Introduction

Fork Swamp Trail is Congaree National Park’s newest trail, and its ninth formal trail. This 0.6-mile loop trail travels along the banks of Bates Old River, the former channel of the Congaree River, an excellent site for water recreation and birding.  Furthermore, the Trail is located along the US 601 corridor, which currently serves as a frontier for Park recreational development. It is relatively close to both the Bates Ferry Trail and the Congaree National Park’s most recent land acquisition. The park has plans to extend Fork Swamp Trail and create an even larger outer loop that will take visitors to the junction of Bates Old River and Congaree River.

This short trail has some unique attractions.  Fork Swamp Trail provides quick access to an informal paddling put-in on Bates Old River; the site of the put-in can be one of the best places in the part to see River Otter in late fall and early winter.  The trail’s proximity to the Congaree River provides an excellent opportunity to see birds soaring above the floodplain, including Bald Eagle and Osprey.  Former hunt club clearings and a wet meadow provide a variety of habitats that attract birds and other wildlife.

Safety Note: The eastern (downstream) end of the park is subject to more frequent and prolonged flooding than on the park’s main trail system to the west.  Never travel on flooded trails alone, and always be cautious when dealing with unexpected bodies of water. Moving water is an extreme hazard, and it is not safe at any depth. Always take precautions and avoid danger when possible.  Water levels can be checked at the US 601 gage: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/sc/nwis/uv?02169750. Whenever the gage is at 80 feet or above, be prepared for flooding on the trail.

Good luck out on the trail!

Getting There

Access Road Turn-off

The Fork Swamp Trail is located a significant distance from the main park entrance and visitor center. To get to the trail, head east along SC 48, locally known as Bluff Road. Take this road all the way to the end, where it meets US 601. Turn right and follow US 601 south for 3.5 miles (you will pass a sign for the park’s Bates Ferry trailhead on your right 1.2 miles before the Fork Swamp access road). The Fork Swamp access is currently unmarked but the paved access road on the right can be easily seen from a distance; a pullout for the Congaree Ferries historic trail marker is on the opposite side of 601 from the access road. Farther down US 601 is SCDNR’s Bates Boat Landing; if approaching from the south, be wary as traffic along US 601 can be relatively dangerous to cross.

Parking Lot and Kiosk – Fork Swamp Trail

After following the access road for ¼-mile, there is a parking lot for easy access to the trail loop.

Fork Swamp Trail Map (pdf)

Site 1: Trailhead and Kiosk

Kiosk

At the end of the parking lot, there is a path continuing straight ahead and a path to the right of the trail’s interpretive kiosk.  The two paths will eventually meet, as the trail is a loop, and you will arrive back at the parking lot on the right-hand path. Read the interpretive panels on the kiosk before setting out, as they provide useful information about the trail.  In addition to learning about the formation of Bates Old River, as well as potential hazards, you can read about the co-mingling of local history and local geographical features.  Sampson Island, a wind-formed dune in the middle of the floodplain, has been used by humans for thousands of years. The bank along Bates Old River, formerly the Great Bend of the Congaree, provided an accessible route across the floodplain for travelers as early as the mid-1700’s.

Site 2: Re-sprouted Trees

Starting from the kiosk, follow the path straight ahead. Make particular note of the trail markers, with the number “9” clearly placed on them; this refers to Fork Swamp as the park’s 9th trail. It is critical to note markers to stay on the trail, especially in hazardous flood conditions.

Typical trail conditions

Because the trail can become overgrown in grass and sedge, the park periodically bush-hogs the trail from the parking lot to the banks of Bates Old River.  Be prepared for a variety of trail conditions.

While the majority of trees as you walk this portion of the trail have only a single trunk, this location is home to dozens of trees with multiple trunks stemming from the same root system. These specimens are known as re-sprouted trees. A re-sprouted tree generally indicates that at one point during the tree’s lifespan, it was cut down to the stump and roots. The presence of this large cluster of re-sprouted trees indicates that this was once the site of a significant logging operation. The height and health of the trees shows that this logging was well in the past.  Because this portion of the park has been logged repeatedly, you will not find the champion-caliber trees you find elsewhere in the park.

This is one of the best places in the park to hear and see breeding American Redstart, a species that winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America; the male is a colorful black songbird with bright orange patches on its wings and tail.  Redstart usually breed much farther north, but can be found nesting along the banks of some of South Carolina’s major coastal plain rivers, including the Congaree River.

You may see signs of feral hog rooting here and elsewhere along the trail, indicating that there may be a sounder of hogs nearby. Feral hogs present quite a problem in the park’s overall ecosystem for several reasons. In scavenging for food, hogs root through the earth, upturning plants and soil. This behavior damages and kills native plant species, as well as amphibians, reptiles, and macroinverterbrates sought for food. The mounds of dirt produced by rooting can contribute to pollution via bacteria from feral hog waste and eroded topsoil.

Since 2014, the park and the USDA have worked to curtail the feral hog population by trapping and shooting in designated target areas. These measures have been relatively successful, and efforts have been expanded to control hog populations around the periphery of the park to limit crop damage and soil erosion and improve water quality for the park’s neighbors.

Site 3: Meadow

Dry Meadow

Farther along the trail, the treeline breaks and opens up into a large clearing wherre the trees are replaced by tall standing brush and groundcover, including wetlands species such as Black Willow and Crimson-eyed Rose Mallow. This creates an open corridor for visitors to travel along, though the area floods easily, and you may find yourself skirting the flooded meadow to continue on the trail. In the center of the clearing, the path splits in two directions. One path turns right, continuing on the loop trail; the other heads directly forward. The forward path is incomplete and has not yet been formalized. Congaree National Park looks to expand Fork Swamp Trail in the near future; the junction will be the location of the start of the outer loop of the Fork Swamp Trail. The outer loop will run all the way to the bank of the Congaree River, and then follow the length of Bates Old River back to the existing trail.

Crimson-eyed Rose Mallow

While at the meadow, take a few minutes to scan the sky; not only are you close to the river, but the junction of the Congaree River and Wateree River and the headwaters of Upper Santee Swamp are nearby, and many birds use this habitat for nesting, roosting and foraging.  Besides usual sights–swallows and swifts–you may see raptors such as Mississippi Kite, Bald Eagle and Osprey, or wading birds, including Great Blue Heron, Great Egret and White Ibis.

Site 4: Former hunt club clearing

Blackberry patch

Starting at the intersection, turn right at the marked sign and follow the path for about 50 yards. The high brush slowly becomes less dense. You are walking along a large clearing amidst the woods of Fork Swamp, formerly planted in cover crops by the Kingville Hunt Club, which leased the tract, to attract deer, wild turkey and other game.  As the former opening grows in, the variety of vegetation, including dense stands of blackberry, attracts an interesting variety of birds, butterflies and dragonflies.

Site 5: Meeting of trail and Bates Old River

Butterweed

In a few hundred yards, you will arrive at the bank of Bates Old River. Abandoned river channels are often referred to as “old” or “dead” river (In fact, Bates Old River is often referred to locally as Dead River).  Be careful walking along the bank as you proceed, especially if water is high; the drop-off is steep and the bank can be slippery.

Bates Old River was the former main channel of the Congaree, until the river decisively abandoned the channel after a flood in 1852, the second largest historical flood on the river.  The portions of the channel west of US 601 are narrow as you see before you, while the portion east of US 601 forms an open two-mile long oxbow lake that is popular for fishing.

Dr. John Nelson and American Sycamore

Because Bates Old River is a former river channel, you will see species of trees common to riverbanks, and well adapted to the soils found in these river levee forests.  One of the most common is American Sycamore, with its smooth, mottled tan and white bark.

If you are hiking in the spring, you may have noticed butterweed (Packera glabella) blooming in the woods.  Though the floodplain is not know for its wildflower displays, the path along Bates Old River is one of the sites where the forest floor can be carpeted in this bloom, putting on a spectacular wildflower show in some years.

Site 6: Water-Recreation informal put-in

Bates Old River at low water

The final site of this guide is near to the parking lot where the trail began. This portion of the trail is an excellent place to spot river otters, which like to use the fallen tree trunks in the river to rest and eat their catch.  This spot also prominently features a relatively large Baldcypress along the Bates Old River’s bank at low water..

Kayakers and canoeists may use the riverbank as a launch point. The ease of access to the road and the gradual incline of the bank create a natural ramp. In the future, the park may formalize this point of entry to the river with non-intrusive infrastructure.

Paddling put-in

From the landing, paddlers may follow Bates Old River to the left for 0.7 miles, then paddle down the Congaree River for 1.4 miles to SCDNR’s Bates boat landing at the base of the US 601 bridge over the river.  A short shuttle is necessary to return to the Fork Swamp trailhead.  Alternatively, it is possible to paddle to the right, under US 601, to access the open portion of Bates Old River east of US 601 (though that portion of Bates Old River is more easily accessed by an unimproved landing farther north off US 601).  Whatever your itinerary, consult the Congaree River Blue Trail map for safety guidelines before your trip.

The trail makes a sharp right turn and proceeds directly to the parking lot and interpretive signs, concluding the Fork Swamp Trail.   Thanks for visiting!

Thanks to SC Honors College student Alexander von Klar for his work on the guide.