About Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is located in the north shore floodplain of the Congaree River extending northwest from the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers. The park administrative offices and primary visitor facilities lie approximately 20 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital. Encompassing more than 26,000 acres of mostly floodplain forest, the park protects towering trees and diverse plant and animal life characteristic of the old-growth southern bottomland hardwood ecosystem.
Originally established in 1976 as Congaree Swamp National Monument, the park was created “to preserve and protect … an outstanding example of a near-virgin southern hardwood forest situated in the Congaree River floodplain in Richland County, South Carolina” (Public Law 94-545 [October 18, 1976]). Congress redesignated the monument Congaree National Park in 2003 (P.L. 108-108 [November 10, 2003]). Included within the park’s borders are 11,000 acres of old-growth forest, the largest contiguous tract of southern old-growth bottomland forest remaining in the United States.
The park is sustained by the rivers that bound it. Periodic floodwaters from the Congaree and Wateree rivers sweep through the bottomland forest, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate the rich floodplain ecosystem and its diverse assemblage of plants and animals. Twenty-two distinct plant associations have been classified in the floodplain portion of the park, with an additional five associations located on the low bluffs to the north. The location of wetland plant communities is dictated in large part by subtle topographic gradients in the floodplain, including elevation changes wrought by meandering river channels, lodging trees, and sedimentation from large drainages that stretch into North Carolina and drain a 14,000-square-mile watershed. Despite having an elevation change of only 20 feet in almost 15 miles, the floodplain has a surprisingly varied and complex topography, featuring flats, ridges, levees (natural and man-made), deep-water sloughs, oxbow lakes, and intermittent and permanent streams. The characteristic vegetation of individual communities is determined by soil texture and the duration of saturated soil conditions in the growing season. Due to the minimal relief in the floodplain, even slight elevation changes affect the duration and frequency of flooding, and thus the composition of plant communities.
The fertility of the floodplain, favorable growing conditions, and lack of logging allow trees to grow to very large size. The largest trees in the park have periodically been designated “champion” trees under the National Big Tree Program of the conservation group American Forests. Before Hurricane Hugo struck in September 1989, a total of 14 state and 7 national champion trees were recognized at the park. Hugo’s intense winds destroyed many of these champion trees and caused widespread, but variable, damage throughout the park. Subsequent wind events have felled other large trees, but the park still contains numerous champion trees and great potential for future champions. Champion trees in the park range from pine and oaks on more elevated sites to cypress and tupelo in sloughs and depressions.
The park’s diversity of flora and fauna, its champion trees and tall tree canopy, and a dynamic floodplain ecosystem have earned the park a number of important designations, including National Natural Landmark, Ramsar Convention Wetland of International Importance, International Biosphere Reserve, and Globally Important Bird Area. In 1988, Congress included the majority of the park in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Approximately 21,700 acres in the park are currently designated as wilderness. An additional 150 acres are designated potential wilderness, to be converted to wilderness when nonconforming uses cease. Cedar Creek is unique and unparalleled in the park, region, and nation. The South Carolina State Legislature has classified all waters within the park’s legislated boundary as Outstanding Resource Waters, and a section of Cedar Creek from Wise Lake to the Congaree River as the state’s first and only Outstanding National Resource Water.
Although largely a wilderness today, the park has a long history of human use and occupation. For thousands of years American Indians hunted, fished, and gathered plant materials in the rich floodplain environment. The Europeans and enslaved Africans who came after them ran livestock in the bottoms and grew crops on the higher floodplain ridges and natural levees. Slaves did the hard work on the park’s floodplain plantations, working fields and constructing earthen structures to protect cattle and crops from flooding. Remnants of former dikes and “cattle mounds” still survive today. Ten structures, most associated with agriculture in the floodplain, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to agriculture, parts of the park saw intermittent commercial logging from the days of first settlement. However, it was not until the 1880s and 1890s that the park was logged on a truly industrial scale. From 1899 to around 1914, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company logged cypress and hardwoods over much of the park’s current acreage. Santee focused primarily on the largest cypress trees, leaving much of the old-growth hardwood forest intact. For the next several decades, very little cutting took place in the park’s core, a 15,000-acre area known as the “Beidler Tract.” When logging resumed on the tract in 1969, local residents undertook the citizen action campaign that resulted in the establishment of the park. Since that time, the scars from past agriculture and logging have continued to fade in the Beidler Tract, allowing visitors to experience large expanses of old-growth bottomland forest.
More than 100,000 people visit the park each year to experience its remnant old-growth forest. Visitor activities include hiking, fishing, bird watching, canoeing, and camping. A 2.4-mile boardwalk loop winds through the floodplain, connecting to a network of hiking trails. The park has two walk-in campgrounds, and primitive camping is permitted throughout the backcountry. While most visitor use takes place on the elevated boardwalk and established trail network, paddling on Cedar Creek and the Congaree River is gaining popularity. In June 2007, the Congaree River from Columbia downstream to Bates Bridge Landing was dedicated as the Congaree River Blue Trail, and in 2008 this popular paddling route was designated a National Recreation Trail by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The landscape surrounding the park is rural in character, with large areas devoted to agricultural, timber, and conservation uses. The park anchors the COWASEE Basin Focus Area, a voluntary conservation partnership made up of private landowners, land trusts, and government agencies including the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. In recent years, a number of tracts on the Congaree River opposite the park have been placed in conservation easements. On its eastern end, the park connects to the Upper Santee Swamp Natural Area, a 16,700-acre special management area owned and managed by the South Carolina Public Service Authority (also known as Santee Cooper). Less than a mile upstream from the park, Richland County owns a 1,769-acre tract that it intends to use as a wetlands mitigation bank.
|Date the Park was Established:||November 10, 2003|
|Park Area (as of 2019):||26,476.47 acres (107.1 km2)|
|Recreational Visitors (2018 Total):||145929 visitors|