A Gem of South Carolina’s Backcountry
Words by Mary Kate McGowan
From Yellowstone National Park’s geysers to Zion’s slot canyons to Rocky Mountain’s perilous peaks, America’s national parks and monuments are all majestic, and each reflects the natural beauty of its local environs. While some parks are more well-known, bucket list destinations, there is a quiet, hidden treasure lingering in the middle of South Carolina. The wonders of Congaree National Park are a bit more subtle but no less remarkable than those of its national park brethren.
Thirty minutes from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree’s ecosystem is the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest found in the Southeast. The 26,276-acre park boasts 2.4 miles of accessible boardwalk and 25 miles of hiking trails that traverse the natural wilderness highlighting its countless creatures—mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects—and a diverse array of plants. Weaving tributaries and streams from the Congaree and Wateree rivers cut through the landscape, giving visitors another up-close and personal way to experience the park.
Established in 2003, Congaree National Park is a little-known gem, compared to most of the country’s national parks.
Last year, the park clocked 215,181 recreation visitors, landing it in the 12th spot on CNN’s list of least-visited U.S. national parks.
Doug Jefferson, an adventure guide for JK Adventure Guides—a Columbia-based guided kayak and canoe kayaking river company—said the park is so little known that even some people in Columbia have yet to discover it. He said people are often surprised to discover there is a national park in South Carolina.
Drifting down Congaree’s waterways to birds chirping and insects singing with only a handful of people is an all-encompassing experience busier national parks cannot provide. Kayaking in Congaree's backcountry where there are limited hiking trails is a prime way to explore the wilderness. “It’s more of a relaxed, laid-back way to do things when you're kind of floating along,” said Jefferson.
Those peaceful float trips among South Carolina’s natural beauty are just one way to explore the park. The biodiverse ecosystem is more than a swamp, said Park Ranger Jon Manchester. “[People] think of the park as a swamp because the name used to be Congaree Swamp National Monument [before Congress changed the park's name and designation in 2003.] They have this picture in their head of the park being this water-covered landscape,” he said.
While the park is a floodplain, Manchester said the park is a forest ready for hikers to explore most of the year.
“It's a beautiful, natural landscape that has had 10,000 years of human history, from ancient Native Americans all the way up to the visitors who are coming to the park,” he said.
Some of Congaree’s lesser-known treasures are also the hardest things to reach deep in the park or on its outskirts. The Bates Ferry Trail is one of these gems. The trail, located on the eastern side of the park, demonstrates how the park is constantly changing and highlights the area’s history. On the trail, hikers can learn about the historical route that connected Camden and Charleston, as well as about the ferry system that people once used to cross the Congaree River. “The trail highlights how much the Congaree wilderness is in flux,” said Manchester.
“[Visitors are] seeing the story of a landscape that's constantly changing. You can come year after year, and it will never look the same, even if you go to the same spot sometimes,” Manchester said. “It’s a landscape that is defined by changes—some subtle, some major, some that take a long time. It's a landscape constantly in motion.”
Congaree’s evolution keeps the park fresh for first-time visitors and those who have been to the park countless times, such as Jefferson’s business partner Justin Kelley. “You don't see a lot of the same thing over again in the same place. You're in for a different experience no matter what day you go out on,” he said.
The park’s unpredictability and remote location call for all visitors to be prepared. Guides recommend that those visiting Congaree carry essentials with them and check the park’s weather and trail conditions before starting their journey. Manchester suggests bringing powerful bug repellent to ward off unwanted insects, a flashlight—not your phone—food, and other wilderness essentials.
“Just being prepared is the biggest thing that people should know,” Manchester said. “We don't have large, dangerous animals, like bears, that you would at Yellowstone or Glacier [National Parks], but you can still just easily get into trouble if you're not ready at a park that's 25 minutes from the city.”