The best way to explore a forest, one might think, would be on foot. But at Congaree National Park, hundreds of visitors each year take to canoes and kayaks to experience the beauty and serenity of this ancient floodplain wilderness.
A limited number of park ranger-guided canoe trips are offered throughout the year on Cedar Creek, a slow-moving blackwater tributary that flows through the forest. To participate in this popular program, you'll need to book your spot on recreation.gov. Reservations cannot be made directly with the park. Check the calendar on the park website for a schedule of upcoming tours. At least one person in each boat should have paddling experience and participating children must be ages 6 or older.
The three-hour program begins at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, where you'll meet your guide. From there, you'll be led by car to the launch site at South Cedar Creek Landing, the largest channel flowing through the 27,000-acre floodplain.
After carrying boats and gear to the water's edge, the park ranger will help you launch from the put-in located about 6 miles downstream from the Congaree River. Paddling at a leisurely pace, you'll have the opportunity to marvel at the huge bald cypress trees and towering loblolly pines that make these majestic woods such a treasure.
As you wind your way up the channel, your guide will point out interesting natural features, from the rooting marks left by wild pigs to a tree chewed around the base by a beaver. You'll learn how the last remaining expanse of old-growth bottomland forest in the US was spared from logging and about the extraordinary diversity of plant and animals species that reside in this unique ecosystem.
Tour participants should wear weather-appropriate clothing and shoes that strap to the feet. You'll also want to bring insect repellant, sunscreen and water for the tour.
In addition to the park service, several local outfitters offer guided paddling tours in the park as well as rental kayaks and canoes.
If you have your own boat, you can explore the dynamic floodplain wilderness on your own, however, be aware conditions on the creek vary from season to season and the water level can change significantly. Although the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is marked, the signs may not be visible when the water level is high. Also, downed trees and log jams are a common occurence on the creek. You may need to portage around these obstacles.