National Park Number: 29 of 59
Early in our trip, we met a couple who was visiting their last of the 59 National Parks. They were excited to talk to us about all their favorites; when we asked if there were any duds, they said, “Congaree. It’s just ugly.”
Now that we have visited Congaree, I’d love to talk to that couple again and ask what the devil Congaree they were looking at, because this place is GORGEOUS. During the spring and summer, the forest is completely green and dense with leaves; we visited after many of the trees had shed their foliage, so we had longer views and more variety of color. Also, wonderfully, NO MOSQUITOES. The visitor’s center had a horrifying mosquito rating system, which went from All Clear to Severe, then Ruthless and finally War Zone. We saw very few of the hellions, and we were very glad.
We started our visit off with a ranger- (or in this case, volunteer-) guided walk for a few miles along the boardwalk through the forest; it was a perfect introduction because here, as is usually the case, it’s much easier to appreciate the landscape the more you know about it.
Congaree was established as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, but it’s not a swamp—it’s actually an old-growth, bottomland, floodplain forest. These types of forests used to stretch across the Southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Texas, but nearly all the trees fell to logging in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Congaree was preserved mostly due to luck—bad luck for its owners, who struggled to clear the often-flooded trees, and great luck for everyone else, because by the 1950s, Congaree was the largest, oldest, and best-preserved floodplain forest left in the country. Now it’s the only area left of this once vast ecology.
Congaree has one of the largest concentrations of champion trees in the world, which means many of its trees are the largest known examples of their species. The tallest tree in the park is the loblolly pine which, in addition to having a stellar name, is the tallest pine species on the east coast.
But our favorite tree here was the cypress, with their stalagmite-looking knees scattered around the forest floor. These knees are sections of root that come up above the surface, bent in the middle of the root like a knuckle. Scientists speculate that the knees are there to help stabilize the tree in the super-saturated ground, but they don’t really know for sure. The knees give the forest an almost magical quality, like they’re little trolls frozen in place til we turn our backs.
After Congaree was established as a National Park in 2003, over two-thirds of it was set aside as wilderness, which makes is one of the largest (and only) wilderness areas in the Eastern U.S. The park is a vital bird habitat, and many of the other visitors we saw were birders.
But the heart of the park is its water. The area formed because of the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. These frequently flood and cover almost all the park land with water, including its boardwalk trails. We got our kayak out on the water, and immediately decided it was one of our favorite experiences of the trip.
We were paddling on Cedar Creek; the water was quiet, with a nearly undetectable current, and being at water level allowed us to appreciate the enormity of the surrounding trees. It was an incredibly peaceful paddle; everything was silent except the birds (and us, of course, because we have kids), and we were completely smitten by the landscape.
We do a lot of cool things, and we think all the time about how grateful we are for all of it. But there are moments where it hits us hard—we are so lucky to be alive, to have these incredible places to visit and learn about, to have legs that can carry us along the trails and arms that can paddle us along the water. I want to say we never take all this for granted, but of course we do. Our family has been focusing lately on gratitude, and though we often feel grateful, articulating aloud or on paper exactly what we are grateful for makes an enormous difference in our sense of peace and joy. I’m starting to think gratitude is the great panacea, the one thing that, if practiced, will save us all.
I thought it would be easier to practice gratitude while on this trip, being smacked in the face with the most gorgeous landscapes in the country. But it’s still a practice, something we have to consciously choose to engage with. When we are intentional with it, it changes the way we feel and relate to each other; on this visit, we were feeling very intentional and very, very grateful.