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How to get there, what to do, what you can expect, and what to pack. It’s all here in the Congaree National Park guide.
We have been lucky enough to live in South Carolina for the past two years and just 30 minutes from a national park! While at first glance, this isn’t the largest or most scenic national park but after learning a bit more about Congaree National Park it’s hard to ignore what a unique place it is. And, if you’re like us and trying to visit all 63 national parks in the US you’d have to hit this park eventually! I highly recommend pairing a visit to Congaree National Park with a weekend exploring Columbia, SC. Hopefully this in depth Congaree National Park guide is helpful as you plan your trip to South Carolina!
Looking for more in SC? Try the best hikes to take in South Carolina.
the complete Congaree National Park Guide
Congaree National Park is 26,276 acres of old growth forest located in Hopkins, SC, just 30 minutes from the capital city of Columbia. The park was originally designated a wilderness area in 1988 before officially becoming a national park in 2003. Often referred to as a swamp, the land within Congaree is actually bottomland old growth forest. Old growth forest is a forest that is very old (makes sense) and hasn’t been greatly disturbed, and therefore has unique ecological features. As you can imagine, there aren’t very many old growth forests remaining due to human impact.
Congaree is also in a floodplain, so it’s covered by water for much of the year. My favorite feature in the park is the “knees,” which are roots that have grown underground, come up above the ground forming the appearance of a knob before going back into the ground to increase the tree’s ability to withstand flooding. Pretty cool, right? Have no fears. Even if the park is flooded you can still visit due to Congaree’s popular boardwalk loop.
The unique national park boasts several champion trees, trees that are the largest of their species, such as the loblolly pine, sweetgum, cherrybark oak, American elm, and swamp chestnut oak. You also have the opportunity to see wildlife such as alligators, feral pigs and dogs, armadillos, and snakes.
Have I convinced you to visit yet? Let’s continue with the Congaree National Park guide.
How to get there
Located just outside of Columbia, SC, Congaree National Park is relatively easy to get to. You will need a car so whether you’re road tripping or flying into the area, plan accordingly.
If you choose to fly in, the closest airport is the Columbia airport (CAE). It services only a few airlines and is very small so typically also more expensive. Charlotte International (CLT) is the next closest, largest airport and only about 1.5 hours away. Alternatively, you could fly into Charleston (CHS) airport as well. It’s pretty small too but could be good if you’re also tacking on a weekend trip in Charleston! It’s 1.5 hours away.
I think most people choose to road trip to the park and add it on as a road trip stop or stop on their way to another city in the area. It’s a pretty easy drive to get to Congaree from Columbia — about a 20-30 minute adventure on some back roads!
There is no lodging in the park, so your best bet is to spend the night in Columbia. Downtown or southwest Columbia near Fort Jackson are the closest options. There are several hotel chains near Fort Jackson that would be an affordable rate. However, if you’re looking to do something a little nicer or more local, I’d suggest Hotel Trundle in downtown!
Camping in Congaree National Park
Camping is the best way to get the feel of a national park, and what kind of Congaree National Park guide would this be without talking about the camping?! There are two designated campgrounds: Longleaf and Bluff. If you choose Bluff campground, you’ll have to hike about a mile to it as there is no vehicle entry to the park. You must have a reservation to camp in the park. Also, please note you can’t bring your own firewood into the park. Congaree only uses heat treated wood because you can bring in harmful species to the park by bringing in your own firewood!
Weather and what to pack
Alright, here’s the deal. South Carolina is hot. Like Columbia has a slogan and it is “famously hot.” Also it’s humid. And there’s lots of bugs. If you can swing it, I would recommend a visit in late fall or early spring. It typically stays comfortable well into December and (most of the) mosquitoes are gone by then. South Carolina is pretty mild in the winter, as well. However, if you can stand the heat and load up on the bug spray a summer visit is unique. It’s the best way to see wildlife and the beautiful green of the forest.
Pack bug spray and sunscreen as well as a hat. Most of the forest is covered but there’s sunny spots. You’ll want to dress cool with shorts or loose hiking pants. I’d definitely recommend hiking boots. Not because the hiking is tough but more to protect your feet and ankles from slithery friends. If you do visit in the cooler months, a sweatshirt and jacket will most likely suffice! It’s rarely below 30 degrees!
Things to do in Congaree National Park
Hiking – obviously the best thing to do in any national park and that is no exception here! I highly recommend the boardwalk loop. It’s a little over 3 miles and will give you a great taste of what Congaree National Park has to offer. As the name suggests, there’s a boardwalk through the entire loop so you can still enjoy this trail when it’s flooded. And keeps you safe from the snakes 🙂 Make sure you stop by the visitor’s center to grab an informational pamphlet. There are numbered markers along the trail that give you really interesting info about the park!
Other great trails include Bluff Trail (1.8 miles), Kingsnake Trail (5 miles and great for bird watchers), or Weston Lake loop.
Canoe/kayak – There’s actually a canoe trail along Cedar Creek for about 15 miles. Just watch out for gators!
You can also fish and bird watch. I personally know nothing about birds but I think this is a great place for that!
Day trips from Congaree National Park
Congaree National park is a rather small park, so if you’re coming to town for that you should take a few extra days to explore the surrounding area. I’d recommend sticking around Columbia, SC for the weekend (check out my full weekend guide here). You can also head down to the beach and see Charleston or to the upstate to Greenville. If a big city is more your stride, you’re only 3 hours from Atlanta and 1.5 hours from Charlotte!
Congaree National Park Fireflies
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the synchronous fireflies. Every late May, there is a species of firefly that lights up around the same time, creating an amazing light show within the park. Congaree National Park is one of only a handful of places in the US where you can see this phenomenon. You do need to enter a lottery, however. Approximately every late March or early April, the US National Park Service releases a lottery to enter. They limit the amount of cars to 25 for a select number of nights in order to protect the fireflies. If you happen to be in the area during late May, make sure you enter the lottery!
Congaree National Park is a small, often overlooked but amazing park in South Carolina. Hopefully this Congaree National Park guide is helpful as you make your plans to visit SC!
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