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Congaree Holiday Trip

posted Dec 23, 2014, 6:14 AM by Justin P   [ updated Dec 26, 2014, 5:42 PM ]
This past Sunday on the Winter Solstice, we headed down to South Carolina for a holiday trip to Congaree National Park.  Since it’s pretty much a great big swamp, winter is definitely the best time to visit.  Today, the mosquito meter at the visitor center was 1 - All Clear; I would not want to visit when it’s at 6 - War Zone!

We left Raleigh around 7 and made it to the park around 10:30 and soon got started on our hike.  Behind the visitor center, we got on the boardwalk trail and turned left at the first intersection to hike the boardwalk loop in the clockwise direction.  Due to an ice storm last year, part of the elevated boardwalk was closed so we turned right onto Sims Trail south through the forest.  This trail is not blazed, but runs along an old gravel road and was easy to follow.  At the south end of the trail, there were some beautiful sloughs with water tupelo and bald cypress.

Though you wouldn't know from looking at it, this area is actually not a swamp, because it's not always flooded.  When the Congaree River floods, the area is inundated with water, but eventually, it flows back out to the river through small guts as the water level of the river goes down.  Past the sloughs, we turned left on the boardwalk and followed it to the end at the closed Elevated Boardwalk Trail.  Although most of the elevated boardwalk was closed, a short section that leads to an overlook on Weston Lake was still open, so we were able to go out there for views of the oxbow lake.  There was Spanish moss hanging from trees along the shore making for a beautiful scene.

From here, we got on Weston Lake Loop Trail and hiked along the edge of Weston Lake and through more sloughs and even saw some dwarf palmetto growing along the trail.  It seemed strange to see palms in the winter!

We crossed one footbridge at the end of Weston Lake Loop Trail and on the next, turned right to get on Oakridge Trail, heading deeper into the forest.  This trail runs between Cedar Creek and Congaree River with many small guts for floodwaters to drain back into the river.  There were several footbridges only this trail, and at the second, we stopped for quick lunch and the continued on.  In about a mile, we came to the next footbridge and turned left to get on River Trail.  Shortly after getting on this trail, we met up with John and some friends who had camped here the night before.  There were very few other people in the park and yet we managed to run into our friends deep in the woods.  John took us on a quick detour off the trail to see where they had camped - and a champion cherrybark oak.  It was a really big tree.

John had a measuring tape and we measured the circumference to be 25 feet 4 inches at approximately four feet off the ground.

We got some pictures with the champion, then headed back to the trail.  John and his group were heading back, so we said good-bye, and continued on the River Trail.  In about a mile, the trail split to form a loop and we headed left, eventually reaching Congaree River.  There were a few places to head out to the bank for a view of the river, but the best spot was about 2 miles from the split, where we were able to go out onto the sandbar in the river.  The water level was low enough that we were able to go out into the river, nearly to the middle on the sandbar.

After a few minutes here, we started heading back as it was getting late and the sun would be setting soon.  At the start of River Trail, we crossed the footbridge and finished Oakridge Trail at Wise Lake.  We then followed Weston Lake Loop Trail back to the boardwalk.  Along the way, we saw a couple feral pigs just off the trail.  It looked like a mother and two piglets, though they were difficult to see amidst the vegetation.  Then we got back on the boardwalk and finished our hike up back at the visitor center, enjoying one last walk through the beautiful sloughs of bald cypress and water tupelo.

Leaving the park, we headed into Sumter and had Mexican for dinner at Yucatan.  Unfortunately, they don’t serve alcohol on Sundays so no beer with our fajitas.  Then we went to Swan Lake & Iris Gardens for the Fantasy of Lights.  The display included more than a million Christmas lights.  

We walked around here for a while getting pictures of the lights before heading home.. Here's a video I made of our trip: