The Sims Trail is a 1.1-mile long trail that traces the path of an old road that formerly led to the site of a hunt club lodge. The park converted the road to a trail and named it after a park neighbor and volunteer, Booker T. Sims, who passed away in 2002. You can still see Mr. Sims’ house at 831 Old Bluff Road just east of the junction with the park’s entrance road; his gravesite is at Mt. Moriah Church.
The Sims Trail serves as an alternate route to longer hikes in the park, including the Weston Lake Loop Trail, Oakridge Trail and River Trail. It can be used to shorten the Boardwalk Loop Trail, since the Sims Trail crosses the loop at two separate spots. It is also a family-friendly trail, since it is wider than other surface trails at the park and the numerous wheel ruts create shallow puddles that attract not only curious children, but butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, frogs and bathing birds.
The Sims Trail passes by examples of the enormous loblolly pine that helped spark preservation efforts at the park. Dead standing pines, or snags, attract woodpeckers, including Red-headed Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker. The trail crosses a couple different wetlands that provide excellent opportunities for wildlife observation, including Red-shouldered Hawk and Barred Owl waiting in ambush for crayfish and salamander. Due to manmade and natural disturbances, the trail has more views of open sky than most of the areas of the park, allowing opportunities to see Chimney Swift and Mississippi Kite in the summer and Red-shouldered Hawk and vultures year-round.
To reach the Sims Trail, you can follow the boardwalk from the Visitor Center for a couple hundred yards and then turn left rather than continuing straight; the Boardwalk will come to a gravel road; this is the Sims Trail. You can also follow the steps to your left just past the Visitor Center Breezeway to the Bluff Trail, turn left and follow the Bluff Trail until it rejoins the boardwalk just before the boardwalk crosses the Sims Trail. Either path is around a half-mile. Consult park maps or the Friends of Congaree Swamp guides for these two trails for directions and sights along the way.
The park marks the Sims Trail with signs with the number “2”. These signs are placed on trees approximately every 10-15 yards and are easily visible on the trail. Some of these signs include GPS coordinates to assist with rescue efforts, though the chance of losing your way on the Sims Trail is nil.
Though 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: Start of Trail
The junction of the Sims Trail with the Boardwalk marks the start of the Sims Trail. Looking uphill (north), the Sims Trail leads to park maintenance, fire management and research facilities. You are standing at the edge of a low bluff (it is barely noticeable here) that marks the boundary between the park’s uplands and the floodplain forest. The park’s uplands are managed with controlled burns every couple of years. The controlled burns mimic both natural wild fires and wild fire management by Native Americans, creating an open forest of fire-resistant longleaf and loblolly pine with few hardwoods and a diverse understory. Native Americans favored this habitat since it was ideal for many game animals, including deer, turkey and bobwhite. Longleaf Pine savannah once covered 70 million acres in the southeastern United States, and supported species such as the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow. Conservation and restoration efforts across the southeast have increased the footprint of this biologically-rich ecosystem, though it still covers only a tiny fraction of its former range.
As you turn right on the Sims Trail, you will be passing through a narrow band of muck or peat swamp that lies along the bluff edge. A thick layer of peat that has been accumulating since the last Ice Age helps to filter groundwater entering the park from the bluff edge. Characteristic trees in the muck swamp include a canopy of Swamp Tupelo and American Holly, with a midstory of Red Bay and Sweet Bay and an understory of Doghobble, Cinnamon Fern and sedge.
Site 2: Loblolly Pine—Dead and Alive
Proceeding down Sims Trail, you will come across stands of tall Loblolly Pine. Congaree National Park is a bottomland hardwood forest, which makes the existence of pine trees in this ecosystem somewhat unusual. Many species of pine trees are unable to grow in wetland areas, due to their inability to tolerate anaerobic conditions produced by periodic flooding. However, the loblolly pine is unique in that it can thrive in wet environments, and the word loblolly fittingly means “muddy puddle.”
These trees are some of the tallest you will encounter in Congaree Park—though the typical height of a loblolly pine is between 50 and 80 feet tall, they can grow to be much larger. In fact, the tallest known loblolly pine in the world resides in the Congaree National Park, standing at a height of 169 feet tall. You see almost no young pine trees in the floodplain; the more open conditions that favored the growth of these giants in the 19th century are no longer in place.
Hurricane Hugo in 1989 destroyed many of the Loblolly Pine in this portion of the park. Longtime visitors to the park invariably remark on the beautiful Loblolly Pine stands that used to be found on the drive along the Sims Trail shading a thick undergrowth of Switchcane. Similar in appearance to bamboo, Switchcane favors shady growing conditions, damp soil or seepage habitats, and slightly elevated floodplain locations. Dense stands of Switchcane, known as canebrakes, provide 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, particularly since the presence of cane was considered a sign of rich soil.
Snags, or standing dead trees, can be found throughout the park, along with tip-ups, which are fallen trees whose root systems have been fully uprooted. Snags are caused by a multitude of environmental stressors, including lightning, high winds, wildfire, ice storms, drought, disease, and old age. They are typically missing their crown and smaller branches, and undergo multiple stages of decay. The duration of decay is dependent on the tree species and ecosystem, but in Congaree National Park, snags can stand for years—some snags from Hurricane Hugo are still standing today. After the tree dies, the bark begins to loosen and fall off, until the tree is stripped clean of outer bark. Then the tree begins to deteriorate, either slowly shedding branches and parts of its upper trunk or falling catastrophically after standing for years. After this stage, decay continues until nothing is left but a stump and decaying trunk.
Although the tree is dead, it serves as a crucial habitat for a number of fungi, bacteria, insects, and small animals. For fungi and bacteria, the slowly-decaying tree serves as a host and a source of food. Insects like the patent leather beetle live, feed and lay eggs in the decaying trunk. Many birds lack the ability to create a nest cavity for themselves within a tree’s trunk, and so they rely on snags to provide natural cavities in which to nest. Additionally, some birds like the Pileated Woodpecker create cavities in snags, since it is easier to hollow out trees that are already decaying. These birds also strip away the decaying outer bark, and consume the insects residing therein. Larger hunting birds like owls, raptors, and woodpeckers tend to use snags as perching or hunting posts. The exposed roots of downed trees can serve as small perches, nesting sites, or a source of shelter for small animals. Lastly, many species store food inside snags’ trunks. Snags sustain a multitude of organisms, and are an ecologically important habitat within the Congaree National Park.
Site 3: Dwarf Palmetto
Near this marker is an abundance of Dwarf Palmetto, an undergrowth plant with fronds that resemble a fan. Dwarf Palmetto are common in the southern and central U.S., and can withstand short periods of extremely cold temperatures, despite residing in a mild climate. The abundance of dwarf palmetto here coincides with the edge of a fan of sediment deposited by a former stream that emptied into the floodplain.
The palmetto have thrived since Hurricane Hugo. The wind damage thinned the dense canopy layer, allowing enough sunlight for shade intolerant species to populate the forests. As such, smaller trees like sweetgum and oak saplings, and undergrowth plants like the dwarf palmetto have had the opportunity to flourish in this area. Large storms like Hurricane Hugo allow for forest renewal via succession, or a prolonged period of change in the species diversity, abundance, and distribution within an ecological community.
Site 4: Moccasin Alley
As you walk toward the bridge at Moccasin Alley, you will come to a couple clearings created by an ice storm in February 2014. The ice storm broke an uncountable number of mid-sized tree trunks and branches, creating small gaps in the canopy. Hurricane Matthew in 2016, with its tropical storm-force winds and hours of rainfall uprooted trees in large clumps that created much larger gaps that will persist for decades.
Keep an eye on the numerous puddles seen en route. Children will likely want to stomp in them or explore them with sticks, but dragonfly and butterfly are drawn both to the water and the gravel that forms the road surface. Butterflies “mineral” at such sites, collecting essential nutrients for sustenance. On hot days, birds such as Northern Parula and Tufted Titmouse use the ponds for a bath to cool off. One of the more common insects here is the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, a tiger beetle with iridescent green wing covers; the six white spots on the wing covers that give the beetle its name are barely noticeable.
“Moccasin Alley” is a waterway that directs overflow from the wetlands upstream to Weston Lake. The conditions here are ideal for Red-shouldered Hawk and Barred Owl to roost in ambush for prey. They are often so intent on their hunting that you can watch them undisturbed from a surprisingly close distance. The alley is also a good place to observe the brilliant golden Prothonotary Warbler in the summer, and look for frogs and snakes in the summer. Yes, this waterway is named for the Water Moccasin or Cottonmouth, and they can be seen here, along with other watersnakes who are searching for food, seeking shelter or selecting a good basking spot in the abundant woody debris.
The sturdy bridge here with its system of anchors and stays reflects lessons the park has learned from the floods that inundate the park up to several times a year. The Congaree River is part of an 8000-square mile watershed that extends into North Carolina, and floodwaters from upstream spread out across the floodplain that widens dramatically just downstream of Columbia, about 20 miles upstream from the park.
Site 5: Boardwalk Loop Trail Crossing
The Sims Trail intersects the Boardwalk shortly after the bridge over Moccasin Gut. From here, you can cut short you hike by turning right on the Low Boardwalk and then following signs back to the Visitor Center. Or you can turn left to see a couple highlights along the Boardwalk Trail—the massive Richland County Pine is only 150 yards away, and the overlook of Weston Lake is 150 yards farther; the overlook is a wonderful rest stop. You can then return to the Sims Trail and continue your trip, or instead head back to the Visitor Center via the elevated portion of the Boardwalk Loop Trail.
Site 6: Weston Gut
The trail crosses Weston Gut, a small waterway directing overflow from Cedar Creek into Weston Lake slough. 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.
The park has several species of trees uniquely adapted to the wettest habitats in the floodplain, but the dominant tree here is Baldcypress. Baldcypress is one of the iconic trees of the Southern wetlands, with its characteristically straight trunk, feathery needles and numerous knees surrounding it. 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 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 7: Hunt Club Clearing
The trail opens up to the site of the former Cedar Creek Hunt Club cabin, a raised structure that used to stand to your right; other hunt club structures stood in this clearing as well. The cabin replaced an earlier structure built by the United States Hunt Club, so-named by the hunt club members to discourage poaching. Open areas like this occur throughout the park, as former feed plots for game; old logging decks (sites for collecting and trimming trees in timber operations); or former agricultural fields. Through forest succession, the open areas progress to “old field” habitat, with fast growing, sun-loving trees like Sweetgum and Loblolly Pine competing with blackberries and grape vines for open space. This old field is rapidly changing to dense forest, and will eventually be hard to recognize as a former clearing. Take advantage of the open sky to look for soaring birds, including Mississippi Kite in summer or Red-shouldered Hawk year-round.
At the hunt club clearing, the trail ends at a set of trail junctions marked by a directional sign. For a different route back, turn sharply right to follow the Weston Lake Loop Trail back to the Low Boardwalk; the Low Boardwalk can be followed back to the Visitor Center.