Easy Park Hikes: The Boardwalk Loop Trail at Congaree National Park
Located in central South Carolina just a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Columbia, Congaree National Park preserves North America’s largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest. Within the boundaries of the 27,000-acre park is a virtually untouched 12,000-acre tract of old-growth forest that looks pretty much the way it did when Native Americans hunted there. Because of the periodic flooding and deep fertility of the alluvial soils, the floodplain is mantled with bald cypress, tupelo, laurel oak, sweet gum, water hickory, loblolly pine, and other trees inclined to grow to unusually large size. Boasting one of the world's tallest temperate forest canopies (averaging over 100 feet high), and blessed with extraordinary ecological diversity (including at least 22 different plant communities), Congaree has nearly two dozen state or national champion trees and lots of others nearly as large.
For visitor information, click to our Congaree National Park Traveler's Checklist.
The 25 miles of maintained trails in the park make it easy for visitors to sample the delights of a park that some have called "Redwoods East." Dirt trails varying up to 5 miles in length afford excellent opportunities to get up close and personal with the Congaree giants and other park attractions. However, the park's most popular trail is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop.
For a Congaree National Park Trail Guide/Map, click to this site.
It's not difficult to understand why the vast majority of the visitors who walk or hike in Congaree National Park choose this trail For one thing, it is strikingly easy to get to. When you exit the park Visitor Center on the bluff, you walk directly onto the loop via a 0.2-mile connector boardwalk. The loop is non-strenuous, wheelchair accessible, and has numbered interpretive stops for self-guided tours keyed to a brochure available at the Visitor Center. There are even benches along the way for resting and quietly communicating with nature. In sum, this is a trail built for leisurely strolling -- including the kind you do with a baby stroller. Most people take about 90 minutes to complete the loop.
The layout of the Boardwalk Loop trail is conceptually tidy. It begins on the bluff, takes you through the floodplain forest to a pretty little oxbow lake, and then brings you back to where you started. En route, it offers access to several dirt trails and the easy "shortcut" called Sims Trail.
The Boardwalk Loop has two distinct sections. One is the 0.7-mile Elevated Boardwalk, which is perched as much as 6 feet above the forest floor. This section (which offers an abundance of kids-eye views underneath the railings) winds through an unusual mixture of bottomland hardwoods and upland pines that was heavily altered by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. The brochure invites you to "listen for woodpeckers hammering away in the tall trees and snags above." The Elevated Boardwalk terminates at Weston Lake, a pretty little arc-shaped lake that is actually a long-ago abandoned channel of the Congaree River.
At Weston Lake, steps and a ramp lead to the other major section of the loop, the Low Boardwalk. As the name implies, the Low Boardwalk rests on the forest floor and is submerged during floods. Here the loop transects a floodplain forest community markedly different from the one you view from the Elevated Boardwalk. It is a swampy flat dominated by conspicuously-buttressed bald cypress and water tupelo. Shadowed by the closed canopy, and riddled with cone-shaped cypress knees, this part of the forest has been variously described as primeval, ethereal, or even spooky.
While traversing the Low Boardwalk near Weston Lake, you’ll cross a rough gravel road. Water conditions permitting, a stroll along this former service road, now called Sims Trail, offers a fine supplement to the boardwalk experience. Sims Trail is easy to negotiate and very kid-friendly. Puddles along the old roadway often have tadpoles in them, and the water attracts butterflies, dragonflies, and other interesting creatures. You can use Sims Trail as a shorcut back to the bluff, or if you prefer, a means to access Cedar Creek and Wise Lake, two of the park's most interesting water bodies.
Before you set out on the Boardwalk Loop, be sure to obtain a free self-guiding brochure at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Wooden numbers on the boardwalk rails or walk boards coincide with sections of the brochure that point out 21 features of special interest and explain some of the history and ecology of the park. For example, stop #4 draws your attention to the high water marks that flooding leaves on the trees. You'll see a rusting remnant of a bootlegger's still at stop #15, and at stop #21 you'll be invited to inspect treetops higher than a 13-story building.
Postscript: Watch out for poison ivy, which is abundant along both sections of the Boardwalk Loop. Few visitors run afoul of it, since it's typically easy to recognize the trademark "leaflets three" and hairy vines growing up the tree trunks. You'll see a great example of unusually thick poison ivy vines at stop #9 on the loop. Look, but don't touch!