Located in South Carolina, just a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Columbia, Congaree National Park preserves the largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest in North America. Congaree isn’t exactly a swamp, because most of the time no standing water covers the floor, but the Congaree River floods the area about 10 times per year. This lesser-known and uncrowded park combines the watery environment of the Everglades with the towering old-growth forests of the West. It’s a small 41 square miles, but you can’t explore it by driving. Hiking and canoeing are the only ways to immerse yourself in the primeval forest.
Starting from the visitor center, the flat, easy 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail is the obvious introduction to the park. The first section is elevated as much as 6 feet, while the second section rests directly on the forest floor, offering a close view of mysterious cypress knees. Along the Bluff Trail (1.7 miles), you’ll discover a forest of pines made distinct from the bottomland forest by just a tiny elevation difference. In late May, you can observe synchronous fireflies there within a more relaxed environment than at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Paddling on Cedar Creek provides you with a unique perspective and a memorable experience. The park offers free guided canoe tours, or you can rent from outfitters in Columbia.
Weather At Congaree National Park
Congaree has a humid subtropical climate. In the spring and fall, temperatures (in the 70s) and humidity (3 inches of monthly precipitation) are moderate. Summer is hot (in the 90s) and humid, with frequent thunderstorms (4.5 inches of monthly precipitation), and brings lots of mosquitoes. Winters are mild (daytime 50s, snow and freezing night temperatures possible). At that time, flooding, favorable for photography, is the most likely to occur, but the trees are bare.
In Congaree, open views are relatively rare, so most of the time you’ll be photographing deciduous forest scenes with the additional creative possibilities offered by water. Moderate wide-angle to telephoto lenses are enough. Even if you come when the forest isn’t flooded, you can still find water in creeks and lakes. In dry conditions, my favorite spot is Weston Lake, an abandoned channel of the Congaree River where I photographed trees growing out of the water, emblematic of the South. The Boardwalk Trail ends there, but to find more viewpoints, I continued along the shores of Weston Lake on the 2-mile Weston Lake Loop Trail. On that day, with variable weather, I waited for a cloud to obscure the sun and lower the contrast so that the trees back in the forest would be visible, adding a bit of depth to the photograph. OP
Best Times To Visit
Spring and autumn have pleasant weather. In the early spring, you’re more likely to find the forest flooded while fresh leaves begin. The most beautiful time is in late autumn, with fall colors peaking from late October to early November. The forest is most easily photographed on cloudy days. On a clear day, you may want to photograph early in the morning or late in the day when the contrast is reduced.
Contact: National Park Service, nps.gov/cong/index.htm.
See more of QT Luong’s work at terragalleria.com.