The ranger smiled at us from his perch on the rail of the boardwalk. "The water is up in the swamp today after the rains. That's OK if you want to hike, though; we just got a new boat and will be happy to try it out by coming to rescue you."
Thus began one of our most memorable hikes in Congaree Swamp National Park.
Fortunately, we did not need to be rescued but we did get quite damp slogging along trails hidden under muddy winter rainwater. Recently we returned to Congaree Swamp and found conditions quite the opposite: spare rainfall had rendered the swamp dry as a bone and easy access along miles of trails.
The setting was perfect for what we wanted to do: find champion trees.
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Congaree Swamp National Park is half an hour south of Columbia and is the largest tract of uncut old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. This treasure is a popular park to visit and has 26 miles of accessible trails including 2.4 miles of well-kept raised boardwalks. The boardwalks range close to the interpretive center and are perfect for an introduction to the deep swamp any time of year no matter your level of experience. For a more challenging experience, you can get off on pathways through the swamp and trace the progress of time and season beneath a canopy of cathedral-like trees.
The trees were what we came to see. Several record-holding "champion" trees have been discovered in Congaree Swamp, and they are lovingly protected by the park service. These ancient giants are surprisingly difficult to find. For one thing, it is hard to see the trees for the forest. In other words, in a forest filled with near-record sized trees, it can be tricky to find the champion. The journey to find them is half the fun, of course.
Using an old map, Google Earth and hand-held GPS devices, we located the approximate position of many champions and took off on foot into the swamp to find them. The sun-shaded atmosphere of towering trees, sky-reflecting ponds and marshy cypress knee-edged creeks made going tough but the landscape was unforgettable. After a day of this we were tired but happy to have found several huge trees and also managed to find the car again to boot.
With 17,000 acres and more than 57 percent of it designated wilderness, you do not need to bushwhack through Congaree Swamp to find champion trees. You can explore this largest remnant of old-growth floodplain with the help of an expert.
The National Park Service leads regular tours through the swamp to see and experience the grandeur of champion trees. In 2012 the first tours begin Jan. 15 and Jan. 27. Each visitor will learn how to measure and discover how champion trees are determined. Each hike is 6.5-miles, lasts approximately five hours and can take 30 people. Best of all: the tour is absolutely free. Call the Harry Hampton Visitors Center at 803-776-4396 to reserve your spot. You will not forget the experience of life among the giants.