Saturday, May 12, 2012

Kids will love hike just inches above swamp

Raised boardwalk at Congaree National Park.
Photo courtesy Congaree NPS.
Trail map. Courtesy Congaree NPS.
Thinking of heading to a national park this year or maybe traveling through South Carolina? Consider stopping at Congaree National Park for a walk through a swamp – all from the safety and comfort of a raised boardwalk.

Just a half-hour’s drive from Columbia, the capital city, Congaree preserves the continent’s largest remaining old-growth floodland forest. This is what much of South Carolina was like during the early 1700s before European colonists settled the area.

Children (and you!) will enjoy the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail loop. You’ll head beneath a tree canopy of bald cypress, tupelo, laurel oak, sweet gum, water hickory, loblolly pine that soars 10 stories over your heads. In addition, expect to spot river otters, turtles, wood ducks and plenty of other birds along the hike.

Be forewarned: You won’t want to stop during periods of heavy rain. The trail often floods over as the wetland’s water level rises.

To reach the trail, from Interstate 77, go south on S.C. Hwy. 48. Then turn right onto Mountain View Road. In about 0.8 miles, turn right onto Old Bluff Road. You’ll reach the park entrance sign in about 0.6 miles; turn left onto the park entrance road for a mile to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

From the visitor center, head west (then south) on a stem trail that in 0.2 miles arrives at the loop. Go left/east onto the loop so that you do the trail clockwise.

In 0.5 miles, the loop reaches the junction with the Sims Trail, which heads south across the swamp, again meeting the loop on the other side. Continue on the Boardwalk Loop, which in short order veers south.

You’re now on the loop’s east side. This section of the trail is elevated up to six feet above the forest floor. It gives you a good perspective of the bottomland hardwoods and upland pines.

After 0.7 miles, the trail reaches Weston Lake. The oxbow lake at one time was once a channel of the Congaree River.

The trail curves west at the lake. In 0.2 miles, the loop junctions the Sims Trail for the second time. A former park service road, the Sims is an easy trail to negotiate, but at this point in the hike is not a good shortcut to take north back to the visitor center; it actually will add a third of a mile to the hike.

Instead, continue straight/west. After 0.3 miles, the loop turns north and becomes the “Low Boardwalk.”

Here the trail heads along the forest floor, and during or following heavy rainfalls can be submerged. Unlike the forest along the elevated boardwalk, bald cypress and water tupelo dominate. Depending on the sunlight above the canopy, this section of the trail can feel primeval (when sunny) or downright spooky (when cloudy).

The loop reaches the stem in 0.5 miles. Go left/north onto the stem trail and return to the visitor center.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.