These bits of tree that you see growing around the base of the Cypress Trees are called Cypress Knees they can grow up to 7 feet tall and are part of the trees root system. They help the tree obtain nourishment and stabilize the tree in the soggy ground of the floodplain.
There are two ways to see the park: By foot and by boat. If you are touring by foot take the Boardwalk Trail. The Boardwalk Trail serves as a great introduction to this floodplain forest, leads to Weston Lake, and connects to other foot trails. The boardwalk is fully accessible.
You should start your tour of Congaree National Park at the Harry R. E. Hampton Visitors Center. Here you can pick up a brochure of the park, watch the introductory film, get backcountry permits, and gather any other information you need to enhance your enjoyment of the park. The center was named for Harry R. E. Hampton who was instrumental in getting this area designated a protected area.
the harry hampton visitor center offers a museum about the history and ecology of the congaree national swamp. they also present a short film about the park. at the visitor center you can get maps of the various trails that run through the park. admission to the park is free.
the boardwalk trail is the best trail to take for a quick overview of the park. this 2.4 mile long elevated trail takes about an hour to tour. at the park is the .7 mile bluff trail, 4.6 mile weston lake loop, the 10 mile river trail, and the 11 mile kingsnake trail. there is also a canoe trail at the park. my following things to do tips is an overview of the boardwalk trail.
pictured are cypress knees among a stand of cypress trees in the swamp. cypress knees are part of the trees root system and help aerate the roots and anchor the tree in the wet soil. cypress trees are vary common in the southern u.s. and thrive on lake and river banks and in wet land areas. the tallest cypress tree in the united states is located in big tree park near longwood florida.
pictured is a lob lolly pine tree. the congaree national swamp is home to the tallest lob lolly pines in the united states. in most areas of the south old growth lob lolly pines were forested in the 1800's. because of the swamp's remote location these trees were saved from logging.
pictured is what is refered to as a gut in the congaree swamp. guts are small gullies and sloughs that run through the park. after a flood period water returns back to the congaree river by means of these waterways.
weston lake was once part of the congaree river thousands of years ago. weston lake is known as an "elbow lake" because it was once a curve in the congaree river. weston lake is home to otters, wood ducks, water snakes, and turtles.
pictured is a small pawpaw tree in the congaree national swamp. pawpaws are the most dominate understory tree in the swamp. the fruit of the pawpaw is edible and was been eaten by native americans and early settlers in and near the swamp.
the muck of the swamp gets so saturated with rain and flood water that mini springs form all over the swamp. this water seeps out of the ground then flows into guts and finally returns to the congaree river.
pictured is a replica still in the congaree national swamp. for hundreds of years the swamp was a hiding place for runaway slaves, fugitives from justice, and moonshiners. there are a number of abandoned stills in the swamp.
As you travel along the boardwalk, it's handy to have the brochure as you can the learn about some of the plant life you'll be seeing. Outside of that, take the time to simply admire the quiet beauty of the swamp. There is a specific and short sidetrip to an overlook of Weston Lake, although as you can see from the pictures, it is a little obstructed. It's also fun to keep your eyes to the swamp for any signs of wildlife. We didn't see a ton, but we did get to see this snake gliding along the swamp. For those of you with a fear of snakes, remember that half the boardwalk is well above the swamp floor :)
This is actually one of the nicer trails you will take in the park system. As you leave the visitor center, you start off on the boardwalk trail about 5 feet or so above the ground. We followed the trail counter-clockwise, which means as we walked we gradually got to along the floor of the swamp. We didn't have too many issues with bugs until we got down to swamp level, then they were merciless. A little over a half mile in, you have the option of going deeper into the swamp along the Weston lake trail. We decided to stick along the boardwalk, and about half way around, we ascended back up again. Benches do line the trail if you need a break. After about 2.5 miles, you'll complete the loop and be back at the visitor center.
After you get to the park and find a place to leave your car, the first stop is the visitor center. Here, they have a number of displays regarding the ecosystems in the park, as well as restrooms, and folks on duty to answer your questions. The center is open starting at 8:30 in the morning, and stays open until 5:00 - 7:00 at night depending on the time of the year. You can pick up a brochure about the Boardwalk trail, that starts behind the visitor center. Maybe most important is the mosquito meter just outside the doors that registers from a 1 (all clear) to a 6 (war zone). We arrived during a 4 (severe.) Hard to imagine a 5 or 6!