Reading some information on Congaree National Park in South Carolina did not exactly inspire our kids with high hopes about our family’s adventure that was planned for the following day. Much to their amusement, some articles about this park painted a fairly dismal picture. Not only the claims that it would allegedly take only 90 minutes to tour the entire main trail, or that there is no on-site lodging, nor any concessions in the park, but also statements such as:
- It is under capacity. (hmmmm…. why don’t people flock here?)
- You can bring your fishing gear, but you may not want to…. waters offer fishing that is mediocre at best.
- You can bring your bike, but you may not want to do that either. There are no designated bike trails.
It reminded me of Amber Share’s fabulous and funny book, Subpar Parks, which beautifully illustrates the (mind-boggling) 1-star reviews people have actually left online after visiting our stunning national parks. This was a birthday gift and I just loved it. It gave my kids a great laugh as well. In fact, we now keep it in our trailer library as it’s fun to look through on our travels.
Here is her illustration for Congaree National Park:
So, having already visited four other phenomenal national parks with rave reviews on this same trip, we were maybe just a bit apprehensive, but curious, about this foray into essentially a hot and humid southern swamp. And shortly after arriving at the visitor center, our eyes were drawn to their Mosquito Meter which made me grateful, I suppose, that we were at least not there at the Ruthless or War Zone level….
But Congaree surprised us. Granted, it is no Great Smoky Mountains or Shenandoah, but it was a worthy (half-)day trip if you’re in the area. It was a bit out of our way – about an hour from where we were camping at Poinsett State Park (a park so small that when I asked if they had any postcards, they told me they didn’t because they couldn’t order those in small enough quantities) – but it’s only 20 miles, or half an hour, from the state capital. It’s free of charge, it has a nice visitor center, helpful rangers, and it boasts an AMAZING boardwalk loop – 2.4 miles of boardwalk that led us over just a portion of the floodplain. I love a good boardwalk and so I was excited to see this one.
The boardwalk is wheelchair accessible but there are no bathrooms along it so plan ahead because you could easily spend a couple of hours here. We had picked up the brochure for the self-guided walk and stopped at each clear marker while our youngest would eagerly read to us to explain what it was we were seeing. We actually learned some interesting stuff about the scars left here by Hurricane Hugo, the loblolly pines which are South Carolina’s tallest trees (and “loblolly” is just fun to say), the signs of water level changes from previous floods, the role of the 8-foot-thick (!) layer of Dorovan muck that coats the floodplain floor, and the fact that the difficult terrain was not only a place for moonshiners and bootleggers to hide their illicit stills back in the day, but also for those who escaped slavery to form their own independent communities.
Speaking of which, on a language note, I learned a new term: maroons. Maroons were people who freed themselves from enslavement and hid, often near the plantations from which they had escaped, with others in typically difficult terrain such as this area, or the jungles and canyons of Jamaica and South American nations. Maroons created false trails, booby traps, underwater paths, and used quagmires and quicksand and other natural features to conceal their villages, and they used ambush and guerrilla warfare tactics that are still used by many militaries around the world to this day. There’s an article titled Maroons and Maroonage: Escaping Enslavement that is very much worth reading!
But back to the boardwalk at Congaree National Park! Here are some boardwalk views:
From our boardwalk vantage point, we encountered more wildlife than I had anticipated for this summer’s day. Much to my boys’ delight, we saw at least 8 different snakes of several different species, a variety of skinks (including one very brave little guy who chose to rest ON TOP OF a water snake for several minutes…. and survived), heard many songbirds and woodpeckers, adored several turtles, saw one little gator in the river and even had the thrill of seeing a huge barred owl on a silent but powerful hunt through the trees!
Sadly, even crushingly, my photos of virtually everything at Congaree did not turn out well at all. Like, at all. I’ll blame it primarily on my own incompetence but certainly also on the fact that we were in a bit of a rush to get through the walk before the rains really started. As it happened, we managed to make it through just between showers with only some drizzle so I was trying to sneak my camera out only for quick snaps. I would have been happy to return for a more leisurely tour of the boardwalk the following day, which of course was sunny, but alas, that was our youngest’s tenth birthday and her most fervent wish after weeks of camping was no hiking on her special day – not even a leisurely boardwalk stroll. It was simply out of the question. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Congaree for a second chance at capturing better photos, but in the meantime I’ll share here some of the snapshots that I do have.
On the last stretch of boardwalk, we heard a widow-maker crash down in the woods just behind us. This is not the first time we’ve experienced a huge dead branch or tree fall in the woods while we’re on a hike but it never fails to get my adrenaline pumping! I about jump out of my skin trying to figure out exactly where it’s coming down. It’s quite a tremendous sound and really helps put your little self in perspective, at least for me. We are but small and fragile creatures in this great expanse of nature, easily taken down by even a branch!
The rangers have a number of programs here including one called the Owl Prowl – a nighttime boardwalk stroll which I would definitely have liked to do, had we had more time here. We also did see people canoeing and kayaking so that would be another way to see areas of the park. While these boats cannot be rented at the park, there are several outfitters nearby that can help you plan your kayak or canoe adventure. There are numerous hiking trails of easy, moderate and difficult levels ranging from under a mile to just more than 11 miles. Congaree National Park has no RV or trailer sites and only tents and hammocks are allowed in the two campgrounds, one of which has no vehicle access and is about a mile away from where you can park.
Have you visited Congaree National Park? I’d love to hear your thoughts!