Paddling in the Land of the Big Tree
by, Vic Sorensen
General Trip Information
Before I met Cliff Earle, the idea of paddling in a swamp or Bottomland Hardwood Forest in February with a near 100 percent chance of rain didn't sound like a whole lot of fun. Now, after a few years of exploring backwater cuts, sloughs, guts, lakes, rivers and millponds with Cliff, I anxiously look forward to finding our next backwater escape. Although it seems like it would be easy to plan a paddling trip since we both work in the paddlesports industry (I spend my time helping people find new paddling toys working at ARC's Hampton Store, and Cliff travels the Southeast representing product lines for several paddlesports’ manufacturers, including Bending Branches, whose paddles we used for this trip), we actually spent over a year trying to coordinate a date.
Cliff came up with the idea of paddling the Congaree based on an article he read in National Geographic in the mid 1970's when the park was turned into a National Natural Landmark. This timeline from the park’s website shows a lot has happened since Cliff read that article!
|1974||Congaree Swamp National Monument designated as a National Natural Landmark.|
|1976||Congaree Swamp National Monument established by the 94th U.S. Congress.|
|1983||Congaree Swamp National Monument designated as a International Biosphere Reserve.|
|1989||Hurricane Hugo makes big impact on the Congaree forest.|
|2001||Congaree designated as a Globally Important Bird Area, dedication of Harry Hampton Visitor Center, and 25th Anniversary of Congaree Swamp National Monument.|
|2003||Designation as Congaree National Park.|
Cliff and I met at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center for last minute research about the park and trip planning with a ranger. This turned out to be very helpful. We ended up spending four days exploring the swamp and hopefully these notes will help anyone planning a trip to the “Land of the Big Trees”.
(According to Wikipedia, Congaree National Park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood left in the United States.”)
Our original plan was to launch in Columbia and paddle down the Congaree until we got to Mazycks Gut, then go through the gut and paddle up Cedar Creek to the Landing on Bluff Road at the North central part of the park for a total distance of about 50 miles. After talking with the ranger we realized we would see more of the remote, quiet, winding channel through old growth bottomland forest if we start at Banister Bridge in the Northwest Corner of the park on upper Cedar Creek and paddle downstream past the landing on Bluff Road through the park to the Congaree and spend more time in the park. With our previous plan we would have missed the upper half of Cedar Creek while paddling the upper section of the Congaree which sounded very developed and industrial.
With our reconnaissance work finally complete we started our trip by dropping off my car at the Bluff Road Canoe Access and took Cliff’s van back to the put-in at Banister Bridge. Once we finally swapped steering wheels for paddles, we had a relaxing first day maneuvering our canoes down the winding and slow moving creek, exploring side channels and hiking a few of the high ground areas. Camping areas are fairly easy to find with water levels below 5ft, and we set up our first camp near the Kingsnake Trail. Once back on the water for day 2, we paddled downstream and briefly stopped at the Bluff Road Access and took my car back to Banister Bridge to pick up Cliff’s van. With both vehicles at the Bluff Road Access, we again hit the water and continued downstream through Dawson's Lake, past Tupelo Gut, through Elder Lake and continued down Cedar Creek hoping to turn around once we'd seen the Congaree River. Unfortunately, when we got to Mazyck's Cut, the creek was filled with debris, and with canoes still filled with camping gear and running out of daylight we decided to head back upstream to a spot we'd seen earlier in the day to set up camp. We set up our tents and tarps in a very comfortable hideaway which we used for two nights while exploring the guts and sloughs south of Elder Lake. On our final day in the park, we paddled back up Cedar Creek through Elder Lake and Dawson's Lake to our vehicles at the Bluff Road Access.
Best Time to Paddle & Tips
Launch is open year round so paddlers with the appropriate gear will enjoy paddling here all season. Late September and early October can be amazing when the leaves are changing. November through March can be nice for anyone with the proper cold weather gear. Keep in mind this area is surrounded by a swamp so during the warmer months prepare for battle with the mosquitoes and keep an eye out for snakes. Be sure to check the Mosquito Meter at the visitor center.
Good navigation skills using multiple tools GPS, compass, topographic Map, Blue Trail Map & the Cely Map - will make a trip into the park much more enjoyable if you plan on getting away from the main channel.
As always, paddler skills are the greatest limiting factor. Paddlers in this area should pay attention to local and inland weather since strong rains can bring sudden changes to the water levels. The shoreline is never far away and currents are not strong, but there is always a chance of coming around a corner to blockage caused by debris or a blow down.
Recommended Boat Types
Almost any craft will work but kayaks designed for day tripping, touring and general purpose, or touring canoes will lead to a much more enjoyable trip. Canoes can be ideal since they can typically carry more gear and larger gear bags for luxury camping and are typically easier to get out of when landing on muddy or steep banks and scrambling over fallen trees. There is a possibility of short portages around or over fallen trees or debris clogging the channel so gear should be packed so it can be portaged short distances.
Directions to the Park (From the Park Service Website)
Congaree National Park is located about 20 miles from downtown Columbia, South Carolina. Directions to the park are listed on their website: https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/directions.htm
Recommended Launch Sites
There are several launches for paddling the area, we used the Banister Bridge and Bluff Road Canoe Accesses located inside the park. Both were well maintained and had plenty of parking with short carries to Cedar Creek. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is located between the launches and worth stopping at for a last minute check of water levels, channel obstructions they're aware of, and to pick up a camping permit. There are additional access points shown on the Blue Trail Map on the Congaree River in Columbia Northwest of the park, and off Highway 601 east of the park at Bates Bridge Landing.
Free permit available at the visitor center is required for camping in the park.
Type of Camping Available
There is a small primitive camping area off National Park Road on the way to the Visitor Center. In Cedar Creek primitive camping is allowed following leave no trace practices. When water levels range from 3 to 5ft, finding dry / high ground for a campsite is fairly easy using Cely's map along with a topographic map. When water levels get above 5 ft in Cedar Creek finding campsites may get a little challenging. Depending on time of year, hammocks (like the Hennessy or Eagles Nest Outfitters ENO) may make camping more enjoyable while dealing with bugs and soggy, wet ground.
Commonly Targeted Fish in the Congaree or Cedar Creek
Largemouth Bass, Striped Bass and American Shad
Responsible Agency Overseeing the Location
National Park Service
Website - https://www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm
Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open 9:00 am-5:00 pm, 7 days per week.
The facility is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
Resources for additional info –
The John Emmett Cely map is available at the Visitor Center (24 by 44 hand drawn map with loads of information about the park).
Congaree River Blue Trail Map is available at the visitor center or online at https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/bluetrail.htm.
Topographic Map customized to the area we were paddling from www.mytopo.com.