6/8 Congaree National Park
About a year ago when we decided it was time to make this big trip happen and I started planning and linking together points on the map, I looked at a list of all the national parks. Quite a few national parks came up that I had never heard of or at least ever thought about because they were so far away. This trip would be the grand opportunity to see the far away special places. A mysterious name on the list, Congaree, I read was a rather new addition to the National Park system. The more I read about it the more enthused I became. Soon Congaree became my goal, my reason to spend weeks driving across the southern states. There were lots of destinations along the way and I don't mean to diminish all those experiences and flavors, but when we crossed into South Carolina I at last felt far from home and amazed that we'd come so far.
Congaree became a national park in 2003 after being a national monument for 30 years. It preserves the largest remaining stretch of old growth flood plain forest. It attracts a mad array of migrating birds and seasonal residents too. A few days before we were to arrive in South Carolina there was a flood warning in effect for the area around Congaree, and I worried that our visit would be cut off. The park normally floods at least ten times a year, but a short call to the Visitor Center assured us that the water was receding and we would only have some extra mud if we ventured off the boardwalk to the longer trails.
After pushing our way through some chaotic traffic in Columbia, SC the road turned down into the bottom land of the flood plain. The air turned cool (but no less humid and heavy) and the green took over. We passed a few houses and farms as we followed what we thought was the way to the park, heck it was called Congaree Park Road. Hmm, something was wrong. We could not get to the park and there didn't seem to be any helpful brown signs, other than the one we stumbled on that pointed the way to a canoe landing. After some fumbling with the map and some dead reckoning we at last made our way to the park entrance and the camping area. If you go, make sure to carefully follow the directions provided on the web site. Finding Congaree is not as easy as most National Parks where you start seeing the direction signs when you're still miles away.
The park was a delight. Hot and sticky, but still a delight of green, and muck, and fungus, and bird song, drippy wet growing things, and...
We saw insects to beat all; Odonates (dragonflies) that flew with a bat like flutter, and brilliant green beetles having a frenzied party on the muddy trail. The high canopy of the cypress, tupelo, and loblolly pines cast more dazzling patterns than a disco ball, and the scrabble of vines and moss completed the encyclopedia illustration of thriving bottom land forest.
Congaree at last. For me this made a fine corner stone and capped the first part of our trip. From Congaree we would wind our way North for part two; Appalachia, the big cities, New England, and Canada (or at least a little taste of it). See you there.