Situated along the Congaree and Wateree rivers, approximately 3 miles southeast of Hopkins off SR 48 (Bluff Rd.), following signs, Congaree National Park encompasses nearly 26,000 acres and is the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland forest in North America. The park, a sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna, is characterized by giant hardwoods and towering pines and comprises one of the highest canopies in the world and some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States.
Over the centuries, the prehistoric forest has survived several significant challenges. From their arrival around 1700 and continuing through 1860, the European settlers attempted to make the land suitable for planting and grazing. Despite the settlers' best efforts, agricultural activity was prevented due to intermittent flooding, but the latter allowed for soil renewal and enabled the forest's trees to thrive. Bald cypress, in particular, became a target for logging, and by 1905 much of the area had been acquired for logging purposes. Within 10 years, poor accessibility by land and the forest's perpetual dampness had suspended operations, leaving the forest predominantly untouched.
In 1969 private landowners considered resuming logging operations. The reaction was an effective campaign launched by a group of South Carolinian environmentalists and concerned individuals who banded together to protect the floodplain. In 1976 Congress established Congaree Swamp National Monument.
The force of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 resulted in the park losing several national champion trees but the hurricane also proved to be a catalyst for new forest growth. Fallen trees have served as shelter for many species of organisms and standing dead trees provided new homes for a variety of plant and animal species. The Congaree Swamp National Monument was designated a national park in November 2003.
Recreational opportunities include picnicking, hiking, fishing, primitive camping, canoeing, kayaking, bird-watching, ranger-guided interpretive walks and canoe tours, nature study, and environmental education programs. Free 3-hour ranger-guided canoe tours take place on some weekends throughout the year and are ideal for beginners. More information about the park's activities is available at the visitor center.
Visitors may experience the park by way of six walking trails. The elevated 2.4-mile boardwalk loop moves from primeval swamp to massive pines and hardwood forests. The 2.1-mile Bluff Trail, near the visitor center, traverses a young loblolly pine forest. The 6.6-mile Oakridge Trail and the 4.4-mile Weston Trail pass through old-growth forests. At a length of 10 miles, the River Trail leads to the Congaree River. The 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail to remote areas is likely to yield sightings of deer, opossums, raccoons and varied bird species, including barred owls. A marked wilderness canoe trail is on Cedar Creek, home to river otters.
Park open daily 24 hours. Visitor center daily 9-5; closed federal holidays. For further information phone (803) 776-4396.