Congaree National Park -- Oak Ridge & River Trail Loop (12-24-16)
With over 26,000 acres (of which 15,000+ is designated wilderness) and some 50 miles of hiking and canoeing trails, Congaree National Park is a place I've longed to explore to a greater degree since my first visit back in 2011. Home to one of the worlds largest concentrations of 'champion' trees, Congaree protects a huge swath of old growth Atlantic Coastal Forest, including the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the country . Congaree National Park is one of our newest National Parks. Established in 2003, it's located less than an hour south of Columbia, South Carolina and still remains rather undiscovered on a national scale. Perhaps it's the fact that it is so new but, more likely, it's the fact that it lacks the smack-you-in-your-face scenery of so many other parks. This is a park for the nature lover, a place for the person that just enjoys taking a walk in the woods and enjoying the simple sights and smells of low-country forest life.
This hike was to be the realization of a dream to explore the wild interior of the park and its namesake river that I had on my first visit five years prior. I wanted to walk among the parks largest trees and explore all that nature had to offer here between the visitor center and the Congaree River itself. My planned route was ambitious in length but I felt completely doable in difficulty considering the almost pancake-flat nature of the terrain I'd be traveling. I'd explore the interior in a general figure-eight fashion. Beginning at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center I'd begin on the eastern half of the scenic Boardwalk Loop Trail. I'd then get farther into the backcountry via the Weston Lake Loop and Oak Ridge Trails. After this I would embark on the lollipop-shaped River Trail which would take me down to the beating heart of the National Park, the Congaree River. I would then retrace my steps back as far as the Oak Ridge Trail and then follow the other side of the Weston Lake and Boardwalk Loops back to the visitor center. If my calculations were correct I'd be looking at logging around 13-miles...it'd be a full day of hiking!
The first part of the hike, along the Boardwalk Loop, was as beautiful as always. There even seemed to be a bit more water on the forest floor than in previous visits providing me a slightly different look at the scenery than what I had previously. The Weston Lake Loop was nice as it wandered among odd-looking cypress 'knees', so commonly seen in the park, and along its namesake lake. The Oak Ridge Trail was a wild-card on this trip. I desperately wanted to hike it as I had read it passed through some of the most impressive stands of old-growth forest in the park. Unfortunately the park website and a kind ranger at the desk informed me that a key bridge had been destroyed during Hurricane Matthew the previous summer and hadn't been repaired yet. This meant that you couldn't hike the trail as a loop...or so they said. I decided to see for myself. I figured my off-trail experience meant I could find some way to circumnavigate the bridge. I actually ended up fording the stream (or gut, as they are called here) on a large pile of fallen logs and bypassed the bridge without difficulty. Problem solved...I was soon on my way along the rest of the Oak Ridge Trail. Its a pretty trail and there are, indeed, many impressive stands of trees along its length. I'm glad I made the effort to see it in its entirety.
Up next was the River Trail which would finally, after five years of waiting, allow me to visit the Congaree River itself. The River Trail is laid out in a lollipop configuration with a 1.3-mile 'stick' connecting it to the Oak Ridge Trail to the north and a large 4-mile loop at its south end along the river. I didn't find the trail all that interesting, if I'm honest. It travels through woodlands which are not nearly as impressive in size as other trails in the park and, even when it finds itself following the Congaree itself, it seems particularly keen on staying far from the waters edge or any views thereof. One notable exception to the scenic monotony of this trail, however, is located about halfway along the river-side section of the loop where a wide curve in the Congaree River has formed a huge sandbar which you can walk out onto at low water levels. The day I visited was just such a time and it was an incredible experience to sit all by myself watching the placid, muddy waters of the mighty Congaree River roll by with no sign of man to be seen anywhere. It was no doubt the highpoint of the trip for me. After spending a good amount of time lounging on the sand I made my way back along the remainder of the River Trail. The rest of the hike involved trails I had visited on previous visits but were nonetheless pretty as always. Thirteen miles had rolled by quite easily with only a smattering of nuisance pains to tell me I had indeed exerted myself this day. It was wonderful, plain and simple.
So, come on along with me into the wild interior of Congaree National Park...its quite a natural treasure, as I think you'll agree. As always...ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 33.829604, -80.823737
Mileage Hiked: 13.0 miles Hike Duration: 5:15
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 95' Max. Elevation: 110'
Total Vertical Gain: 100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 8'