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Some neighbors put up fences, some invite the neighborhood kids to play in their yard.

Fortunately, the Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve is in the second group, making it a great neighbor to the Three Rivers Greenway. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources owns the 642-acre preserve, which covers multiple tracts of land bordering the namesake creek between U.S. 176 and the Congaree River. The 12,000 Year History Park/Timmerman Trail section runs through, or right on the border of, the preserve several times.         

The preserve also has a trail of its own, the 2.5-mile Guignard Clay Quarry Loop. Built in 2000, the dirt trail predates its paved greenway neighbor. It allows people to explore the fascinating ecology created as former clay quarry pits evolve to a new natural state. The Guignard Brickworks (same folks who built the domed structures just off Knox Abbott Drive in Cayce) scraped clay from this property starting early in the 1900s.

Now, those former pits form fingerlike ponds, some covered with aquatic vegetation, others serving as reflecting pools for surrounding trees. They also are home to a wealth of wildlife, including resident alligators.

The trail itself has long been one of my favorites — with an asterisk. I love it from late November through late March, when the cold knocks down the biting insect population. Those bugs prefer standing water in ponds over moving water, thus they are less an annoyance in the 12,000 Year History Park with its flowing creek than in Congaree Creek Heritage Preserve with its still ponds.

During the colder months, though, the hike through the preserve is a joy. The parking lot is off Old State Road, on the right just before you get to the barriers blocking travel over the old bridge. The trail is relatively easy to follow, but it features enough roots and mud to require hiking boots or old sneakers.

The route from the parking lot parallels the road briefly then takes a right turn. Once you reach the quarry, you can turn right or left. I’m a counterclockwise hiker, so I always go right. If you take that route, you can admire the ponds on your left. When you get to the one wayside sign, the trail veers right away from the ponds. (You can keep walking along the ponds for about 100 yards, but you’ll have to come back to this point to return to the loop trail.)

I’ve always found the full 2.5-mile loop the ideal length for a leisurely walk, and I was surprised recently to see a shortcut has been added. In addition to cutting some mileage, the shortcut also avoids the section where hikers are most likely to lose the trail. Unfortunately, it also means hikers miss a power line right-of-way, which is one of the best places to find butterflies in the spring.

Despite taking the shortcut on a recent winter trip, I ended up covering about 2.5 miles because I explored off trail, as is my wont in winter when snakes are groggy and long sleeves and pants protect my limbs from poison ivy. Luckily, the largest tree along the route is right on the trail, a massive cherrybark oak on the south edge of the loop that stands out from its neighbors in the leafless canopy of winter. Another tree right on the shortcut features multiple conks that look like shelves attached to its trunk.                                                                                                                 

DNR recently has done a good job of maintaining the trail, which features several wooden bridges. But the state agency has no control over the weather, which has dumped copious amounts of water in the region this year, flooding the entire preserve a couple of times. With the short days of winter, the trail likely won’t completely dry out for several months. But experiencing the beauty of the quarry ponds and surrounding forests is worth muddying your shoes.

As always, if you have any questions about anything in the blog, contact me at [email protected].