A stroll through the city of Columbia and its suburbs will reveal countless amenities for residents and visitors alike. Talk of the city’s growth is prominent, as is the desire to flock to the “famously hot” capital. However, just 18 miles outside of town is an area of slow but graceful growth that is home to some of the state’s oldest historical artifacts: trees.
Congaree National Park is a 27,000-acre plot of land that boasts an extremely biodiverse population of state and national champion trees, more than 800 plant species, 60 different species of fish, roughly 200 recorded species of birds, and more than 20 slithering reptilian species.
Eric Frey, park ranger and biologist at Congaree National Park, explains that the majority of CNP is located in a flood plain or lowland that starts at the Congaree River and gradually increases in elevation as the distance from the river increases. Prior to widespread human influence on the land for agriculture, timber harvesting, development, and transportation, similar flood plains stretched up and down all of the rivers on the East Coast. Eric says that, in today’s geographical standards, having this huge intact flood plain at Congaree is unique.
The land on the north side of the river is elevated by 25 to 30 feet, as compared to the opposite shore. Known as a bluff, as in Bluff Road, this area is characterized by an upland pine habitat where longleaf and loblolly pines reign supreme. With reference to this area of the park, Eric reiterates the stark difference in the region’s landscape, then and now. “Longleaf pine used to stretch basically from the coastal plain all the way across the Southeast to Texas,” he says. Now, relative to its former prevalence, the longleaf count has dropped significantly. For these and other reasons conservationists such as the late Harry Hampton, for whom the park’s visitors center is named, and advocacy groups, like the Friends of Congaree Swamp, have worked to uphold the integrity and vitality of the forest and its inhabitants with the main focus for conservation and protection being the flood plain and its old-growth trees.
Though the land itself has been the subject of preservation and protection campaigns since at least the 1950s, it was not until 1976 that Congress added it to the National Park System, designating the area as Congaree Swamp National Monument. In 2003, the monument was redesignated as Congaree National Park. Federal designation provided new levels of protection and national prominence. However, the park has also seen an increase in popularity since the COVID outbreak. Eric says that the spike in foot traffic after the park reopened suggests a correlation to what has become known as pandemic fatigue.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in visitation. This past year, we had more than 215,000 visitors, up from a previous high of 159,000 a few years ago,” he says. “A lot of people, especially during this time, revert back to nature; they’re getting back out into nature for personal well-being and physical and mental health.”
Congaree National Park is a refuge not only for those seeking asylum from the stress of the pandemic or checking off their bucket list of U.S. National Parks but also for an assortment of flora and fauna. “A lot of biodiversity comes from the nutrient-rich environment of the flood plain; when floods come in, they recharge the soil, which brings nutrient-rich sediment,” Eric says.
He credits the flood plain as the reason the park is teeming with wildlife, ranging in size from white-tailed deer to fireflies — the latter an attraction of their own. The winged performers found at CNP are no backyard lightning bug. Known as synchronous fireflies, this species is known for putting on what appears to be a highly choreographed light show, each bug blinking almost surreptitiously until they all fall in sync and, as Eric describes, “the whole forest is just pulsing with light.” They are also the namesake of Columbia’s Minor League Baseball team!
The geographic and ecological makeup of CNP attracts sightseers and scientists alike. As a biologist and employee of the National Park System for more than a decade, Eric cites the park’s vast expanse of protected wilderness as one of its most impressive attributes. Currently, more than 80 percent of the park is dedicated wilderness under the Wilderness Act. This status adds another layer of protection to the land and ensures no roads or motorized vehicles and equipment pass through the delineated area. It also preserves an experience of the outdoors to which many metropolitan residents do not have such proximate access.
Eric says, “Having such a wild place right next to a major population — it’s just really cool. People are coming out and really enjoying their parks, realizing they’re here.”
Visitors to CNP inherently join a cohort of generations of people who have appreciated the land for various purposes and properties. “People have been using the land we now call Congaree National Park for thousands of years,” Eric says. The earliest of these people included Native Americans, Spanish explorers Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo, and later Europeans, all of whom came in contact with much of the same flora and fauna that are a part of the park’s present-day ecosystem.
The impacts made by these groups have left a palpable taste of cultural history at the park. Colonial-era roads on the east side of the park point to Revolutionary War history, while remnants of dikes and levees, indicated in the modern landscape, remind parkgoers of the impact that enslaved peoples had on building the state’s earliest forms of non-native infrastructure. However, much of this contact brought threats that rival those of today’s industrial expansion. Devastation in the form of disease and human manipulation of the land wreaked havoc.
Fortunately, as the years passed, the perspective on the use of the land around the Congaree Swamp shifted. Just as the Native Americans, Spanish, and Europeans recognized the unique qualities of the land relative to their respective interests, so have many modern-day experts in the field of forestry. In 1983, the park and surrounding landscape was designated by UNESCO as part of the Congaree Biosphere Region. As one of only 28 biosphere reserves in the United States, the Congaree Biosphere Region exists to “foster a future that celebrates, values, and sustains the legacies of the South Carolina Midlands’ opportunities to promote healthy, vibrant, and prosperous communities.”
More recently, the park received yet another noteworthy designation as a 2021 inductee into the Old-Growth Forest Network, a nationwide network that seeks to identify and preserve old-growth forests. Old-growth forests, which are becoming increasingly rare, are those that have been left alone to grow as naturally as possible and have reached the point of forest succession referred to as old-growth. Sarah Horsley, OGFN’S network manager, explains that in an old-growth forest, trees germinate, mature, and fall or die naturally without any human intervention. Unprotected forests, on the other hand, are subject to farming, logging, and development.
“Currently,” Sarah says, “the Old-Growth Forest Network has 147 forests across 28 states. The network started out in Maryland 10 years ago and has been spreading across the United States wherever forests grow. We have an ambitious but important goal of ensuring one protected old-growth forest — or future old-growth forest — in each county that can support a forest ecosystem across the country.”
Congaree, she says, was the first forest that OGFN reviewed in South Carolina, and one that Joan Maloof, OGFN’s founder, has had her eyes on for years. The park’s Old-Growth Forest Network designation is a result of both the ongoing interest in CNP by OGFN staff as well as the dedication of the park’s small but mighty group of advocates. At the OGFN dedication ceremony in September 2021, John Cely was recognized as a particularly staunch advocate of Congaree National Park and a recipient of the network’s Forest Advocate Award.
“Our Forest Advocate Award is designed to recognize individuals or groups who have dedicated a part of their lives to speaking out for threatened forests, working to support forest conservation in their communities, and bringing people together to support forest conservation,” Sarah says. Old-Growth Forest Network’s acknowledgement of John’s contributions speaks to the role that entities large and small have in helping ensure that the Southeast’s largest bottomland hardwood forest continues to generate growth for generations to come.
Of the many attributes of Congaree that excite both experts and everyday enthusiasts, the presence of state and national champion trees is particularly impressive. These trees are recognized through a national program that earmarks the biggest individual tree of a specific species for a state or nationwide. At the time of the park’s dedication to OGFN in September of 2021, the network reported that at least 25 champion trees were present within CNP. Loblolly pines, sweetgums, cherry bark oaks, American elms, swamp chestnut oaks, overcup oaks, and common persimmons are historically chart-toppers for the park. Sarah says of the distinguished champion trees, “CNP gains and loses champion trees over time; as one falls, new ones rise up and become the next champions.”
A walk in the park gives nemophilists, those who are fond of woods and forests, the opportunity to see these and other spectacles of nature up close and personal. It also gives credence to the concept of natural remedies. “So many rich benefits from spending time in old-growth forests are directly tied to our health,” Sarah says — some of which may include lowered blood pressure levels, more relaxed breathing, and a general sense of peace and tranquility.
Those who wish to reap these benefits can find a host of activities that Eric says are well-suited to both the novice and experienced adventurer. Of the many options for enjoying all that the park has to offer — hiking, camping, fishing, and kayaking — Eric recommends canoeing or kayaking as the best way to engage with nature. “Paddling along Cedar Creek is one of the more unforgettable things you can experience at Congaree National Park,” he says.
Visitors who intend to remain a little more grounded during their visit can choose from 10 trails, in addition to a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk loop, for hikes of varying levels of difficulty. Each route showcases different features of the park: heavy-laden tracts of pine, cypress, and oak species; birds of various color, size, and sound; and the Congaree River itself.
Experienced hikers may choose to venture off the beaten path. “If you know what you’re doing, have good navigation skills,” Eric says, “and you’re prepared, it’s amazing to be in the middle of absolute wilderness. It’s an amazing experience to venture into wilderness where you can just go out there and almost be certain you’re the only person for miles around and not see many, if any, signs of people on the landscape.”