Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park sees more than 145 thousand visitors each year

On the Congaree River, Congaree National Park is the largest portion of old-growth floodplain forest left in North America. Some of the trees are the tallest in the eastern United States. An elevated walkway called the Boardwalk Loop guides visitors through the swamp.


A foundation of flood plains gives Congaree National Park its ecosystem

Congaree National Park protects a complex and diverse mosaic of floodplain geology and hydrology, including land forms, water bodies, and ecosystems. The park’s landscape features, topography, and soil types have been shaped by past migrations of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, historic climate change, the existence of geologic faults, the forest itself, and human activities. These elements in turn affect the distribution of plant and animal species in the park, as well as human interactions with the landscape.

Periodic floodwaters from the Congaree and Wateree rivers sweep through the bottomland forest, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate the rich floodplain ecosystem. Twenty-two distinct plant associations have been classified in the floodplain portion of the park, with an additional five associations located on the low bluffs to the north. The location of wetland plant communities is dictated in large part by subtle topographic gradients in the floodplain, including elevation changes wrought by meandering river channels, large woody debris, and sedimentation from large drainages that stretch into North Carolina and drain a 14,000-square-mile watershed.

Despite having an elevation change of only 20 feet in almost 15 miles, the floodplain has a surprisingly varied and complex topography, featuring flats, ridges, levees (natural and man-made), deep-water sloughs, oxbow lakes, and intermittent and permanent streams. The characteristic vegetation of individual communities is determined by soil texture and the duration of saturated soil conditions in the growing season. Due to the minimal relief in the floodplain, even slight elevation changes affect the duration and frequency of flooding, and thus the composition of plant communities.

Geology Field Notes
Students and teachers of college-level (or AP) introductory geology or earth science teaching courses will find that each park’s Geologic Resource Inventory report includes the Geologic History, Geologic Setting, and Geologic Features & Processes for the park which provides a useful summary of their overall geologic story. See Maps and Reports, below.

Regional Geology
Congaree is a part of the Coastal Plain Province and shares its geologic history and some characteristic geologic formations with a region that extends well beyond park boundaries.

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swampland in congaree national park

Photo courtesy of NPS

Native American History

Congaree is one of the many tribes that roamed this flood plain

November is celebrated nationwide as Native American month. While most people do not think of South Carolina when they think of the indigenous people of the United States, the fact is that there were four to five dozen Indian tribes living within the boundary of the modern Palmetto State when the first European settlers arrived. Sadly, all that remains of these people are the Catawbas, who live near Rock Hill, South Carolina and are the only federally recognized Indian tribe in the state. There are fifteen Native American “remnant tribes,” special interest groups or organizations who have received state recognition. All others are considered lost.

The name of one of those lost tribes is preserved today as one of the most popular names used for businesses and places in the greater Columbia area: “Congaree,” after the river that flows past the city. The Congaree River is created by the junction of the Broad and Saluda Rivers. Though many are aware that the river is named after a tribe of Native Americans, few know the story of the people for whom the river is named.

Archeology has shown that the area around Congaree Creek, below Cayce, has had constant human occupation for about 12,000 years. Some of the oldest spear points found east of the Mississippi River have been discovered in this area as well as pottery shards and arrowheads.

Eventually during the Mississippian Period (1000-500 years ago) the early residents of the area became known as the Congarees. While their language is “lost” some have theorized that the name Congaree might be a Catawba word meaning “river deep” while others suggest that it may mean “where the river hits the rocks” referring to its location on the fall line. The Congaree were probably of the Siouan language group and their language may have been similar to that of the Catawbas. (Some have theorized that they were an off-shoot of the Catawbas.)

The Congarees were primarily hunter-gatherers who lived off fish, deer and other wild game, though they also had small farms of corns, beans and squash. Hickory and “chinkapin” nuts were also a major part of their diet and were used to cure venison and to make a venison stew. They also ate peaches, though where they got them is unclear. The Congaree were not a large tribe – estimates put their numbers around 800 people in 1600. Sadly, virtually nothing is known about their culture.

Like all of South Carolina’s indigenous people, the Congarees’ way of life was dramatically changed by the arrival of white settlers. Smallpox, in particular, greatly reduced the tribe’s numbers. In 1701 English adventurer John Lawson visited the tribe, giving us one of the few first-hand descriptions of the Congarees in his 1709 pamphlet A New Collection of Voyages and Travels. With Historical Accounts of Discoveries and Conquest In all Parts of the World. He found them living on the northeast bank of the Santee River below the junction of the Wateree River. Their town consisted of about 12 houses, made of clay and sticks, though the tribe had sprawling farms up and down the countryside. They were considered to be a friendly tribe. The Congaree were also noted for having athletic bodies with the men considered very handsome, while the women were said to be more beautiful than those of other area tribes.

According to Lawson, “These Congarees have abundance of cranes and storks in their sandhillcranefeb12_08_07-2savannahs. They take them before they can fly, and breed them as tame and familiar as a dung-hill fowl. They had a tame crane at one of these cabins that was scarce less than six feet in height, his head being round, with a shining natural crimson hue which they all have,” He further states the birds were “above five feet high when extended; their quills are excellent for pens; their flesh makes the best broth, yet it is hard to digest. They are easily bred, and are excellent in a garden to destroy frogs, worms, and other vermin.”

A 1715 map shows the tribe living on the Congaree River opposite of what would become Columbia. A census that year shows the tribe had 22 men and 70 women and children. Also in 1715 the Congaree allied themselves with the Yamasee in a war against the European colonists. The results were a disaster for the Congarees. Over half of them were captured and enslaved and sent to the West Indies in 1716. After the South Carolina backcountry was subdued in 1717, a trading post named Fort Congaree was built in 1718 where Congaree Creek and the Congaree River meet. The site was strategic both militarily and commercially since it was located near the Cherokee Trail which connected Charleston to the South Carolina upstate. However due to flooding and the reduction in the numbers of Indians living in the area, the fort fell into disuse by 1722.

Sometime after the Yamasee War the few remaining Congaree joined their Catawba cousins. They may have, for at least a while, remained a separate group within the Catawbas. James Adair, a trader who knew the Catawbas well, wrote that during a 1743 visit he heard some of the tribal members speak a “Cangaree [sic]” dialect. That is the last known record of the Congaree. Some of the current members of the Catawba Indian Nation, which number about 2600 are believed to be descendants of the Congarees.

Free guided walking tours of the area that the Congaree once called home and the site of Fort Congaree, as well as the Confederate earthworks used to defend Columbia from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865 are being offered by the 12,000 Year History Park Working Group, the City of Cayce and The River Alliance. Each two-mile tour lasts about an hour and a half and is led by National Park Service trained volunteers. On the tour, visitors will learn about living in the Ice Age, the development of the tribes of the Mississippian Period, the impact of contact with Europeans, and the culture and traditions of area Native Americans. Visitors will also go near the site of Fort Congaree. Tours will be offered throughout the month of November and in spring 2017. Group tours are also available by appointment. The tours start at the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center located at 1120 Fort Congaree Trail, just off of Exit 2 on I-77 and the 12th Street Extension. 803-765-2200.

In addition, visitors can walked to the sites via the Timmerman Trail during daylight hours. The paved trail is mostly ADA compliant, but there are a few rough spots. Please do not stray from the trail as there are snakes and alligators in the area. The trail can also be used for jogging and bicycle riding. Regardless of when you go it is recommended you wear comfortable shoes and a hat. Sunscreen, water and insect repellent are also strongly suggested. Those with allergies may wish to carry an epi-pen. Currently there are no restroom facilities on the trail, but you may use the facilities at the tennis center.

The nearby Cayce Museum located at 1800 12th Street, next to the Cayce Municipal Centercayce-historical-museum-interior has the Southeast’s largest collection of Native American artifacts. Among the 7000 items found in the Cayce area that are on display are fifteen Clovis points. Named after Clovis, N.M., where they were first found in 1929, Clovis points are pointed projectiles that date from the Paleoindian period about 13,500 years old. Also on display is a diorama of a Congaree Indian village. It is open from 9am-4pm Tuesday through Friday and Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 5pm. Admission is Adults $2, children (age 12 & under) 50 cents, seniors/students $1 with free admission on Sundays.

For those interested in a road trip, the Catawba Reservation’s Cultural Center is located at 1536 Tom Steven Road, Rock Hill, SC. The Cultural Center features exhibits that showcase the rich culture and history of the Catawba Indian Nation, and staff members are there to answer questions you may have. The center also has a gift shop featuring crafts made by Catawba artisans. The center is opened Monday through Friday 8-5. Admission is free.

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Park History

How Congaree became a National Park

Though known for its unique natural features such as magnificent stands of bald cypress and tremendous biodiversity, the landscape of Congaree has a rich cultural heritage as well. People have been using the floodplain for many purposes for over 13,000 years, long before it became a national park. While water has been an enduring force that has shaped this landscape, humans have left their mark as well. From prehistoric natives to Spanish explorers, Revolutionary War patriots to escaped slaves, loggers and conservationists, this forest landscape is rich in the stories of the people who have called it both a home and a refuge, and have helped to make it what it is today.

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Photo courtesy of NPS


The best things to do at Congaree National Park

Whether you are coming out for a short stroll on the boardwalk or taking a canoe trip down Cedar Creek, Congaree has a variety of ways for you to enjoy your visit to the park. However you choose to see Congaree, there are an abundance of opportunities to experience the wonders of wilderness and explore the splendor of one of the oldest and tallest forests east of the Mississippi.

Park Activities
Canoeing and Kayaking
Ranger Led Programs

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Photo courtesy of NPS


The forest canopy offers home to a multitude of plant life 

The primary significance of Congaree National Park is demonstrated through its unique bottomland hardwood forest communities, the overall height of the forest canopy and associated number of national and state champion trees, as well as the presence of a well-preserved, biologically diverse, and dynamic river floodplain ecosystem. A variety of forest communities are also represented across the landscape, with dominant tree species ranging from upland pines along the elevated bluffs to bottomland species such as bald cypress and water tupelo within the floodplain.

The Congaree National Park Vegetation Inventory Project delivers many geospatial and vegetation data products, including an in-depth project report discussing methods and results, which include descriptions to vegetation associations, field keys to vegetation associations, map classification, and map-class descriptions. The suite of products also includes a database of vegetation plots, and accuracy assessment (AA) sites; digital images of field sites; digital aerial imagery; digital maps; a contingency table listing AA results; and a geodatabase of vegetation, field sites (vegetation plots, and AA sites), aerial imagery, project boundary, and metadata.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Animal Life

Feral hogs are invasive at Congaree National Park

The feral hog (Sus scrofa), also called the wild pig, is a highly-destructive, invasive mammal found at Congaree National Park and throughout much of the United States. An invasive species is any non-native organism (plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium) that threatens the ecosystem, economy, or public health when it moves into a new area. People may introduce non-native species intentionally (such as those sold for gardens, yards, and pets) or unintentionally (such as beetles that infest shipping materials, moths that infest firewood, plant seeds that stick to tires, or mussels that attach to boats). Invasive species quickly spread out of control. In the process, they disrupt natural food chains, damage natural habitats, destroy agricultural products, reduce tourism, and carry diseases. Invasive species management is a major economic, scientific, and policy concern for public and private landowners alike.

Feral hogs today are the descendents of escaped food animals, the Eurasian wild boar, or a cross between the two. History records that feral hogs were brought to North America by Europeans as early as 1539, and continue to be imported even today. Feral hogs have significant, negative impacts on plants, animals and habitats across the country – including the floodplain and upland forest ecosystems protected by Congaree National Park.

Feral Hogs in Congaree National Park

Staff and visitors at Congaree National Park have noticed an increase in feral hog behavior and impacts. Evidence of feral hog behavior, such as feeding sign (or “rooting”) can be seen throughout the park. In these areas, leaves and soil are completely turned up. Many wildlife trails throughout the park are also related to feral hog behavior.

Feral hogs are not normally a danger to visitors. Most feral hog encounters reported to park staff involve visitors who are hiking along the boardwalk and briefly observe hogs running away into the forest. As with any wild animal, however, feral hogs should never be approached or harassed.

How do Feral Hogs Threaten the Forest?

Feral hogs threaten the floodplain forest of Congaree National Park because they are:

  • Destructive – Feral hogs root up acres of forest floor, make mud wallows, and create trail networks.
  • Able to reproduce quickly – A single sow, which reaches sexual maturity by age two and may live ten years (or more), can produce two litters of up to ten piglets each year.
  • Omnivores that will eat almost anything – Their diet includes worms, roots, reptiles, acorns, amphibians, berries, eggs, fungi, freshwater mussels, leaves, invertebrates, fruit, and much more.
  • Intelligent – Domestic pigs are well known for their intelligence and problem solving ability. Feral hogs are no different. For example, feral hogs have been observed to intentionally ram paw paw trees and then eat the fallen fruit.
  • Highly adaptive – Feral hogs are habitat generalists that can survive in a wide range of ecosystems.
  • Aggressive competitors with native animals – Animals such as wild turkey and white-tailed deer rely on many of the same resources used by feral hogs for food, water and shelter.
  • Not naturally controlled – Feral hogs have few natural predators. Floods and harsh winters provide limited control of feral hog populations at Congaree National Park, but recent droughts and mild winters may have minimized this effect.
  • Potential vectors for disease – Feral hogs can carry pseudorabies, brucellosis, and other diseases that pose a veterinary risk to domestic animals including pigs and cattle. Brucellosis is also “zoonotic,” which means that it can affect humans in direct contact with infected feral hogs. Feral hog waste can also contaminate water with disease-causing bacteria.

Resources at Risk

Feral hogs threaten many resources at Congaree National Park. Their presence and behavior negatively impact forest ecosystem health as well as visitor experiences. Examples include the following:

  • Native vegetation – Native plants are at risk of being eaten or uprooted. One example is Carolina Bogmint (Macbridea caroliniana), a plant species of state conservation concern. Feral hog behavior may also be impacting regeneration of tree seedlings and encouraging the spread of invasive plants.
  • Native wildlife – In addition to habitat destruction by feral hogs, native wildlife including soil invertebrates, small mammals, salamanders, and ground-nesting birds are at direct risk of being eaten. Other wildlife, such as deer and turkey compete with feral hogs for food. Feral hogs may also cause disease outbreaks through direct contact or by contaminating water.
  • Soil – Feral hog behaviors, such as rooting and wallowing, cause erosion and significantly change the structure, chemistry, and biology of the remaining soil. This can have dramatic, long-term impacts on the plant communities and the entire ecosystem.
  • Streams and wetlands – Shallow stream beds and seasonal wetlands can be damaged by rooting and wallowing. Water can be polluted by bacteria in feral hog waste and top soil eroded from feral hog behaviors.
  • Archaeological sites – Historic homesteads, earthworks, and prehistoric sites are at risk of disturbance – and even destruction – from feral hog behavior.

What is Congaree National Park Doing?

Congaree National Park takes the threats posed by feral hogs seriously. To help address the problem, Congaree National Park has partnered with scientists from several government agencies and universities to answer basic questions about feral hog populations, movements, diseases, and impacts on park lands. These results are highlighted in a separate research summary. Based on these results and similar studies, resource management staff are developing a plan to reduce feral hog impacts across Congaree National Park.

What Can You Do to Help?

  • Use common sense if you encounter feral hogs. Do not approach or harass them, keep your distance, and avoid separating a sow (mother hog) from her piglets.
  • Increase awareness of invasive species. These include exotic animals and plants (even some pretty ones!) found around the home, yard, garden, and community. Stay informed about related public policy initiatives.
  • Prevent the introduction of invasive species. Choose native animals and plants instead of non-native ones. Never intentionally introduce or “dump” domestic animals or plants at Congaree or anywhere.
  • Prevent the spread of invasive species. Keep non-native animals and plants contained. Thoroughly wash cars, trucks, ATVs, boats, trailers, and other equipment when traveling to and from outdoor destinations. Do not transport firewood or soil.
  • Check out the “Additional Information” links at the bottom of this page.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails at Congaree National Park

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail, or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. To find the right trail for you, visit our trail information page to see what each trail has to offer.

Whether you have hiked Congaree before, or this is your first time, it is always best to come prepared and know what to expect. To find out what equipment you should have and what you need to know before heading out on the trail, visit the hiking safety page for more information.

Are you planning on staying overnight in the backcountry? Remember that backcountry camping is a very different experience and has different rules than the park campgrounds. Make sure to look at the backcountry camping page before you start.

For more information, or to find out more about trail conditions before you visit, you can contact us by email or call the Visitor Center at (803) 776-4396.

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