"They're simply stunning," Congaree National Park Ranger Kate Hartley said. "We have a loblolly pine out here that's as tall as a 17-story building."
Rarely associated with hardwood floodplains, loblolly pines have been a part of the forest for 300 years, soaring to record-breaking heights of 167 feet. The bald cypress trees are equally impressive with circumferences of 26-plus feet and extensive root systems that rise above the water as "knees", reaching as high as 7.5 feet.
But being big isn't their only claim to fame. These elms, hickories, cypress, pines, maples and oaks are part of the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States.
Back in the late 1800s, there were more than 52 million acres of floodplain forests in the southeast. They slowly began disappearing as the trees were harvested for their lumber. In less than 50 years, most of these great bottomland forests had been decimated by the saws and axes of post-Civil War loggers.
Had it not been for the conservation ethic of timber tycoon Francis Beidler, who put his vast holdings of South Carolina forestland in "reserve" status, the Midlands' magnificent Congaree River floodplain would have suffered a similar fate.
In the 1950s, local newspaper editor Harry Hampton launched a one-man campaign to preserve the 11,000-acres of old-growth forest some called "Redwoods East." Recognizing the Congaree floodplain was one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind, a grassroots movement inspired by Hampton convinced Congress in 1976 to establish Congaree Swamp National Monument. Nearly three decades later, it became Congaree National Park.
Today, the 26,000-acre federally protected forest has the distinction of being an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the park is designated a Wilderness Area.
A relatively long and warm growing season and periodic flooding from the adjacent Congaree and Wateree Rivers contribute to the ideal growing conditions that have produced one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world. Nutrients and sediments carried into the floodplain by the river waters nourish and rejuvenate this unique ecosystem.
Walking beneath the high forest canopy, one experiences the feeling of being in a gothic cathedral. The illusion of perpetual twilight created by these arboreal giants confuses even the Barred Owl, often heard calling in the middle of the day.
The park features more than 20 miles of hiking trails in the northwestern portion of the floodplain, the most popular being the 2.4- mile Boardwalk Loop. Raised nearly six feet above the forest floor, the elevated section of walkway winds through a thicket of old-growth trees, ending at Weston Lake, once a channel of the Congaree River. The low boardwalk takes visitors through a primeval bald cypress and water tupelo forest. Before you start your walk, be sure to pick up a self-guided brochure at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Another great way to explore the wilderness is by water. A marked 20-mile canoe trail runs through Cedar Creek, a slow-moving blackwater tributary that flows though the floodplain. You can bring your own canoe or kayak or rent one from one of the local outfitters.
If you're able to plan your visit to the park weeks ahead of time, you can register for one of the free park ranger-guided canoe trips offered on weekends throughout the year. For reservations call (803) 776-4396. Voicemail reservations are not accepted.
The park also offers a full schedule of walks and talks, including the Big Tree Hike, a five-mile off-trail trek through the forest in search of record trees, and Owl Prowl, a guided night hike on the boardwalk.
If you're planning an overnight trip in the park, you'll need to stop by the visitor center to pick up a free permit. Along with backcountry camping, the park offers a primitive campground with portable johns, fire rings and picnic tables.
The visitor center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round. During daylight-savings time, hours are extended to 7 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Here you'll find exhibits, an introductory film on the floodplain and lots of information on the park and its champion trees.
Admission to Congaree National Park is free. For more information, click here or call (803) 776-4396.