The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in Congaree National Park follows the only Outstanding National Resource Water in South Carolina, beginning at Bannister Bridge and continuing all the way until it feeds into the Congaree River. The trail takes paddlers through the center of the park, providing views of the old-growth hardwood forest and swamp-like floodplains in the surrounding area. Large baldcypress trees, water tupelo, sweetgum and oak border the trail in many places, creating a canopy of sorts over the waterway. Atlantic White Cedar, from which the creek gets its name, grows much farther upstream. Additionally, green hawthorn can be seen along the banks and is particularly noteworthy in the Spring with its white blooms framing the waterway. Paddlers will have the opportunity to see wading birds such as Great Blue Heron and Great Egret fishing in the shallows, Barred Owl (often active during the day), Wood Duck and River Otter. Other wildlife that can be seen include turtles, feral pigs, deer, and raccoon. Depending upon the time of year, brown watersnakes, sometimes quite large, lounging around the banks and in branches may startle paddlers, but rarely cause a nuisance.
This guide will focus on the section of the four-mile section of the trail beginning at South Cedar Creek Landing and ending at Elder Lake.
Note: At this time (June 2021), the creek is largely clear of obstacles. In general, the lower the water level, the more obstacles you will have to negotiate; check with the park (www.nps.gov/CONG), or consult the USGS website https://waterdata.usgs.gov/sc/nwis/uv?site_no=02169672 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 trailhead 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 the creek. Paddlers will see many signs encouraging them to lock their vehicles as well as a small bathroom at the edge of the lot. There is a bit of signage that shows a map of the trail as well. Once one walks down a dirt and gravel path and gets to the bridge, they may access the middle Cedar Creek trail to the left of the bridge and begin traveling downstream. In the accompanying images, one can see that the Kingsnake Trail can be completely flooded and blends right in with the boundaries of Cedar Creek. Visitors may enter the creek to the right of the bridge, but in flooded conditions it may be easier to enter from the left as that will be the direction of the current and it’s fairly open.
If you choose to paddle upstream and then return downstream, consult the Upper Cedar Creek Trail guide for highlights. If visitors choose to, this can be a multi-day trip, or it can be an out-and-back trip simply by turning around at a place of their choosing and returning to the trailhead of Kingsnake Trail.
Site 1: Beech Bluffs
Soon after beginning down the creek, paddlers will pass by beech bluffs on the north bank of the creek. These bluffs are home to a variety of vegetation (American Beech trees, White Oak, Sweetgum and smaller trees including American Holly) and wildlife. Some of the baldcypress trees that are present on the banks of this creek are only stumps left from the former logging days of Congaree Swamp. They provide a very clear guiding wall of sorts for anyone navigating the waterway. The “knees” of these trees as seen in the images are also distinctive. The American Beech trees on the bluffs are particularly noteworthy as they thrive in loamy soils and have therefore historically been a sign of fertile land to settlers. The nuts of these trees provide a food source for many squirrels and may have also been utilized by Native Americans that formerly resided in the area. Since this creek is prone to flooding, these high bluffs make the path of the river very clear even when water levels rise.
Site 2: Dawson’s Lake
Shortly after passing the Bluffs, one will enter Dawson’s Lake—a wide opening in the creek about a half mile from the bridge at the trailhead of Kingsnake Trail. It is named after the late Col. Francis W. (“Bull”) Dawson, who gained renown for his D-Day heroism on Omaha Beach as an Army Ranger in World War II. His father owned this land prior to the establishment of the National Park, and Col. Dawson retired to a cabin here (since removed) after his military career ended. Although highly accomplished, he remained humble and self-effacing about his heroism.
This area of the creek is much wider and deeper than the narrow route leading here. It is a common fishing spot, so there are numerous leftover fishing lines, lures and bobbers embedded in the nearby foliage and fallen trees. The lake extends for about a third of a mile. While traveling through Dawson’s Lake, one can see that the bark has been removed from the base of some tree trunks, most notably from Sweetgum trees, which is due to Beavers that are native to the area gnawing on them as a snack. The beavers were actually trapped out and disappeared from the area for 150 years until they began to recolonize around 1990; look for their lodges, built into the creek banks, as you paddle. At the easternmost end of Dawson’s Lake as the creek begins to narrow once again, it may be difficult for paddlers to pass through as this is a common spot for fallen trees. This should be no cause for concern however as one can either simply walk their vessel around the obstacle, paddle under fallen trees if the levels are low enough, or, if the water levels are high, simply paddle around the boundaries of the creek.
Site 3: Tupelo Gut
Farther south along the creek, paddlers will come across Tupelo Gut, which is a tributary that forks to the right of the main creek. A “gut” is a local term for a small, short floodplain stream. 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.
Once again, since Cedar Creek is prone to flooding, when the water levels are high, the smaller channels look very similar to the rest of the creek and if the small brush that would normally edge the riverbank is covered by the dark water, kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes can inadvertently paddle the route of Tupelo Gut at least for a short distance.
The sparser brush in this area provides home for a variety of wildlife along the banks, making this a prime spot for the feral hogs and deer. Another common animal often seen in the springtime in this area is large brown watersnakes. While intimidating at first, they tend to bask in branches and stumps along the bank of the creek and rarely bother visitors. These are also nonvenomous creatures that add to the biodiveristy of the creek.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this portion of the creek is an out-and-back paddle; Dawson Lake or the mouth of Tupelo Gut are often used as turn-around points for guided paddles.
It also becomes apparent that the boundary of the old-growth Beidler Tract has been crossed at this point of the creek. Visitors may notice changes in the overhead trees and the foliage that make up the banks on either side of this former border; the trees should be smaller and denser (weedier) as you pass from the old-growth tract to second-growth.
Site 4: Palmetto Island
Continuing eastward on the main northern route toward the Congaree River, visitors will encounter Palmetto Island, south of the main part of the creek (and to the north of Tupelo Gut). This portion of the creek can be much more intimidating to navigate for a beginner paddler especially in flooded conditions. The main course of the creek blurs into the surrounding banks. The maze of Sweetgum and Laurel Oak trees on this part can make it difficult to determine which turns are actually the river and which are flooded banks, though there are occasional trail markers to assist in navigation. Some are left over from when this area was designated a National Monument, prior to its being deemed a National Park. These can be difficult to spot, but just be aware that anytime there appears to be a fork or an ambiguous portion of the creek, there may be a marker several feet up in the tree with a sign marking the canoe trail.
Along this portion, there is an old poorly maintained canal that was formerly able to be used as a shortcut, but is no longer easily accessible, so it is recommended that visitors take the long way (south) around the loop instead that follows the natural route of the creek.
Site 5: Landings
After following along the loop, there is an old landing on the left side of the creek that is still visible along the bluffs covered in beech trees. The landing is only a short distance from the remains of the residence of a Black farmer named Joe Garrick from the 1930’s. He lived with the widowed Carolina Sims and two adopted daughters. The proximity to the creek allowed him to fish along the banks to feed himself as well as to sell fish for a supplemental source of income. The landing is still used to fish in Cedar Creek by adjacent landowners.
Follow the beech bluffs for a half mile, and then the creek will turn south toward the floodplain. Another landing, once used by the Joel Gray family, whose homesite is nearby, appears on your left. The landing is next to an old jeep road, so this is a good place to pull out and stretch your legs or take a snack break.
Site 6: Elder Lake
After passing the second landing, visitors will come to another widening of the creek called Elder Lake. 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 Congaree in the 1970’s and led to the formation of Congaree National Park. This portion of the waterway is edged by hawthorn trees that bloom beautifully in the springtime. Look for another beaver lodge built into the southeastern bank of the lake, or simply enjoy some sky-gazing. This serves as the end of the middle portion of Cedar Creek; time to turn around or continue the passage for a few more miles to the Congaree River.
Ragan Huffman completed this guide as her senior thesis project while a student in UofSC’s South Carolina Honors College. Thanks also to Neal Polhemus and John Cely for their assistance.