The 5 Best Things To Do In Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is home to the oldest and largest intact bottomland hardwood forests in the United States. When it comes to National Parks, Congaree is one of the smallest in the United states. But, although it is one of the smaller parks it offers a lot whether you like to hike, kayak, birdwatching, or check out synchronous fireflies. This park has something to offer for everyone. In this guide we are going to cover everything you need to know and the things to do in Congaree National Park.
*Note: As always before embarking on any outdoor journey make sure to show good Trail etiquette and follow Leave No Trace to respect others and protect these beautiful natural areas
What is Special About Congaree National Park
Congaree named after the native inhabitants who lived along the Congaree River was granted National Park status on November 10, 2003. The park covers 27,000 acres which actually makes it one of the smallest parks in the United States. It is also among the least crowded parks, bringing in about 129,000 people annually.
As mentioned earlier, Congaree National Park is the largest intact old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. Bottomland hardwood forests, according to the EPA, are unique ecosystems found along river floodplains. Also, known as a “river swamp”. The trees that live in bottomland forests are hardy trees such as oak, cypress, or gum that have the ability to survive in prolonged wet conditions. And, these occasional floods are what bring essential nutrient rich soil to the area.
Although Congaree could be called a “river swamp” it is not technically a traditional swamp. According to national geographic information, the definition of a swamp is an area of land that is permanently filled with water. Though this park does have seasonal flooding from the Congaree and Wateree rivers it is never a permanently flooded ecosystem.
Like other bottomland forests, what really makes this park standout is the abundance of bald cypress trees and loblolly pine trees. Some of the loblolly trees in the park are some of the oldest still standing, some dated possibly over 500 years old. This park is also home to an abundance of wildlife from nearly 200 species of birds, flying squirrels, reptiles, alligators, wild boars, and synchronous fireflies.
Map of Congaree National Park
Park Fees and Permits
Great thing about this park is there is no fee to enter or tour the visitor center. However, the majority of National Parks have charges for admission. If you plan on visiting more than 3 parks a year then get an America The Beautiful– Annual Park Pass to get annual access to all the National Parks, Forests, and more for just $80 per year.
Congaree National Park is open year round, 24/7. The visitor center is only open 9am – 4pm eastern time and until 10pm during the two week Fireflies Festival. Always, stay up to date by checking the NPS and check the visitor center at arrival to see updates or current closures.
Tips for Visiting Congaree National Park
When To Go
There are different advantages and disadvantages to the time you go to Congaree. During the summer there will be lower water levels so you’ll be more likely to explore the majority of the park. However, the drawback is more people, higher temperatures, and possibility of more mosquitoes which is measured by an informal mosquito meter before the trailheads.
The winter presents with colder temperatures so less chance of bugs and less traffic. But, the trails are more likely to be underwater due to flooding by the Congaree River. Really in my opinion the best times to visit Congaree National Park is Spring from March through May or Early Fall around late August – Early October.
What To Bring
Depending on what season you go will vary what you bring when I pack. I like to look at the 10 essentials as a base and then add stuff from there. In general, here are a few things I would definitely recommend to guide you in Congaree National Park.
- Bug Spray: Off! Botanicals
- Hiking shoes: Columbia Newtons
- Back pack : Osprey Daylite
- Water pack : Platypus 2L pack
How Long To Stay
The park is fairly small so you could do a lot in about half a day depending on what you are wanting to do. Half a day would allow you to at least do the Boardwalk and the Weston Loop hikes. Which you would get to experience a good portion of the park. If you are wanting to go fishing or kayaking I would recommend adding another day.
The Best Things To Do In Congaree National Park
Harry Hampton Visitor Center
The first thing I would recommend is to check out the visitor center of the park. Nearly all the hikes at the park begin at the visitor center. And for this park checking out the visitor center is super important to get up to date trail access in case of flooding. Also, to get some bug spray if you forgot it. Depending on the season you’re going you may want it! The visitor center makes for a good stop for a picnic lunch.
In May – June Congaree holds the Fireflies Festival which is a rare event where you can see fireflies fly in sync during their mating period. There are only 3 species of synchronous fireflies in North America and during this event you can see all 3 here at this park. This event is extremely popular and to prevent overcrowding the park puts out restrictions or limited permits. You’ll have to check out the Congaree National Park site for specifics.
Canoeing or Kayaking
There are a lot of good options for kayaking or canoeing. The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a 15 mile river that starts at the Banisters Bridge and makes its way to the Congaree River. Cedar creek is what is known as a blackwater stream that runs through the heart of the park. Often local outfitters and park rangers will offer canoe trips and rentals.
If you are up for more watersports the Congaree River Blue Trail is a 50 mile paddling trail that takes you around the south border of the park. If doing any of the water sports make sure to stop by the visitor center for an update on the water levels and snake frequency though. The water levels are known to vary by 10 or more feet during the year.
Fishing is a popular activity at Congaree. Most anglers can find plenty of bass and perch along the creeks and at Weston Lake due to its accessibility. To go fishing you must have a valid South Carolina fishing license and follow regulations pertaining to size and limits. More information can be found at the NPS.
This was our favorite hike in the whole park. Be sure to stop at the visitor center for updates because sometimes the boardwalk floods over. It starts off at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and makes a loop through the heart of Congaree National Park. The trail offers elevation from the water when it floods and makes it accessible to reach some parts of the forest that would be difficult to get to otherwise.
Best part is this trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible so its super friendly for individuals with disabilities and bringing the kids. Along the trail there are numbers. Those numbers actually go with a Self Guided Tour that goes with the Boardwalk Trail. This is a pretty neat thing they offer as it explains natural sites like Weston Lake, different types of trees, and also historical sites.
This trail is a nice short trail off of the Boardwalk trail. The best time to do this trail is during late spring during the synchronous fireflies mating season. Do this trail during the evening and you’ll be treated with a beautiful view of flashing glistening fireflies. Otherwise, when it isn’t firefly season this trail would probably be last on our list to do.
Bates Ferry Trail
This trail takes you to the older section of the park. You’ll take a 19th century colonial road that was once the route to a ferry across the river. This hike was a bit wet for us but overall pretty manageable. I would talk to once of the rangers at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center for conditions and bring water resistant boots.
Overall, this hike is fairly short and also offers access to the Congaree River for water sports. I recommend making a pit stop at the General Greene Tree which is Congaree’s largest bald cypress tree with a whopping 30ft circumference.
The Kingsnake Trail
This is rated as difficult by the park and goes for 12 miles round trip, out and back trail. The trail is somewhat narrow but it goes a little deeper in the forest leading to some of the most remote parts of the park. It’s a great trail for birdwatching, and intersects with the Weston lake or the Oakridge giving options to add on.
Make sure to check in with the visitor center to see if this trail has been closed. Doing the full out and back frankly can make this trail a little boring. I recommend when doing this hike if possible to leave a car at the other end so you can just go one way for 6 miles.
Weston Lake Loop Trail
This was our second favorite hike behind the Boardwalk trail. This trail starts off on Boardwalk Loop Trail and comes to a trail junction where it branches from the Boardwalk Loop Trail and takes you further into the bottomland forest. Follow the signs for Weston Lake and then you’ll start to head into some of the older cypress growth.
The trail continues to wind through bald cypress and Tupelo trees and takes you back to the Boardwalk trail. The best views on this trail are Weston Lake overlook. I would encourage you to take the Wise Lake extension which is right off the Weston Lake Loop Trail. There you will see probably the best lake lake view in the park.
Where To Stay
Camping In Congaree National Park
For campers there are two campgrounds available in Congaree national park around the entrance of the park. Longleaf and Bluff Campground, both of them are tent only camping and you need to make overnight reservations. There is also backcountry camping available in the park with a permit that you can apply for on the NPS
If you’re not planning on camping the good thing is South Carolina’s capital, Columbia is only about 30 minutes away. It is worth checking out the capital as there are a lot of neat urban things to do. Also, in general Columbia has the most to offer when it comes to hotels, other lodging, and planning meals.
Where to Eat
There are no restaurants in Congaree National Park. During our visit we packed a picnic lunch and ate at the visitor center. The best place to grab food at would be in Columbia, South Carolina since that is the largest city next to Congaree. Columbia does have a lot to offer for foodies. We only ate at a couple of the places here.
Eggs Up Grill
This restaurant has a few locations in the more southern part of South Carolina. We ate here a couple of times. They make a lot of the food homemade and it makes for a great option for breakfast or a quick brunch. They serve many great options. One of our favorites was the shrimp and grits bowl and biscuit and gravy.
This a great lunch or dinner option especially for those wanting to experience some Carolina style BBQ . The Carolinas are known for mustard style rubs and sauces which make for a great combination of sweet and tangy. Some popular choices are the beef brisket, smoked wings, and banana pudding.
Overall, Congaree National Park is a special little place that offers a different experience and type of beauty. One that everyone should go out and experience. Why not head out and check out Congaree National Park today? Feel free to leave a comment below or any questions. Ill do my best to help out.
Editor note: This post was originally published July 7, 2022 and has been updated for more accuracy and comprehensiveness