A Last Stand for Floodplain Forests
Along the meandering Congaree and Wateree rivers rests Congaree National Park, a world of primeval forest, champion trees, diverse plant and animal life, and tranquility. This park protects over 25,000 acres of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, the largest such area left in the United States. Congaree's bottomland forest is a wetland system of the Congaree and Wateree rivers. Because the park experiences wet and dry periods as the rivers flood and recede with seasonal rains, the vitality of the park's forest ecosystem depends on the good health of the rivers.
Until the late 1800s huge expanses of floodplain forests enriched the southeastern United Stateswith over one million acres in South Carolina alone. In the 1880s the lumber industry began harvesting these forests. Many remnants that survived the ax and plow were drowned by reservoirs. In less than 50 years most of these great bottomland forests were destroyed.
Congaree's trees escaped large-scale cutting because logging was especially hard here. Francis Beidler, whose lumber company owned bottomland forests in South Carolina, decided to leave the Congaree forest alone. Logging along the Congaree River ceased in 1914. In the 1950s conservationist Harry Hampton recognized the Congaree forest was one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind and began efforts to protect it. Two decades later; when logging again threatened the area's giant trees, a public campaign led to establishing Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. In the following decades, the park was expanded and thousands of acres were designated as wilderness. In 2003 it became Congaree National Park. Today the park is a sanctuary for plants and animals, a research site for scientists, and a peaceful place for you to explore a forest of towering trees and diverse wildlife.
River, Floodplain. and Forest
Home of Champions
Congaree National Park is known for its unusual array of giant trees that hold the record for size of their species, including loblolly pines, hickories, and bald cypress. Both the canopies and understories of the park's forest harbor these giants. Their growth depends on the floodwaters of the Congaree and Wateree rivers.
Floods are essential to the park's entire wetland ecosystem because they deposit rich soils whose nutrients support the parkt complex plant communities. They occur when heavy rains fall within the Congaree and Wateree river watersheds. These watersheds drain over 14,000 square miles of northwestern South Caro!ina and western North Carolina. The park's wetlands depend on these upstream waters being healthy and clean.
Flooding typically occurs in the Congaree and Wateree river floodplain several times a year, usually in winter and early spring. The park's floodplain is relatively flat, with only a 2O-foot drop over 23 miles of river. Floodwaters enter the floodplain when the rivers overflow their natural banks and rise through breaks in the banks. In the floodplain the water courses through a network of creeks, sloughs, and guts; some of them are former riverbeds. Once these are filled, the water spreads across flat ground.
The forest is always changing. Windstorms and other natural disturbances are common in southeastern bottomland forests, altering the composition and character of these dynamic ecosystems. Impressive heights and shallow root systems make some of Congareet trees especially prone to toppling. When a large tree falls, its crown may leave a half-acre opening in the forest canopy, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. Vines and other sun-loving plants quickly occupy these openings. Slower growing, shade-tolerant plants emerge, block the sunlight, and eventually reclaim the open space. The downed trees, limbs, and logs on the forest floor provide homes to many animals and contribute to the variety of habitats and biodiversity.
A Forest's Profile
Floodplain Forests and Elevation
Sweetgum and Mixed Hardwoods
Cross-section of the Congaree River Floodplain
Understory and Forest Floor
The combination of loblolly pines with hardwoods is an uncommon forest association in floodplains. Past disturbances of normal forest succession patterns enabled the loblollies to gain a foothold. The exact cause and sequence of disturbances that encourage loblolly regeneration remain a mystery.
Exploring Congaree National Park
Stop at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center for information and program schedule, exhibits, a park film, and a bookstore. The visitor center is open daily year-round, except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1.
If you are planning an overnight trip in the park, stop by the visitor center to obtain camping regulations, safety information, maps, and a free camping permit. Permits are granted for up to two weeks; the limit is 28 days in any six-month period. If you will be camping in the backcountry, bring a stove for cooking because fires are prohibited. If you are in the campground, you must use existing fire rings.
You may experience the park's natural wonders on land or water. The boardwalk loop provides wheelchair and stroller ac(ess to Weston Lake and foot access to other trails that wind through the floodplain. Colored blazes (markers) make the trails easy to follow. Free ranger-guided nature walks and canoe tours are available.
A marked canoe trail invites you to explore Cedar Creek in your own canoe or kayak. You can also rent canoes and other gear from a variety of outfitters in the Columbia, SC area. Before embarking on any boat trip in the park, be sure to check water levels online or by contacting park staff.
Safety and Regulations
Getting to the Park
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Place of Nature and Culture: The Founding of Congaree National Park, South Carolina (Elizabeth J. Almlie, extract from Federal History, Issue 3, ©Society for the History in the Federal Government, 2011)
Advertising and Social Media Strategy for America's National Parks: A Case Study of Congaree National Park (©Abigail Gallup, Thesis, South Carolina Honors College, December 2021)
An Archeological Survey of Congaree Swamp: Cultural Resources Inventory and Assessment of a Bottomland Environment in Central South Carolina Research Manuscript Series 163 (James L. Michie, University of South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, July 1980)
Anuran Community Monitoring at Congaree National Park, 2011 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SECN/NRDS-2013/527 (Briana D. Smrekar, Michael W. Byrne, Marylou N. Moore and Aaron T. Pressnell, August 2013)
Anuran Community Monitoring at Congaree National Park, 2014 Data Summary NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SECN/NRDS-2015/988 (Briana D. Smrekar and Michael W. Byrne, November 2015)
Assessment of Water Resources and Watershed Conditions in Congaree National Park, South Carolina NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SECN/NRR-2010/267 (Michael A. Mallin and Matthew R. McIver, December 2010)
Barriers to a Backyard National Park: Case Study of African American Communities in Columbia, SC NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR-2012/604 (Yen Le, Nancy C. Holmes and Colleen Kulesza, December 2012)
Concentrations of metals in bed material in the area of Congaree Swamp National Monument and in water in Cedar Creek, Richland County, South Carolina USGS Open-File Report 90-370 (Theodore W. Cooney, 1990)
Congaree National Park: An Evolving Approach to Managing Nature and History in the National Park Service (©Jason Harris Aldridge, Master's Thesis University of Georgia, 2014)
Deeply Rooted: The Story of Congaree National Park (Taylor Waters Karlin, Winter 2015)
Disturbance History and Establishment of Loblolly Pine in the Congaree Swamp Final Report (Neil Pederson and Robert H. Jones, August 24, 1994)
Foundation Document, Congaree National Park, South Carolina (October 2014)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Congaree National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2014/857 (J.P. Graham, October 2014)
Identifying Values and Benefits of Congaree National Park (Maka Bitsadze, Master's thesis, 2013)
Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy: Congaree National Park, 2005 (Daniel J. Stynes, August 2007)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Congaree National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SECN/NRR-2018/1665 (JoAnn M. Burkholder, Elle H. Allen, Carol A. Kinder and Stacie Flood, June 2018)
Preliminary report of findings of the contaminant assessment process for the Congaree Swamp National Monument (James Coyle, Patrick Anderson and Marcia Nelson, December 1997)
Species Diversity and Condition of the Fish Community During a Drought in Congaree National Park Final Report (L. Rose and J. Bulak, October 2005)
Summary of Amphibian Community Monitoring at Congaree National Park, 2010 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SECN/NRDS-2011/167 (Michael W. Byrne, Briana D. Smrekar, Marylou N. Moore, Casey S. Harris and Brent A. Blankley, May 2011)
Vegetation Community Monitoring at Congaree National Park, 2010 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SECN/NRDS-2012/259 (Michael W. Byrne, Sarah L. Corbett and Joseph C. DeVivo, March 2012)
Vegetation Community Monitoring at Congaree National Park, 2014 Data Summary NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SECN/NRDS-2016/1016 (Sarah Corbett Heath and Michael W. Byrne, May 2016)
Wadeable Stream Habitat Monitoring at Congaree National Park: 2018 Baseline Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SECN/NRR-2021/2264 (Christopher S. Cooper, Jacob M. Bateman McDonald and Eric N. Starkey, June 2021)
Water Resources Management Plan, Congaree Swamp National Monument (David B. Knowles, Mark M. Brinson, Richard A. Clark and Mark D. Flora, May 1996)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 30-Jul-2022