The Bates Ferry Trail is a 1.1-mile trail located on the eastern edge of Congaree National Park. The trail begins from a parking area accessed off US 601, and ends on the banks of the Congaree River. The trail was opened in 2015, the first trail created in the park in 25 years, and follows a causeway across the floodplain that has been in use for a century, which itself follows a roadway that has been in use since the 18th century. It represents an important chapter in the history of transportation in the Midlands, and provides a look at how people traveled before the advent of trains and automobiles. You can also see plenty of wildlife and flora that are characteristic of Congaree National Park. Look closely for deer and feral hogs on the trail, while the dense vegetation provides excellent all-season birding, and good habitat for an array of spiders and butterflies. You will have an opportunity to relax on a low bluff overlooking the Congaree River, and make a side trip to one of the largest baldcypress trees in the park.
A word of warning before driving out to the trail – the Bates Ferry Trail is prone to flooding, as is much of the park. Take care to pay attention to rain in the area, as well as water levels. If water levels are high, then traversing this trail will be difficult. Do not cross deep flowing water, and never hike in dangerous conditions alone. Always exercise caution.
To get to the Bates Ferry trailhead from Columbia, drive southeast on Bluff Road to Wateree, South Carolina. Once you reach US 601, take a right. After only a few minutes, look for the large highway marker indicating the trailhead and be prepared to turn right immediately after crossing the large bridge over Bates Old River.
The park marks the Bates Ferry Trail with brown posts with the number “7”, though the trail is wide and well-maintained and the signs almost superfluous. Some of these posts include GPS coordinates to assist in rescues. This guide describes the 1.1-mile trail that leads you to Bates Ferry landing. Retrace your steps to complete the hike.
Though the sites in this guide are numbered, there will not be any signs for these sites on the trail. Because this portion of the park is designated a potential wilderness area, signs and other human impacts are limited. Most of the numbered sites correspond to natural or man-made features, so their location should be clear. For some sites, the numbering on the map provides only an approximate site location.
Bates Ferry Trail Map (pdf)
Site 1: Entrance Kiosk
As you make your way across the parking lot towards the trail, you will notice a kiosk to the left of the trailhead containing three text panels. The kiosk provides great context for the trail and commemorates the history of Bates Ferry as well as the ferry system. The kiosk recounts much of the history of Bates Ferry including the historical route that connected Camden and Charleston, the extensive ferry system that was used to cross the Congaree River, and the fall of the ferry system as railroads and highways with steel bridges were constructed in the early 20th century.
The Bates Ferry trail provides a look back at what travel was like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The trail is part of what was once a path that connected the two communities of Charleston and Camden. It’s easy nowadays to cross rivers, but in the 18th century, rivers were a massive obstacle. Bridges were difficult and expensive to build, so ferries were commonly used in transporting people, wagons, livestock and goods between two sides of a river. One of the earliest historic crossings in the Midlands, McCord’s Ferry, is located east of the trailhead on Bates Old River, a former channel of the Congaree River. Bates Ferry began operation in the 1800s, stopped running briefly at the turn of the century, then reopened between 1910-1923. It was crucial in continuing this historic path and allowing safe travel between communities.
The ferry was replaced with the Bates Ferry Bridge in 1923, and remnants of this bridge can be still be seen today at the end of the trail. This bridge was replaced by US Highway 601 Bates bridge in 1949, which was itself replaced in 2012.
Site 2: Trailhead
Since the trail follows a historic roadbed and causeway, the park maintains a wide path by mowing a few times a year. Though the surface is unimproved, this makes for easy traveling, and members of hiking parties can walk comfortably side-by-side.
While walking along the trail in the late Spring through early Fall, you will start to notice the many bright yellow flowers of Bear’s-foot, the dominant flowering plant along much of the trail. The plant is upright and tall with hollow stems and has leaves that are large and irregularly-shaped (the resemblance to a bear’s foot is approximate at best). The flowers form a cluster at the tip of the flower stem with each measuring about 1-½ inch in diameter.
Bear’s-foot is an excellent nectar/pollen plant and is an attractant to common butterflies, including swallowtails and skippers. Additionally, Bear’s-foot is reported to have many medicinal uses; these uses were well known among Native Americans, as well as early settlers. Other plants commonly found along the trail include wingstem, dayflower, butterfly pea, wild yam vine, germander and blackberry.
Animals use the trail as a path just as much as humans. You may see signs of white-tailed deer, feral hogs, and wild turkey on the trail. The small ponds along the trail are used by wood duck and river otter, while Great Blue Heron can sometimes be found opportunistically fishing when floodwaters cross the trail.
Site 3: Side Trails and Flooding
Many side trails can be found branching off from Bates Ferry Trail. Only one side trail can be found on the right sight of the trail, the trail that leads to the General Greene Tree, however there are numerous side trails that branch off from the left side of the trail. Most of the side trails are dead ends and were used to access hunting plots and stands maintained by members of the Kingville Hunt Club when they leased the land. Feel free to explore these side trails if you are feeling adventurous as they include many of the same features of the main trail.
While walking along the trail you may see signs of flooding and, depending on the time of year, whole portions of the trail may not be passable due to flooding. Similar to the rest of Congaree National Park, Bates Ferry trail can be prone to flooding, especially during the winter months. Exercise caution when attempting to cross flooded portions of the trail as flood water can be deeper and move faster than anticipated. Always use your best judgment when deciding if a portion of the trail is suitable to cross or not.
The Trezevant’s Landing flood gage on the Upper Santee River is available online and can be used to monitor current and past water levels of the river. While the flood stage for Congaree River is set at 80 feet, flooding across portions of the trail becomes serious at 81 feet. Above 82 feet, the less-elevated portion of the trail at this site on the map is impassable. Checking current weather conditions and the Santee River flood gage can be useful precautions to help anticipate flooding on the trail.
Site 4: Side Trail to General Greene Tree
About 0.4 miles along the trail, look for a side trail branching off from the right side of the main trail. You have gone too far if you pass a narrow pond on your left often covered in bright green duckweed. This pond is actually one of the “borrow” pits used to excavate soil to elevate the early 20th century causeway on which you are walking.
The side trail crosses a steel deck bridge over Bates Old River, the former 1852 Congaree River channel, then crosses another slough, and then turns left. Before crossing the bridge, step off to the side to note its unusual structure—it is a flat-bed trailer with the undercarriage and wheels used to move it into place still intact! From the bridge, you can survey the former river channel. The channel to the right eventually leads to wide, curved lake (an ox-bow lake) isolated from the main river channel since the 1852 flood.
The portion of the trail beyond the bridge floods easily. If water is on the trail, do not proceed—there are some washed-out portions of the trail that should not be negotiated when covered in water.
Site 5: General Greene Tree
Once the trail turns left, you will be able to see the General Greene Tree, a baldcypress measuring 30 feet in circumference with an 8-foot tall knee, in a slough to the right. The General Greene Tree has the largest circumference of any known baldcypress found in Congaree National Park and is several centuries old. The
tree is named in honor of Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War general who met Francis Marion at nearby McCord’s Ferry after the battle of Fort Motte. The tree has survived this long because its hollow center made it useless for logging. Look nearby for two massive baldcypress stumps that were harvested at the peak of cypress logging in the Congaree and upper Santee Watershed at the turn of the 19th century. Retrace your steps to the main trail.
Site 6: Vegetation and Wildlife along the trail
Throughout much of the Bates Ferry trail, thick undergrowth grows along either side of the trail. This undergrowth is attractive to skulking birds that use the area to find food, nest, and hide from predatory birds. Birds that you may find inhabiting the undergrowth include White-eyed Vireo, Brown Thrasher, and, in the winter, White-throated Sparrow, and Orange-crowned Warbler. The habitat along the trail is quite different from the open bottomland forest to the west (to your right), dominated by Overcup Oak, Laurel Oak and Green Ash. Much of the forest to the east (to your left) is planted pine, eventually giving way to wetlands.
As you approach the river, you will cross another low area prone to flooding. Note the long, gentle slope of this “low-pass” ford, which helped to prevent wash-outs as floodwaters moved across the roadway. In the spring, keep any eye out for the beautiful red bloomstalk of Swamp Buckeye along this portion of the trail, and in the fall, look for its fruit.
A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks often nest in one of the large sycamore near the trail, and you may be able to catch site of the young in their nest in the spring. Sycamore, which prefer growing in the elevated, coarse-grained soils along river channels, become more abundant as you near the river.
Dragonflies are as plentiful along the trail as butterflies; Common Whitetail are frequently seen, attracted to the sandy bare soil along the trail. The females and juvenile males are quite different in appearance from the males; though they also have barred wings, their bodies, instead of being a powdery blue, are brown with white patterning on the side.
Site 7: Bates Ferry Landing
At the end of the trail you will arrive at the northeast bank of the Congaree River. The portion of the river in front of you was formerly dry land, but the river gradually cut a new channel starting in the early 1800’s, until decisively abandoning its former channel (now Bates Old River) after the 1852 flood. This is where Bates Ferry would safely transport people across the river as they traveled the road that linked Camden and Charleston. The ferry operated from the 1840s until it closed in the late 1800s and was reopened by J.M. Bates and other auto enthusiasts in 1910. Later this served as the site of the 1923 Bates Ferry Bridge, an effort led by Mr. Bates, until the bridge on US Highway 601 was built in 1949. The short-lived bridge at this site was ill-fated; a major flood closed it for two years, and a truck fell through its rickety deck in the 1940s just prior to the opening of the US 601 bridge.
When the Congaree River is low, it is possible to explore its banks, however be careful as the banks are fairly steep. Remnants of the old 1923 bridge can be found along the banks of the river. Additionally, signs of where the road continued to Charleston can be seen on the opposite bank of the river in Calhoun County.
An extension of this trail north along the Congare River is eventually planned; do not attempt to cross the bridge to the right that leads upstream, as it has badly fallen into disrepair. Instead, enjoy a lengthy break on the river bank while keeping an eye out for soaring eagles, Mississippi Kite or osprey, then follow the trail back to your vehicle.
Thanks to SC Honors College students Blakeney Adlam and Cory Hawkinson for their assistance with this trail guide.