So last Friday night Breeah and I set off on a whirlwind two days. Destination: South Carolina. 1,128 miles later, just after 11:20 p.m. on Sunday, we pulled into the parking lot of our apartment – just less than 53 hours after we left. That – my friends – is how to make the most of a short weekend!

We rested up in Raleigh, N.C. on Friday – but the highlight of Saturday was Congaree National Park, one of the newest parks of the 58 in the U.S. Park system – though that’s a bit of a misrepresentation as Congaree is one of the oldest protected forests in the country.

Congaree National Park welcomes you!

So our plan was to drive to Congaree and then head to Myrtle Beach to spend the night and most of the next day. What I didn’t anticipate (even in researching distances) was just how long and a bit out of the way the drive to Congaree was. It’s situated near the South Carolina capital city of Columbia, which you skirt by before heading off on side roads around Hopkins, SC. But getting there is almost a four-hour drive from Raleigh – so be sure to head out early (like we did) if you want to spend some good time at the park. (The “South of the Border” attraction as you enter South Carolina wasn’t going to deter us – as much as we would have loved to stop).

The journey begins on the lower boardwalk...

It is here that the relative familiarity of fall colors and roadside scenery makes an obvious shift. You know that feeling one gets when you are nearing a National Park? You can just tell you’re in a unique, natural environment. You start seeing things that you’ve never seen elsewhere, or in such volume. Knobby Cypress  growing out of the swamp on one side of the road and taller, thinner trees riddled with various overgrowth dominating the scene on the other.

Cypress knees dot the landscape

The great news about Congaree is it is a free park! We didn’t see much traffic on our way, but the parking lot was full with hikers and other various amateur explorers. If you so chose, it’s a 30 second walk right past the interpretive center/gift shop right into the park! It’s really easy to just get here and go. As it was our first time visit, naturally we stopped inside before venturing off into the wilderness.

Breeah next to a "champion" tree - this picture doesn't do it justice

The center does a great job portraying the history of the Congaree Swamp (formerly known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument) and the efforts to save the old growth forest. For size comparison sake – there are replicas of downed and upright trees that are just mammoths in size. While these are somewhat rare in the park, especially after Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc a few years back  – there are many of these “champion”-size trees still scattered through Congaree.

What I like to call "angel hair" - a typical overgrowth at this park

We got off on our hike through the “boardwalk loop”, a popular walk through Congaree that circles the northwestern region and takes you through most of the typical scenery you’d see around the rest of the park. Though swampy and wet conditions existed in spots, the floodplain was rather dry – I imagine flood conditions occur more regularly as you get further into winter and spring. At times the lower portion of the boardwalk becomes impassable and sometimes damaged in times of higher water levels.

Hardy Palms scattered throughout the southern end of the boardwalk

You couldn’t have asked for a better way to experience Congaree on our venture through, though. A beautiful mid-November day in weather that you could just exist in. Nothing too hot or too cold – a mild 60-something day with a shining sun. Perfect weather to go trampling about in a primeval forest.

A squirrel nabs an acorn from above

We started our loop on the lower boardwalk side and soon were greeted by lots of little, tiny gnome statues – at least how Breeah described them. These “shrines” are really cypress knees – which grow out of the swamp to apparently inhibit oxygen intake for the roots when the ground has flooded out. This is more speculation than fact, but whatever the case for these knees existing, they sure make an interesting spectacle.

The forest canopy is very high here

The loop continues on to feature more old growth and a personal meet-and-greet with one of the tallest trees in the park. Breeah and I waited our turn to get pictures with it as another family was currently engaged with the mammoth tree. The backdrop here is Weston Lake – the largest body of water among the many veins coming to and from the Congaree River throughout the park.

Yes, it really gets this dense in spots

The only wildlife we frequently spotted were resident squirrels – who in most locales wouldn’t cause much interest. Here I couldn’t help but be completely fascinated by them. They were all over! At one point we counted at least ten of them within eyeshot, moving about frantically, collecting food and burrowing through leaves and sticks. At one point one dropped an acorn on me – almost as if to say, “hey, want to play?”. Breeah and I stopped for awhile and watched the squirrel community at work. You really felt that you were now part of their habitat and they’ve let you into their home.

A typical scene in Congaree

The raised boardwalk has a more magical, ethereal quality with various greens, reds and whites (the hanging “angel hair” overgrowth is especially interesting – I’m curious about the name for this as I forgot to ask a ranger on my way out).

There are many miles of cotton fields just outside the park's perimeters

If you have a couple hours to kill in South Carolina – a trip to Congaree will easily do the trick. I’d have loved to enjoy more of the park and it’s various trails – it was free entertainment at its best. There truly is nothing more rewarding than immersing yourself in the natural treasures of our country and getting away from the hectic pace of our own lives. That said – my frantic weekends don’t allow for much down time – so it was off to Myrtle Beach!

To be continued…

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