Congaree National Park is a treasure tucked away about 30 minutes outside of Columbia.The park is home to the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in North America and an array of plants and wildlife. This beauty attracts those who want to spend an afternoon or weekend exploring all that the forest offers.
In fact, the park has grown so much in popularity that Congaree has broken its own attendance record for recreation visitation. Jon Manchester, a park ranger at Congaree National Park, says the park attracts visitors from all 50 statesalthough many are from South Carolina.
"We get a lot of people who have it on their bucket list, they’re doing all the national parks trying to see them all so we do get a fair number from all over the country," he said.
There have been a record-breaking number of visitors to national parks over the past few years. The National Park Service received 331 million guests in 2016, breaking 2015’s record by 23.7 million. Congaree National Park also set a record in 2016 with 143,843 visitors, a 39.2 percentincrease from the previous year.
Manchester said the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and its campaign to lure people to the national park system led to the significant increase in visitors. He also said people go to parks because they just want to escape thepace of city life.
Some popular parkslike Zion National Park in Utah have begun to suffer due to the effects of overcrowding, officials said. Administrators there have proposed a plan to implement a reservation system for visitors before arrival. Though faced with some opposition, others believe limiting the amount of people is a good way to protect the ecosystem of parks.
“So far we haven’t seen anything that would be like what Zion or Yellowstone are starting to see where their entrance stations are backed up for miles,” said Manchester. “But we have not at this time ever discussed anything like reserving anything.”
Congaree National Park is a fee-free park, and he said there isn’t really a way for them to say "stay out," unlike some parks that control the flow of people through entrance stations. The park is also open 24/7.
Manchester says that overcrowding does become a problem for park resources at places like Zion.
“When you have more and more people coming in, it does start to show on the trails," he said. "You unfortunately start getting more litter, and it starts to affect wildlife, plant life and things like that. Those parks don’t take that lightly.”
Congaree's distinctive raised boardwalk allows visitors to get close to giant loblolly pines, chestnut oaks, swamp tupelo and bald cypress trees that send up knobby protrusions from their roots.
“There’s a lot of natural and cultural heritage here at the park that we preserve and tell those stories, whereas many places you can’t see big trees like we have out here … so it’s something special. We’re a special place,” he said.
Jim Wilson volunteers at the park and leads a nature walk on the third Saturday of every month. While he prefers to sleep in his own bed as opposed to camping at the park, Wilson enjoys walking the trails during the day and talking to people that visit from all over the country.
“I enjoy the wonder of it all,” Wilson said. “It means peace and quiet to me.”
He believes the steady increase in visitors to parks is due to word of mouth and Congaree’s status as a national park. Previously, the park was listed as a monument until 2003. Wilson is saddened by the prospectof a potential reservation system in parks plagued with overcrowding.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” he said. “I come out here for solitude, and I’d hate to see it turn into a Walmart.”
Wilson is hopeful Congaree will never face problems with overcrowding and its environmental impacts, so that it can be kept sacred and almost like a secret to those who know it best.
“I’m personally glad to see people come out and enjoy it, but I kind of like it when I’m by myself," he said. "Try not to spread the word too much."