Bluff Trail Guide
The Bluff Trail
The Bluff trail is a 30-minute, 1.7-mile hike, easily accessed from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The majority of the trail lies just beyond the crossing of the entrance road and offers access both to the Longleaf and Bluff campgrounds. In addition, the Bluff Trail boasts not only unique scenery and cultural history, but offers hikers a glimpse of the ideal longleaf pine savanna habitat the park is hoping to establish through controlled burns.
Wildlife sightings on your visit could include deer, box turtles and fox squirrels. Look and listen for red-headed woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches, and pine warblers year-round. During the summer, you are more likely to hear eastern wood-pewees, Kentucky warblers and yellow-throated vireos here than down in the floodplain.
Site 1 (Accessing the trail)
To access the Bluff Trail, walk through the breezeway of the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to the boardwalk and follow the boardwalk for a couple hundred feet. You will then see a set of stairs to the right in front of a large beech tree and bench built into the boardwalk. Take the stairs down to the beginning of the Bluff Trail loop.
When you reach the Bluff Trail sign at the foot of the stairs, turn right to begin your hike. You know you’re headed in the right direction as long as you follow the white signs labeled with the number one posted to trees along the trail. The walk from the boardwalk is only a minute or two before you reach Congaree National Park’s entrance road.
Site 2 (The entrance road)
A new entrance road to Congaree National Park and a visitor center were built in the 1990s in an effort to boost the number of annual visitors.
The new road replaced the gravel, privately-held Caroline Sims Road that previously served as the entrance for the park.
In 1997, the park sought $5.8 million from the National Park Service to build the new road and visitor center. The proposal was denied, leading the park to look for alternative methods to complete the projects.
The park sought a partnership with the River Alliance, Richland County, and the S.C. National Guard in order to drive down the overall construction costs. This was an unprecedented partnership between the National Park Service and the National Guard and served as a model throughout the park service. Most federal projects are prohibitive to the National Guard because they require large time commitments and are typically much grander in scope.
The official roster for the entrance road project reported troops from S.C. Army and Air National Guard as well as civil engineering squadrons that came from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Site 3 (Controlled burn)
Immediately after crossing the entrance road, you are confronted with an interesting mixture of vegetation, with an understory dominated by sweet gum and an overstory of loblolly pine trees. Another thing you may notice is charred bark down toward the base of some of the trees or even some fallen limbs that show evidence of a past burn. What you may not realize is that these two things are closely related.
In April 2014, the park conducted the most recent in a series of controlled burns, which covered most of the area surrounding the Bluff Trail. The goal of the controlled burns was to curb the spread of sweet gum and promote the open understory longleaf pines prefer. Longleaf pine habitats used to cover 70 million acres across the Southeast and supported a great diversity of plant and animal life, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. Efforts are being made to reestablish these habitats to encourage the reintroduction of this species.
Site 4 (Longleaf Campground)
Right up ahead you will reach a fork in the trail. The trail veering off to the left is a spur trail that will lead you to the Longleaf Campground and the path to the right will allow you to continue along the Bluff Trail. You know you’re still on the Bluff Trail if you are able to spot the
white number one signs posted on trees alongside the trail. However, if you are interested in scouting out the Longleaf Campground, it can be accessed on foot via the left spur trail and is also accessible by vehicle from the entrance road. You may remember passing the entrance to the campground parking lot coming in.
In 2012, improvements were made to both the Longleaf Campground and the Bluff Campground (encountered later along the Bluff trail), with most of the work involving expansion and reconfiguration of the sites. The campground includes 14 different primitive camping sites, separated into 4 group sites and 10 individual sites. The two types of campgrounds are limited to 24 and 8 people, respectively. Campground amenities include porta-johns, fire pits and grills, and picnic tables.
All campers must self-register at the kiosk right beside the Longleaf Campground parking lot. Backcountry camping permits are available here and at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Site 5 (Land use history)
Walking along the Bluff Trail, you may begin to notice some man-made ditches on the sides of the trail. There are even a few bridges that allow visitors to traverse the more substantial man-made drainage ditches. Two of these bridges are along the Bluff Trail pathway.
Aerial photos from 1938 show the land currently surrounding the Bluff trail was once plowed farmland that was mostly barren of trees. These old man-made ditches allowed farmers to drain wetlands and cultivate land for crops. Now these shallow ditches are markers of the past and the cultural history of the area.
Although Congaree National Park is typically classified as an old-growth bottomland forest, the forest located along the Bluff Trail is considerably younger. It’s interesting to imagine the very trail you are standing on today, surrounded by tall pines in all directions, was once someone’s cleared farmland only a few decades ago.
Site 6 (From loblolly to longleaf)
Evidence of the fire-maintained longleaf pine habitat becomes more obvious as you continue along the trail. You should begin to see more diversity in the foliage. It is typical for longleaf savanna habitats to have a nice combination of tall pines as well as a generous diversity of understory vegetation. Just past the Caroline Sims Road crossing up ahead, the contrast in plant diversity becomes even more apparent.
Some plants you may begin to notice earlier on along the trail are beautyberry, winged sumac, and more grass varieties. Beautyberry bushes have large oval shaped leaves and produce pretty rich purple berries. Winged sumac is a smaller plant with compound leaves that turn a gorgeous red hue in late fall. These plants are earlier indicators of the transition in foliage that is soon to come.
Site 7 (Caroline Sims Road/Sims Trail)
Caroline Sims Road once served as an entrance road to Congaree National Park prior to the construction of the park’s new entrance road. The lower part of Caroline Sims Road is now names Sims Trail in honor of Booker T Sims, who lived nearby on Old Bluff Road and volunteered his carpentry skills in the early years of the park. Though he passed away in 2002, his house can still be seen just east of the park entrance. This road crossing marks a full transformation from the initial landscape viewed at the crossing of the current entrance road that was dominated by sweet gum and loblolly, to the evolution of a more ideal longleaf savanna habitat. The area directly following this road crossing is a great example of what the park’s use of controlled burns hopes to accomplish in the future.
Site 8 (Old whiskey still)
Down along Caroline Sims Road to your left is one of Congaree National Park’s best historic still sites. You will probably be able to see the site only during the winter-look for two large rusted steel boilers. Surrounding these boilers are several 55-gallon drums and many broken Mason jars.
This site is thought to be from the 20th Century, operational until the 1970s. Authorities most likely found the site and destroyed it by blowing
out the steel boilers under pressure and using axes to destroy the remaining steel drums. Numerous smaller still sites are hidden along the bluff edge.
Site 9 (Pine bark beetles)
Up ahead along the Bluff trail you should see a large clearing. This clearing is a result of the efforts to combat the pine bark beetle infestation, a serious threat to the efforts to establish a longleaf savanna habitat in this area.
Pine bark beetles feed and lay their eggs under the tree bark. Once hatched, the larvae feast on the tree’s nutrients, thus killing the tree. After the tree dies, adult beetles then move on to neighboring trees to lay more eggs. To combat the spread of beetles, infected trees have been cut down and the remaining area is cleared to be used as a buffer area. Unfortunately, this buffer method has proven somewhat unsuccessful as trees continue to be infested by the beetles.
You can find pine bark beetles in other areas besides national parks, even in spaces like your own backyard. To detect an infestation, check the color of the needles on neighboring pines. If the needles turn lighter then rusty brown, this is a sign that this tree may be infested
with pine bark beetles.
Site 10 (New longleaf pines)
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can look around the right side of the clearing opposite the infestation and locate some early “grass” stage
longleaf pines. Longleaf pines can stay in the grass stage for years. Though they appear vulnerable to fires, the growth bud is protected by a thick sheath of needles and these young trees can survive quick-burning controlled wild fires. These new saplings are a promising sight for Congaree National Park’s efforts.
Site 11 (Bluff Campground)
After the clearing, there is another fork in the trail. Straight ahead will lead you to the Bluff Campground. To stay along the trail, veer right and continue to follow the white number one signs.
The Bluff Campground is a second primitive campground at Congaree National Park. Up until 2012, the Bluff Campground was used for group camping. However, since the reconfiguration of the site, the campground now consists of 6 different individual sites located at the outskirts of a grassy clearing.
The Bluff Campground has no corresponding parking lot, and is only accessible via a hike along the Bluff Trail. Similar to the Longleaf Campground, campers must self-register at a kiosk located at the entrance of the campsite.
Site 12 (The bluff edge)
As you depart from the clearing and neighboring campsite area, you are drawing closer to the bluff edge. This area is an example of an “ecotone,” a transition area between the muck bottomland forest and bluff forest. The bluff forest is known for its great plant and animal diversity because it contains characteristics from both its neighboring ecosystems. This is a great place to see species like the eastern box turtle making its way from the bluff down to the swamp.
As you continue your hike, keep your eyes open for little critters making their way from one community to the next. Don’t forget to notice the rich diversity in plant species bordering the edge of the bluff, including jack-in-the-pulpit in the spring and the stately vase-shaped cinnamon fern, with its cinnamon-colored fertile fronds.
Site 13 (Armadillo burrows)
As your hike takes you back around to the boardwalk, you may notice a couple dirt mounds adjacent to the trail. These dirt mounds are actually burrows that are home to armadillos, which have expanded their range northward in recent years.
The nine-banded armadillo (Spanish for “little armored one”) are covered in a hard armored shell, have a pig-like snout, are mostly nocturnal, and enjoy dense, shady habitats with lots of tree cover. Just one of these animals can have many burrows, which can get up 7-8 inches in diameter and 15 feet long.
Spotting an armadillo in the daytime can be especially challenging, since these little critters tend to be most active at night.
Site 14 (Horse sugar trees)
Also alongside the boardwalk, you can find an interesting plant called horse sugar. The horse sugar trees, also known as sweet leaf, are adjacent to the boardwalk just past the armadillo burrows. Their leaves are dark green, leathery, and very lustrous, though often infested with fleshy galls caused by fungus. These trees produce white, flagrant flowers from March to May and thrive in moist, shady woodlands. The fun thing about this plant is their taste! Chewing the tree’s leaves produces a taste similar to that of a green apple. Historically, local landowners would use the swamp as “free range” for their livestock in the summer, and this was one of the favorite plants for animals to browse.
Site 15 (Second Sims Trail crossing)
Perpendicular to the boardwalk is Sims Trail. Once leading to the Cedar Creek Hunt Club’s clubhouse (which has long since been demolished), the gravel road of the Sims Trail crossing previously functioned as the park’s main entryway and but now doubles as a trail and service road. This crossing leads from the bluff to Cedar Creek and Wise Lake.
To return to the Visitor Center, continue along the boardwalk or take the continuation of the Bluff Trail (it veers off the boardwalk after the Sims Trail crossing) through a beautiful oak-beech forest.
This guide was produced by Friends of Congaree Swamp, which advocates for Congaree National Park and its unique environment. Special thanks go to Erin Hamner who wrote the guide as part of a USC Honors College course, John Grego, and Sharon Kelly. © 2015