The Kingsnake Trail is an isolated trail that connects to the park’s main trail system after 3.6 miles. The parking lot and trailhead also serve as the park’s primary canoe/kayak access point to Cedar Creek, and almost all visitors to this part of the park are here for paddling.
Though the trail does not loop, the initial 1.2-mile portion leading almost directly south into the floodplain makes a pleasant out-and-back walk.
The trail follows a logging road built in the 1970s. The initiation of logging after a hiatus dating from the early 1900s reignited a movement started by conservationist Harry Hampton to preserve the old-growth forest along the Congaree floodplain.
The most intense logging in this part of the park took place south of where you will travel today. Though you will be walking through woods that were selectively cut, many mature trees remain, and you will actually be walking directly past one of the most impressive hardwoods in the park—a large cherrybark oak on the bank of Tear Pond. Other highlights include a champion-class persimmon tree and a water oak over 18 feet in circumference. The trail crosses Cedar Creek, the only Outstanding National Resource Water in South Carolina and then returns to Cedar Creek’s bank for the trail’s final reach.
On the hike, you may see wood ducks startled from some of the sloughs and ponds along the trail, and hear barred owls calling. This can be a good area to find Rusty Blackbird, a winter visitor to the park whose numbers have declined greatly since the mid-1900’s. Just off-trail, one of the larger baldcypress in the park can be found, as well as a cattle mound dating from the 19th century, when such structures were constructed by enslaved African-Americans as refuges for livestock during floods. One highlight you are unlikely to come across is an Eastern Kingsnake—though the trail was named for this species when a kingsnake was seen during the layout of trail, they are primarily nocturnal hunters and infrequently seen.
To reach Kingsnake Trail from the park’s Harry Hampton Visitor Center, follow National Park Road (the park’s entrance road) back to Old Bluff Road. Take a right on Old Bluff Road until it ends at a T-intersection with South Cedar Creek Road. Turn right on South Cedar Creek Road and follow it south for 1.8 miles until you see the sign for South Cedar Creek Canoe Launch and Kingsnake Trail Access. Continue straight on the gravel road and park. You are ready to begin your hike!
The Kingsnake Trail is generally easy to follow, though a series of ice storms, floods, and tropical storms has downed several large trees and the trail’s path can be obscured. These fallen trees can make it hard sometimes to follow the trail; when navigating obstacles, always try to keep trail signs in sight. The park marks the Kingsnake Trail with signs with the number “6”. These signs are placed on trees approximately every 25-30 yards; some of these signs include GPS coordinates to assist with rescue efforts. The Kingsnake Trail was formerly marked by painted light blue blazes on the trees and some of these historical marks can still be seen.
Though a number of the sites in this guide are numbered, there will not be any signs for these sites on the trail. Because the park is designated a national 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 trail guide map provides only an approximate site location.
SIte 1: Parking Lot
The parking lot can be a good location to scan the sky for soaring birds, including Mississippi Kite in the summer. It can also be a good place to look for butterflies, who like to collect mineral salts from the gravel lot. If it’s not too hot a day, take a look around before reviewing the kiosk at the trail head and proceeding down the trail to Cedar Creek and the Iron Bridge. And take advantage of the pit toilet facilities if needed.
Site 2: Iron Bridge (Bridge L)
The first portion of the trail follows a logging road that was cut in the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the New Road. Historical records indicate that the first part of the New Road followed the footprint of a road dating from the late 18th century. Pause at the bridge for a look at Cedar Creek. Cedar Creek enters the park at Bannister Bridge and slowly winds across the floodplain for 15 miles before joining the Congaree River. Cedar Creek is the only Outstanding National Resource Water in the state, recognized for its exceptional natural and recreational value. Canoes and kayaks can be launched on the Cedar Creek Wilderness Trail at two different sites at the park: Bannister Bridge and South Cedar Creek, the landing you see here. The current is slow enough here and the creek sufficiently wide that paddlers can readily paddle downstream or upstream and then retrace their route. Contact the park for information about its popular free paddling tours.
Site 3: Second Bridge
This bridge crosses a small slough. Sloughs are often formed from abandoned river or creek channels. Even though no longer directly connected to a water source, sloughs usually hold water year-round except during times of drought. The park has several species of trees uniquely adapted to the wettest habitats in the floodplain, but two of them, water tupelo and bald cypress, dominate the canopy in these low spots. Most of the trees you see here are water tupelo, with large leaves and sinuous trunks. Bald cypress is one of the iconic trees of the Southern wetlands, with its characteristically straight trunk, feathery needles and numerous surrounding “knees”.
Site 4: Third Bridge
This bridge crosses a gut connecting Whiskey Pond (so named for the remnants of a whiskey still along its bank) on your right with Long Pond on your left. A “gut” is a local term for a small, short floodplain stream that has clearly defined banks. Guts are distinguished from creeks by being shallower and shorter in length. They are often dry or stagnant during the summer and early fall. Guts seem to wind aimlessly over the floodplain, sometimes connecting different parts of the same creek together, or connecting one oxbow lake to another. Guts have an important role in floods. They transport water from the Congaree River throughout the floodplain in the initial stage of a flood, and then channel water so that it can flow more quickly back to the river and main creeks as the flooding subsides.
There is a large bald cypress tree on your right. Bald cypress decays slowly, so much so that lumber from bald cypress has been called “the wood eternal”. Historically, bald cypress was highly prized for building, including shingles used in roofing and siding. The late 19th century and early 20th century logging industry claimed many of the bald cypress trees in the southeast United States, so trees in the Congaree National Park are some of the last remaining old-growth bald cypress trees on U.S. soil.
Site 5: Fifth Bridge
From the third bridge to the fifth bridge, you will be hiking along an area that was selectively logged in the 1970s. Nonetheless, some impressive canopy trees can be found along the trail, dominated by sweetgum, hickory and oak. Starting in the late summer, Longleaf Lobelia are numerous here, and you will sometimes see multiple butterflies, including Lace-winged Roadside Skipper and Zabulon Skipper, nectaring on the same bloom stalk.
Site 6 (optional): Moccasin Pond Baldcypress
There is an opportunity for a short off-trail excursion that should only be undertaken if you have a working compass (electronic or otherwise) or GPS. You will be no more than a couple hundred yards off trail before retracing your steps, but it is very easy to lose your sense of direction in the park and you should not venture off trail without the help of navigational aids. Do not attempt to reach the tree if water levels are high; even at moderate water levels, you often can approach no closer than fifty yards—close enough for a good look.
To find the tree, look for an exposed galvanized culvert pipe on the trail; an arm of Whiskey Pond that reaches all the way to the trail edge will be on your right. And if you look behind you, you will see you have just passed a trail marker with coordinates N 33.8176, W -80.6465. Enter the woods to your left, following a small channel in a westerly direction. Another channel will appear on your right—stay in between these channels and you will soon enter Moccasin Pond—you should notice a low bank 50 yards to your left. If you keep the bank edge 50 to 75 yards to your left, you will reach the cypress in a couple hundred yards—it is unmistakeable, with a prominent “foot” and a palisade of cypress knees surrounding it. The purpose of cypress knees is still debated. Some feel they increase the stability of the root system, while a previously rejected theory that they promoted gas exchange when the forest is flooded has been supported by recent peer-reviewed scientific research. When done, return west to the trail and resume your trip.
Site 7: Bridge K and Summer Duck Slough
Bridge K crosses a gut that connects Summer Duck Slough and Big Snake Slough. The trail turns sharply to the right (west) after the bridge, while the old logging road continues straight ahead. The logging road is unmaintained and increasingly overgrown in switchcane; it should only be explored accompanied by someone who is familiar with its route.
Switchcane, a native bamboolike grass that grows in wet woods, provides critical nesting habitat for some characteristic bottomland bird species, including Swainson’s Warbler.
Native Americans managed canebrakes with controlled fires to encourage further growth, in part because canebrakes were excellent habitat for game. But canebrakes declined as early settlers used the cane for livestock forage and plowed it under for agriculture, in part since the presence of cane was considered a sign of rich soil.
For the next mile, you will be walking along the south bank of Summer Duck Slough, so named for the Wood Duck, colloquially called “Summer Duck” because it is the only waterfowl that commonly breeds in portions of the southeast. The male Wood Duck is one of the most beautiful waterfowl in the US. It is not unusual to flush wood duck, often in pairs, from waterbodies in the park. The wood duck will almost always see you before you see them, and you will typically hear the hen’s alarm call and catch only a glimpse of the wood ducks flying away in the distance.
As of 2017, this portion of the trail has multiple fallen trees that need to be negotiated—keep an eye out for trail markers to make sure you find your way safely along the trail. Remember than Summer Duck Slough and its well-defined bank edge is always on your right and it is safer to find detours to the right rather than to the left.
Site 8: Eighth Bridge
You will begin to encounter pine trees along the trail, which marks the end of your walk along Summer Duck Slough. The eighth bridge (are you still keeping count?) crosses a small gut connecting Big Slough and the northwestern end of Summer Duck Slough. Cooner’s Mound is nearby—it is one of seven cattle mounds in the park that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
This well-shaped rectangular mound was constructed by slaves in the 19th century as a refuge during floods for free-range livestock that foraged in the park. Flooding from the Congaree River can inundate the entire floodplain, and typically occurs in winter and early spring. Though floods usually subside after a few days, livestock herded to mounds would still need to be fed hay delivered by boat.
After you cross the eighth bridge, watch trail markers closely; there are a couple shallow channels that cross the path and it is easy to inadvertently follow these channels rather than the trail.
Site 9: Bridge J
Bridge J crosses Circle Gut, after which the trail turns sharply right. As of 2017, a large log had floated on the bridge and damaged it, though the bridge is still stable. You will soon see Tear Pond to your left, a large tear-shaped slough whose bank you will follow until you rejoin Cedar Creek. Tear Pond is dominated by Water Tupelo, though some Baldcypress appear, especially along the pond edge near the trail.
Site 10: Cherrybark Oak
Travelling along Tear Pond, you reach an immense Cherrybark Oak tree, one of the larger hardwoods in the park. This tree is over 22 feet in diameter, though it has suffered some crown damage and does not stand as tall as some other Cherrybark Oak in the park. Cherrybark Oak is one of the more valuable hardwoods found in the park, and its wood was harvested for veneer in the furniture trade.
Site 11: Cedar Creek
Continue along Tear Pond and you will arrive back at Cedar Creek. The trail turns to the left (upstream) and follows the creek for a little more than a half mile before the trail ends at its junction with the Oakridge Trail. As you walk along this portion of the trail, there is an opportunity to see a couple more outstanding trees.
Champion trees come in all sizes, including a former co-champion Persimmon near the trail. Persimmon can be recognized by their checkered black bark that looks as though it has been burned. If you carefully scan the woods to your left just as the trail leads away from the bank edge of Cedar Creek (the tree is much easier to see in the winter, when foliage does not obscure your view), you may see an 8-foot circumference Persimmon that was a national co-champion at one time. A tree this size is easily overlooked in the park, but it is truly remarkable to see a Persimmon so large and tall, reaching 110 feet in height. The champion trees in the park are often unusually tall for their species, though their circumference and crown may not match those of trees growing in more open habitats.
After the trail leaves Cedar Creek, you will encounter another area with several large downed trees. Keep an eye out for trail markers, and detour to the right (along Cedar Creek) when possible. After negotiating this section, look to your left for a large Water Oak almost 18 feet in circumference. Water Oak, despite their name, are generalists, adapted to a wide variety of soils. Other oak species are much more common in the park; Laurel Oak, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Willow Oak and Cherrybark Oak are among the dominant canopy trees for many of the park’s varied vegetative communities.
Site 12: Junction with Oakridge Trail
After you reach the junction with the Oakridge Trail, you can retrace your steps 3.6 miles, or continue to the Visitor Center in another 1.9 miles if you have arranged a car shuttle. If you choose to continue to the Visitor Center, follow the Oakridge Trail over Bridge I to the Weston Lake Loop Trail, turn right on the Weston Lake Loop Trail and follow it to the Boardwalk Loop; either direction on the loop trail will take you to the Visitor Center.