The Incredible U.S. National Park You've Never Heard Of
South Carolina’s only national park, Congaree National Park, is teeming with wonders to explore.
At a size of just under 27,000 acres, the park is home to the largest expanse of old-growth forest (significantly aged woodland that has grown without disturbance) in the United States.
It’s also home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern U.S., giving nature lovers quite the views to gaze up at.
Travel + Leisure spoke to Greg Cunningham, an interpretive ranger at the park, to find out what makes this little-known natural wonderland a haven for outdoor adventure lovers.
A Hidden Treasure
Part of the appeal of the park is that you can explore it without the crowds. According to Cunningham, though the park's location puts it three to four hours from millions of people, the park still remains a hidden attraction within the area.
"It's fascinating to see that people an hour from here will come in and say, 'I've been living here for years and have never stopped by,'" he said. "When they do, they just fall in love with the place."
Back to the Roots
Today, the park is home to the largest area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the nation, at roughly 11,000 acres.
According to the National Park Service, there are some 52 million acres of floodplain forests throughout the southeastern U.S.
When activists began calling for protection of the lands from timber harvesting in the 1960s, the national park was eventually declared in 1976, leaving its nature intact.
Where Trees Soar
Congaree is also home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern U.S., with species like loblolly pines that can reach as high as 170 feet (or the height of a 17-story building).
In fact, the park is known for hosting one of the highest concentrations of champion trees (the largest trees within a particular species) in North America, according to Cunningham.
Thanks to the height of its trees, the park is also where you’ll find one of the world’s highest natural canopies.
An Environment Unlike Any Other
“What’s really cool here is that the things that do grow here, tend to grow really large,” Cunningham said of the park.
That’s due to the combination of warm temperatures the park gets throughout the year and the floods that arise from time to time in the floodplain, helping to maintain a consistent cycle for the area’s biodiversity.
Floods You Can Admire
While you’ll want to check in with the park’s visitor center before considering any type of canoeing or kayaking during floods, the park can actually make for a unique sight when it's overflowing.
According to Cunningham, floods typically occur between December and mid-April, submerging nearly 80 to 90 percent of the park.
You can enjoy this view from an elevated boardwalk, and it’s one you won’t find in many other locations.
“Imagine any other natural park almost completely submerged underwater; it’s just a different type of experience,” Cunnigham said.
A Base for Biodiversity
The environment helps create biodiversity within the park, where you'll spot everything from ducks, deer, and bobcats to the occasional alligator.
It's also a popular location for bird watchers, who come here from all over the world to see the migrations that take place from late April to mid-May and from late October to early November.
Besides the bird migrations in the spring and fall, the park is also one of few places where you can witness synchronous fireflies, which is when the bugs light up simultaneously and in patterns to create a mesmerizing, glowing show.
The fireflies are typically around for two weeks sometime between mid-May and mid-June, and are easy to access. Just head to the visitor's center, walk a few feet, and you'll be right in the scene.
A Surprising Space for Stargazers
While the park is close to towns and cities, it manages to avoid high light pollution, giving stargazers the chance to take advantage of open areas like the Bluff campgrounds and along the river.
The park will also be within the zone of this year's total solar eclipse in August, when a new moon will block out the sun for a few minutes to create quite the scene. The park will be hosting hikes and gazing opportunities for the occasion.
Easy Hikes With Lovely Views
Speaking of hikes, Congaree is home to more than 25 miles of hiking trails, in addition to an array of off-trail hikes for the more experienced.
There are rarely elevation changes when you're hiking within the park, making it an easy activity there.
The staff's favorite trail, according to Cunningham, is the Oakridge Trail, a 6.6-mile hike round-trip that takes you through some of the park's best scenery, from its swamp-like territories to the large trees that line its paths.
If you want to turn your hiking trip into an overnight stay, the park has various backcountry camping grounds to offer, though you should come prepared with your own supplies and make sure you can track how to get back to the trail for safety.
Cruise in a Kayak or Canoe
Kayaking and canoeing are popular here, as visitors are invited to bring their own kayaks or canoes and enjoy the park’s scenery for miles along its rivers.
The most popular option is the Congaree River, which runs between the capital of Columbia and weaves you through the park, with sandbars in the river you can camp on.
Cunningham also recommends trying the Cedar Creek canoe trail, which cuts through the heart of the park and takes you all the way down for about 27 miles.
Over the Boardwalk
Congaree has a 2.4-mile-long boardwalk that winds around, giving you the option to take in the best of the area by foot.
It's important to note that Congaree does see cases of poison ivy from time to time, though Cunningham says travelers can easily protect themselves by staying on the main trails.