Snakes in the Plain – Congaree National Park

“I’ve never heard of that National Park!” That’s what many people, even those who live nearby, said when we told them where we were going. To be honest, we had lived in South Carolina years ago and we did not know of its existence.

Located about 18 miles from Columbia, S. C., this park covers a 41 square mile area of the Congaree River floodplain. It is “the 10th least visited National Park and it has “the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America.”

It was the presence of these hardwood cypress trees that attracted loggers to this area in the 1890s. Bald cypress trees can live to be over 1,000 years old and the wood, often called “eternal wood,” is rot and water resistant. Since it decays very slowly, it can last for more than 100 years. Logging to meet the demand for this resource for making cabinets, roof shingles, docks, etc. destroyed almost all of this type of forest land in the state.

Francis Beidler owned the Santee River Logging Company and it cut down trees in this area until 1914 when it became too expensive to continue logging there. After they ceased harvesting the trees, the property that Beidler owned remained in the family and it was used by several hunting clubs. Harry R. E. Hampton was one of the hunting club members. He worked for a local newspaper called The State. He wanted to preserve this unique habitat so, in the 1950s and 1960s, he began to campaign for its protection by writing many articles and talking to his state’s representatives in Washington. His lobbying paid off when Senators Strom Thurman and Ernest F. Hollings introduced a bill creating the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. The Beidler family property was included in the land set aside for the park. In 1988, they expanded the protected area by adding 22,000 acres to the park. In 2003, it was renamed and became Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park preserves a section of the Congaree River floodplain, some oxbow lakes, and a 20 mile stretch of Cedar Creek that flows through its boundaries. Much of the park looks like a swamp and many of the cypress trees there are over 500 years old. Interspersed throughout the floodplain are also 130-150 ft. tall trees with the tallest being a loblolly pine that is 169 ft. tall.

For visitors, the park service built a 2.4 mile elevated boardwalk that allows you to walk through the swampy area without disturbing the habitat. At the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, you can pick up a pamphlet for a self-guided tour that has 20 different stops. Each stop provides you with information about the park’s history, its flora and fauna, and its wildlife. David and I walked the boardwalk trail and also hiked the Weston Lake Trail that took us along Cedar Creek and Weston Lake. We saw many bald cypress trees and “knees” and many birds and skinks. We looked for river otters along Cedar Creek but didn’t spot any. We did locate a 150 ft. loblolly pine and some dwarf palmettos that are related to the cabbage palmetto, South Carolina’s state tree.

We learned that a number of different groups called the Congaree River swamp “home” over the years. The Catawba and Congaree tribes used the cypress wood to build their canoes to navigate the rivers. Later, these dense forests provided a safe haven for those fleeing slavery. Many individuals who had escaped from their oppressive slave owners formed communities and lived in these swamp lands because they provided safety and also sustenance for them. During Prohibition in the early 1900s, moonshiners and bootleggers found that this was a good place to produce illegal alcohol away from the eyes of the law. From the boardwalk, you can see the remnants of an old still.

Given that two-thirds of the National Park is a wilderness area, its trails are not always accessible so be sure to check with the rangers before setting out. If there has been a lot of rainfall, the trails and even the boardwalk can be underwater.

You can also canoe through the park on Cedar Creek. There are outfitters who will take you or you can canoe through it by yourself. We talked to some folks who had done this before and they told us that they saw lots of snakes in the trees and some fell into the creek around them. They mentioned that on one canoe trip, they stopped counting after they had seen 60 snakes. If you love snakes, this might be a great adventure for you but we don’t think that we will sign up for that trip.

Another challenge to enjoying this park are the mosquitoes. When we were there, we did not see any but there is a Mosquito Meter posted at the Visitor Center that indicates that the mosquitoes can be intense. The Mosquito Meter was at “1” (All Clear) the day we were there. What we encountered instead were tent caterpillars that were falling out of the trees and landing everywhere, even on us. We happened to be there at just the right time to witness this event. They were a nuisance but they did not bite or sting so it was fine.

David and I had a great time at Congaree National Park. We were so glad that we made the effort to visit this unique park.

On our way to South Carolina, we stayed overnight at a Harvest Host site in Jacksonville, FL called Kindred Kitten Rescue. Marvin and Kristina are dedicated to rescuing kittens and cats, including feral cats, that have been abandoned. They work with organizations all over the country to find homes for these furry creatures. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet Kristina because she was on a long distance mission to relocate some kittens from N.C. to FL. Marvin was a great host and showed us around the grounds. Their old farmhouse is surrounded by large trees that are draped in Spanish moss which creates a peaceful environment.

The property also has a small Air B&B that they rent out and swimming pool. While there, we learned more about their animal rescue organization and we got to meet their cats and to see their “catio,” an enclosed area on their front porch where you could go in and pet the cats. You can tell that Marvin and Kristina really have a “heart” for what they are doing and they were very gracious hosts. Before we departed the next morning, Marvin brought us some yogurt parfaits for our breakfast. We had a wonderful stay there in this bucolic setting. We were so blessed to get to know them on our travels. Thank you Marvin and Kristina for your warm hospitality!

2 thoughts on “Snakes in the Plain – Congaree National Park

  1. We were just in Congaree over Easter Weekend! Also experienced the caterpillars falling from the sky — it was so weird! Especially being from Arizona — we just don’t have anything like that! Enjoy your blog a lot. Keep writing!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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