Photograph by Jeff Lepore, Alamy
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Butterweed serves as a carpet for bald cypress and water tupelo trees in South Carolina's Congaree National Park.

Photograph by Jeff Lepore, Alamy

See the Largest Expanse of Old-Growth Hardwoods in the U.S.

Location: Central South Carolina
Established: November 10, 2003
Size: 24,180 acres

Say the word "swamp," and the first image that probably comes to mind is of a wet, sticky, mosquito-infested mire that few people would want to visit. Such an image certainly might have kept some visitors away from Congaree Swamp National Monument, a 22,000-acre forest in South Carolina.

Yet, after the monument gained national park status in November 2003—and dropped the unappealing "s" word from its name—the number of visitors each month increased significantly.

Technically speaking, Congaree is not a swamp, because it does not contain standing water throughout most of the year. One of the newest national parks is actually a floodplain forest that floods about ten times a year. Spreading northeast from the meandering Congaree River, the land is the largest contiguous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States.

Push back the ghostly Spanish moss that drips from the bald cypresses, and you enter a lush backcountry inhabited by bobcats, deer, and playful river otters. Yellowbellied sapsuckers drill holes into trees one day and return the next to feast on the sap that has filled the holes. The rapid-fire series of knocks you hear is from one of the many woodpeckers found in the park, also hard at work boring holes into trees.

At night in the fall and spring, rangers lead visitors on an "owl prowl," so they can hear the eerie calls of barred owls and see the glowing fungi that grow on the cypresses. According to local legends, the cypress tree's trademark "knees"—small, knobby wood growths that rise around the trunk's base—are really wood elves who come to life at night to dance through the forest.

Congaree was named for the Native American tribe that lived here centuries ago. They were decimated in the 18th century, victims of a smallpox epidemic that came over with European settlers.

Toward the end of the next century, the country's burgeoning lumber industry moved south, with an eye on Congaree's giant hardwood trees. However, because of the remoteness of the area and the lack of navigable waterways many of the old giants were saved from the ax.

Conservationists worked hard to save the rest. In 1976, Congress rewarded their efforts by setting Congaree aside as a national monument. Since its establishment, the park has been designated as a national natural landmark, a globally important bird area, and an international biosphere reserve.

How to Get There

Twenty miles southeast of Columbia, via I-77 and Bluff Road or S.C. 48. Follow the Congaree National Park direction signs to the park.

When to Go

Year-round. Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons. Boaters find easier paddling after a rain in late winter and early spring.

How to Visit

Allow a full or half day. From the visitor center, take the Low and High Boardwalk Trails (2.4 miles total). Then do the Weston Lake Loop Trail (4.4 miles) around the oxbow lake. Birders like the 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail in a remote part of the park.