Reservations for the free guided canoe trips on Cedar Creek in South Carolina's Congaree National Park can now be booked up to several months in advance. Visitors with flexible plans now stand a much better chance of locking in seats for the popular weekend trips.
Cedar Creek is a stream that traverses Congaree National Park on the flood plain from the bluff to the river. It's possible to canoe or kayak Cedar Creek all the way across the flood plain to the river, and thence an additional 13 miles downriver to the Highway 601 landing. However, most paddlers using the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail take the half-day trip that begins at Bannister’s Bridge on Old Bluff Road and ends at Cedar Creek Landing (accessed via South Cedar Creek Road). Anybody who has taken the trip through the giant cypress forest on the winding, slow-flowing creek will affirm that it's an exceptional experience.
Paddlers who want to do the Cedar Creek half-day trip from the Bannister's Bridge landing have two options. One is the BYOC (Bring Your Own Canoe) option. Visitors who don't have their own equipment can rent canoes or kayaks at several outfitters in nearby Columbia. The second option is to get a reservation for one of the free guided canoe trips that the park offers -- weather and water levels permitting -- every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year.
The park, which owns a small fleet of canoes to use for this purpose, has been offering the guided trips on Cedar Creek for many years. The problem is, the demand for reservations greatly exceeds the supply. Over the years, many people have been frustrated because they couldn't get reservations.
Part of this problem could be attributed to the constraints of the reservation system itself. The system formerly in use required would-be canoeists to call for first-come, first served reservations two weeks in advance of a scheduled trip. No alternative dates were offered. When the quota was filled, which usually happened very quickly after the phone lines opened (typically less than an hour, sometimes within a few minutes), callers were left with no option but to wait another week and try again. Many people were able to score reservations only after calling week after week after week until they eventually lucked out.
Responding to "feedback from our visiting public" (translation: numerous vociferous complaints), the park has inaugurated a new reservation system with more liberal provisions. Beginning July 1, people seeking available seats for the guided canoe trips are still required to call two weeks in advance, but can now ask for a different weekend if their first choice is filled. This "call two weeks ahead" policy with the alternative weekend provision will continue during a transitional period that will end September 30.
The new system operates on a quarterly basis, with the first quarterly cycle beginning October 1st. The park will take individual reservations for the fourth quarter (October 1 - December 31) beginning on September 15 and continuing until all of the seats for the quarter are filled. The same procedure will be used for filling the seats in each subsequent quarter.
As in the past, an individual caller may make a reservation for a maximum of two canoes. Since each canoe seats three persons, this imposes a six-person limit on a reservation made by an individual. Children must be at least five years of age to participate. A caller may make only one reservation per quarter.
There are special rules for organized group tours. Group size must be between 10 and 18 people, and all people in the group must be members of an organized group, club, or common affiliation. Organized group reservations for the fourth quarter opened July 1 and will close August 15.
To inquire about canoe trip reservations, call the park at (803) 776-4396. Canoe trip reservations must be made via telephone only. The park will not accept any reservation requests made via voicemail, email, or in person.
Tours will be canceled in the event of lightning, if air temperature is below 45 degrees at the time of the tour, if the water level on Cedar Creek is above ten feet, or if winds exceed 30 miles per hour.
Postscript: Guided tour participants and BYOC paddlers should not only keep an eye on the weather, but also call the park's Visitor Center and inquire about paddling conditions before they go to the park. The recreational quality of paddling excursions on Cedar Creek is heavily influenced by the level of the water and the amount and type of debris in the creek. Portions of the canoe trail are difficult or impractical to use during floods (which make navigation difficult), after severe storms (which drop trees and branches into or across the creek), or when the water is unusually low (exposing too many downed trees or other obstacles to go around or haul over). Since canoe trail maintenance is a time-consuming and difficult task, some bothersome obstacles may remain uncleared for months at a time.