Congaree National Park

I was recently sitting in Florida, watching freezing rain roll into Ohio and I decided I couldn’t yet manage Midwest February. So I did some quick searches within states (more or less) on the way back and found some openings in the middle of South Carolina. This seemed much more appealing and would allow me to check off another National Park – Congaree.

Congaree is definitely not one of the A-list national parks. It lacks the wow-factor of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. But it is an amazing opportunity to experience the American southeast in the same way as indigenous people did before old-growth forests were cleared and floodplains were drained. Forests like Congaree once covered 35 million acres in the southeast, but now the 11,000 acres preserved in the park are one of the few places to witness loblolly pines that reach over 200 feet tall springing from black mud.

Unfortunately, the day I had allotted to visit the park started out cool and gray and evolved into cold and rainy. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes”, but this was a spontaneous trip so I didn’t have much of my warmer gear. But I layered fleece under my rain jacket, turned a buff into a hat, and found emergency gloves at the bottom of one of my packs. I spent the day chilled, but not cold. And honestly, the gray skies and constant drizzle seemed a perfect atmosphere for a swamp. I also imagine it kept many of the crowds away. I was able to hike large portions of the day away from other people, enjoying the sounds of forest. I have to confess that the atmosphere got the better of me more than once. My brain easily turned the noises from mating barred owls into the calls of swamp apes and the creaks of crows became skin walkers.

There is really only one spot to begin the hikes of Congaree and that is the visitor center. My main goal for the day was to hike the boardwalk trail. This is only a 2.6 mile loop, but it a great overview of what the area has to offer. I will admit that I was very pleasantly surprised that the walk offered good traction despite the steady rain. I have done plenty of similar trails that become highly treacherous in bad weather.

Blue was excited for the hike. We had spent the previous two weeks in south Florida so she found the cool air invigorating. I should have predicted it, but the very first time we reached an area without railings, she dove into the mud. This is not normal mud. This is swamp mud called “Dorovan muck”. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I learned it is actually eight feet deep. So of course my Swamp of Sadness fears activated into panic of losing my beloved pet. Blue must either be a very happy pup or the actual muck may not be that scary because she only went about six inches deep. But the muck stuck. There was no denying to the rangers that Blue had broken one of the Leave No Trace rules and ventured off the boardwalk. But she was a happy dog and enjoyed her hike.

About half way through the boardwalk trail I decided I should take advantage of my hiking day and add the Weston Lake Loop to the trail and do a little hiking along Cedar Creek. It was nice to walk off the boardwalk for a bit and Blue enjoyed being able to really dig her nose into the smells. Cedar Creek was truly a creek despite the weather. We didn’t get very far into our hike along it when Blue decided she was done and insisted on turning around. We were about halfway into our loop at that point, but fighting a stubborn 70 pound dog is relaxing for neither of us. Besides, her refusal to continue always freaks me out a bit. She sees, hears, and smells many things that I do not. Most are innocuous, but I have spent too much time swapping stories around a campfire to force a dog deeper into the woods when she is spooked.

So back we went to the boardwalk. The rain had changed from a spit to a drizzle at this point and the temps struggled to break 50º. I was beginning to fantasize about how cozy my trailer would be snuggled under blankets and listening to the sound of the rain on the metal roof. I covered the last couple miles of the trail very rapidly, stopping for only a few pictures.

I am a firm believer that different national parks speak to the souls of different people. The system designed a whole ad campaign around #findyourpark a few years ago. Congaree is not my park, but I appreciate that this unique ecosystem has been preserved. I would definitely like to revisit when I have a chance to witness more of the bugs and birds of the area – although it should be noted they monitor the mosquito problem on a scale that reaches “War Zone”. I am under the impression the fireflies are particularly spectacular in the area.

That was another disappointment. The only two campgrounds in the park are tent-only and pack-in. I did not check them out. I stayed about 45 minutes away at a nice state park – Santee.

The biggest bonus might be that Congaree is one of the few dog-friendly national parks. Blue was welcome on all trails within the park, despite the fact that she can be a four-legged environmental disaster. I am always happy when I get to explore a park with my best friend. Based on her smile as she slept, she enjoyed the day too.

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