The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a roughly 15-mile paddle through the heart of Congaree National Park, beginning at Bannister Bridge and continuing all the way to the Congaree River. The trail takes visitors through the heart of the park, providing breathtaking views of the primeval old-growth hardwood forest. Large baldcypress trees, water tupelo, sweetgum and oak border the trail in many places, creating a beautiful canopy over the waters. You 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. Don’t be surprised to see a Wood Duck hen shepherding her ducklings, and perhaps using a “broken wing” display to divert your attention from her flightless young.
Floating the entire trail is considered an overnight experience, but it is possible to paddle large sections of the trail within a day. This guide will focus on the section of the trail beginning at Bannister Bridge and ending at South Cedar Creek Landing, an approximately 6.2-mile section that takes 4-6 hours to complete depending on trail conditions.
Note: At this time, there remain a significant number of fallen trees along the trail due to damage from Hurricane Matthew. Because of the remote location of many of these trees, maintenance of the trail happens relatively infrequently. Expect to add a couple of hours to your total trip to account for portaging around the numerous obstacles. The lower the water level, the more obstacles you will have to negotiate; we would not recommend this trip when water levels at the Cedar Creek gage are 5 feet or less (you can check with the park, or consult the USGS website https://waterdata.usgs.gov/sc/nwis/uv?site_no=02169672). As an alternative, you can depart from the South Cedar Creek landing and paddle either upstream or downstream while encountering fewer obstructions, as that section of Cedar Creek is more frequently maintained, and the slower current downstream makes paddling upstream practical.
The Bannister Bridge Canoe Access is located off Old Bluff Road 1.9 miles west of the main park entrance. There is a large metal sign identifying the access, but it can only be read if travelling east along Old Bluff Rd. If traveling west (from the direction of Congaree National Park), the access is located on the left immediately after crossing two small bridges. The access is located separately from Roger Myers Road; do turn on to this road looking for the Bannister Bridge Canoe Access.
Site 1: Trailhead
Getting to the put-in at Cedar Creek is a straight shot from the parking area. Prepare to carry your kayak about 130 yards from the parking area to the creek. This is also a relatively common fishing site for local residents, so be respectful of those encountered.
Site 2: The First Mile
Note the 0.0 trail marker at the landing, placed on a tree high above the water surface, so that it is visible even when the floodplain is inundated. Trail markers are placed approximately every 0.25-miles, but may or may not be visible (especially on portions of the trail with many downed trees) depending on trail conditions.
The first mile of this stretch is relatively clear with few portages at higher water levels. Younger loblolly pines and holly trees arch over the creek, creating a moderate canopy. Depending on conditions, the creek moves swifter in this first mile, making for an easier paddle.
Site 3: The Second Mile
The second mile introduces several portages, and baldcypress trees, some of imposing size, are found on the banks along the way. The knees of the baldcypress peek out from beneath the dark waters, just along the creek’s edge. The baldcypress, native to the southeastern United States, is a hardy tree, able to adapt to a wide range of soil types. It has certainly thrived in the floodplain conditions of Congaree National Park. The knees of the baldcypress serve an as-of-yet unknown purpose, though scientists theorize that they may be used for anchorage, aeration of the tree’s roots, reduction of erosion, or any combination thereof. Preservation of the baldcypress and other tree species was the driving force behind the creation of Congaree National Park. In the 1970s, Congaree National Park was established as Congaree Swamp National Monument, the first step in protecting what is now the largest remaining old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States.
The second mile of the trail also introduces paddlers to the many side creeks or “guts” that are to come. It is imperative that kayakers or canoers bring a compass and a map to prevent getting lost; ventures down the wrong path could easily add several hours to a journey, though in general the main channel is easy to follow. It is also highly recommended that paddlers inform park rangers that they are paddling down Cedar Creek. There are few points along Cedar Creek that are accessible by road, so rescue operations will take time.
Site 3a: Underwater Forest
There is one stretch between miles one and two where, depending on the time of year, there is an abundance of American bur-reed growing underwater. Also known as Sparganium americanum, the American bur-reed is a grass-like aquatic plant with stalks bearing heads of tiny green flowers. Bur-reeds typically grow as plants that are partly in and partly out of water, and thus the variety that grows within the park is a unique sight to behold. The plants are rooted in the sandy creek bed and grow entirely in the water, while their long fronds sway in the tannin-stained current. They serve an important role in the ecosystem, with seeds that are eaten by waterfowl and stem and leaves eaten by muskrats. It is a widely distributed plant in the United States.
Site 3b: Hurricane Islands
Slightly more difficult to find, Little Hurricane Island and Big Hurricane Island are two areas of high ground identified by park advocate John Cely (you can purchase his wonderful park map at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center) that can be seen on the left side of the trail during the second mile. The islands are dominated mostly by Loblolly Pine trees, living and dead, that are evidence of the intense damage that Congaree National Park sustained during Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Matthew. Expect portages and slightly more difficult conditions until the park fully recovers from Hurricane Matthew.
Site 4: The Third Mile
The third mile is characterized by more guts entering the creek, including Wise, Tennessee, and Weston Guts. It is imperative that aspiring Cedar Creek kayakers/canoers bring compasses and maps on the trail, as it is possible to make a wrong turn and become lost during this mile. The creek also widens during this mile, providing beautiful views and plenty of time to take pictures as the current slows.
There are several recognizable landmarks on this section of the trail. Shortly before mile 2.5, a Water Tupelo tree grows directly in the center of the trail. Along with Baldcypress, Water Tupelo is uniquely adapted to the wettest habitats in the park.
On this mile, the trail passes under Bridge B, leading from the junction of Sims Trail and Weston Lake Loop Trail to the Oakridge Trail. Former and current depth gages for the creek can also be found along this stretch; the gage is an important tool in analyzing how much water is moving in the creek at a given moment, and helps the staff at Congaree National Park determine the risk of flooding for themselves and park visitors.
Site 4a: Wise Lake
The Cedar Creek Canoe trail connects with Wise Lake, a popular fishing destination off the Oakridge Trail. The lake is a very calm and peaceful place, providing excellent opportunities for bird watching and other leisure activities. Congaree National Park provides experiences known as Wise Lake Wanders for visitors to learn about the park and discover how the Congaree River created the lake. Though Wise Lake is connected to the Cedar Creek Canoe trail by a wide outlet, it is not a part of the trail.
Less than half a mile from Wise Lake is the tallest cypress tree in the park, standing at 148 feet tall. Getting to the tree requires going off trail, into a gut known as Hampton Gut or Little Dry Gut. The gut lies on the right side of the trail and, depending on trail conditions and water levels, reconnects with Cedar Creek about half a mile later.
Site 5: The Fourth Mile
There are probably the most obstacles and fallen trees along this mile of the trail. Expect numerous fallen trees and portages, but also incredibly peaceful waters and mirror-like reflections of the surrounding landscape in the water’s surface. Water Tupelo are in great abundance on either side of the creek, forming a beautiful canopy. Depending on the water level of the creek, it may be possible to see previous water levels marked as rings on the trunks of the trees.
Weston Lake Loop Trail borders the creek for a portion of this reach, and trail signs and bridges may be visible to your left. Be wary of low overhanging branches and tree limbs during warmer months; though difficult to spot, snakes frequently warm themselves on these branches. Among the snakes paddlers are most likely to see is the Brown Water Snake. These are large (30-60 in) aquatic snakes with a generally light to dark brown coloration, with large squares of dark brown, and are often mistaken for the poisonous Eastern Cottonmouth. They prefer to live in habitats with flowing water, and travel over land far less than other water snakes. They are rarely seen very far from the water’s edge and occupy overhanging canopies and vegetation, where they bask for warmth.
Brown water snakes are excellent swimmers that, when startled, will drop from their perch into the water below. They are nonvenomous but will not hesitate to bite if threatened. These snakes mate in the spring, so be careful of increased numbers during this season.
Site 6: The Fifth Mile
The fifth mile brings additional portages and guts, so be watchful of trail markers at all times. Most guts are small and blocked by debris, but high water levels may make them more accessible.
Near the start of this reach, you will pass the junction of two important water bodies: Weston Lake Slough on your left and Running Gut on your right; an old damaged baldcypress, 20 feet in circumference lies just beyond this junction. During the height of logging in southeastern floodplain forests in the late 19th-century and early 20th century, this baldcypress was likely not logged because it was hollow and had little commercial value.
Weston Lake Slough contains Weston Lake, a 4600-year old river meander that is a highlight for visitors on the Boardwalk Loop. Weston Lake Slough and Running Gut formed the main channel of the Congaree River thousands of years ago, as the river slowly migrated southwest. Though still a substantial floodplain feature, it is difficult to imagine this meandering waterway once served as the river’s main channel.
Between mile markers 4.25 and 4.5, the creek will pass underneath Bridge I on the Oakridge Trial near the junction of the Oakridge Trail and Kingsnake Trail; evidence of the Kingsnake Trail may be seen farther down the creek as the trail flanks the right bank. This quarter mile also brings large sections with no canopy overhead, revealing expansive views of the sky. The two outlets to Fran’s Island eventually appear on your left; a park feature named after the park’s long-serving and beloved chief interpretive ranger, Fran Rametta, who served from 1980 to 2010.
Despite being one of the most isolated trails in Congaree National Park, pollution and litter has found its way here as well. When travelling inside the park or in any nature setting, it is essential that one practices the principles of “Leave No Trace.” Bring all waste to the end of the trail where it can be properly disposed of, concentrate on using existing trails and campsites, and respect wildlife when encountered.
If necessary, deposit solid human waste in holes dug at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, camp, and trails, and cover the hole when finished. Some areas require human waste to be packed out, so check what the acceptable procedure is before leaving for your trip. For Congaree National Park, this information is contained within the Superintendent’s Compendium released by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior.
As you paddle, keep an eye out for beaver lodges; rather than the classic lodges in the middle of a dammed pond, these are built instead into the creek bank, a practical adaptation to the variable water levels in the park. When water levels are low, you can see the pile of branches forming the lodge along the creek bank, as well as multiple accesses to the lodge dug into the bank.
Site 7: The Sixth Mile
The final mile of the trail is relatively clear, so paddlers are able to enjoy floating for longer distances at a time. Observe the red and orange flowers of crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) growing in the trees in the spring, the large leaves of Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii), and more Baldcypress trees with the largest knees yet seen on the trail. Brown water snakes are especially likely to be seen on this portion of the trail, on overhanging branches or piles of woody debris.
There is a single Baldcypress growing in the middle of the creek, with a forest of knees extending to the right bank; it is difficult to discern how it would have sprouted and survived, short of a shift in the channel that cut it off from either bank.
This section of the Cedar Creek Trail ends at the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing, but paddlers still have the option to continue on to the Congaree River. This is considered a multi-day trip, so plan accordingly if you mean to continue.
Aaron Martin completed this guide as his senior thesis project while a student in UofSC’s South Carolina Honors College. Thanks also to Neal Polhemus for his assistance.