Congaree was unlike any National Park we’ve been to so far. As we drove through the outskirts of Columbia, SC, we were gradually enveloped by swampland. We turned into the Congaree entrance and the park’s famous towering trees casting flickering shadows immediately gave a feeling of serenity. Winding up the drive to the Visitors Center we passed 6 or so rangers blowing leaves off the road (why there were so many is still a mystery). I never expected that would be the most people we saw at one time during our 4 days there.
We parked in the lot with 4 other cars (probably all belonging to the rangers) and headed into the Visitors Center. The volunteer at the desk told us all about the flood waters that were currently covering basically all the park trails. This wasn’t a surprise because we had been warned by a guy we ran into on the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains. But we were disappointed to hear the water level wouldn’t even crest until our last scheduled day in the park. Most of the water was left over from the unprecedented floods South Carolina got a few weeks earlier. Although Congaree flooding is natural and common (about 10 times per year) for the area, it usually doesn’t occur until late winter/early spring. Another unfortunate side effect of the flooding was the pools of stagnant water were humming mosquito factories. The mosquito gauge outside the Visitors Center was set to the max on “War Zone.”
Despite our bad timing, it was impossible to reroute our upcoming Florida parks and USVI flight to come back at a better time. So the only option was to enjoy what was available at the park and make the most out of it. What we didn’t expect was for these limitations to be a blessing in disguise.
First, we felt like we had the park all to ourselves. Since all the prime highlights of the park underwater, I guess most people didn’t feel like snorkeling in the swamp. Those who did wander in stayed for an hour or 2 because that’s basically all it took to see the small area of the park that was open. We chose to camp at the Bluff campground, which you had to walk a mile down the trail to get to, so it was very secluded. We were the only people in our campsite for 2 nights which was very cool, and just a bit eerie. But I can’t really think of any horror movies where people are alone in the woods, can you? On the third night we had one other person set up their tent across the field. And you can’t beat $5, the cheapest price we’ve paid yet for campground camping.
Second, we had soooo much time to relax. The first afternoon we scoped out the Visitors Center exhibits and set up camp. The second day we walked the 25% of the boardwalk trail through the floodplain that was open. The third day we took our inflatable kayak through the flooded tree maze where Elizabeth and I sniped at each other as we ran into trees for an hour. The combined ~5 hours it took to do that stuff was all the “structured” time we spent. The rest of the time we, as the kids say, “chill-axed.” We set up our ENO hammocks for the first time, and even spent a chilly night sleeping in them as our tent dried out from the Smokies. Anyone who knows me knows I like to pack as much activity into one day as humanly possible…and then try to sneak in one more thing when I think Elizabeth isn’t paying attention ;). But because we had no other option. I tried this new thing called relaxation. It wasn’t bad. The most moving we did was when we were swatting the armies of mosquitoes.
Third, we were able to slow down and notice all the little things. Usually we move through the parks at a pretty quick clip from one thing to another, but we always do our best to soak in every drop of beauty. However, the slower you wipe a sponge the more you will soak up. It’s just science. At Congaree we had nothing better to do than wipe our sponge very slowly and soak up all the beauty. We heard the woodpeckers, owls and other birds calling from the towering trees. We spotted lizards, tree frogs, millipedes, roughly a million spiders (Elizabeth made lots of new friends) and a snail doing a headstand (below). We stared up at gigantic state and national champion trees. Congaree is famous for being the largest bottomland old growth forest left in the U.S. We listened and watched as pine needles rained down in the wind. We about lost our minds when one of these falling needles landed straight up in the tiny sippy hole of Elizabeth’s tea.
Congaree even surprised when I got up for a midnight bathroom break. I admired how the new moon brought the stars out in force. After finishing my business, I was stumbling back to the tent when a streak of light burst across the sky. I wasn’t looking up, but it was so long and so bright that it didn’t matter. It was by far the best shooting star I’ve ever seen.
Our unfortunate timing at Congaree ended up being the perfect chance to relax and reset from our hectic, nomadic life. As any child could tell you, sometimes the littlest critters are just as fascinating as the grandest vistas.