From The Congaree River’s origin at the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers near the Piedmont fall line in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, to its remote, bottomland terminus at Congaree National Park, the Congaree offers a distinct diversity of rich history, varied wildlife and remarkable habitat linking South Carolina’s largest city to its largest wilderness. The Congaree merges with the Catawba-Wateree to form the Santee River at the southeast corner of the park before flowing into Lake Marion and eventually the Atlantic.
The 50-mile Congaree River Blue Trail connects the City of Columbia, the Three Rivers Greenway, and rural communities to Congaree National Park, the largest wilderness in South Carolina. Starting near Columbia, the Blue Trail is the ideal way to experience all the Congaree River has to offer through canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and other family-friendly activities. But the undeniable highlight of the journey is Congaree National Park, the largest protected wilderness in South Carolina.
The Congaree National Park is a great testament to how the Congaree River Blue Trail can connect people to a river and a park. Coursing some 50 miles from Columbia, South Carolina to the southeastern end of the park, the Congaree River Blue Trail links urban residents to one of the wildest places left in the eastern US. It offers a multi-day paddling adventure as one travels from within view of the state capitol dome into a wilderness that touts some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. Countless sandbars just right for a picnic or an overnight camp border the river’s bends while bluffs of multicolored clay contrast the area’s extensive floodplain forests. For those with less ambitious appetites, the park also offers Cedar Creek, a blackwater gem with a tree canopy cathedral that abounds with birdlife well worthy of its designation as a globally important birding area.
Paddlers can enjoy 20 miles of the Congaree River Blue Trail within Congaree National Park, as well as camping, hiking, fishing, birding, and nature study. Designated as an old growth forest, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark, the Park boasts 90 species of trees and the tallest Loblolly Pines alive today (169 feet). The park preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the US, including enormous bald cypress trees throughout. The wilderness provides cover for bobcats, deer, wild pigs, coyotes, armadillos, turkeys, and otters while the river hosts turtles, snakes, alligators, and several types of fish.
The Congaree River Blue Trail collaborative has also brought additional support for the park including citizen backing for adding new lands to the park, involvement in river cleanups and a recreation paddling map for the Congaree River and Cedar Creek that is offered online and as a colorful, printed version available at the park and from local outfitters.
The Congaree River is heavily influenced by upstream dams, including the 200-foot-high Saluda Dam that creates 48,000-acre Lake Murray, the Columbia Diversion Dam on the Broad River just above the confluence, and the Parr Shoals Dam forming Parr Shoals Reservoir about 25 miles higher upstream. In a relicensing agreement for the Saluda Dam in 2009, American Rivers helped negotiate an agreement that provides more natural, seasonal flows on the Saluda River for several weeks a year that benefit the health of the river and its web of life extending to the Congaree River. The agreement includes protection and restoration measures for striped bass and shortnose sturgeon as well as rare freshwater mussels and rocky shoal spider lilies. Recreational access and special water releases for fishing and whitewater paddling are also included.
Along with partners, American Rivers is working on another relicensing agreement for the Broad River’s Parr Shoals Dam. The coalition currently seeking more water released downstream from Parr Shoals and its sister reservoir, Monticello. We’re also asking dam operators South Carolina Electric & Gas to install a fish ladder and improve recreational access as part of the relicensing process that occurs every 30 to 50 years. Projects like these help the Congaree River’s diverse ecosystem.
Guy Jones, Owner, River Runner Outdoor Center in Columbia, South Carolina: The Congaree River Blue Trail offers opportunities to experience the area’s rich natural resources and wildlife through boating, fishing and other activities. The highlight of the trail is Congaree National Park, home to the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S. It connects urban and rural communities and youth to this treasured landscape. Since the creation of the Congaree River Blue Trail, I have seen a spike in the number of people enjoying the river through recreation. And enjoyment and protection of the great outdoors is simply downright valuable.