The Weston Lake Loop Trail starts from the terminus of the Sims Trail and continues for 2.0 miles to the Elevated Boardwalk. The total round trip from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center is about 4.5 miles. Highlights include a one-mile passage along Cedar Creek, Weston Lake Slough (pronounced “slew”), and Weston Lake itself at the terminus of the trail.
On this trail, you will experience the old-growth characteristics that led advocates in the 1950s through the 1970s to preserve Congaree Swamp. What you will see is only a small portion of the 11,000 acres of old-growth forest in Congaree National Park, one of the tallest temperate forests in the world.
The forest’s age, constant state of succession, and the replenishment of its soil from Congaree River floods allows it to support an extraordinary diversity and density of wildlife. As a result, the park has been recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area, a Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance and an International Biosphere Reserve.
Wildlife sightings on your visit could include deer, raccoon, rat snakes and feral (wild) hogs. Look and listen for red-bellied woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks and pileated woodpeckers year-round. Wood ducks may be seen on Cedar Creek, though the alarm call of the hens as they take flight is more commonly heard. During the summer, look for plentiful northern parula warblers and the beautiful prothonotary warbler.
Enjoy your visit to this national treasure!
From the Visitor Center breezeway, follow the Boardwalk Loop Trail (see the park’s trail guide) south for a couple hundred yards and turn left (east) at the trail junction rather than continuing south. Follow the Boardwalk Loop Trail east until it reaches Sims Trail, a former gravel road. Turn right (south) on Sims Trail and follow it 1.1 miles until you reach a junction with Weston Lake Loop Trail and Oakridge Trail near Cedar Creek. 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.
Though the sites in this guide are numbered, you will find no related signage along the trail. Because much of the park is federally designated wilderness, signage (and other man-made impacts) must be kept to a minimum. 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 centerleaf map provides only approximate site location.
Site 1 (Cedar Creek)
At the trail junction, Cedar Creek can be seen to your right and straight ahead There are several gages and stations nearby, including a stream gaging station with a solar-powered satellite uplink, an inactive groundwater monitoring station, and an old well. The gage data is available through a link on the park’s website and serves as a timely source of information on flooding conditions at the park. Generally speaking, when the gage is at six feet, surface trails at the park begin flooding. At eight feet, parts of the Low Boardwalk are submerged. At twelve feet, even parts of the Elevated Boardwalk are under water! Keep in mind that these observations are simple rules of thumb, the Visitor Center has more timely information posted at the Information Desk.
Site 2 (Old field)
The trail junction is at the site of the former Cedar Creek Hunt Club cabin, a raised structure that used to stand behind you. It 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 remaining open sky to look for soaring birds, including Mississippi kites in summer or red-shouldered hawks year-round. A swamp chestnut oak tree stands nearby; look on the ground for this species’ unusually large acorns. The Weston Lake Loop Trail turns left along Cedar Creek, but you will first travel across Cedar Creek bridge to visit Wise Lake.
Site 3 (Cedar Creek-Bridge B)
Pause in the middle of the bridge to observe Cedar Creek. Cedar Creek enters the park at Bannister Bridge and slowly winds across the floodplain for 13 miles before joining the Congaree River. Cedar Creek is the only Outstanding National Resource Water in the state, recognized for its exceptional natural and recreational value. Canoes and kayaks can be launched on the Cedar Creek Wilderness Trail at two different sites at the park: Bannister Bridge and South Cedar Creek.
Site 4 (Wise Lake Spur)
Beyond the bridge, you will find a sign marking the trailhead for Oakridge Trail and River Trail. Note the two dominant mid-sized tree species here: American holly and pawpaw. You may have noticed holly at the start of the Low Boardwalk — it thrives in a variety of habitats at the park. Pawpaw, with its large leaves, is one of the dominant understory trees in elevated areas of the park. Pawpaw fruit matures in late August and early September. The lobed green fruit speckled with black dots has edible creamy flesh inside encasing large, flat black seeds. The leaves turn a soft lemon yellow in the fall—a reliable source of fall color in the park.
Wise Lake, just beyond the trail sign, is an oxbow lake. More than a thousand years ago, it was a river meander of the Congaree.
Over time, the river cut a new, shorter channel and the old meander was cut off. The Congaree River has continued to migrate to the south over the landscape and now lies about two miles away. Oxbow lakes eventually fill with sediment and become sloughs or ponds. A shallow oxbow like Wise Lake would typically be near the end of its lifecycle, but Wise Lake empties through a marshy outlet into Cedar Creek, and may be scoured of sediments when Cedar Creek floods, keeping it from filling in with silt.
Here you will see cypress knees like those you saw along the Sims Trail. One theory holds that cypress knees help the trees with gas exchange; the knees may also be anchors or counterweights that allow a cypress tree to grow large and still remain upright in wet soil.
Site 5 (Leaving old field)
Retrace your steps across the Cedar Creek Bridge and turn right to continue on Weston Lake Loop Trail. This section of the trail follows the north bank of Cedar Creek for 1.2 miles. As you re-enter the forest, you will see a substantial understory of pawpaw trees on your left. This portion of the trail introduces you to most of the dominant hardwood species found on the Congaree floodplain. A large swamp chestnut oak tree stands to the left. If you keep your eye out for the light scaly bark, chestnut-like leaves and large acorns, you will notice several other large swamp chestnut oak trees on the trail. A few mid-sized sugarberry stand nearby. Look for the smooth gray bark (similar to American beech) often obscured by warty growths. Farther on, you will find two examples of hardwood species to your right: a laurel oak and then a tall sweetgum. Laurel oaks are easy to spot in the winter; unlike other deciduous trees, they keep most of their leaves throughout the year. Sweetgum can be recognized by their star-shaped leaves and spiky gumballs. The park has an uncountable number of large sweetgum, including the former national champion tree.
Site 6 (Boy Scouts bridge)
Our next destination is a small bridge marked “BSA Troop 199”. Just before reaching the bridge, look for several interesting features. To your left, you may have already noticed shallow rectangular depressions at a diagonal to the trail. These features, which look too regular to be natural depressions, are borrow pits created when the trail was originally a jeep road for the hunt club. On the right, look for a “walking” maple. A winged red maple seed landed on a tupelo or cypress stump years ago, and extended its roots over and through the old tree stump. The stump eventually rotted away, leaving only the maple trunk and its pedestal roots. Past the bridge, you will find another dominant tree species—a large, leaning cherrybark oak. En route to your next destination, the trail hugs the bank of Cedar Creek. You will eventually pass by a large loblolly pine at the edge of the creek. This pine is isolated, but you will see numerous large loblolly later on. Young loblollies are rarely seen in the park; whatever conditions existed in the park many decades ago to promote the growth of loblolly seedlings no longer pertain.
Site 7 (Trail joins slough edge)
After following the bank of Cedar Creek, the trail continues straight along a former channel of Cedar Creek while the creek itself briefly jogs to the south.
Site 8 (trail returns to bank of Cedar Creek)
Cedar Creek soon turns north to rejoin the trail. This is an attractive spot to step off the trail and study Cedar Creek at its junction with the trail and the slough. Note the heavy damage to the base of several of the large trees nearby, almost exclusively sweetgum. Beavers have peeled away the bark to eat the sweet inner cambium layer. Removing the bark for this modest snack can ‘girdle” trees and may kill them; this type of beaver activity is prevalent along the trail. Beaver is a native species though, and beaver ponds benefit a host of species in this bottomland ecosystem.
Site 9 (Small bridge)
The trail crosses a small bridge. Beyond the bridge to the left, you will see a sycamore with its patterned bone-white bark, large leaves, and round seed capsules that burst into feathery seeds. Sycamores are common along the elevated ground found along river channels. Their presence in the floodplain interior can indicate a former river course. This can be a good spot to look for an iridescent green beetle on the trail. The six-spotted tiger beetle is named for the six inconspicuous white spots on the edge of its wing-cases.
Site 10 (Bridge C-Weston Lake Slough)
After 1.2 miles, the trail crosses Weston Lake Slough over a substantial bridge (Bridge C). A slough refers to a large elongated or curved depression in the floodplain that is wet most of the year. Sloughs are often former oxbow lakes that have become filled-in over time by sediments brought in when the river floods. They are often filled with wetland trees, such as tupelo and cypress, but may also harbor aquatic marsh plants, such as sedges, a family of grasslike native plants. Sedge is often an “emergent” vegetation, growing above the surface of shallow or seasonal wetlands. Sedge species are difficult to distinguish, though a couple varieties in the park have characteristic seedheads that can aid identification.
You may see beaver activity here as well. Beavers dammed Weston Lake Slough both upstream and downstream from the bridge in the past and constructed a lodge upstream, though only traces remain of the former dams. Beavers often take advantage of baldcypress and water tupelo as anchors for their dams. Look upstream for a large baldcypress with a damaged top at the mouth of Weston Lake Slough as it enters Cedar Creek. The tree is typical of many cypress that were too damaged to be cut down at the turn of the century by timber companies. Beyond the bridge, pause at the trail sign marking the junction of Kingsnake Trail, Oakridge Trail and Weston Lake Loop Trail. The trail now turns left (north), leaving Cedar Creek and following the edge of Weston Lake Slough through a healthy stand of switchcane to Weston Lake. Shortly past the turn, pause to admire the massive cherrybark oak to the right of the trail.
Site 11 (First bridge beyond Oakridge Trail junction)
Stop at the next bridge to study Weston Lake Slough to your left. An electro-fishing study conducted by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources from 1999–2002 found Weston Lake Slough to be an important nursery for juvenile fish. When the Congaree River overflows its banks, adult fish spread across the floodplain to breed. As floodwaters recede, sloughs become isolated from main river and creek channels and juvenile fish, amphibians, crayfish and other aquatic species can thrive in the absence of larger predators.
Site 12 (Beyond first bridge and gut crossing)
Continuing past the bridge, look for the downed water oak along the very edge of Weston Lake slough on your left. Despite its name, it is not a common tree on the floodplain, and is more often found in an upland environment. Note the “tip-up,” the common name for the shallow root system of an upturned tree (other common names are “tombstone” and “harricane”). Most of the large trees have shallow roots because of the high groundwater table; the roots cannot survive in continually saturated soil. Tip-ups eventually erode and rot, forming a “pit and mound complex” that can persist for years after the tree itself has decayed into the soil.
With the return to higher ground, large loblolly pines become more frequent. This part of the floodplain was actually part of a 19th Century property, Pine Bluff, owned by the Weston family. The presence of mature pines here may be a legacy of attempts to cultivate this part of the floodplain in the 1800s.
Site 13 (Big Tupelo Gut-Bridge D)
At 2.1 miles, you cross a large bridge (Bridge D) over Big Tupelo Gut. A hundred yards from the bridge, the national champion loblolly pine grows on the bank of the gut. At almost 170 feet tall, it is the tallest tree in South Carolina. Though obscured by foliage in the summer, it is easily visible in the winter. A companion tree, almost as large, may block your view, but look for the pine with the large horizontal limb branching to the right— that’s the champion. At the end of the bridge, a footpath leads to the pine. This is not an official park trail, but a “social trail” created by frequent use (such as fishing trails).
Shortly beyond the bridge, look for the dark, smooth, symmetrically spiraling supplejack vines to your right. These vines have regularly spaced holes ringing their trunks— these are sap wells chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a woodpecker species that winters at the park. Besides collecting sap, the wells also trap bugs, providing more than one type of food for sapsuckers and other birds and animals.
Site 14 (Dry Branch)
Stop at the bridge over Dry Branch. Usually this is a relatively clear-running stream quite different from the sloughs and guts you have been crossing, but trees have recently blocked its route. Inspite of its name, Dry Branch runs year-round and empties into Weston Lake.
Shortly beyond Dry Branch, the Weston Lake Loop Trail runs under the high portion of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. When you rejoin the trail, you can either turn sharply right to the Weston Lake overlook and the Elevated Boardwalk (1.4 miles to Visitor Center), or return more directly to the Visitor Center by turning left on the Low Boardwalk (1.2 miles to Visitor Center).