Alone in a Land of Giants at Congaree National Park

In the middle of South Carolina is a truly magical place. Along the northern banks of the Congaree River lies a swamp that is home to the largest collection of giant old growth hardwood trees in the world. Because of its remoteness, and because of the inhospitable nature of the flooded forest, this one small area has escaped the ravages of man’s relentless desire to exploit his environment for power and profit. Even before Europeans began to colonize the Atlantic Coast, Native Americans were hunting and fishing around these same trees, some of which might be as much as 1,000 years old. The perfect combination of climate, water, and inaccessibility has guaranteed that these remarkable behemoths could prosper through wars, hurricanes, fire, and drought, and reach towering heights rivaled only by the Redwoods of California. No less than nine trees in this primeval enclave can claim the rare distinction as “Champions” of their species. A Champion tree is one that attains a height and a base circumference greater than any other tree of its kind in the entire world.

One man, conservationist Harry Hampton, recognized in the 1950’s that the Congaree forest was one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind, and began efforts to protect it. Two decades later, when logging threatened the area’s giant trees, a public campaign led to establishing Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. In the following decades, the park was expanded and thousands of acres were designated as wilderness. In 2003 it became Congaree National Park. Today the park is a sanctuary for plants and animals, a research site for scientists, and a peaceful place for you to explore a forest of towering trees and diverse wildlife.

So you can imagine my excitement when I pulled into an empty parking area on a recent Thursday afternoon, and realized that I would have the entire National Park to myself. Where else but here could that ever happen. Remember to click on each photo to see the full screen version. I like the photos much better that way……

Congaree Boardwalk Giants
Wooden walkways and boardwalks guide you deep into the swamp, and allow you to be at one with these quiet giants. Shumard Oak, Hickory, Loblolly Pine, Bald Cypress, American Elm, American Beech, Tupelo, and many other well know species share this ancient sanctuary.

Congaree Park Champions

Congaree Canopy Giants
Many trees soar to over 150 feet high, with one Loblolly Pine, below, reaching record heights over 170 feet.

Congaree Loblolly Champion
Congaree Loblolly Illustration

Congaree Cypress Giant
This old Bald Cypress stands in the middle of a “Cypress Knee” garden.

Large-Bald-Cypress-Congaree-National-Park (1)

I’m including this photo by Joe Kegley to show how large this Bald Cypress really is.

Congaree Cypress Illustration

Congaree Cypress Knees
Remember when people thought it was cool to own a lamp made from Cypress Knees? Not anymore.

Congaree Cypress Knees Growing

The swamp floods many times each year as the Congaree River overruns its banks. Often, the walkways are under water, and closed to visitors. The health of these gentle giants is supported by this constant flooding and cleansing of the low, soft soil.

Congaree Cypress Swamp
Water meanders through the forest in its relentless march to the sea.

Congaree Cedar Creek
Cedar Creek bisects the park, and during periods of higher water, is a favorite of canoers and kayakers.

Congaree Cedar Creek Reflections
The slow moving water is high in nutrients, which is exactly what these trees need, and the eight foot thick swamp “mud” filters out pollutants.

Congaree Walkway Giants
The midday sun manages to find a rare opening in the thick canopy, giving the smaller plants just enough light to grow and reproduce.

My walk took me almost three miles into the forest, but I turned back before I reached the Congaree River. I’ll leave that hike for another time. Suddenly on the walk back, I heard the squeals and grunts of wild hogs, and four of them crossed right in front of me. I managed to get this short video before they disappeared back into the dense woods.

5 thoughts on “Alone in a Land of Giants at Congaree National Park

  1. Must say I’m very jealous of your adventure into this beautiful place. How awesome to see such magnificent trees, and to walk along that trail. Those wild hogs can be aggressive, I remember being chased by some when camping in Jonathan Dickinson Park as a child, we had to wait in the ocean until they went away. So glad you shared this as usual.

  2. That was amazing and to be alone in the National Park! Beautiful photos and great history and explanations of trees, cypress knees, etc. Patsy

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  3. Glad they weren’t wild boars! We visited the swamp Chris’ freshman year at THE USC. I think we were about the only ones there too. It is certainly a lesser known swamp and so close to Columbia. But we were just probably there at the wrong time of day. Worth visiting.

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