Situated in the middle of South Carolina, Congaree National Park preserves the largest remaining old-growth hardwood floodplain forest left in the United States. Prior to European settlement some 52 million acres of these bottomland forests blanketed the southeast. While most were extensively logged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these 26,000 acres survived unscathed thanks to the dedication of a number of conservation-minded individuals. Perhaps the most important was Harry Hampton, and the visitor center that bears his name provides an impressive gateway to this lush wilderness.
Initially protected as a national monument in 1976, Congaree was redesignated as a national park in 2003. It’s also been officially recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve, a National Natural Landmark, and a Globally Important Bird Area. Two-thirds of the park is designated wilderness and is virtually inaccessible even by foot or canoe.
As one of our nation’s youngest national parks it’s also one of our lesser-known. While lacking the grandiose scenery of many other parks, it’s nevertheless beautiful and fascinating for a number of other reasons.
This dense forest is full of a wide variety of trees, many of which attain record-setting sizes. The largest loblolly pines (Pinus taeda, Pinaceae) in the world are found here, reaching nearly 170 feet in height.
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum, Cupressaceae) are common here as well, with some over 27 feet in circumference.
These huge trees are easily recognizable by the wide buttress roots and knee roots that help hold them securely in the soft, wet ground.
Massive cherrybark oaks, American elms, water tupelos, and nearly 80 other species round out the wide variety of trees found here. This extensive forest harbors a vast array of wildlife as well, including alligators, bobcats, armadillos, and many other mammals, birds, snakes, lizards, amphibians, and fish. Insects also abound here, and the most notable are the mosquitoes (Diptera: Culicidae):
In spite of the warning my wife and I set out with our 30% DEET repellent last week to see this wonder of nature. In addition to the ubiquitous mosquitoes we also came across a darner dragonfly (Odonata: Aeshnidae) that rode around on my jeans for a while…
Along the low boardwalk bald cypress were common:
We also saw a number of sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua, Hamamelidaceae)…
…American holly (Ilex opaca, Aquifoliaceae)…
…Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides, Bromeliaceae)…
…as well as some of The Palmetto State’s namesake palmettos (Sabal sp., Arecaceae):
Although we had started down the four mile Weston Lake Trail, an afternoon thunderstorm soon had us heading back toward the high boardwalk.
By the time we reached Weston Lake the torrential rain prevented us from searching for the alligators that live here. We did, however, take shelter under the thick trees until the rain let up a bit.
With our tails between our legs we quickly made our way back towards our car. The sights along the high boardwalk were cool but the continuous rain kept us from stopping much.
On the way out we came across this cool fungus:
As luck would have it the rain stopped as soon as we got back to our car. Our sopping wet clothes and distant rumbles of additional thunderstorms prevented us from venturing back out, but we got a nice introduction to the wonder of Congaree. One could easily spend several days hiking, canoeing, and camping in the backcountry of this amazing national park and still not see it all. Perhaps in the future I might like to try.