The Oakridge Trail branches off the Weston Lake Loop Trail which you access from the Boardwalk Loop Trail, which in turn starts at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The total round trip to hike the Oakridge Trail from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and back is about 6.6 miles. The Oakridge Trail is a moderate hike that usually takes 4 hours.
The forest in Congaree National Park is the oldest and largest old growth bottomland forest left in the southeast and is one of the tallest hardwood forests in the world. This hike is a great way to get a sense of how large and impressive the trees are in Congaree National Park. On the Boardwalk Loop and Weston Lake portion, you will have the opportunity to see bald cypress trees with their “knees” coming out of the ground as well as water tupelo trees. On the Oakridge trail, you will hike through the heart of the old forest and see large hardwoods, including old growth oaks. You will also see some very large loblolly pines along the way. Some of the large trees in Congaree National Park have been referred to as the “Redwoods of the East” and Congaree National Park has been referred to as the “Forest of Champions” because of all the state and national champion trees that have been discovered at the park.
It can be easy to lose your way on the Oakridge Trail. Trees will occasionally fall across the trail such that a hiker will need to either climb over or go around the fallen debris. These fallen trees can make it hard sometimes to follow the trail. In addition, portions of the Oakridge trail flood before other surface trails, which can obscure the trail path. Although this trail can be hiked in tennis shoes, you should consider wearing a pair of waterproof shoes.
Because Congaree National Park is in the floodplain of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, and the park has been preserved since the 1970’s or longer, there is a significant diversity of wildlife. Wildlife sightings on your visit could include otters, deer, raccoon, snakes, and wild hogs. You may also see various types of birds including woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, pine and yellow-throated warblers, wood duck and barred owl.
Getting to the Trail
The Boardwalk Loop Trail starts at the Visitor Center breezeway (see the park’s trail guide available outside the Visitor Center). Follow the boardwalk south for .7 miles. Then, just past the bridge, the Boardwalk Loop Trail turns left.
Start the Weston Lake Loop Trail by continuing straight ahead (south). Step off the boardwalk and you will be at the start of this trail. The park marks this portion of the Weston Lake Loop Trail with signs with the number “3”. Some of these signs include GPS coordinates to assist in rescues.
Follow the Weston Lake Loop Trail number “3” signs for approximately 0.5 miles until you come to a sign indicating that you are at the trail junction of the Oakridge Trail. As you will see on the sign, you have now hiked 1.2 miles from the Visitor Center.
The park marks the Oakridge Trail with signs with the number “4”. These signs are placed on trees approximately every 10-15 yards and are generally easily visible on the trail. The Oakridge Trail was formerly marked by painted red 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 map provides only an approximate site location.
Site 1. Cedar Creek; Water Levels; Cedar Creek Water Trail
Shortly before reaching the Oakridge Trailhead, you will see Cedar Creek on your right. You will see near the creek several gages that were formerly used to measure the water level. The gage, subsidized by the park and Friends of Congare Swamp, has been moved to Bridge B (Site 2). As a general rule, when the water level at the Cedar Creek gage is at six feet, surface trails at the park are wet or under water; at eight feet, parts of the low boardwalk are underwater; and at twelve feet, parts of the elevated boardwalk may be under water. However, this is only a general guide and current information is available at the Visitor Center.
The Cedar Creek water trail can be traversed by canoe or kayak and is approximately 15 miles long. The water trail starts at Bannister Bridge and ends at the Congaree River. In places, it can be hard to navigate Cedar Creek due to natural debris in the creek. As you will see in the picture below, the miles are marked on the Cedar Creek trail. This portion of Cedar Creek is at mile 3.0 of the water trail; you should see signs every half mile. It is important to check the water level of Cedar Creek before traveling the creek by water. Further information about canoeing or kayaking Cedar Creek is available on the park’s web site.
Site 2. Cedar Creek Bridge
Shortly after you see Cedar Creek, you will cross over Cedar Creek using Bridge B. (Each primary bridge in the park is marked by a letter carved into a crossboard on the deck of the bridge near either end. These bridges are noted on the park’s trail map by their letters.)
Cedar Creek winds through the park and you will cross it again towards the end of your hike. Cedar Creek is designated as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters, the only body of water in the state of South Carolina with this designation. Outstanding National Resource Waters are bodies of fresh water that receive special protection under the federal Clean Water Act. Waters eligible for this designation are high quality waters that have not been substantially impacted by humans. They are designated in South Carolina by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Site 3. Wise Lake Spur
Immediately after crossing Bridge B, you will see the sign marking the trailhead for the Oakridge Trail and the River Trail. In order to proceed onto the Oakridge Trail, you will make a slight right.
If you stay straight, about 50 yards ahead is Wise Lake, a small body of water ringed by bald cypress and water tupelo trees.
Site 4. Onto the Oakridge Trail
The Oakridge portion of this hike is approximately 3.1 miles, after which the trail will reconnect with the Weston Lake Loop Trail near Bridge C. Once you rejoin the Weston Lake Loop Trail, you will the follow the Weston Lake Loop Trail until you reconnect with the Boardwalk Loop Trail to return to the Visitor Center. Look for the following trees large and small as you hike along this first portion of the trail.
Water Tupelo and Bald Cypress. In addition to the impressive oaks that you will see on the Oakridge Trail, some of the signature trees of the park are water tupelo and the bald cypress. During this hike, you will see these trees along the trail particularly in the wetter spots. Both bald cypress and water tupelo can grow in wet conditions not suitable for other trees.
The water tupelo is a member of the dogwood family of trees. It is an aquatic tree whose flared trunk helps to keep it stabilized in water-saturated soil. The water tupelo bears fruit in the fall that is eaten by wildlife.
The bald cypress is one of the primary reasons that the park was created. Like the water tupelo, it has a flared base that helps to stabilize it and has “knees” projecting above the ground that are believed to help with stability. The bald cypress is called “bald” because it is a deciduous tree that loses its evergreen-like needles in the fall. In the late 1800’s, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company owned by Francis Beidler acquired large tracts of land in South Carolina in order to log bald cypress. Bald cypress was valued because it was very resistant to rot and so it was used to build items that would be subjected to the elements such as railroad ties, shingles and pilings. In the early 1900’s logging in this area ceased and one of the Beidler tracts would eventually become a significant portion of the park.
Although some of the trees in the park grow much taller, the average height of an adult water tupelo or a bald cypress tree is between 80-100 feet. Below is a picture of a water tupelo and a bald cypress tree next to one another. The bald cypress on the left has a straighter trunk, and a base that spreads into ridges. The water tupelo on the right can be recognized by the swollen or flared smooth base and the more sinuous trunk.
American Holly. As you continue along this portion of the Oakridge Trail, you will see a large number of American holly trees. The American holly is a sub-canopy tree in the floodplain with an average height of 40-60 feet. The holly leaves stay green all year round and so they add some nice color during the winter months. The American holly bears red berries that ripen in late summer and fall and remain on the trees into the winter. Though the fruit of the American holly is bitter, it is eaten by a wide variety of wildlife found in the park.
Pawpaw. On this part of the trail, you should also see Pawpaw, a small tree. Pawpaw has large leaves and is a very common tree in certain areas of the park. Pawpaw has a green fruit that matures in late August and early September. This fruit was eaten by Native Americans and also serves as a source of food for some of the wildlife in the park.
Site 5. Bridge E – End of Wise Lake
At the beginning of the Oakridge Trail, Wise Lake and its adjacent slough are on your left. A slough (“slew”) is a lower piece of land in a floodplain that drains poorly and holds water longer. The sloughs in the park are typically heavily populated by bald cypress and water tupelo. As you walk by Wise Lake and its slough, you will see some large bald cypress trees. Sloughs are often former oxbow lakes that have become filled-in over time by sediments brought in when the river floods. When you reach Bridge E, Wise Lake ends.
Switchcane. As you continue along the trail past Bridge E, you will notice a plant growing abundantly on the forest floor that looks like small bamboo.
This is switchcane, one of three native bamboo species in South Carolina . Switchcane typically does not grow taller than two meters and usually grows shorter than this.
Areas where there is a great deal of switchcane are called canebrakes, which serve as shelter for wildlife. Switchcane used to grow abundantly in South Carolina and still does well in preserved natural areas.
Oaks. As you continue along your hike, you will start seeing some particularly large specimen trees. As you would expect because of the name of the trail, some of the larger trees are oaks.
There are primarily two types of oaks that grow particularly large along the trail-the cherrybark oak and the swamp chestnut oak. Large laurel oak can be seen as well (in fact, the national champion laurel oak grows not too far from the Oakridge Trail).
The cherrybark oak is a strong and fast growing oak. A mature cherrybark oak often attains a height of 100 to 130 feet. The name “cherrybark” comes from the similarity between the cherrybark oak’s bark to that of the black cherry tree. The leaves of the cherrybark oak grow up to 7 inches wide and 10 inches long, with 5 to 11 pointed lobes. Many types of wildlife eat its acorns.
The swamp chestnut oak received its name because its leaves resemble chestnut leaves. The average height of an adult swamp chestnut oak is between 50-80 feet although they can grow larger.
The bark of the swamp chestnut oak is rough and light gray. The swamp chestnut oak’s acorns are also used as food by wildlife in the park.
In order to help you identify these two oaks on your hike, pictures of their leaves are included below. As you see, their leaves are different and distinctive. As you move onto the Oakridge Trail be on the loo out for these two types of oaks along the trail.
Site 6. Fallen Cherrybark Oak
After Bridge E but before Bridge F, you will come across a very large cherrybark oak that has fallen right next to the trail across Hammond Gut.
This an example of how some of the impressive trees in the forest can fall and the damage that they cause when they do. As you will see, this tree knocked down a number of other trees as it fell. On the right of the trail is a smaller oak that fell in the other direction. This is a shumard oak. Shumard oaks grow in moist soil near water and can grow to an average height of 60-90 feet.
Unfortunately, because of the frequent flooding in the floodplain and the wet soil, the ground can become soft and weaken the hold of a tree’s roots, particularly those of some of the larger hardwoods. The roots of many of these trees are shallow due to the high ground water level. Different types of weather can cause significant damage to the forest. For example, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo knocked down a number of notable trees in the forest. This particular tree fell as a result of the significant flooding that occurred in the Columbia area in October 2015.
Site 7. Bridge F–Hammond Gut
You will soon come to Bridge F across Hammond Gut. There are a number of guts in the park. “Guts” are floodplain streams that are usually shallower and shorter than creeks. At times, guts may be dry or almost dry depending upon the weather. When flooding occurs in the floodplain, the guts help channel the water and move it throughout the floodplain. As the flooding subsides, the waters flow through the guts back into the main creek and river channels.
Hammond Gut is an important landmark to help park rangers and others familiar with the area find the Harry Hampton Bald Cypress.
More than sixty years ago, Harry Hampton, writer and editor for The State newspaper, began a one-man campaign to preserve the Congaree River Floodplain as a “Natural Preserve”. Although his position at the time was unpopular, his idea to preserve the Congaree Swamp persevered and ultimately the park was established. Congaree National Park has named the Visitor Center and a large bald cypress tree in honor of Harry
Hampton for his contributions to preserving the park. The Harry Hampton tree is the largest bald cypress in a grove of other old growth cypress trees. The Harry Hampton Tree has a height of 133 feet, and a circumference of 23 feet 9 inches. The park and the Friends of the Congaree Swamp regularly provides tours of some of the notable trees in the forest and information regarding these tours is available on the park’s web site.
Site 8. River Trail Trailhead
Shortly after you cross Bridge F, you will come to the trailhead for the River Trail. The entire River Trail hike (including the Boardwalk Loop, Weston Lake Loop and Oakridge portions) is approximately 10 miles long. The River Trail provides access to the Congaree River.
Fallen Cherrybark Oak Revisited. As you continue on the trail after Bridge F and the River Trail trailhead, the trail doubles back so that Hammond Gut is on your left. Because the trail switches back, you will soon come across the large fallen cherrybark oak you saw earlier. From this side, you will be able to see how much damage was done to other trees when the tree fell and have a view of the fallen trees across Hammond Gut. This helps to illustrate the domino effect of damage that can be caused by a tree falling. When one tree falls it can cause others to fall and then they can cause damage as well. Falling trees can dramatically change the area around them when they fall as you can see in the adjacent picture.
Vines. As you continue along the trail, you will notice at times how thickly some of the vines in this area grow. In addition, you will notice that a number of trees have vines attached to them and growing up their trunks. Certain woody vines that root in the soil and grow towards the canopy are called “lianas”. The park has over 40 different types of vines and has more liana species than any other national park in North America. Some of the different types of vines growing in the forest, include grape vines and supplejack vines (also known as rattan vines). The grape vines bear grapes in late summer and are a source of food for the wildlife. Many of the larger vines you see are rattan vines. Rattan is a large climbing vine with a strong smooth woody stem whose diameter generally stays consistent throughout the vine. It prefers to grow in moist, rich woods. These vines are very strong and can at times kill the tree on which it twists around.
Dead Trees. Along this portion of the trail, you will see a number of standing dead trees, which are referred to as “snags”. Although these trees are dead, they are important to the biodiversity of the park. Snags have many cavities and other holes created through natural decay or wildlife excavation that serve a variety of purposes. Snags serve as a place to live for many animals, including birds, bats, squirrels and raccoons which make nests in the cavities of the snag. Snags are also a food source in that they attract insects, mosses, and fungi that can be eaten by other wildlife. On a number of these trees, you can see holes created by woodpeckers as they work to get to insect larvae for food.
Spanish Moss. Throughout the trail you will see Spanish moss hanging from some of the oak trees. Spanish moss-draped oak trees thrive in the southeastern United States. Spanish moss typically has little to no detrimental effect on a tree because the moss does not take any water or nutrients from the host tree. However, it can inhibit a trees growth because it reduces the amount of light that reaches the tree’s leaves.
Site 9. Bridge G - Boggy Gut
You will soon cross Boggy Gut using Bridge G. Boggy Gut is another one of the primary guts that winds through the park. As you cross over Bridge G and continue on the trail, Boggy Gut will be on your left.
Site 10. Boggy Gut; Ole Man Rogan
Boggy Gut is said to be the home of the spirit of Ole Man Rogan. The local area is rich with African American history and folklore. One of the stories told is about a cruel slave trader, Ole Man Rogan, that lived in the area. According to early African-American folklore, Ole Man Rogan relished separating slave families by selling family members to different owners. According to the story, Ole Man Rogan also loved fishing on Boggy Gut. After he died, Ole Man Rogan was denied entry into heaven, and his restless spirit was doomed to wander Boggy Gut forever because of his cruelty. This story reflects the theme regularly contained in African-American folklore of the eternal punishment of slave traders and others who were cruel to African-Americans. This story and others can be found in Tales of Congaree, a two-volume set of folklore compiled by E.C.L. (Ned) Adams from local residents, including Thaddeus Goodson.
Beaver-damaged Trees. As you walk, be on the lookout for beaver-damaged trees. Beavers like to peel away the bark at the base of a tree to eat the inner layer of bark, particularly that of the sweetgum tree. Removing the bark in order for the beaver to have a snack, can weaken and possibly kill the tree. Recent damage can often be detected by the sweet, pungent scent given off by the damaged tree.
Site 11. Deep Jackson Gut
About halfway between Bridge G and Bridge H you will come upon Deep Jackson Gut on your right. Deep Jackson Gut hugs the Oakridge Trail until it connects with Frenchman’s Pond, which can be seen from the trail. Frenchman’s Pond is another example of a slough. Deep Jackson Gut flows between Frenchman’s pond and the Congaree River. Remember that when the Congaree River rises, it forces floodwaters into the floodplain interior through guts. Deep Jackson Gut really lives up to its name, often flooding portions of the Oakridge Trail before any other surface trail is flooded by the rising waters of the Congaree River.
If this portion of the trail is covered by water, be prepared to backtrack. Flooding can obscure any trace of the trail, or disguise the presence of the gut near the trail.
Site 12. Bridge H-Running Gut
You will soon cross Running Gut using Bridge H. Running Gut is another one of the major guts in the park that helps carry water out of the floodplain to the Congaree River. Although some guts may be dry at times, Running Gut flows all year round. About 0.1 miles past Bridge H on the left you will see a very large cherrybark oak.
Site 13. Fallen Trees
As you have likely seen, trees will fall across the path from time to time. Although the workers at the park will eventually cut pathways through some of these fallen trees so that a hiker can walk through them, there are usually a few fallen trees on the path that have not been cut yet. As you continue along the path towards Bridge I, you will come to a spot where another large Cherrybark Oak (once measured as the tallest cherrybark in the park) fell in 2014. When this tree fell, it took down other trees, including another icon of the park, a much-photographed “walking maple”.
Although the rangers have cut through these trees so that you can pass through them, it is still somewhat of a tight fit and you can see how large trees can block a trail when they fall. Because this is a federally protected wilderness and the intent is for the land to be as natural as possible, there may be times when the fallen trees will be left where they are and a new path will be developed around the fallen tree.
Beautyberries. As you pass through these larger fallen trees, if they are in season, you can see the beautiful fruit of the Beautyberry bush. Beautyberry bushes have large oval shaped leaves and produce pretty rich purple berries.
Site 14. Large Loblolly Pines
In this area, you will start noticing some tall loblolly pine trees. It will also likely dawn on you that as you walked along the Oakridge Trail to this point you did not see many (or any) pine trees. Pine trees do not typically grow in a hardwood floodplain. However, the loblolly pine is abundant in South Carolina, prefers wet soil and is a fast growing tree and, at some time in the past, it took hold in the rich soil in this part of the forest. As a result, some of the remaining loblolly pines are very large. As a matter of fact, up ahead on the Weston Lake Loop Trail near Bridge D, is the largest loblolly pine in America. At almost 170 feet tall, it is the tallest tree in South Carolina. Although there are some very large loblolly pines in the forest, it is rare to see a young loblolly. Whatever conditions that used to exist to allow the loblolly pines to grow in this part of the forest appear to no longer exist.
Site 15. Kingsnake Trail junction
Right before you reach Bridge I, you will come across the trail head for the Kingsnake Trail. The Kingsnake Trail (including the Boardwalk Loop, Weston Lake Loop and Oakridge portions) is 11.7 miles; from the Visitor Center to the Kingsnake Trail trailhead is 5.8 miles. It is important to note, as indicated on the trail head sign, the Kingsnake Trail is not a loop trail.
Site 16. Bridge I-Cedar Creek Revisited
At this point, you will reach Bridge I and cross Cedar Creek again, five river miles downstream from your first crossing. Stop in the middle of Bridge I for an unobstructed view of Cedar Creek.
Site 17. Rejoining Weston Loop Trail
Shortly after you cross Bridge I, you will take a right at the trail sign and rejoin the Weston Lake Loop Trail. At this point, on your left will be a large number of bald cypress partially submerged in water. This area is known as Weston Lake Slough which adjoins Weston Lake up ahead on the trail.
Elevated Boardwalk; Weston Lake; return to Visitor Center
As you continue, the Weston Lake Loop Trail eventually runs under the high portion of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Once you have gone underneath the elevated boardwalk you will need to turn left onto the low boardwalk and follow it back to the Visitor Center. As you turn onto the low boardwalk to return to the Visitor Center, Weston Lake will be on your left. At this point, you will simply follow the low boardwalk 1.2 miles back to the Visitor Center.
Acknowledgement: This guide was produced by Friends of Congaree Swamp, which advocates for Congaree National Park and its unique environment. Special thanks go to Drew Dixon, who wrote the guide as part of a USC Honors College thesis. Copyright 2016.