Congaree National Park is a little gem near Colombia, South Carolina that is infrequently visited by anyone who isn't a resident of the state. It contains one of the rarest environments in the United States- an old growth cypress swamp. The outdoor adventure opportunities are quite diverse even though it is one of the smaller NPS units.

Congaree National Park is a unique wilderness
Day: 23
Miles: 3,500

An added benefit of my 500 mile detour out to Charleston was being within range of Congaree National Park. I call it one of the "hipster parks" i.e. parks that "you're not cool enough to know about". Congaree is probably one of the least visited parks in the contiguous US. I'm sure its because most people are unaware of how rare this swamp-like environment is and would probably not make a vacation out of it like they do for Yellowstone or Yosemite. Well I would! Old-growth anything is worth the travel, these days.

There's two things that you can't leave the park without doing; hiking the boardwalk trail and kayaking the Cedar Creek Trail. These are good ways to explore things within a day's time. There's also a 50 mile water trail along the Congaree which would be a great multi-day trip. As for me, my little section was a nice showcase of biodiversity of the area-

View Paddling Congaree National Park in a larger map

The boardwalk trail was a nice start for me. It is a very easy and flat "trail" which follows a raised and ground level boardwalk through a lovely section of the park. There's a self-guided nature tour which is helpful in identifying plants and trees. Weston Lake is an oxbow lake which is also a nice stop along the way. I've never really explored this section of the country so everything was new for me. I constantly took pictures.
It felt like walking through a rainforest
Boardwalk trail
Everybody seemed to agree that the best way to see the park was from a kayak or canoe. Cedar Creek is a maintained paddling trail that is a great way to experience the old growth forest. It runs about 7 miles from the two put-in spots above and continues on to the Congaree River. The ranger told me that the lower section, just before the Congaree, is where some of the finest trees are. I was disappointed I didn't have this opportunity today.

The creek does vary significantly by season and by day; check with the park ranger to know if water levels are high enough for your boat. I was fortunate that they were running quite high that day because I have a 16.5 foot ocean kayak! I wouldn't recommend a boat this large...
Kayaking through a swamp!
Old growth cypress
I put in at the launch on South Cedar Creek Road. There was a 100 yard walk with my boat which I'm sure prevents the motorboat crowd from putting in. Surprisingly, there was a strong current today! My plan was to paddle as far up river as I could and then just let the river carry me down. While the current wasn't rapids, it did take some work to get a good pace going.

There was life everywhere on the trail. Birds, insects and occasional feral hogs made a terrific amount of noise. It was a natural symphony. Although I was alone, I kept saying out loud, "Its like I'm in a rainforest"!

The water trail was very well maintained and marked. As swamps can sometimes be an impossible mix of semi-rivers and plain wetlands, it can be very easy to get lost. The park service does a fair amount of work on a regular basis to make sure this doesn't happen. I knew I was heading down the wrong creek because the vegetation would be too thick to get a boat though. It might be a little strange to be kayaking through a swamp-river but it was as easy to follow as a regular river.
Sometimes the forest seemed to close in on me
Feral swine. Unfortunately these are a highly destructive invasive species
I'd recommend a smaller boat...
I paddled as far as I could on my brief timeline and then just let the river carry me back. All I really had to do was put the rudder in the water and avoid obstacles. It was effortless.

All in all, it ended up being a nice 10 miler through a unique environment. I'm quite happy about this "detour" which allowed me to see much of South Carolina which even residents never see. Certainly it made me appreciate this relative newcomer to the NPS scene.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!