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The South's Sacred Forest
Congaree National Park, SC
By James Vlahos

WALK THE PLANKS: The boardwalk at Congaree, the United States' newest national park. Photo courtesy of Larry Ulrich
To General Francis Marion—the elusive "Swamp Fox" of Revolutionary War renown—South Carolina's forests were both strategic and sacred. "I look at the venerable trees around me and I know that I must not dishonor them," he once said. Today, America's largest remnant of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest towers above the Congaree River and is protected as a 22,000-acre (8,903-hectare) refuge that Marion would have loved—and that Congress designated as America's newest national park in 2003.

*GOALS: Hike the Boardwalk and Oak Ridge Trails, then canoe Cedar Creek and the Congaree River.

*GAME PLAN: On the two-and-a-half-mile (four-kilometer) Boardwalk Trail you'll walk beneath a canopy towering 150 feet (46 meters) above. "It looks like a large cathedral, with sunlight pouring in from the sides," says park naturalist Fran Rametta. "There are bald cypress knees poking up from the mud—like little elves, marching in an army." Next, hike the Oak Ridge Trail, which has the park's best cross section of old-growth forest—ash, sweet gum, and swamp chestnut oak.

It's 15 miles (24 kilometers) to Columbia, where you'll pick up canoes and head for the Cedar Creek Landing put-in. On a two-day, 20-mile (32-kilometer) Congaree trip, you'll float through jet-black waters that snake between 500-year-old cypress trees. Watch for river otters and great blue herons. Hiking at least a couple of hundred yards into the forest is a must. "You could sit on a log and never see a soul for years," local biologist John Cely says. "You'll feel like you're in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon." Take out at U.S. Highway 601.

*GETTING READY: Congaree National Park (+1 803 776 4396; www.nps.gov/cosw), Adventure Carolina ($55 for a two-day canoe rental; 803 776 9105; www.adventurecarolina.com).

Map: Congaree
Map courtesy of Rob Kemp

Best Strategy
Late winter and early spring rains facilitate freer paddling. "Sometimes the entire park is flooded except for the visitors center," says superintendent Martha Bogle. From Cedar Creek, detour onto "guts"—tiny, twisty channels—that exist only during high water.

Best Sound Effects
More haunted house than symphony hall, nighttime Congaree reverberates with the buzzing of katydids, the barking of tree frogs, and the screams of barred owls. Call +1 803 776 4396 to take a guided "Owl Prowl."

Best Lake
Weston Lake, located midway along the Boardwalk Trail, is the park's prettiest pool. Arrive in mid-afternoon to see Spanish-moss-draped oaks and maples reflected on the surface.

Best Trees
Hidden in the backcountry, away from the trails, Congaree's trees grow taller than 15-story buildings and nearly as wide as grain silos. National-record-height trees include twin 120-foot (37-meter) persimmons, a 148-foot (45-meter) water hickory, and a 167-foot (51-meter) loblolly pine—see them on a guided "Big Tree Walk" (+1 803 776 9105; www.friendsofcongaree.org).

What wild land do you think deserves national park status? Cast your vote for one of three front-runners for National Park billing in Adventure's first reader poll. Vote now >>

For our National Parks 2004 coverage, we polled the pros for their national park game plans. Now it's your turn. Send us your detailed itinerary including goals, game plan, and how to get ready. Your trip could be published in an upcoming issue. E-mail us >>

For all 20 expert-tested game plans to the best national parks, pick up the May issue of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the Print Edition, May 2004

National Parks 2004
Denali: The Big Easy >>
Congaree: The South's Sacred Forest >>
Glacier: The Glacial Gallery >>
Messner's Burden >>
West Highland Peace Walk >>
The Adventures of Tim Cahill >>

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May 2004

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