Surprisingly few people seem to know that South Carolina is home to a U.S. National Park. Even more surprising is that many South Carolina residents are unaware of the existence of this arbor jewelled swampland. Nevertheless, it is there in all its green glory — a park that harbours the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America, with a larger concentration of champion trees than anywhere else in the nation. Within this tract of incredible biodiversity are national and state champion trees such as the laurel oak, swamp tupelo, loblolly pine, sweetgum, and water tupelo. It has been said that Congaree National Park ranks as having some of the tallest trees in the world.
According to the U.S. National Park Service, "...only the conifer forests of the Western U.S. coastal region are substantially taller. East of the Mississippi, just a few patches of white pine and some cove forests in Great Smoky Mountains NP are taller. When compared to all of the world's forests, Congaree is among the tallest."
The Goliath of Trees
Congaree is the only national park in South Carolina, and a late-comer at that since it wasn't declared a national park until 2003. Prior to that year, it was known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument. With 4,452 hectares of old-growth forest within the park confines, it is considered to be one of the crown jewels of eastern forests, harbouring an assortment of champion records and an incredible biodiversity not easily replicated. The fact that the elevated tree canopy of Congaree National Park contains some of the tallest known specimens of 15 species, marks this old growth bog as something very unique, even in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Sometimes called the "Redwoods of the East" because of the impressive height of so many first-place holders, Congaree arbor assets in the height category include: Sweetgum (48 metres), cherrybark oak (47 metres), American elm (41 metres), swamp chestnut oak (40 metres), overcup oak (39 metres), common persimmon (39 metres), and laurel oak (38 metres).
Today, the 10,522-hectare federally protected forest has designated almost two-thirds of the park as a Wilderness Area. But there's more: besides being premiered in the National Natural Landmark program, Congaree has also been conferred with the titles of International Biosphere Reserve (1983) and Globally Important Bird Area (2002). There's a lot going on here and it's called biodiversity. In fact, the park's main attractions are the 80 species of trees within, where swollen river waters seasonally deposit enriched sediments in the floodplains so as to produce one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world.
A Plurality of Champions
But this rarified place is not only a haven for giants of their species; it also harbours many champions — not a few of which exist at the sub-canopy and understory level. It has been said that for every eight square metres of land within Congaree National Park, that there are at least two champion trees. That means that this area has the largest concentration of champion trees in North America. (Champion trees, which must be a native or naturalized species to the United States, are determined by a point system that includes the trunk circumference, height, and crown spread.)
Though the count can vary due to losses from wind, fire, and natural causes, today the Congaree National Park has six national champion trees and 25 state-champion trees in South Carolina. The national champions are the deciduous holly, laurel oak, loblolly pine, swamp tupelo, sweetgum and water hickory.
Old Growth Forests
Don't expect to revel in densely packed emerald forests where shimmers of daylight are as rare as star-studded diamonds; That's what ephemeral young forests in their quest for survival of the fittest are all about. It is not Congaree. In contrast, old-growth forests contain multi-layered canopies and canopy gaps, exhibiting young, mature, and standing dead trees, also known as snags. The array of varying tree heights and diameters usually proves to be more conducive to diversity of species, both flora and fauna. Resilience is a hallmark.
For example, the sweetgum grows in the bottomland areas where rich, moist soils predominate. Plus, it tolerates flooding. However, because sweetgum is intolerant to shade, these hardwood trees are only seen in more mature forests where canopy gaps permit more sunlight to filter down to the mid-canopy and undergrowth levels. That's a good reason why Congaree has the national champion sweetgum.
Old-growth forests show their age through flatter, more horizontal crowns. Deeper lines permeate the bark of mature trees, creating character and texture — a living tribute to the ravages of time, weather, and water. Convoluted trunks contrast against straight spires of new growth, coexisting alongside chaotic decay and littered debris of stumps and fallen trees. Nevertheless, the randomness also creates inspiration: for here you will happen upon cathedral-like openness amidst cluttered pandemonium, letting you peer deep within the forest boundaries, discovering the diversity within.
If You Go:
Located about 30 minutes from South Carolina's capital of Columbia, the park offers 32 kilometres of hiking trails, with a four-kilometre Boardwalk Loop that meanders through an old-growth forest, and a low boardwalk that traipses through a primeval bald cypress and water tupelo forest.
Be sure to wear long sleeves, long pants, and pack insect repellant: Mosquitoes are quite pesky, especially in the early morning and evening hours. Sometimes the Harry Hampton Visitor Center will have bug repellant for sale at the gift shop, but don't count on it. Depending on when you go, temperatures can be sweltering along with associated high humidity. (My trips have been during the early part of May and I distinctly remember my glasses fogging up and feeling as if I were in a sauna the closer I got to the river.)
The park offers walks and talks, including the Big Tree Hike, an eight-kilometre off-trail trek through the forest in search of record trees. The visitor centre is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round. Surprisingly, admission is free.
Congaree National Park
100 National Park Rd, Hopkins, SC 29061(803) 776-4396. www.nps.gov/cong