If you want to check out some of the monster trees that make up Congaree National Park's famed old-growth bottomland forest, take a hike on the Oakridge Trail, an easy 6.6-mile trek offering a Whitman's Sampler of hardwoods.
The red-blazed backwoods trail passes through an impressive stretch of towering trees — some as tall as a 16-story building. The botanical assortment includes ancient loblolly pines, bald cypress, water tupelo, American elm, cherrybark oak, sweetgum and hickory.
To get to the Oakridge Loop, you have to begin your walk on the elevated boardwalk that starts at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. When you get to a fork in the boardwalk, veer right toward the Weston Lake Loop. Follow the yellow-blazed lake trail for about a half mile.
The Oakridge Loop begins after you cross the footbridge over Cedar Creek. The trail takes you past Wise Lake and various floodplain forest habitats frequented by pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, osprey, great blue heron and a variety of migratory songbirds.
The forest is also home to otters, deer, wild hogs, iridescent skinks, alligators and snakes, among other wildlife.
At the end of the Oakridge loop, you’ll reconnect with the Weston Lake Trail. You might have noticed all of the footbridges along the way are marked by a letter. Just past the “D” footbridge is one of the biggest loblolly pines in the forest.
“It’s 250 years old, which is about as old as loblolly pines get,” said volunteer nature guide Steve Dennis. “Most of the big pines get hit by lightning and die before they get that old. This particular one is rooted in an area of low elevation, which may be why it has survived this long.”
On the day I visited the park, Dennis was leading one of the free guided nature walks offered every Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. A number of other interesting walks and talks are scheduled each month at the park. Some of them require reservations. For more information on the educational programs, click here.
Whether you decide to venture out on your own or take one of the guided walks, be sure to pack insect repellent and protective clothing to ward off the mosquitoes that breed in the park’s wetlands. In the warmer months of the year, those pesky stinging insects are out for blood and visitors are prime targets.
You’ll also want to carry plenty of water if you’re planning on a long hike.
And be sure to stop at the visitor center to pick up a map of the park’s trails and to check on trail conditions. The backwoods paths are maintained on a limited basis and may be blocked at any time by fallen trees or debris washed in during flooding.
If you’re traveling with pets, you are welcome to take them on your hike so long as they are leashed. But be aware, dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks.
The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round. Admission to the park, which is outside Columbia, is free. For more information, click here or call (803) 776-4396.