The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in Congaree National Park follows the only Outstanding National Resource Waters in South Carolina, beginning at Bannister Bridge and continuing 17 miles until it feeds into the Congaree River. The trail takes paddlers through the center of the park, providing views of the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest and low-lying cypress-tupelo wetlands. Large baldcypress trees, water tupelo, sweetgum and oak border the trail in many places, creating a picturesque canopy over the waterway. Green hawthorn can be seen along the banks as its white blossoms frame the waterway in spring. Paddlers will have the opportunity to see wading birds such as Great Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis and Great Egret fishing in the shallows, Barred Owl (often active during the day), and Wood Duck. Other wildlife includes River Otter, turtles, water snakes lounging on fallen trees and overhanging branches, feral hogs, deer, fishing spiders, squirrels and racoon.
This guide will focus on the four-mile section of the trail beginning at Elder Lake and ending at a shortcut to the Congaree River. This portion of the trail lies entirely within the old-growth boundary of Congaree National Park. Along the way, paddlers can see a former national champion sweetgum, find evidence of the park’s logging and hunting legacies, experience the changing nature of Cedar Creek from placid lake to swiftly-running stream and view the Congaree River at the paddle’s terminus.
Note: At this time (July 2022), the creek is relatively clear of obstacles. In general, the lower the water level, the more obstacles you will have to negotiate; check with the park, or consult the USGS website for Cedar Creek before your trip to understand the conditions you will face. Although paddlers will most likely enjoy their time on the creek regardless of water levels, the optimal level for paddling this stretch of the trail is over 4 feet on the Cedar Creek gage.
The paddling trail can be accessed from South Cedar Creek Road at the same access point as the beginning of the Kingsnake Trail. A large gravel parking lot sits 100 yards from a bridge (Bridge L) crossing Cedar Creek. Paddlers will see signs encouraging them to lock their vehicles and secure valuables. There is a pit toilet at the far end of the lot, and a kiosk with a map of the trail. Paddlers are encouraged to carry a copy of John Cely’s map of the park which can be purchased at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Once one walks down the path to the landing, they may access Cedar Creek from either side of the embankment before the bridge.
Visitors can choose to paddle all the way to the river and back in one day; it is an 8-mile paddle one way and can take 8-12 hours depending on conditions. Otherwise, paddlers can camp on the riverbank (or other sites along the creek) overnight and return the next day, or paddle down the Congaree River for 12 miles to Bates Bridge landing at US 601. Exercise judgment and be prepared to adjust your plans. A free backcountry permit is required for any camping activities in this part of the park.
The first 4 miles of this downstream trip are described in the Middle Cedar Creek Trail Guide; this guide begins at Elder Lake. If you choose instead to paddle upstream and then return downstream, consult the Upper Cedar Creek Trail Guide for highlights.
Site 1: Elder Lake
The guide starts after a 3.75-mile paddle to the southern end of Elder Lake, which is not a lake, but rather a widening of the creek’s channel. This body of water was named after James “Jim” V. Elder, the leader of the grassroots organization that successfully fought to save the forests of the Congaree River floodplain in the 1970s and led to the formation of Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976, later designated as Congaree National Park by legislation passed in 2003.
Look for a beaver lodge and its tell-tale tunnels built into the southeastern bank of the lake; building lodges into the bank may be an adaptation to the fluctuating water levels in the park. In the lake you will startle more than a few Longnose Gar, a large olive brown to green fish with a torpedo-shaped body and needle-like snout, suspended just below the surface—and the sudden swirls of water left in their wake as they flee from your boat will startle you as well.
The southern end of Elder Lake marks a definitive transition from second-growth forest to the old-growth forest of the 11,500-acre Beidler Tract, so you will have the opportunity to paddle through a landscape in which trees were only selectively logged. In this area, Baldcypress trees, prized for the durability and straight grain of their wood, were the main focus of logging efforts from the late 1890s to the 1910s. Many of the Baldcypress on this portion of Cedar Creek were harvested, though you will still see numerous large Baldcypress with extensive branching along the entire length of the trunk. These knotty trees were likely unattractive to timber companies and hence not logged.
At the southern end of the lake, the gut to Clear Lake will appear on your left. A “gut” is a local term for a small, short floodplain waterway. They are often dry or stagnant during the summer and early fall. During floods, guts 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. The gut to Clear Lake is a secondary paddle and does not link back to Cedar Creek.
You shortly encounter a couple alternate channels around small islands; in general, the right-hand channels provide a more direct route downstream. Paddlers should note the higher, eastern banks of the creek here. Also, look for a girdled Baldcypress en route. Freshly-cut baldcypress logs would sink while being transported (you can see many of these logs if you paddle during low-water conditions), loggers would use axes to cut a shallow groove around the trunk of a tree, which would kill the tree and allow it to dry out. After a year, the tree would be sawn into 16-foot lengths, which were then floated or dragged out of the swamp then transported downstream to a sawmill. This tree was girdled, but never harvested.
Site 2: The Narrows
At The Narrows, the channel makes an abrupt shift in direction from southwest to southeast. The channel does narrow at the approach and the current becomes swifter. The Narrows is the junction with Horsepen Gut, a substantial floodplain channel important to the filling and draining of the floodplain during high water.
A white sign with black lettering indicates that paddlers should turn to the southeast rather than continue into Horespen Gut. Although Horsepen Gut flows north from the river into Cedar Creek, the waterway is not kept clear of debris by park staff and should be negotiated with extreme caution. Horsepen Gut is not part of this guide.
Throughout the paddle, a few diamond-shaped paddle trail signs from many years ago can still be found. Look for them high up on tree trunks, where they were placed so that they could still be seen during high water conditions. The water level of Cedar Creek can fluctuate by more than 10 feet. At high flows, the channel is no longer discernible as floodwaters cover almost the entire floodplain, turning the swamp into a vast fast-moving sheet of brown water.
Even at moderate flows, Horsepen Gut carries a high volume of water from the Congaree River into the floodplain, and you will likely notice a stronger current carrying you downstream after passing Horsepen Gut. Along the north bank sycamore trees grow, which favor the high banks of former river channels in the floodplain.
Site 3: Hunt Cabin
After traveling west, Cedar Creek begins a series of turns southward. Look for a gut entrance on your left marked by a baldcypress tree and an unusually high bank on the downstream side of the gut. This is the location of a former hunt club cabin constructed by Hubert Paul known as the Paul family cabin, though only a few traces of debris remain onsite. The United States Hunt Club, reorganized as the Cedar Creek Hunt Club, leased the Beidler tract for hunting and fishing from the 1930s until December 1982. The original Paul family cabin burned down in 1959 but a second cabin was constructed in the mid-to-late 1960s. The last cabin on the site burned down in early 1981. The remnants of the cabin, situated on one of the highest ridges in the central floodplain, was removed by park ranger Guy Taylor. Hunt club members included writer and newspaper columnist Harry Hampton, who was a passionate advocate in the 1950s and early 1960s for protecting the old-growth forest.
Downstream from the cabin site, you will see a teapot-shaped Baldcypress on the south bank that serves as a landmark for a substantive gut that delineates Cedar Creek Island. The island is a remote treasure rarely traversed by paddlers but, if a backcountry permit has been secured, serves as an ideal campsite. Within the gut and on the island are several large old-growth Baldcypress. If one should paddle the gut around the island, you will reenter Cedar Creek south of Hurricane Gut. Choose wisely.
Site 4: Hurricane Gut
Approximately one-half mile south of the former cabin site, Hurricane Gut will appear on your left at a southward bend of the creek. You can disembark here, scramble up the bank and walk approximately one hundred yards downstream to visit the former national champion sweetgum. The sweetgum is surrounded by dense vegetation, but you should have little difficulty seeing its massive columnar trunk, almost 18 feet around. The tree originally stood almost 160 feet tall, but lost a large portion of its crown sometime before 2011. It was feared the tree was dead, but it has been re-sprouting vigorously and appears healthy. Despite canopy loss resulting in its demotion as a national champion, it is still the largest circumference sweetgum in the forest, 26 years after it was discovered.
The dominant vegetation community in the park is bottomland hardwood forest, and sweetgum is the most common canopy tree. Much of the logging at the turn of the century focused on Baldcypress, but hardwoods, including sweetgum, were selectively logged in the floodplain. When logging in the Beidler Tract resumed in the late 1960’s, approximately 800 acres of old-growth in the western part of the park were clearcut rather than selectively logged. Fortunately, over 11,000 acres of old-growth remain.
Though the park has numerous mature sweetgums, there are not enough young trees to replace them. It is suspected that sweetgums, which do not tolerate shade, need landscape-level disturbances, whether from logging, fires, or hurricanes, to successfully establish themselves in the floodplain.
Site 5: Mazyck’s Cut
At Cedar Creek’s closest approach to the Congaree River, a mysterious though most likely natural channel has been improved to provide a shortcut to the river. This channel–Mazyck’s Cut–is named for a lowcountry family who in the late 1700s owned over 3,000 acres in the interior of the park. The main channel of Cedar Creek continues for almost 3 more miles, but is not maintained. In fact, a significant log jam blocks further progress if you attempt to continue down the former channel of Cedar Creek. High banks on both sides of the creek make portaging around the log jam especially difficult and farther travel is not recommended. Large log jams like the one mentioned here in Cedar Creek were quite common in the Congaree River for a long period of time. The naturally occurring process of trees dying and falling into the creek creates ideal conditions for large log jams which further illustrates the instability of floodplain channels and the challenges staff face in managing the park’s waterways.
Site 6: Congaree River
Continue down Mazyck’s Cut to reach the Congaree River. The entire length of the river, from downtown Columbia to its confluence with the Wateree River and Upper Santee Swamp, has been recognized as a national blue trail by American Rivers. Though the northern bank of the river is in the park, the Congaree River itself is not part of Congaree National Park. As part of a longer paddle, you may continue down the Congaree River for 12 miles to reach the Bates Bridge boat landing off US 601. Refer to the Congaree River Blue Trail guide for more information.
Neal Polhemus co-wrote this guide. Thanks also to John Cely for their assistance.