To piggyback on a trip for a wedding on Hilton Head Island, we flew into Charlotte and swung through Congaree National Park for a quick visit on our way south. Congaree is a smaller park with an even smaller area of hiking trails. It was also our first lowlands park and was much different than the mountainous parks we’ve visited. More importantly, this was our first national park with my in-laws. They joined us on the trip to see the girls (and us) and helped babysit during wedding festivities. It’s great that we’ve been able to have family join us on some of our national park adventures.
Flying to Charlotte involved two things: new toys and tons of snacks. We went to Target to get markers that only work on special paper and don’t leave marks on seats, windows, tray tables, or other passengers. We then bought as much goldfish, teddy grahams, juice boxes, and pirates booty as possible to distract for four hours. It worked. This was also the first flight for the girls in their own seats. It was nice having the extra space for them to move around as having them fly as an in-lap child would have been horrible.
When we entered Congaree, we saw smoke. Yikes! But we soon found out there were some controlled burns taking place to maintain overall forest health. A few trail sections were closed, but no impact to our plans. After that, we rolled into the parking lot and were surprised to see it was half full on a Wednesday morning, which is always exciting knowing others are getting out in nature. We also had some great weather on our side. The weather was in the high 60s with some humidity, but nothing crazy. More importantly, the mosquitoes were barely noticeable. We were at a level 2 of 6 according to the park rangers. I can’t even imagine what “war zone” would be like.
Once we checked out the really nice visitor’s center, petted every dog near the visitor center, stamped our passports, and filled up our water bottles, we started off on the 2.4 mile self-guided Boardwalk Loop Trail. Because of the seasonal flooding, the boardwalk offers a less muddy way of exploring. It also makes it convenient to use a stroller for parents who are bringing young kids and want to give them a smooth ride.
Some fun facts about Congaree National Park:
- The bald cypress tree that grows there is one of the strongest woods around and was harvested throughout the South a century ago. The cypress tree also grows these funny looking “knees” in their root system. The purpose is still not fully understood, but a hypothesis is that it help with structural stability. The bald cypress can live to be 1,000 years old and is called “wood eternal” because it is rot and water resistant.
- Congaree has mud that can be up to eight feet thick. Dorovan mud, as it is called, actually helps filter out toxins in water runoff before it makes it way back to the Congaree River. Look at mother nature helping keep everything clean…even in the mud.
- Congaree floods…A LOT. When we started the hike, we saw moss growing on trees almost uniformly on the trunks up to eight feet high. We then read that the moss will grow to the high water mark of a flood, which meant that where we were walking was completely submerged in water at one point.
- At some of the other parks we’ve visited, the literature talks about different flora when you get a major change in elevation. At Congaree, the change in elevation was measured in inches, not feet. The picture below shows switch cane that grows in an environment just a few inches higher that the land next to it.
- There is a lot of history around Congaree as folks used to distill moonshine deep in the woods knowing no one would want to come and search for them. It also is located near some maroon settlements where escaped slaves formed their own communities. The dense forest provided shelter and safety for them from their slave owners and slave catchers.
The major kid factor we were concerned about was snakes. We didn’t encounter any water moccasins, but we came across a small copperhead snake, about two feet long. The copperhead is venomous and was well disguised on the forest floor, but we kept our distance and moved on.
On each trip, we each list our quintessence- the most memorable moment for each person who came on the trip.
Sean: There was some real beauty in that swamp. Our visit had clear skies and allowed the sun to shine all the way down to the forest floor, casting some nice light on the small ferns and palms. It was also great to see so many locals taking advantage of their local park for hikes.
Mary: I loved the self-guided boardwalk tour. We learned so much about the park and the low country and were able to enjoy everything at our own pace. This “hike”, particularly with busy-body toddlers, allowed them to walk the majority of the way rather than being in the stroller or carried (although for some reason they both wanted me to carry them always at the same time) and really get up close and personal with all the things they love – flowers, trees, agua, etc. It was just what we needed for a brief but great trip to this National Park.
Maryanne: I loved the quiet. Walking along the boardwalk and listening to the sounds of nature. There weren’t any city noises. No sounds of civilization, just birds, wind and the sound of us.
The park provided a very nice tour in the form of the map and the numbered points of interest. It was quite informative. I have never seen trees like these. There is so much to learn in nature of which we are generally oblivious.
And mostly, watching the girls experience the hike and the wonder in their eyes.
We take so much for granted and seeing them learn and explore is grounding.
Another park in the books!