Day trip to the Dawn of Creation

The cypress swamp at Congaree National Park, a day trip to another era.

To travel back to Earth’s distant past, you need only make a one-hour drive to Congaree National Park near Hopkins. From Blythewood or Winnsboro, drive about 50 miles and you can enter cypress-vaulted cathedrals that tower over black water. You can canoe or walk beneath one of Earth’s tallest canopies. Everything is free and you can bring your dog.

When you arrive, park near the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Rangers will answer your questions and help you plan your day. Check out the natural and cultural history exhibits. Watch a film on the park’s history and activities.

More than 25 miles of hiking trails lead you into Congaree floodplain wilderness. (Colored markers keep you on trails.) The 2.4-mile boardwalk, suspended over still water and swampland, can be walked in two hours or less. (Limited access for dogs.) From it you can spot ample wildlife. Varying seasons bring different species. Look for cardinal flowers, salamanders, mushrooms, tree frogs and even osprey. Want a guide to explain things? Call the park to make reservations for special walks and canoe trips.

You’ll find much to do all day — picnicking, fishing, kayaking and just enjoying the beauty and serenity. Bring your own canoe or kayak, and don’t be surprised to find yourself staring up a lot. South Carolina’s last virgin forest stands as tall as any temperate deciduous forest in the world. World-record size trees here take their place among California’s redwoods and Yosemite’s sequoias. Three-hundred-year-old loblolly pines, exceeding 15 feet in circumference and 150 feet tall, reach into the sky.

Before saws and dams arrived, 24 million acres of bottomland beauty carpeted the East Coast. Congaree Swamp — the one bottomland refusing to go quietly in the night — saved itself, but not without a fight. In the 1890s, loggers felled some bald cypress monarchs whose water-soaked logs sunk in revenge rather than float downriver to saw mills. The frustrated loggers abandoned their quest. Only nature has touched Congaree since.

Nature set this green-variegated gem — the country’s 57th national park and South Carolina’s first — along the Congaree River’s north bank some 20 miles southeast of Columbia. It’s the country’s largest contiguous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.

Exploring the park will work up an appetite. Unless you plan to make the 25-minute drive down Bluff Road to a restaurant in Columbia, you might want to pack a picnic for eating in designated areas.

Drive. It’s there — the dawn of creation, you could say. Walk the boardwalk over the black water. Take trails deep into the primeval forest. Canoe where otters braid through cypress knees. Inhale the same rich forest scents prehistoric foragers breathed. Then let out a thankful sigh that a relic of the great forest primeval endures — just a day trip away.

If You Go …

• No entrance or tour fees.

• Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

• Visitor Center 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

• There are three rest rooms and one is open 24/7.

• For directions visit http://www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm

803.776.4396

Learn more about Tom Poland, a southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]