Walking through a wetland forest beneath a canopy of trees dripping with Spanish moss, it's easy to appreciate the beauty and diversity of Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve in the South Carolina midlands.
The woodlands and ponds that cover the park's 627 acres are home to a bounty of wildlife, including hawks, water fowl, deer, wild hogs, bobcats and more than 30 species of amphibians.
But it's the history of the land - located outside Columbia near the point where Congaree Creek meets the Congaree River - that makes it such a unique outdoor destination. Archaeologists believe tools, arrowheads and pottery shards discovered on the site were left behind some 12,000 years ago by Native Americans traveling on the Old Cherokee Trail from the Appalachian Mountains to the coast.
Drawn by the waterways, these hunter-gatherers would set up camp in the area during the winter months before making their way down the Congaree River to the Atlantic Ocean.
The area went on to be settled by Anglo-Saxons in the 1700s. It served as an outpost during the Revolutionary War and later was the site a Civil War standoff between Sherman's troops and Confederate soldiers trying to keep the Union forces from crossing the river into Columbia. Earthworks used during the skirmish can be found on adjacent property along the Timmerman Trail.
Guignard Brickworks excavated clay from the property from 1911 to 1944. The remains of the pits where clay was quarried can be found along the preserve's 2.5-mile Guignard Brickworks Trail. Now ponds, the long, water-filled trenches support duckweed, water lilies and an assortment of wildlife, including snakes, turtles and alligators.
Designated by the White House as a Community Millennium Trail, the unpaved loop begins in a parking area located off 12th Street in Cayce. From the trailhead, the dirt path winds through the wetland area, passing through mixed woods that include the threatened Atlantic white cedar, once one of the most valuable timber trees in the Southeast.
Boardwalks, bridges and dikes allow visitors to traverse the boggy backwaters of the creek and pass through dense patches of swamp grass. Take advantage of the benches provided along the way to take in the serene scene and observe the wildlife in the forest.
Despite its proximity to downtown Columbia and the University of South Carolina campus, the Guignard Brickworks Trail is secluded and seldom draws more than a handful of people each day.
If you visit the preserve in the warmer months of the year, be sure to bring insect repellent. It is prohibited to collect artifacts or use metal detectors on the preserve. Find directions and more information about the Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve here.