text and photos by Grace Zhou
On October 18th of this year, Congaree National Park celebrates forty-four years of preserving the land’s old growth bottomland forest, maintaining the park against a floodplain’s yearly ebbs and flow and adapting to the park’s natural changes.
Like a highway through the park, Congaree’s popular Boardwalk Loop introduces the wonders of the park for first-time visitors and regulars alike. The hiking trail is 2.4 miles of recycled plastic and wood, with certain parts lying low against the ground and other parts elevated in the air. Its oldest sections have existed since its creation in the mid-1980s, undergoing various changes to its infrastructure over the years.
In terms of recent renovations, the completion of the elevated boardwalk in 2015 first comes to mind. “The elevated boardwalk that was renovated in 2015 had existed since the original boardwalk was built in the 1980s, but it had been completely wiped out when Hurricane Hugo came through,” says park ranger, Jonathan Manchester, “The entire section had to be replaced.” Conveniently, it gave builders the opportunity to improve upon its previous state. The boardwalk was built before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 and originally, had been very narrow and unaccommodating to those with physical disabilities, Manchester describes. With the elevated boardwalk’s completion and expansion in 2015, the next major renovation came to the .3 miles of lower boardwalk east to the Sims Trail in 2018.
Another improvement accompanying the renovations was the addition of helical piles. Helical piles are like large screws that help anchor structures to the ground. They come in the form of a long rod with a few flat circular plates radiating from the center. When builders first created the boardwalk, they “drove posts into the ground, thinking it would hold the boardwalk down. However, when it got flooded the first time, the whole thing just floated up,” Manchester recalls humorously, “They had an in-house method to figure out a way that would allow the posts to hold better. It wasn’t perfect, but it held up fairly well until recently.” As such, helical piles are essential to regularly flooded sections in upgrades. In 2018, renovations for the lower boardwalk were completed with new helical piles stabilizing it.
This continued into the final and most recent renovation: the short .2 miles of elevated boardwalk between the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and the beginning of the Boardwalk Loop. In fact, it was just completed August 14th after being in the works since December of 2019. Thanks to the pandemic, construction had been completed a month ahead of schedule. The reason for this was because, “originally, the plan was to work up until the Fireflies Festival. Because of the Fireflies Festival, they would have had to move all the equipment out, so we could get ready to start up for that. We expected to take a month to a month and a half long break,” Manchester explains.
Furthermore, the Fireflies Festival was what mainly brought alarm to the short section in the first place. Manchester had said that, not only was the trail one of the park’s older sections, but it also had extremely high demand compared to the rest of the trails. “During the first Fireflies Festival in 2017, there were between 500 to 600 people standing in that one small area. You could feel the boardwalk shifting,” Manchester recounts. Now, the boardwalk is wider and gives more room for educational programs and extra foot traffic.
So, what do the overseers at the national park plan to renovate next? Well, they don’t really have a specific idea currently. The most likely renovations will come to the Low Boardwalk, the section that begins with the trail from the visitors center to the section that was renovated in 2018. “During the government shutdown in 2019, when workers weren’t able to be in [the park], there were a few sections between four to six feet in length that had been lifted out because the park had been flooded,” according to Manchester. They were replaced, of course, and Manchester elaborates that, since it is one of the older sections, it’s expected that it would start to get a little wonky.
For now, the sections are still absolutely safe to walk on, and Congaree National Park continues to ensure their codes of safety. Although, it is recommended to exercise a little more caution if you’re hiking with open-toed shoes on some of the older sections. And while you’re watching your step, you’ll likely notice where the renovated sections start and end. They’re surprisingly easy to spot, especially the most recent renovation made to the boardwalk entrance this year. Even though a national park first and foremost aims to present the natural beauties of the land, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the work builders put into keeping the few human parts maintained just for us.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.