The famed synchronous fireflies won't be the only brightly colored things in Congaree National Park during Memorial Day Weekend.
The national park and the COMET bus system have entered into a partnership that will allow for buses to shuttle residents from Columbia out to the park and back on the evenings of May 24-26. The buses will run from 7:30-10:30 p.m. on those nights. Patrons will be able to board the bus at the State Fairgrounds for the 16-mile trip out to the park, which is in rural Hopkins.
The COMET board approved the Congaree shuttle at its April 24 meeting.
Rides will cost $2 for the trip out to the park, and another $2 to ride back, or riders can buy a day pass for $4 that allows them to ride the COMET all day on the date of their choosing.
Each year, from mid-May to early June, Photuris frontalis fireflies, searching for a mate, synchronize their flashing at Congaree National Park, the 27,000-acre expanse that is South Carolina's only national park. The swampy, low-lying park is one of only a handful of places in the entire world where fireflies are known to put on such a synchronous show. The park is having its Firefly Festival, with a designated firefly trail, May 10-27. Memorial Day weekend is typically one of the busiest during the park's firefly season.
"The fireflies out here seem to be getting bigger each year," Congaree National Park acting Chief of Interpretation Jonathan Manchester tells Free Times. "We see thousands of people coming out over that two-and-a-half week period. So, we have been looking at ways we can relieve the traffic congestion and also a little bit of alleviating potential future damage to our resources out here."
Manchester noted that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the only other places that has synchronous fireflies, already has a shuttle system in place during its firefly season, partnering with nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The park official thinks a benefit to having buses run from downtown to Congaree is that some people who might not have previously had transportation to make the 32-mile round trip to see the natural wonder will now have that opportunity.
"It will help us reach some people there in the city of Columbia," Manchester says. "There may be people who have their home or their apartment in the city but are like, 'Hey, there's going to be a shuttle that's going to be running not too far from where we are, why don't we go down to the shuttle and pick it up there and go that way.'"
Manchester adds that the shuttles also should help in regard to parking. He says the national park has "minimal" parking and that during the crush of the firefly season, people end up parking along the side of the road and in the grass.
The park official points out that Congaree gets visitors from across the country to see the fireflies, many of whom stay in hotels in the city. He says those visitors could take advantage of the day pass.
"We get inquiries [about the fireflies] from all over the United States," Manchester says. "So, they very well could be coming in and staying in hotels in Columbia. So, they could get that day pass while in Columbia, ride the bus all over the city during the day, then at night catch the bus to the national park."
COMET executive director John Andoh says the bus system has continued to look for ways to connect riders to directly to destinations and events.
"The National Park Service and I have been having discussions about how we can attract people to the Congaree National Park, and build up ridership," Andoh tells Free Times. "We've been forming partnerships with various community stakeholders. We've worked with Harbison Theatre, Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens, the Columbia Fireflies. This will be another partnership to encourage people to take public transit."