This winter I have had the privilege of spending the winter season in the warm environs of the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. This part of the Palmetto State is distinguished by the presence of the Pee Dee River. Not too far away wedged between two man-made lakes, is another picturesque waterway called the Congaree River. First established in 1976 as a national monument, this swampy old growth forest is now one the nation’s newest national parks. Officially designated in 2003, the Congaree NP constitutes a vast tract of cypress, Tupelo and pine forest can be found just 30 miles from the state capitol in Columbia.
The Congaree is a botanists and bird watcher’s paradise. The biggest attractions are the countless number of tall trees that tower nearly 200 feet above the forest floor. This canopy provides a diverse habitat, where almost 200 species of birds can be seen. This includes many species of warblers, herons, owls and woodpeckers. While I walked around the boardwalk trail, the distinct cry and pecking of the large pileated woopecker could be heard in the distance, but not once did this red-crested bird allow himself to be revealed. Same goes for the screech owl, who remained out of sight, despite the repeating sounds of his hoots.
The Congaree is a not a great driving park, for there is only one road and it leads directly to the visitor center. However, from the park center many trails fan out across the preserve including a very popular boardwalk, where strollers can walk safely through the swamp. Other trails lead further into the swamp which ends seven miles away on the banks of the Congaree River. Several campgrounds are available for car campers, along with some primitive campgrounds scattered across the park land.
Boaters can travel along Cedar Creek or venture out on the slow-flowing Congaree, as long as the boats are non-motorized. The park is open all-year long, but attendance is highest during the cooler winter months, when insects are absent. Overall, the Congaree National Park is a much overlooked open space, located in a state known for picturesque waterways and wide sandy beaches.