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9 things to do in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a rich and diverse ancient forest and river plain, where ancient deciduous trees grow along with loblolly pine trees that reach heights never before seen.

Standing under the towering branches of the Congaree you can see the dark floodwaters sitting still around the bases of the tree. Scent of the moist moss, the dark soil and the vibrant green leaves of the surrounding forests. The still water reflects the sky above, and birds, insects and wild boars shout in the silence.

You are a place teeming with life. Where generations of hands like yours have touched the bark of the ancient trees and minds like yours have reveled in its beauty.

In this guide, we will explore all the tips and recommendations we have for visiting South Carolina’s hidden gem: Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Parks History

The Congaree was established as a national park as late as 2003. Originally a source of timber in the late 19th century, it was again threatened by logging in 1969. Harry Hampton, now a memorial to the park, began preserving efforts to protect the forest in the late 1960s, and in 1976 Congress established the Congaree as a national monument.

The biosphere of Congaree National Park

Congaree contains the highest known specimens of 15 tree species and is among the best forests known for their biodiversity in the United States.

Towering above all others in Congaree is the tallest loblolly guy known to date. It measures a full 167 feet and is one of the tallest trees on the east coast of the United States. Other masterpieces of this park are a Sweetgum measuring 133 feet, an American elm hitting 135 feet, and a marsh chestnut reaching 133 feet.

Cypress knees
Cypress “knee”

The forest’s oldest tree, a bald cypress called the General Green Tree, is estimated to be about 1,000 years old. Perhaps one of the most famous and remarkable features of the park is its cypresses. These strange trees produce ‘knees’ that form above the root system of the tree and can be seen rising above the flood. Although there is more speculation as to why cypress trees have these knees, a specific answer is still unknown.

Among its incredibly diverse animal and plant life, Congaree is home to many state-endangered endangered species, including the bald eagle, red-necked woodpecker and swallowtail dragon. Boars trample through the undergrowth, river otters fly through its waters, and bobcats roam hidden in the trees.

Topting to do in Congaree National Park

Boardwalk trail in congaree national park

Hiking

Although the park offers few comprehensive options for single trails, the longest of which is 18 km, the park’s smooth trails and promenades allow for easy walking and beautiful forest sights. Most of the trails cross each other, so whether you are looking for a particularly long hike or a short and easy walk, your options are open.

Boardwalk Loop Trail

The most popular and most beautiful walk in the park. The beach promenade starts at the visitor center and goes through the lowlands and old forest.

Track rating: Easy (2.6 miles round trip)

Bluff Trail

This path starts at the visitor center and connects to the seafront for a while, after which it takes you through the hinterland’s new growth forest of loblolly pine trees.

Track rating: Easy (2.8 miles round trip)

Oakridge Trail

With a good view of some old oak trees, this path leads you through the old forest and follows a small ridge that is excellent for spotting wildlife. It is rated moderate because some sections of the trail may be difficult to follow and may be secured by felled trees.

Track rating: Moderate (7.1 miles)

Weston Lake Loop Trail

This hike starts from the Boardwalk Loop Trail and goes through much of the old forest, following Cedar Creek, before going back and joining the boardwalk again.

Track rating: Easy (4.5 miles round trip)

River Trail

This trail leads to the Congaree River. The trail is simple and not as scenic as the seafront, but if you want a longer and smoother walk, this one is good. Rated moderate only because some parts of the trail may be less used and so difficult to follow

Track rating: Moderate (11.1 miles back and forth)

Kayakers at Cedar Creek
Jtmartin57, CC BY-SA 4.0via Wikimedia Commons

Canoe and kayak

Experience the forest from a unique and close angle by exploring its waters on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. With either a canoe or kayak you can walk in and out by the Cedar Creek boat. Cedar Creek is slow-moving, making it easy to paddle both upstream and downstream. Fallen trees sometimes block the road depending on the water level, so you may sometimes need to pull your boat over the ground to get around them. If you are alone, a kayak is probably your best option as it makes it easier to carry. Check out Cedar Creek River conditions here.

Fishing

Are you looking for a little relaxation and time to sit alone in your mind? Fishing is allowed in the park and is a great way to enjoy its atmosphere. To fish, you must have a fishing license and follow the park’s guidelines found here.

Camping

If you want to camp, there are two vacant campgrounds in the park: Longleaf Campground, near the park entrance, and Bluff Campground. Bluff Campground is one mile from Longleaf and is only accessible on foot. None of these campsites have running water. Longleaf has two vault toilets, while Bluff has none.

To camp in Congaree National Park you must have a reservation to camp or have a backcountry permit. Congaree is rarely busy, so getting a campground is rarely a problem. More information about the park’s camping policies can be found here and can be reserved here.

Fireflies in Congaree National Park
Photo kindly lent by NPS

See the fireflies

For two weeks each year, a rare event takes place in Congaree National Park. In a unique annual mating ritual, fireflies synchronize their flash patterns, creating a fascinating and awe-inspiring sight. Usually begins around mid-May, this synchronization is best seen between 6 p.m. 21.00-22.00. This event attracts thousands of people, so during the few weeks the show lasts, the park’s entry times are limited. Lotto coupons to see the exhibition are drawn to provide equal opportunities for those who want to see it. For more information on this event and its limitations, see here.

Sign at the entrance to Congaree National Park

What is the best time to visit Congaree National Park?

The best time to visit the park is in late fall and spring. Summer humidity and high temperatures can become oppressive in South Carolina, especially in the midlands. However, mosquitoes are the deciding factor in when you should or should not visit. Because much of the park is a river plain, the mosquito population can become intense and vicious. It is recommended to choose to visit in times of cooler weather or before the season’s mosquito frenzy has started.

How long to visit Congaree National Park

Congaree is a small park, so half a day is enough for either hiking, fishing or canoeing. Up to two days, with an overnight camp, there is plenty of time to see what you want to see and do everything you want.

Write to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center

Park facilities

At the beginning of the boardwalk and near the park entrance is Congaree’s Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Although some parts of the center remain closed due to Covid-19, its restrooms, bookstores and picnic areas remain open. For updates on its closures and its opening hours, check here.

Need to know tips before visiting Congaree National Park

  • Mosquito: Even if you visit in the fall or spring, mosquitoes may still be present. Bring insect spray regardless of the season. You’d rather be safe than miserable.
  • Flood: occurs frequently in Congaree, and although it does not always cover the trails, water can cover even the boardwalk. Check here in advance to see the floods.
  • Limited parking for oversized vehicles: Although there is space on the campsite, there may not be room for your vehicle if it is too large. Call in advance for information on parking spaces and availability of any oversized vehicles.

How to get to Congaree National Park

The main entrance to the park is on Old Bluff Road. The gate stays open all night and all day and there are no entrance fees. From the gate it is a two minute drive either to the visitor center or to the Longleaf Campgrounds car park. The Cedar Creek entrance is a gravel parking lot just off the road. It is a rear entrance and is not closed.

Driving distances and times to the main entrance

Where to eat in Columbia, South Carolina

Fancy eats

  • Bourbon: Whiskey bar and Cajun Creole restaurant.
  • Terra: Chef-run neighborhood bistro with a focus on local ingredients.
  • Motor Supply Company Bistro: The menu changes daily. A mix of modern American, French, Italian and Asian cuisine. Everything is either provided by local farms or is homemade.

Casual dining

  • Transmission Arcade: Clean and friendly arcade bar with high level bar food including smoked wings, banh mi fries, tika tacos and smoked smashburgers.
  • Hunter-Gatherer Brewery / Taproom: Various bar snacks and handmade pizzas with fantastic craft brews on tap.
  • Tacos Nayarit: Modest and authentic, everything is made fresh right in front of you. From handmade tortillas to delicious tacos, gorditas, tortas and more.
  • Pho Viet Restaurant: Deliciously tasteful and authentic Vietnamese cuisine with a simple calm atmosphere.
  • Duke’s Pad Thai: Casual place serving a mix of familiar and unique Thai noodles and curries.

Other outdoor options near Columbia, South Carolina

  • Harbison State Forest: Hiking and mountain biking in Columbia’s pine and deciduous forest.
  • Dreher Island State Park: Swim and hike on Columbia’s famous Lake Murray.
  • Sesquicentennial State Park: Paddleboard on the lake, hiking and camp in the park’s green forest.
  • Saluda Shoals: Rent a canoe or kayak, and swim in Soluda’s cool waters all year round.
  • Cayce Riverwalk Park: Enjoy an easy walk or bike ride along the paved path that follows the Congaree River. Rent a tube and take the bus up to the Saluda River to spend a few hours driving slowly down Columbia’s beautiful rivers.

Whether you’re exploring the east coast or are in Columbia for a few days, Congaree National Park is a favorite with locals and a hidden gem in the nation.

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