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A Grand Swamp: Congaree National Park

Adventures with Johnny Molloy • Apr 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM

You have got to see Congaree National Park, located near Columbia, South Carolina. The Palmetto State’s only national park is a land of superlatives.

Formerly known as Congaree Swamp National Monument, it’s also known as the “Redwood Forest of the East” for its number of huge trees. Among other things, it purportedly has the highest continuous forest canopy on earth, at 130 feet.

The Congaree came under protection in 1976 after a successful grassroots campaign to preserve this floodplain. The area had been owned by one family for a long time. Timbering operations were under way, breaking the heart of many South Carolinians. Eventually this special swath of the Palmetto State was preserved, including the critters that roam here. Don’t be surprised if you see wild boar or deer — both are common here, though the boars aren’t native.

Located within easy driving distance of Columbia. Congaree National Park has an extensive trail system, including a very long (and presumably costly) boardwalk that itself makes a 2.4-mile loop! Note: Backpacking is also allowed here; consult the national park for specific rules and regulations.

You can also paddle your way through the park. A trip down Cedar Creek — at the proper water levels — delivers a national park level experience at under-appreciated Congaree National Park. Cedar Creek is a tributary of the Congaree River. Cedar Creek enters the national park at Bannister Bridge then delves into a protected wildland of huge forests, where massive hardwoods rise above a periodically flooded forest floor, where birdsong echoes among the leaves, where sunlight filters onto the darkened waters of the surprisingly swift stream.

However, the paddle tests your steering skills from the outset, as Cedar Creek twists and turns, making 180 degree curves and splitting into channels, but not so many channels as to be confusing (unless you are on the river above recommended levels when the main stream spills into the adjacent floodplain and becomes very hard to follow).

Cedar Creek passes under two hiking trail bridges, which help gauge your position while paddling. About halfway through, the creek widens and turns becoming less abrupt, but be ready for a few blowdowns. However, the park service keeps fallen trees cut more than your average swamp stream. The paddler takeout is marked by yet another hiker bridge, and if you don’t get out here, it is 20 miles downstream to the next access, on the Congaree River.

Don’t attempt this trip outside the recommended water levels, for the stream disperses when too high and when too low you will be pulling over more logs than you want. Furthermore, in summer, the heat and mosquitoes can make paddling Cedar Creek a decidedly negative experience. Note: This paddle offers a viable bike shuttle.

To appreciate the woods most I recommend paddling here between April and June, or fall after things cool down but before the leaves have fallen. However, having the right water levels is paramount above all other considerations.

To check the water level before you paddle, check the USGS water gauge “Cedar Creek at Congaree NP near Gadsden, SC.” The minimum runnable level for Cedar Creek is 4.0. The maximum is 7.0.

Cypress and gum trees line the hairpin turns, as you head deeper into the national park, where wild banks get only wilder, recalling the clichéd term “brooding swamp.” Occasional park service signs reassure you are on the right water trail.

Back to hiking at Congaree National Park: Nature lovers will revel in the boardwalk trail. The 2.4 mile boardwalk loop leaving from Congaree National Park Visitor Center is a must do hike in the Palmetto State. Walk above the floodplain and beneath the canopy of an incredible forest, the perfect complement to your paddle.

From the visitor center breezeway take the “Low Boardwalk” eye-level with wide, buttressed, moss covered cypress and tupelo trees that thrive in this wetland. Continue south along the Low Boardwalk and reach an intersection, the Boardwalk Loop leaves left. Notice piles of debris banked against trees. This occurs when the floodplain is inundated and leaves, brush and other fodder are pushed by the current then left behind when the waters recede.

Ahead, meet the Elevated Boardwalk. Don’t bypass the overlook of Weston Lake before continuing away from Weston Lake on the high boardwalk. Head north, looking from a 10-foot or so perch into the forest. It’s a great place to photograph the landscape before returning to the park visitor center.

To reach Congaree national Monument from Exit 116 off I-26 on the south side of Columbia, take I-77 at mile 0, heading north to Exit 5, Bluff Road, SC 48. Turn right and take SC 48 east for 12 miles to Mount View Road. Follow Mount View for 0.8 miles to Old Bluff Road. Turn right and take Old Bluff Road for 0.5 miles, then turn left into the national park, following the entrance road to the visitor center. The hike starts at the visitor center breezeway. Be apprised that after 5 p.m. all cars must be parked in the “after hours” parking lot 0.6 miles from the center.

Whether you stop by the visitor center, hike, paddle or even camp, stop by Congaree National Park, a beautiful place in the Palmetto State. For more information, consult my book “Paddling South Carolina” or my other book “50 Hikes in South Carolina.”

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