Congaree National Park
The first question everyone asks is, “Would you go again?”
My response would be, “Yes, one thousand times yes!”
Congaree looks like a slice of the Jurassic era and is the “largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.” Thanks, National Parks Service, for that fantastic description.
Here’s how the trip happened.
Last year, we discovered the passport stamp book for national parks.
The idea is simple: buy the book, go to the park/historical site, and get your book stamped. With over 50 national parks and 400 historical sites, there is a lot to see in the United States, which fit our criteria of: animals, nature, science, and/or history. We use our books as a launchpad to the rest of the country. Look up a state, pick a park, go to the park and the nearby attractions.
Our first road trips began last year with Niagara Falls and Shenandoah Valley, but I’ll make posts for them later.
We realized the road trip from MA to SC was under our “16 hours in the car cap”, and needed to go. We left at 10pm and drove through the night. The trick is to escape NYC, Baltimore, DC, and Richmond before morning rush hour.
Since we are constantly on a quest for both knowledge and adventure, we decided that driving the extra 2hours to Charleston, SC to see Fort Sumter was definitely part of the plan.
The only way to get to the fort is a ferry ride, and the info isn’t that easy to find.
There are two places to leave from:
Liberty Square’s Fort Sumter Visitors Center, 340 Concord St. Charleston, SC 29401
Patriots Point, 40 Patriots Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464.
We picked Patriots Point because we could make the last 4pm boat. Ideally, Patriots Point should be a full day trip. They have an aircraft carrier, a submarine, and a helicopter to visit as well. Everything closes at 5pm, so we only saw the fort. However, this discovery, which is the awesomeness that is Charleston, SC, has hatched a new seacoast road trip plan, and that’s a very interesting idea to me.
Fort Sumter is quick tour, lasting about 2.5 hours. On the boat ride, a park official gave a brief historical talk over the speakers. I’ve always enjoyed US history and like to think myself fairly educated in it, but there’s always a little nugget of fresh knowledge to find in these places. The fort itself is partially reconstructed and has a small museum. If you’re a history buff, it’s a must see.
Everything we wanted to do in SC appeared to close at 5pm or 7pm (except Waffle House which is always there for you), we needed an evening plan, and found the Striped Pig Distillery.
We arrived at 6:45pm and liquor laws state that SC vendors can’t sell past 7pm, so the owner, John, who is a great guy, gave us the quickest and most mini-shot filled distillery adventure I’ve had to date. John is old school in his process; he crafts his products using touch and taste instead of equipment that can lie to him. We could taste the difference. His Moonshine, which is 120 proof, the strongest legally sold, tastes damn good especially for something at 120 proof. I get a citrus aftertaste from it. However, his spiced rum and gin with lavender are out-of-control-good. For me, those were the knockouts. The best news is soon he’ll be able to sell this goods online soon. John also sells his bottles for about $25 each. I know, best price ever, right?
The Striped Shine can also be put into a barrel to make bourbon. Mine will be ready in two months! Oh yes.
We started chatting after the tour. Food and a fifteen-hour drive were mentioned, so John recommended Moe’s Tavern. He let us follow him there and ordered us some beers so we offered him some wings. Moe’s is amazing! If you go, get one of the specialty burgers in a wrap. They are insanely good. The spicy teriyaki wings are amazing as well. Drinks are super cheap – beers for $2-3 and $3 bourbons. Towards the end of dinner, I said to the waiter, “I’d like to support this guy. Can I have some of his moonshine on the rocks.”
…and I got this, which is about 12 beers worth of alcohol.
God bless SC, Moe’s and the Striped Pig. You made our night
However, I was a wily traveler and I knew that we had hiking to do the next day, so I called in the reserves to help get the job done.
My summary for Charleston SC and Fort Sumter
1) Fort Sumter is great for a history lover
2) Give a full day to Patriots Point
3) Go to the Striped Pig and drink good drinks
4) Go to Moe’s and eat good food (and drink more drinks)
But you’re probably reading this for the swamps, which Congaree isn’t because the water moves,
…but it does kind of look like a swamp
…where there could be dinosaurs.
First things first – the basic info
1) Admission into the park is always free, and most, if not all, of the ranger lead activities are free. There is a white board with all the daily activities posted outside of the The Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
2) Bible belt – plan your Sunday’s accordingly.
3) Go in the spring before the bugs and spiders get too bad
4) There are snakes. Venomous snakes are very rare and only one person has been bitten in the park, and he was a snake poacher.
5) Talk to people, especially rangers, to see what’s going on. I’ve found websites are updated sparingly, if at all.
The Board Walk Trail – 2.4miles
This trail is a board walk the entire way and runs though some of the most muddy, ancient looking terrain I’ve ever seen. It’s breathtaking. Part is closed now for repairs, but visitors can still walk the full loop using another gravel trail. It’s very light walking with lots of benches for resting or drawing. I fell in love with this trail immediately, because with this trail, literally everyone can enjoy the unique landscape.
The Board Walk Trail is also a self-guided tour. Pick up a brochure from the rangers at the visitor center and go! The trail and the brochure are numbered at points of interest. I’ve learned about so many new things: cypress knees to 8 foot deep muck to 1000 year old trees, and more. Watch for raccoon tracks and crayfish burrows that look like mud chimneys.
Go back at dusk to hear and spot Barred Owls who are extremely loud when they call. It’s safe because the boardwalk virtually glows white in the moonlight. Plus, no one is there and it’s great to have the park to yourself. If you’re lucky, the rangers will be doing an Owl Prowl.
Don’t be foolish. Stay on the trails, all the time. It’s easy to get turned around in the woods. Also, eight foot deep mud, just saying.
Big Tree Hike – 4.5 miles
Naturalist John Cely, who helped to found the park, guides this hike, which is free and open to all who show up at the posted time.
The park’s information for the tour is: “Please bring good footwear, water, snacks, and insect repellent. Note: this tour takes visitors off of the maintained trails, so participants can expect mud and ankle-deep water.”
To me, this sounded like, “Magical Swamp Adventure!” and to everyone else I showed, it sounded like, “Insane swamp ordeal!”
In reality, it’s an easy hike, where boots will get slightly muddy, led by a well-informed man. A family of five made the trek as well a number of people who were decades older than I. Mr. Cely takes visitors to see five champion trees in the park. I was told it would take two weeks of walking to see all the champions in the forest and many locations are kept secret. These trees all hold some sort of record – “Tallest
I saw a green anole, a five-lined skink, and a rat snake.
After checking out the Boardwalk trail and the Big Tree Hike, we’d walked about 12 miles and needed some dinner, so we headed over to Lizard’s Thicket. The woman at the front desk in our hotel recommended it to us. I haven’t had a lot of southern cooking, but this tasted pretty good to me, and as a tea lover the endless supply of sweet tea was most welcome. Their menu also asserts that mac n’ cheese counts as a vegetable, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. I had chicken fried steak and okra and tomatoes.
The next day we wanted to rent a canoe and paddle Cedar Creek. Hands down, if you go to Conagree find some way, anyway, to paddle the creek. Water has such an immense impact on the park that it would be a shame to miss this experience. If you’re very pro-active, I’d book a ranger guided 4-hour canoe paddle. Book online but they fill up months in advance.
We didn’t book a tour since we wanted to spend the day paddling and planned on getting a canoe in town. This is were out dated websites, and talking to people came into play for us.
The previous day, we had spoken to a ranger about canoeing and he mentioned that they were giving short, first-come-first serve thirty-minute canoe tours the following day (this isn’t on their website at all). We didn’t pay very close attention since we were still planning on getting our own canoe. However, after going to the canoe rental store we realized that it wasn’t going to fit on the top of the car, and the rental place didn’t drop them off in the park. Disappointed, we decided to hunt down the ranger giving the free canoe tours. A short paddle was better than no paddle at all. We found him right before the last trip of the afternoon and, that other canoe company was already there, dropping off canoes, just like their website said they didn’t do. (Again, websites don’t get updated).
The other company took their group out and we went with the ranger and a volunteer. We’re decent paddlers and took off with little effort, after we shook some of the rust off. However, the ranger will teach visitors to paddle if they’re inexperienced – so cool! The water level was a medium height. The creek can flood so high the park doesn’t allow canoeing and they can go so low that multiple portages are needed, but we were on easy street.
Before traveling to Conagree, be sure to check the water level. Flooding is most common in the winter.
It was cloudy and cool, perfect weather for paddling and photography. We saw a Barred owl only a few minutes into our journey. The view from the water is incredible. Tupelo and Cyress tree lines the banks and form a primeval, lush corridor.
Unfortunately, reptiles don’t like cloudy and cool, and I was sincerely hoping to see some turtles on the floating logs and overhanging branches. Then the sun broke through for a few minutes. I never got very close to a turtle, but I got something better: snakes in trees!
Apparently, water snakes bask on the branches that hang over the water. This puts them at about face height, which, I understand, can be unnerving to some. However, It’s not a big deal. When approaching a branch, look for a snake every time. If you see a snake, paddle away from it. It’s that simple. We saw six snakes in total, and approached three for a photograph after determining that they were not venomous. From my position in the front of the canoe, I could see their heads and eyes clearly, and the ranger verified my identification. His volunteer was hoping for water moccasins because she’d never seen one. (This is important to remember, a retired woman who’d been in these waterways all her life, had never seen a water moccasin a.k.a the cottonmouth. It’s good to realize just how rare they are.) I thought our water snakes were great and I was grateful to have seen them.
We thought that our pace was slow and leisurely but according to the ranger, we’d traveled further downstream than the four-hour tour. At that point, we turned back. All told, we’d been on the water for about two hours. We got a bit of extra time since no one else arrived after us to request the canoes.
*If I went back, I would put some serious research into getting a canoe or kayak that didn’t come with a guide. Not because I don’t like guides, everyone I met was great. This place is so gorgeous; I want all day to look at it.
After our paddle we had a great need for BBQ and we headed to Big Boys Original Smokehouse. You can’t go to SC and not eat BBQ, right?
This place is awesome – best BBQ I’ve ever had. Everyone was very nice too. I had ribs, brisket, pig’s feet and rice, potato salad, and collared greens. I expected everything to be amazing except the pig’s feet. I’d never eaten a pig’s foot before but I refuse to go anywhere and not eat something that I can’t get at home. Turns out, even the pig’s feet were good. Additionally, each meal is the equivalent to 2-3 meals, so it’s well worth the already reasonable price.
The only thing that was missing was the beer, which we then got at River Rat Brewery. Visiting on Sunday is key here. It’s their slow day so the tour is very laid back and tasty beverage comes quickly. They have roughly nine of their brews on tap. The kolsch, the IPA, and the porter are very good. They are one of a handful of brewers who are trying to get a craft beer scene going in the area. Because I have a rather inordinate love for trying new cheese plates, we got one of those, and enjoyed brie, aged blue cheese, and manchego, with honey, fruit, and olives.
I could spend everyday in Congaree and be a happy artist, so I was a bit sad to go to next day. However, the night before we left, we got out the map that comes with the passport book. The map displays every historical site by state. Sipping on Beestings – moonshine, sweet tea, honey, and lemon, we started to make our plan.
After some pointing and gps research, we concluded that our last destination, would be Appomattox Courthouse. Virginia is a nice state to drive through and it wasn’t long before we arrived. As it turns out we had arrived on the anniversary of the signing of the terms.
I always assumed that Appomattox Courthouse, was just that, a singular building. It’s partially true. The courthouse was there, although Grant and Lee didn’t agree to terms there. Appomattox Courthouse is actually a town, which was abandoned soon after the end of the war and restored a few years later into the historical site it is today. It was the home of roughly 100 people.
The rangers give interesting talks, the most fascinating being the one dealing with the life of the soldiers right after the war ended and their journeys home. The man giving the talk had been studying the topic for 29 years. However, if you’ve heard that talk, you’ve heard 70% of the rest of them as well, just as fair warning.
After that we headed back to MA, stopping in Philly to grab a cheesesteak at about 11 pm. It was a great cheesesteak and a fantastic trip. I will definitely be going to SC again.
Things to take away from all this
1) 80% of all snakebites occur when a person is trying to kill or touch the snake. Just leave the thing alone and save yourself the bite. (you can Google that too – it’s legit)
2) Stay on the trail unless you have a guide.
3) Get in a canoe or kayak to really appreciate the park.
4) Great food and drink can be found all around the park.
5) Even if you’ve read all this, it doesn’t compare to the real thing.
6) Everyone can enjoy this park for free. It’s a great place. Go. Enjoy!
I hope you liked reading about my SC and Conagree National Park adventure. If you’ve been to the park, what was your favorite part? If you go to the park, let me know how you liked it! Post below.
If you’d like to download all my images scenery and environment of Conagree National Park for reference, VPA paintings, and concept art, please visit my Gumroad. Click the colorful link below.
Conagree National Park Reference Images
I used this pictures to do these studies. It was so fun!
Here’s a quick list of things that would be useful in the park. I used this backpack and own both of these books. Although biting insects aren’t bad in the spring, bug spray is a good idea in the summer. The lacrosse balls are to massage sore muscles and feet after an adventurous day. Lastly, grab a copy of the passport book to collect the stamps!