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