Bluff Trail Guide
The Bluff Trails
The Bluff trail network includes a one-hour walk along a 2.0-mile loop trail with a couple campground spur trails and a connector trail accessed from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center parking lot. The trail system includes the Longleaf Trail (signed #8) on the west, the Bluff Trail (signed #1) in the middle, and the Firefly Trail (#10) on the south and east.
The majority of the trail network lies just beyond the crossing of the entrance road and offers access to both the Longleaf and Bluff campgrounds. In addition, the trails provide not only unique scenery and cultural history, but offer 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.
During May, the park’s most popular attraction takes place as fireflies progressively synchronize their display, one of a handful of sites in the eastern US where this behavior has been documented. The park currently manages intense visitor interest in the fireflies with a reservation system to experience the display along a portion of the Firefly Trail.
Bluff Trail Map (pdf)
Site 1 (Accessing the trails)
To access the trails, 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 deck built into the boardwalk. Take the stairs down to the Longleaf Trail.
At the foot of the stairs, look for the trail sign straight ahead, and bear left on the Longleaf Trail 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 eight 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 re-sprouted sweetgum saplings and an overstory of loblolly pine trees. You may also notice 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.
The park conducts a series of controlled burns, which covered most of the area surrounding the Bluff Trail. The goal of the controlled burns is to curb the spread of sweetgum 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 re-introduction of this species.
Site 4 (Longleaf Campground)
Farther ahead you will reach a fork in the trail. The trail veering off to the left is the continuation of the Longleaf Trail that leads to the Longleaf Campground, while the path to the right will allow you to follow the Bluff Trail. You know you are on the Bluff Trail when you see 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 register ahead of time through recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. For information on backcountry camping, call (803) 776-4396 or email email@example.com.
Site 5 (Land use history)
Continuing east, you will reach a connecting trail on the right (also signed #1) that leads back to the parking lot; this can be used to shorten your route.
Walking along the Bluff Trail, you may begin to notice 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. Archival research by Neal Polhemus confirms that one of the landowners was Rev. Daniel Boyd and his wife Amanda, both formerly enslaved on Robert Adams Sr’s Bluff property. Rev. Boyd was a pastor at local churches, including St. Mark Baptist, New Light Beulah Baptist, and Mt. Moriah Baptist. Robert Adams sold an 87-acre tract to Rev. Boyd in 1873, and Amanda Boyd continued to live on the tract after Rev. Boyd’s death. 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. Until a recent pine bark beetle infestation, the area directly following this road crossing served as a great example of what the park’s use of controlled burns hopes to accomplish in the future.
Site 8 (Old whiskey still)
Off Caroline Sims Road to your left is one of Congaree National Park’s largest historic still sites. You will probably be able to see the site only during the winter or after a controlled burn-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 boilers under pressure and using axes to destroy the remaining metal drums. Numerous smaller still sites are hidden along the bluff edge and in the muck swamp.
Site 9 (Pine bark beetles)
Up ahead along the Bluff trail you should see a large clearing. This clearing is in part 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 were cut down and the nearby area was cleared to be used as a buffer area. Unfortunately, this buffer method proved unsuccessful as trees in the area faced a more serious infestation a few years later. This area does mimic natural openings seen in longleaf pine savannas, which can contribute to regeneration of longleaf pine seedlings.
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)
Look for young longleaf pine saplings to your right. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also locate some early “grass” stage longleaf pines off trail. 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. After grass stage, the young trees grow quickly above the fire zone to become the saplings you see; this growth spurt is referred to as the “bottlebrush” or “rocket” stage. These seedlings have naturally reproduced; a more extensive planned project can be found farther down the trail.
Site 11 (Bluff Campground)
After the clearing, there is another fork in the trail. Straight ahead, a short spur will lead to the Bluff Campground. To stay on the trail loop, veer right to pick up the Firefly Trail and follow the white number ten 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 register through recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
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 excavated up against the boardwalk. 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 be 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.
A portion of the Firefly Trail beyond Sims Trail is used for the annual firefly program. Synchronized firefly displays were known and shared with relatively few park insiders for years. As word got out, visitors began to come after-hours when no park staff were present and overwhelm the trail system, inadvertently trampling areas where fireflies were signalling. The park began an active firefly program in 2017 and continues to make adjustments to handle the intense visitor interest.
The synchronous fireflies at Congaree National Park are male Photinus frontalis beetles, who signal to females as part of a display; the females on the ground signal on return, though their signaling is more cryptic and less understood. Initial displays are not well-synchronized and park staff and volunteers closely monitor the display to document its progress toward synchroniziation. Visitors cannot be guaranteed a fully synchronous display, though they will see some fireflies and enjoy an evening in the park.
To return to the Visitor Center, continue along the boardwalk or take the continuation of the Firefly Trail (it veers off the boardwalk after the Sims Trail crossing—look for the number 10 sign to your right) 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