story by Zach Hughes
There came a time in which men began to discover that the constant progress of civilization and industry would soon consume the last remaining pieces of natural untouched wilderness. Without the protection of those that saw these lands as something worth saving, many of the natural wonders we get to enjoy today could have very well been destroyed.
South Carolina is no stranger to this dilemma, having been home to a local save-the-trees movement. Thanks to their efforts, an area of ancient hardwood trees next to the Congaree River was put under national protection. It could have very easily been logged like millions of other acres of land in the US.
Congaree National Park is one of the last remaining and the largest sections of old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the United States. Even though by most it is considered a swamp, it is more or less known as a floodplain of the Congaree River. The sprawling 26,276 acres is home to many National Record Height trees. At one point the Congaree National Park was considered the “Redwoods of the East”.
As soon as you walk past the Visitors Center, you will find yourself on a boardwalk that descends into the canopy. You immediately encounter a variety of magnificent trees. When you take in their sheer magnitude, you will feel small in the grand scheme of time. It is hard to overlook the fact that you are in the presence of an ancient forest. Take this time to leisurely walk along the boardwalk and immerse yourself in the serene landscape.
If you stay straight at the first junction, the trail after that will transform into a wetland boardwalk with no railings. At this point, you are up close to the enormous Cypress trees and wetland floor. This is probably my favorite point within the park because of how close it takes you to the true nature of Congaree.
Due to the biodiversity of Congaree, each season creates drastic changes to the feel and appearance of the entire ecosystem. In my opinion, the changes are the most evident along this wetland boardwalk. The ecosystem can transform into a flooded wetland or a soggy green scape filled with plants. This diversity is all the more reason to want to visit during different times of the year. Your experience will be filled with surprises each time.
If you decide to venture past the boardwalk and onto the river trail, make sure to wear a pair of boots you aren’t afraid to get muddy. I will mention, it is very important to stay on the designated trail. The area past the boardwalk is considered true backcountry and should be explored with caution. Fortunately, the trail has very frequent and hard to miss trail markers. The further you trek into the backcountry, the landscape will begin to transform into different types of foliage and many unique trees. You will encounter a bridge that passes over a small creek, but you are not quite at your destination. The biggest reason for wanting to take the river trail is that it will take you to the riverbanks of the Congaree.
As you near the river, you will notice that the atmosphere around you transforms from stagnant and unmoving to a crisp refreshing breeze. You know you are getting close at this point, even though you cannot see it. As you press on further through the trees you will be able to see the broad and fast-moving Congaree River. The vastness of the river in its untouched state will leave you speechless, and the refreshing breeze replenishes you with air you didn’t know you needed. The natural riverbank is like no other you have seen, being that it has in no way been modified to appease people. It is just the way that nature created it to be. No grassy areas to picnic on or park benches to rest. The edge of the river slopes into a drop off that has been carved away over the years. Make sure to spend some time along its edges before you make your way back to the boardwalk.
Now, this is the furthest I have made it into the park, but there are so many areas to explore, and many are inaccessible by ordinary means. One of the best ways to discover Congaree is by kayak or canoe.
If you are lucky enough to explore Congaree by way of paddling, you will get an even more up close and personal experience with the wetlands. Water blanketed by trees and leaves that curve through the untouched wilderness; you get a real glimpse into what it may have been like to be an ancient Native American tribe paddling through the wilderness.
Considered one of the most biodiverse areas known in the country, it is constantly transforming and changing with its surroundings. It is very much alive as it breathes in life from the surrounding area. Unlike many other National Parks, Congaree is still interwoven with the surrounding biosphere. Making It one of the most unique and ever-changing ecosystems. It is with great appreciation that the heart of South Carolina is home to such a thriving a diverse wilderness, and I’m very thankful for those that saw it worth saving.
Zach Hughes resides in Florence with his wife Alexis and their son. Zach has built his career around the car industry, having owned his own shop, and now working at the local automotive auction Manheim Darlington. In his spare time, Zach enjoys discovering South Carolina and dabbling in journalism.”