When our earliest ancestors came here to the New World they found a lush, green expanse filled with tall trees and multitudes of wildlife. Much of what they saw is now gone, replaced by modern cities and their suburbs. But there is one bit of land that has gone untouched by man. It is a place where you can see the New World as our ancestors saw it, an old growth forest relatively devoid of man. That place is Congaree National Park in South Carolina.
Timber was one of this nation’s earliest exports. It was abundant here and in short supply in Europe. Our old growth forests though were nearly logged out of existence. Despite its location near Columbia and along the Congaree River, the forest that is now called Congaree National Park was deemed too difficult to log. Because of that local loggers went elsewhere leaving Congaree alone. By doing so the forest was able to thrive. The bottomlands are rich with silt that encourages tree growth, silt carried in with the flows of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and their numerous tributaries.
The trees here have grown tall, in some cases to record heights. Loblolly pines usually aren’t found in bottomlands and yet they have thrived here, with one reaching 169 feet, a record for this species. Oaks, ash, hickory, elm, cypress and sycamores are some of the most common trees here, rising high into the forest canopy. Because of the bottomland the root system for many is partially above ground, meaning when the tree grows too high it topples over cycling nutrients back into the ground. Numerous birds fish, and other mammals also call the forest home.
Congaree escaped the axe for much of its existence but as technology improved loggers began to cast their sight on it. This was not lost of the environmentalist organization The Sierra Club and in 1969 they began a grassroots effort to save the forest from loggers who were anxious to cut it down as timber prices had soared. The park received federal protection as a National Monument in 1976 and became a National Park in 2003. Numerous walking trails take visitors through the park, most famously the Harry Hampton Boardwalk, which allows visitors to walk through the floodplain without getting wet. But the best way to see the park is to kayak or canoe the Congaree, with over 50 miles of the river residing within the park’s boundaries.