Well, maybe struggling to escape from the vacuum-like grip of South Carolina mud isn’t exactly fun but given the scenery around us, it’s worth every minute. Sometimes you have to work for your pleasure.
We’re deep in the enveloping thickness of Congaree Swamp in the heart of Congaree National Park. This is no holds barred swampland, chock full of snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, deer flies, and heat. We’re paddling down the park’s main waterway, Cedar Creek, because canoeing or kayaking is the only way to really experience the National Park—with the exception of a few short developed hiking trails, most of the Congaree is a checkerboard of swampy lowlands that inhibits foot travel. Backcountry hiking is a difficult proposition given the thick underbrush, thousands of knobby cypress knees and watery terrain.
This woodland paradise was almost lost in the late 1960s when high timber prices led private landowners to resume logging operations in the Congaree watershed. The potential loss of the forest alarmed local citizens who worked to protect the area and, as a result, in 1976 Congress authorized the establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument, a designation that was changed to Congaree National Park in 2003, making the area America’s second newest national park.
In keeping with the austere character of the swamp, park facilities are few. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is your starting point and it includes the standard park exhibits on wildlife, fauna and history including a short orientation video. Other than that, facilities include primitive camping, a boardwalk loop and four hiking trails. The longest, Kingsnake Trail, scribes a long U-shaped path through the interior of the swamp.
But if you want to really see all the park has to offer, you’ll have to get your feet wet. And they will get wet. The 13 mile long Cedar Creek Canoe Trail twists and turns through the heart of the park and can be a real hull scraper if the water is low. Although the trail is maintained, storms and beavers often block the creeks with fallen trees, requiring difficult and arduous portages past blockages. High creek banks and that entrapping muck make things demanding. We had five hard portages and numerous encounters with hidden logs just below the surface that reached up and grabbed our boats. And the Congaree’s resident critters have a great sense of humor—practically every horizontal fallen tree over the creek seemed to have a giant pile of steaming crap on it—strategically placed in the exact spot where we needed to grab the log in order to portage.
Backcountry camping (with a free permit from the Visitor Center) is permitted along the creek and our fist night campsite was near Cedar Creek Landing, about midway through the park. If you’ve never camped in a southern swamp, you’re in for a real treat--that is, if you like noise because as the sun goes down, the decibel level goes up. Frogs croak, owls hoot, fish jump, otters and beaver splash through the shallows, deer crash through the underbrush, feral hogs grunt. Trying to sleep through all that racket can be a real challenge until you adjust to this new environment. Then you come to appreciate the natural beauty of a night in a swamp. For one thing, the night is dark—the only light is from the millions of stars that you forgot existed and the legions of fireflies dancing through the trees.
We extended out trip onto the Congaree River which defines the southern boundary of the park. Cedar Creek flows into the Congaree and allows floaters to extend their trip for another ten miles. The Congaree is big, broad and fast compared with the narrow Cedar Creek and is an easy float down to the Highway 601 bridge take out point. We camped for the second night on a wide inviting sandbar. Although this part of the float is not as wild and primitive as the Cedar Creek section, it is still a nice experience and we glimpsed Osprey and feral hogs on the Congaree.
If you want to experience one of the South’s prettiest swamps without a multi-day trip that places like the Everglades or the Okefenokee entail, try the Congaree.