A major effort to improve markings on more than 20 miles of trails at Congaree National Park was in the works long before a man and his two children spent two nights lost in the thick forest this spring.
The park announced the trail-marking project Thursday, but its genesis came long before the publicity about the lost hikers or even the extensive tree damage caused by the winter ice storms, according to superintendent Tracy Stakely.
The park staff recognized the old markings could be improved. The current trails are designated by colored markers that correspond to trail names. Some of the markers have disappeared through the years when large portions of the park have flooded. Some were on trees knocked down by high winds or ice damage.
Not only will new markings be done, but the system will change from colored markings to numbers on brown tabs with reflective stickers that should be easier to spot. The numbering system also will be designed to make it easier to report the location of hikers who have problems on the trail system.
“With the dynamic and changing nature of the floodplain, it is important to ensure our trails are safe and adequately marked,” Stakely said. The new trail markers “will provide a safer and more enjoyable experience for trail users and help reduce incidents of visitors getting off trail and potentially disoriented in the wilderness.”
Most lost-hiker incidents at the park have been short-lived, overnight at the worst. But J.R. Kimbler, 43, took his children Dakota, 10, and Jade, 6, out in the park on a Saturday afternoon in late April and lost the trail. They were reported missing that night. They were found early Tuesday not far off one of the trails, hungry, dehydrated and bug-bitten but otherwise OK.
The park is seeking volunteers to help with the trail marking project. If you would like to help, contact ranger Lindsay Compton at (803) 647-3965 or Lindsay_Compton@nps.gov.
The trail system covers only a small portion of the 27,000-acre park, which is home to a rich variety of plants and animals, including some of the tallest trees on the East coast. Last month, the federal government approved changing the designation of 6,690 acres in the park from “potential wilderness” to “wilderness.” That brings the total acreage designated as wilderness to 21,700 acres.
A wilderness designation is the top protection the government can give to public land. It sets restrictions on the use of the land, ruling out roads, vehicles and permanent structures. Clearing trees off some of the park’s trails after the ice storm was difficult because mechanized equipment, including chainsaws, are allowed in wilderness areas only in special circumstances.
Stakely said the park always had treated the 6,690 acres as if it were wilderness, so the change in designation will make little difference in the way the land is managed.