Congaree National Park
[Congaree National Park, June 2, 2018]
As the week of Memorial Day drew to a close and my conference wound down, it was time to head to Augusta, GA for the post-conference adventures I had planned.
Augusta is the second-largest metropolitan area in Georgia, but it is overshadowed by Savannah, GA in popularity. You only hear about Augusta once a year in April when it hosts the Masters golf tournament. Therefore, I was not surprised when, on my morning run along the golf course of the hotel I was staying at, a signpost with some famous golf courses in the US also listed Augusta.
I flew from Orlando to Atlanta on Friday, June 1, and drove the 2.5 hours to Augusta, where I had lived for 6 years. A lot of my friends still live there and I looked forward to visiting with them. But first, on Saturday morning, I headed out for the 90-minute drive from Augusta to Congaree National Park in South Carolina.
Mind you, in the six years I lived in Augusta, I’d never heard of Congaree. That might be because it’s one of the most recent parks to be established – Congaree earned its national park designation in 2003, the year I moved to Augusta.
This designation was a culmination of a century of preservation efforts. Trees were cut in the area at the beginning of the 20th century. The large cypress trees abundant in the forest were killed by cutting all the way around the tree through the bark and living tissue. The dead trees were then left standing to dry. Loggers would wait for the Congaree river to flood the area; they would then cut the trees and try to float them down the river. Even dried, the cypress trees were too heavy to float, so loggers eventually gave up and abandoned the area. Renewed interest in logging in the 1960s and 1970s re-ignited attempts to preserve the forest. Congaree was designated a national monument in 1976, preserving 15,000 acres of forest along the Congaree river.
What makes Congaree so special is the fact that it an old growth forest – a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance. Such forests have a diverse tree structure – canopies and canopy gaps as well as trees of varying heights. This diverse tree structure makes these kinds of forests a perfect home for many different species. Below is a video of a really tall cypress tree, as well as a picture of a canopy gap that was highlighted on the boardwalk hike I took in the park.
The other term that you should know is “bottomland.” Congaree is a bottomland hardwood forest, meaning that it is subject to frequent flooding from the Congaree river nearby. This flooding builds up the soils needed for the bald cypress trees in the area to grow. The videos below show a flooded area of the Congaree forest. The water is so still that you can hardly tell the forest is flooded! Also listen for all the different sounds you can hear in the videos!
The best ways to see the park are by walking the boardwalks and by canoeing. I opted for the boardwalk because it was much easier logistically and also because in early June it’s already very hot in the South and the mosquitoes are out in full force. You definitely need sunscreen and bug repellent on a visit here no matter the time of year. If you’d like to canoe, check out the park service page for Congaree. There is pertinent info on conditions out on the channels as well as info on a limited number of ranger-guided canoe trips. They only take place in April/May and September-November. Reservations are required and open up a month in advance, so plan accordingly.
Now, take a walk with me on the boardwalk with the hyperlapse video below.
And here are some photos. It is very much a different world out on the boardwalk. The handy map I got at the visitor center helped me learn more about what I was seeing around me. I got here around 9:30 and I was alone on the trail, so I had to get creative with places to put my camera to take a picture of myself.
The boardwalk makes a loop from the visitor center. The portion you see above is the high boardwalk, which covers one half of the loop. The other half has a low boardwalk, which, unfortunately, had flooded. It had been raining in the area for almost 2 weeks before my trip.
At the end of the high boardwalk, I could see a channel of the Congaree. Again, how still is this water?!?!?!?
If you’d like to see more videos, including one of me chasing a squirrel, go check out the highlights section of my Instagram profile. Speaking of Instagram, on the way back, I saw a group of three girls wearing white dresses (!!!!) clearly posing for social media photos. At least they had sensible shoes.
One thing I wish I could have seen was the annual synchronous fireflies (Photuris frontalis) mating season, which runs from mid-May to early June. The park has extended evening hours during this time. Visitors see a magic display in the dark as hundreds of fireflies flash in sync in search for a mate. On the day of my visit, the extended hours had just ended, plus I wasn’t planning to stay until night-time. If I do come back to the area, I’d love to visit Congaree in May for this reason alone. Below is a photo taken by Ryan Atkins at one of the few other places in the US you can see synchronous fireflies – the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
I spent about an hour and a half in the park. I would have spent more time if I could have completed the boardwalk loop properly. There are various other trails in the park, including one that takes you all the way to the Congaree river, about 10 miles away. Isn’t it amazing that the river can flood areas so far away?
What did you think of Congaree? I thought it was a nice park to visit, but it can’t compare to the grand dames of the West, right?