clean smell—really more a lack of smell. You definitely get the sense of stepping back in time, and you might find yourself expecting to see a pterodactyl circling overhead.
As awesome as Congaree National Park is, I don’t recommend a visit in the depth of the Carolina summer. Fall is my favorite time to visit—the air is crisp and the foliage is stunning. While the park generally closes at 5 p.m., occasionally it stays open later for various special Ranger programs; call or consult the website for more info.
If you’re really into it, you can even do primitive camping here, for free. Get a permit from the Visitor Center first.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition