The Only National Park in South Carolina

I knew as I left Tuskegee that I was within striking distance of my home in NC.  Though I was ‘smelling the barn,’ I wasn’t ready for the trip to end just yet.  Plus, there was one more park to visit along the way, Congaree National Park, and it just happens to be the only one in South Carolina.

Congaree National Park is one of 28 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Biosphere Preserves in the U.S.  Per the NPS website, “Biosphere regions are special places where people and organizations cooperate to improve human livelihoods and sustain the benefits we receive from nature.  Biosphere regions work to enhance the well-being of communities by achieving a harmonious relationship between people and the environment.”   Click HERE to watch a 19-minute film about this rare, nearly 27,000-acre old-growth floodplain forest and its role as a biosphere.

Last stop on my epic moto trip – Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

The area immediately felt familiar to this Louisiana girl – lots of cypress trees and knees in stands of water and soft, boggy land.  It looked like a swamp for sure, but since this floodplain is not covered in water year-round, it doesn’t technically meet the definition of a swamp.  Whatever you want to call it, Congaree NP is home to numerous “champion trees,” (i.e., largest of their kind in the state or country), specifically loblolly pine, sweetgum, and pawpaw.  Often described as having the consistency of a banana, but with a taste that has hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus, I’ve been wanting to try a pawpaw fruit ever since I first heard about it a few years ago.  Unfortunately, I was just a little too late for peak season (late September to early October), so I wasn’t able to try one this year.  Maybe I’ll have better luck next season.     

There are several hiking trails throughout Congaree NP. I opted for the 2.6-mile boardwalk loop, a self-guided tour that includes numbered points of interest along the way that coincide with the trail guide. The boardwalk runs through areas of solid land as well as areas of Dorovan muck, a dark-colored mud formed by a mixture of clay and old leaves. The muck is 8-feet thick in some places, and helps keep the floodplain and Congaree River clean by filtering water, trapping pollution, and turning pollutants into harmless compounds. -NPS website
The 50-mile Congaree River originates at the confluence of the Broad and Saluda Rivers near Columbia, SC and ends at Congaree National Park. -American Rivers website

The floodplain included within the park boundaries has a long history of human habitation.  The first people of Congaree were hunters and gatherers, known as the Confitachequi.  These Native Americans spoke Muskogean and lived here thousands of years ago.  As with most tribes encountered by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, their population was ravaged by European diseases, after which they broke into smaller tribes, including the Congaree.  Later, battles of the American Revolution and the Civil War were fought in the area.  Spanning both wars, Maroon Settlements of escaped enslaved people popped up in the Congaree River Basin.  The designation of ‘maroon’ likely stems from the Spanish word ‘cimarron,’ which indicates something that is wild, or not tame.  “The word was originally applied to livestock that had escaped from farms to run free in the woods.  Since…[during the 19th century] imported, enslaved Africans were [considered] a form of personal property” … escaped enslaved people were given this moniker. (Lockley). The unforgiving terrain made pursuit by slave owners difficult, thus escaped enslaved people formed communities in the swampy, root-entangled floodplain. – NPS website  

Though logging in the floodplain was arduous, timber was harvested from the area on and off from the 1890s thru the 1970s. A grassroot campaign by journalist Harry Hampton (whose name the Visitors Center bears) resulted in national legislation to preserve the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest in the southeastern U.S. His efforts led to the designation of Congaree as a National Monument in 1976, and ultimately, to its designation as a National Park in 2003. -NPS website
“South Carolina is known as the Palmetto State. It is named after the state tree, the cabbage palmetto. The short fan-like palms beside the boardwalk are dwarf palmettos [saw palmettos], a relative of the cabbage palmetto. They are one of the hardiest palms due to their ability to withstand freezing temperatures. Dwarf palmettos thrive best in wet, sandy areas where disturbances, like a hurricane, cause a gap in the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor” (NPS website). And, as I learned in a Naval aircrew survival training course I went through in Florida in the 1990s, the base of a saw palmetto, or the heart of palm, is not only edible, it is quite tasty!
Over 1,200 kinds of plants and animals have been identified in Congaree National Park. From turtles to birds, to feral hogs, the park is packed with a full cast of interesting characters, some of which are regularly researched and, for a few species, even celebrated. For 2 weeks each year, between late May and early June, the park holds an annual firefly festival, when groups of Male P. frontalis fireflies produce synchronous quick flashes. It’s so popular that you have to apply to a lottery for tickets to the festival!

With my walk along the nature boardwalk complete, I contemplated hopping on the bike and making the three-hour ride to my house.  It was late afternoon and I was tired, however, so my little voice of safety prevailed and I got a hotel for the night.  The next morning, I ate my last road-breakfast and savored the remaining miles of this epic journey.    

Next up:  a post wrapping up the trip and answering the questions I’ve been asked along the way 😊

3 thoughts on “The Only National Park in South Carolina

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  1. In keeping with my deranged mind when reading/looking at things, my first thought was “somebody had to build that boardwalk… wasn’t me, and I’m glad”.


    Liked by 1 person

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