Ask most camping families to name national parks in the Southeast, you'll likely hear about Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Everglades in Florida.
Most people have never heard of Congaree National Park in South Carolina. And that's not too surprising when you consider that little more than 122,000 folks visited the park last year.
Congaree, less than 20 miles from Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, was turned into a national park from a national monument in 2003. In making the transformation, it became the newest national park east of the Mississippi.
The park is small, a little more than 24,000 acres, and has less than 20 miles of hiking trails. But visitors don't go to Congaree to hike; even the park literature calls it "walking." They come to see the huge bald cypress and loblolly pines considered champion trees, and the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest on the continent - floodplain, not just swamp. (A floodplain is a low lying area near a river, covered by water periodically throughout the year. A swamp is permanently covered with water.) Birding is outstanding, especially in the spring and fall when birds use the area as a migration flyway.
In April, I took 24 Carolina Mountain Club hikers from Asheville, North Carolina, for a weekend visit to the park. Mid-April is the perfect time to enjoy Congaree, warm enough so you only need a T-shirt but before the infamous mosquito season. The mosquito meter hung above the breezeway at Harry Hampton Visitor Center showed only a "mild" chance of bugs.
Almost all the offerings in Congaree are incredibly competitive, especially if you're bringing a group. The competition is partly due because everything is free - camping, canoeing, ranger programs. But you need to plan ahead, ask a lot of advance questions of the rangers and volunteers staffing the Visitor Center and, most important, be flexible once you get there. Here's what I learned.
Only "primitive" camping is available - and it's really primitive. You need to bring all your own water. The After Hours campground has seven sites and each can hold up to eight campers, not eight tents. But unrelated groups won't be put on the same site, so one individual can occupy a whole site. The tent sites at the After Hours campground, only a few hundred feet away from the parking lot, are the more desirable sites. Two portable toilets service potentially 56 campers.
Since you can't reserve a campsite, you need to get there really early on a Friday to get a place to put up your tent for the weekend. Rangers say that some group leaders arrive at the park on a Wednesday and stay until the weekend to get sites for their whole group. If you can't get into the After Hours campground, you'll probably be able to get a spot at the Bluff Campground, though that entails a three-quarter-mile hike from your car. No toilets there.
Three of us in the group started out at 7 a.m. Friday for the three-hour drive from Asheville. We were able to score three sites for the whole group in the After Hours campground. I felt victorious and relieved.
The tent sites at the After Hours campground are flat, spacious and free of roots and rocks; each has a picnic table. Most campers will gravitate to one of the four shady sites, but the ones in full sun have more room for children to run around and organize informal ball games.
On most Friday evenings, rangers offer an Owl Prowl, a guided walk around the park's 2.5-mile boardwalk. To get a reservation, I had to call the ranger station no earlier than two weeks in advance at 8:30 a.m. I put the Congaree number on my speed dial and started dialing at 8:29. All 24 of us got in. Yippee!
We were instructed to bring a flashlight and wrap the lens in red cellophane. "Not pink, red!" the ranger on the phone emphasized. I found red cellophane at Michael's craft store and collected 24 rubber bands to hold the cellophane.
The planning was worth it. Ranger Fran, a 29-year veteran of Congaree, was a wealth of scientific information, lore, and just good fun. He answered serious adult questions and engaged young children; each time a youngster answered a question, Fran would "high-five" him or her. With more than 40 people on the tour, we didn't see owls or any wildlife, but it didn't matter; we learned a lot about Congaree's floodplain environment. Fran pointed out the huge bald cypress, which is called bald because the tree is a conifer that loses its leaves in the winter. The characteristic "knees," part of the root system, support the tree.
Canoeing is where the competitive spirit, or the lottery, really kicks in. The park boasts free guided canoe trips on weekends. They provide canoes, life jackets, and instructions for a maximum of 18 people. In addition, they allow three private canoes or kayaks to tag along on these tours.
That sounds terrific until you learn that you can only reserve a place two weeks in advance for a maximum of six people. These canoe spots are so competitive that they're taken ten minutes after reservations open, and that includes the three tag-along boats. So I asked my whole group to call in on the Saturday two weeks before.
"Now please put the Congaree number on your speed dial and call on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. 803-776-4396 and then choose "0." Don't leave a message!"
At 9 a.m., we had all given up and the emails started flying. One hiker said, "I called continually starting at 8:29 Saturday and when I finally got through, spaces were all taken. The person answering the phone said if people come in person, they get preference. I don't know if that happened. I did sign up to be put on the waiting list. There are eight above me"
Another wrote, "I have tried 11 times but I couldn't get to talk to a ranger."
One person got six places the first day and we all tried again on Sunday. I managed to score three spots. Others rented canoes so almost all of us got a chance to paddle.
I was excited to finally get into a canoe and see what I had worked so hard for. Ranger Kate greeted us, in uniform, along with three volunteers in jeans and T-shirts. She checked us in; a few visitors on the waiting list got to go. It's amazing that with all the difficulty of getting a spot, someone would not show up on time. Kate made a big point of saying, "We couldn't do this without our volunteers." Ranger Fran had said the same thing on Friday evening.
We drove to a locked put-in spot, passing the public put-in. After a short safety lecture and getting a PFD vest and paddle, we dragged the aluminum canoes down to Cedar Creek. The ranger and volunteers were in kayaks, Ranger Kate in front, one volunteer in back and the other two intermingled with visitors.
Safety question. What do we do if a snake falls in our canoe?
Answer: Don't tip over. Most of the snakes in trees are not poisonous. Just paddle to the shore and then tip the canoe over and let the snake drop out.
Cedar Creek is not a white-water experience; the water is brown and so still that we paddled down to a tree obstructing the creek and then paddled back up. We paddled at our own speed, taking care not to pass the ranger's boat. This arrangement meant that we were spread out so it wasn't possible for the ranger to talk to the group. But she and the knowledgeable volunteers would answer questions if you sidled up to their canoe. Still, most visitors were content to drift quietly, look at trees and spot snakes on the shore or in the water. The whole trip took about three hours.
Traveler note: Of course, if you have your own canoe you can paddle Cedar Creek and the Congaree River any time you want, although there's no in-park vehicle access to the river.
The only activity that didn't require reservations or grabbing a spot. Whew! For mountain folks, the flat trails were almost a guilty pleasure, like finding out that chocolate was good for you. The first afternoon, we headed for Oakridge Trail, hiking 10 miles, without racing or feeling tired.
The only way to reach most backcountry trails is to walk on the boardwalk and repeat other sections of trail. In the trail guide given out by the park, the mileage is given from the Visitor Center for all trails, inflating the number of trail miles. Unlike most national parks, dogs are allowed on backcountry trails in Congaree, a decision made by a past superintendent. The Sims Trail, taken by dog walkers, bypasses the boardwalk and leads to backcountry dirt trails.
The River Trail leads to the Congaree River, which forms one border of the park. The wildlife was incredible. Little raised fairy castles with a hole in the center on the side of the trail were built by crayfish burrowing in the soft mud. The rough green snake looked like a lime green contour in the dirt. Barred owls in the trees were easy to photograph with the most amateur camera because the birds seemed frozen on a branch. Pileated woodpeckers, which are heard but not usually seen in the mountains, were easy to spot overhead. I even identified a promontory warbler. The habitat is supposed to be right for the legendary ivory-billed woodpeckers but no one was looking for the Lord God Bird; there were too many actual birds to identify.
Three feral baby hogs ran right in front of me. They didn't spend any time rooting around or posing for pictures but that was the highlight of my weekend. I have hiked in the Smokies for years without ever seeing a hog.
In his Congaree National Park checklist article, Bob Janiskee says that Congaree is primarily a day-tripper’s park. Because of all the logistics, local residents do have an advantage in grabbing the amenities. A ranger suggested that there might be some changes since Congaree has been discovered by a larger public.
Even with all these quirks, Congaree is worth a visit. The hiking is so easy and the huge trees are amazing.