We planned a canoe trip down the Congaree River through Congaree National Park from Columbia, SC to the 601 bridge in April 2019. Unfortunately, it was rained out as too many April showers led to flooding throughout the park.
We made the trip to the park anyway and spent two days camping at Congaree, exploring the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. We also ventured into Columbia and did a quick hike in Congaree Bluffs Heritage Park before spending two days in Charleston. It was a beautiful, quick spring adventure even though we will need to go back to do our canoe trip some day!
Our trip to Congaree National Park will go down in history as the first which was poorly planned. My fault. Simply put, it was derailed by weather, as April showers resulted in the Congaree River overflowing its banks and leaving nowhere to camp along the river in the national park. So rather than a leisurely canoe trip down the river with fishing and backcountry camping, we were limited to camping in the frontcountry campsites and walking around the boardwalk (which was flooded in select areas when we got there). We were not the only ones that weekend which the park rangers had to tell that it was not advisable to begin a trip. We listened.
It was still a fun trip. It is the largest intact old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast United States. The trees are … large. They are not as large as the redwoods and sequoias of California but we did not get out to see those trees until June. The forest in South Carolina is … big, also. Congaree is known for its champion trees and for a swamp so thick and confusing that you would need a GPS to navigate it. In addition to its mosquitoes and lightning bugs.
The mosquitoes were not as big of problem as normal due to the floods, although we still needed insect repellent when at the campground. And the synchronized lightning bugs would not start for another month, so it was predominately trees and woodpeckers for us. There were plenty of loblolly pines, mangroves and pileated woodpeckers.
Congaree is also thought to be one of the places where the possibly extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker may be hiding. The Ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and is native to the bottomland hardwood forests and temperate coniferous forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. The last confirmed sighting was in the 1940s in Louisiana, but there have been a number of potential sightings since then. The thought that we might see one while standing in Congaree was exhilarating, and I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat every time we saw a pileated woodpecker.
We didn’t end up seeing any owls either, which are another reason to explore the park, though we definitely heard them at night and once in the morning. We did not really look too hard for owls though.
The first part of the trip went well – travel to Charleston. We flew into Charleston airport bright and early on Saturday morning, picking up the rental car not long after. Since we were flying on Frontier credits received for a previous trip delayed overnight, it was a great start to be on time. It was cheaper to fly into Charleston then columbia and we could get their direct on Frontier.
We made the hour plus drive to the park. But as soon as we got to the parking lot under the Highway 601 Bridge and saw that the river was over the banks, we knew that the canoe trip was definitely not going to be possible. We were able to enjoy watching the cliff swallows under the bridge fly in and out of their nests
Fortunately, we had a reservation for a campsite the first night in Longleaf Campground so all was not lost due to the weather. And we made a reservation for a different campsite in the campground shortly thereafter.
We stopped at the visitor center to talk to a park ranger, which confirmed our suspicions that they were not issuing backcountry camping permits for the park.
We then explored the areas of the boardwalk which were not flooded, marveling at the quiet of the forest and the size of the trees.
When we returned from our hike, we set up our tent before heading into Columbia to get some supplies. It was actually a pretty leisurely drive, as we stopped to eat in Five Points in Columbia and explored the downtown area a bit.
Sunday morning was spent relaxing in the hammock, before we moved the campsite. Since the flood waters had receded a bit, we ended up making it all the way around the boardwalk. We also made the hike over to Bluff Campground, the hike-in campsites which are located past the Visitor Center.
When we finished, we lounged around a bit and then went in to Columbia to do early dinner and a movie. We ended up having barbecue and watching Captain Marvel, which was amazing. There was a series of thunderstorms scheduled to roll through the area so we had decided rather than ride it out in the tent we would hit up the movie. We didn’t even notice any of the storms move through while in the theater, but we saw them on the weather radar after we got out.
At night, I ended up watching Game of Thrones from the tent because, for once, I had cell coverage in a national park. It was the first episode of Season 8 – Winterfell, so it was an important one. I did not have cell coverage past the visitor center, but my Sprint phone did work in the campground which was pleasant.
Monday morning we slept late, packed up the camp, and then went to Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve. We had high hopes that the overlook would be incredible. We hiked down to the overlook, but it was just ok. The trees in the Heritage Preserve have grown and it is not quite high enough to give you as spectacular of view as I anticipated from reading about it.
Still, it gave us a different view into the park and a perspective on the forest that is not possible from the boardwalk. We then went down to the Congaree River since the national park was too flooded to reach it on the hiking trails, and dropped in a fishing line before going back up to the parking lot.
We then started our drive back to Charleston for the second stage of the adventure, stopping for lunch at a Waffle House in Orangeburg.
It definitely was not our standard national park adventure, and the first that did not go anywhere near as planned, but we got our passport stamp, enjoyed exploring it, and it preceded a really fun day exploring Charleston.
Check out our photos from Charleston on the next blog post!
We will post more photos of Congaree soon!