In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we're turning the spotlight on South Carolina's six national park sites.
Among them is Congaree National Park near Columbia, featuring the largest contiguous tract of old growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States. Within the 26,000 acres of lush backcountry are a number of state and national champion trees that have thrived in the forest thanks to the nutrient-rich river waters that flood the land about 10 times a year.
Significance of Park: Recognizing the South Carolina floodplain is one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind, Congress voted in 1976 to preserve it as a national monument, naming it after the Native American tribe that roamed the land centuries ago. In 2003, it gained national park status and has since been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a National Natural Landmark and Globally Important Bird Area.
Its impressive collection of trees includes a record-setting deciduous holly, laurel oak, swamp tupelo, sweetgum, water hickory and the national champion loblolly pine - the largest of its species in the country at 167 feet.
Things to Do: Start your adventure at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, featuring museum-quality exhibits and a short film about the biodiversity of the park. Be sure to pick up a brochure and self-guided map of the 25 miles of backcountry hiking trails before you set out exploring the wooded wilderness. The most popular trail in the park is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop that takes you under a canopy of old-growth trees to Weston Lake, once a channel of the Congaree River. Saturday mornings year-round, a ranger or volunteer leads programs on the boardwalk.
A number of other free walks and talks are offered each month, including a Nature Discovery Walk, nighttime Owl Prowl and the Big Tree Hike, a naturalist-guided trek into the forest in search of some of the park's champion trees.
If You Have More Time: Sign up for a free ranger-guided paddle on Cedar Creek, a slow-moving blackwater tributary that winds through a primeval forest of bald cypress and tupelo trees. Or set out on your own on the marked canoe trail. Canoe and kayak rentals are available at several Columbia outfitters. Be sure to ask the park staff about current water levels and conditions if you're going to paddle without a guide.
Hikers have their choice of eight different trails, ranging in distance from 1.3 to 11.7 miles round trip. One of the best areas to view wildlife is along the 6.6-mile Oakridge Trail. As you pass the low-lying sloughs, look for deer and wild turkey. The 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail is a favorite with birders because of the diverse vegetation and proximity to Cedar Creek.
Special Events: Each year in the spring, fireflies put on a spectacular light show at Congaree National Park. The star attraction is a rare species of lightning bug that mysteriously synchronize their flashes. You can catch the amazing performance as soon as it gets dark on the Boardwalk Loop. The best seat in the house is at the Weston Lake overlook. Bring a flashlight and don't forget the bug spray! Call 803.776.4396 or visit the park website at www.nps.gov/cong for the exact dates of the firefly spectacle.
The Details: Located 20 miles southeast of Columbia off I-77 at Bluff Road or SC 48, Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day year-round. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, except on all federal holidays. Brochures and trail maps are available in the Visitor Center breezeway anytime. Admission is free.