National Park Guides

Stand Among Champions in Congaree National Park

POSTED ON January 17, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Congaree National Park is a breathtaking natural paradise in Central South Carolina and part of the US National Park System. It serves as an incredible habitat for a wide variety of tree species.

The park’s tallest trees are some of the largest and oldest known specimens in the Eastern United States, earning them the title of champion trees. Tourists can explore Weston Lake, hike along boardwalks through the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, and witness some of the highest canopies in the southeastern United States.

Carolina Outdoor Adventures offers guided tours of the Congaree River and its towering trees, as well as Bald Cypress Trees that are indigenous to this region.

Congaree National Park is an incredible place to visit and explore, located only a short drive from the state capital.

With some of the largest intact expanses of old-growth forest in North America, this national park is well worth visiting for anyone who wants to experience the beauty that can be found in its landscape.

So go ahead and marvel at nature’s wonders – Visit Congaree National Park for an unforgettable experience.

Tall Trees in the Jungle

History of Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is a natural wonder with a history as rich and diverse as its towering trees. This southeastern gem, located just a stone’s throw from the state capital, Columbia, offers a unique glimpse into the past and a thriving ecosystem worth visiting.

The history of Congaree National Park dates back thousands of years when Native Americans inhabited the region. The Congaree River, a prominent feature of the park, played a crucial role in their lives, providing sustenance and transportation in this lush landscape.

Congaree Swamp National Monument has been preserving the area’s natural beauty since its establishment in 1976. Now, the park is also home to a variety of cultural and historical sites, including Native American artifacts and pre-Columbian mounds. By exploring these sites, you can uncover the secrets of this ancient land and gain an appreciation for its timeless beauty.

Congaree boasts the largest intact expanse of old bottomland hardwood forest. Here, you’ll find towering trees like bald cypresses and loblolly pines, some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The park’s champion trees stand as a testament to the enduring power of nature.

While exploring the park’s trails and boardwalk loops, you’re likely to encounter a wide array of flora and fauna. North American River Otters frolic in the swampy waters, and the park has earned recognition as an important bird area. The diverse plant life and lush greenery add to the park’s allure, making it a paradise for nature enthusiasts.

Congaree National Park offers a variety of trails, from shorter boardwalk loops to longer trails that take you deeper into the wilderness. These paths guide you through a world of ancient trees and high canopies, providing an immersive experience in this natural habitat.

Whether you’re a history buff or a lover of the great outdoors, Congaree National Park is a must-visit destination. Its unique history, remarkable landscape, and vibrant ecosystem set it apart from other national parks.

Key facts about Congaree National Park

Size: Approximately 26,276 acres (sq mi; 108.0 km2).

Number of Visitors: 215,181 (2021)

Establishment Date: As a national park on November 10, 2003, and as a national monument in 1976.

Number of Hiking Trails: About 11.

Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 48 miles (77 kilometers)

Lowest Point: Congaree River at 80 feet (24 meters) above sea level

Highest Point: Not significant, as the park’s terrain is characterized by relatively flat bottomland hardwood forest and there are no prominent elevations.

Other interesting facts about Congaree National Park

  • Congaree National Park boasts the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Some of the towering trees in this park are over 130 feet (39 meters) tall.
  • The park’s ecosystem relies on periodic flooding from the Congaree River. These floods help maintain the health of the forest by depositing nutrient-rich sediments and promoting biodiversity.
  • Congaree is home to numerous champion trees, including the tallest loblolly pine in the world and the largest American beech tree.
  • The elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail (location) offers a safe and immersive way to explore the swampy areas of the park.
  • Recognized as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, the park is a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 200 species of birds, including the colorful prothonotary warbler.
  • Congaree’s canopy heights are among the tallest in the world, making it a unique destination for those interested in forest ecology.
  • Beyond river otters, the park is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, and the elusive swallow-tailed kite.
  • Spanish moss and resurrection ferns adorn many of the trees, creating an enchanting and otherworldly atmosphere.
  • Due to its relatively remote location, the park offers exceptional stargazing opportunities. It’s a designated Dark Sky Park, making it ideal for astronomy enthusiasts.

Climate and Weather

Weather in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park offers a diverse range of outdoor experiences throughout the year. The park’s climate is typical of the eastern United States, but its lush landscape and unique trails make it stand out among national parks.

Year-Round Oasis at Congaree: Expect a humid subtropical climate when visiting Congaree National Park. The park is open year-round, and each season brings its own charm.

Spring (March to May)

As temperatures begin to rise, spring brings new life to the park. This season offers pleasant weather with temperatures ranging from 10°C to 26°C (50°F to 79°F), making it an ideal time for hiking and canoeing.

Keep an eye out for vibrant plant life and wildlife, as they become more active.

Summer (June to August)

Summer in Congaree National Park can be hot and humid, with temperatures averaging between 21°C and 34°C (70°F to 93°F). It’s a popular time to visit, but expect to share the trails with the most visitors.

The boardwalk trail is a favorite, providing a shaded route through the swampy outlook. Canoeing on Weston Lake is a great way to beat the heat while exploring the park’s waterways.

Fall (September to November)

Fall is a delightful season with comfortable temperatures ranging from 15°C to 28°C (59°F to 82°F). The changing leaves along trails like Sims Trail, Bluff Trail, and King Snake Trail create a picturesque landscape.

This is an ideal time for hiking and animal observation, as they prepare for winter.

Winter (December to February)

While winters in Congaree are mild compared to many parts of the world, temperatures can still drop to 1°C to 15°C (34°F to 59°F). The park staff is on hand to provide guidance on trails such as the Oakridge Trail and other less frequented paths.

Although the park’s vegetation may appear dormant, this season offers a unique perspective on the park.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to go to Congaree National Park will depend on what type of experience you’re looking for.

For a more immersive nature experience, spring or fall are ideal as temperatures are mild and wildlife is active.

If you’re looking to beat the summer heat, consider visiting in late May or early June before temperatures rise too high. Summer months are also excellent for canoeing and kayaking, while winter is perfect for exploring the park’s quieter trails.

Congaree National Park offers a unique scenery that will leave an impression on any nature lover regardless of when you choose to visit.

Recommended Gear for Visiting Congaree National Park

Having the right gear can enhance your experience and keep you comfortable when planning your journey to Congaree National Park.

The park’s unique scenery and changing seasons mean you’ll need to pack accordingly.

Spring

  • Bug Spray and Insect Repellent: Spring brings out the bugs, especially in the swampy areas and along the river. Be sure to pack repellent to ward off those pesky mosquitoes. We have a guide on how to protect yourself from mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches.
  • Hiking Boots: With the weather warming up, it’s a great time to hike the longer trails like the River Trail or Kingsnake Trail. Sturdy hiking boots or shoes are a must for traversing uneven terrain. You can read our guide to choosing the correct hiking boots.

Summer

  • Sun Protection: Summers can be scorching, so don’t forget your sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the sun.
  • Canoeing Gear: Ensure you have the necessary paddling gear, including lifejackets, if you plan to explore Weston Lake.

Fall

  • Layers: Fall temperatures can vary, so bring layers that you can easily add or remove as needed. Check out our guide on how to gear up for the trails.

Winter

  • Warm Clothing: While winters are relatively mild, it can still get chilly. Pack warm clothing, including a jacket, to stay comfortable.
  • Camping Gear: If you’re planning to camp, make sure you have the appropriate gear to keep you warm at night.

Year-Round Essentials

  • Water and Snacks: Regardless of the season, it’s essential to stay hydrated and energized while exploring the park’s trails, rivers, and forests. We have some ideas with 25 delicious backpacking food ideas.
  • Navigation Tools: Cell phone reception can be limited in some areas of the park, so consider a map, compass, or GPS device to stay on course. You can find helpful information about the park here.
  • Trash Bags: As with all national parks, “Leave No Trace” principles apply. Bring trash bags to pack out all your garbage.
  • Awareness of Large Animals: Be mindful of the potential presence of animals like feral pigs and feral dogs, especially when camping or hiking on less-traveled trails.
  • Camera: No matter the season, it’s always the perfect time for photography in order to capture your experience.

Remember that Congaree National Park is home to some of the highest canopies and the largest intact expanse of old bottomland hardwood forest. Treat the park with respect and follow the guidance of park rangers.

For more information on visiting Congaree National Park, you can contact the National Park Service. You can also find a wealth of helpful information here.

What To Do in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park offers a world of outdoor activities and natural wonders waiting to be discovered. From camping beneath the tall trees to paddling along the serene Cedar Creek, there’s something for every nature enthusiast.

On land, there are plenty of trails for hiking and backpacking, as well as opportunities to spot diverse animal species in their natural habitat.

Here, we’ll look into the activities you can enjoy in this remarkable park, including camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, backpacking, and more.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking Trail in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is a hiker’s paradise, with more than 48 miles (77 kilometers) of trails. From easy loops to challenging backcountry trails, there’s something for all skill levels here.

For those wanting to take a short hike, the boardwalk loop is an ideal choice. Accessible to all visitors, this trail offers a close-up look at the park’s old-growth forest and champion trees. Other trails include Weston Lake Loop, which passes through diverse forests and wetlands; Bluff Trail, where you can spot some of the tallest trees; taking you deep into the park’s swampy areas.

For those looking for something more challenging, the Kingsnake Trail and Longleaf Trail are excellent choices.

  • Boardwalk Loop Trail: This is a 2.6-mile (4 km) roundtrip, an easily accessible trail that is perfect for all visitors. It offers an up-close look at the park’s old-growth forest, including champion trees and towering loblolly pines. The trail is an excellent introduction to the park’s unique ecosystem. The time to complete this hike is approximately 1-1.5 hours.

Note: This Trail is accessible for all skill levels and starts near the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. You can also download your Digital Boardwalk Tour Guide

  • Cedar Creek Canoe Trail: This marked trail can be explored by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Start at the Cedar Creek Access and end your journey at Bluff Campsite. Time to Complete: Approximately 4-6 hours.

Note: Prior experience in paddling is recommended before attempting this trail.

  • Weston Lake Loop Trail: This is a 4.5-mile (7.2 km) roundtrip moderate trail that passes through a diverse topography of forests and wetlands. Weston Lake offers a picturesque setting, and you may spot various bird species in this Important Bird Area. Time to Complete: Around 2-3 hours.

Note: This trail is perfect for birdwatching and offers a more immersive experience for hikers.

  • Bluff Trail: This is an easy 1.8-mile (2.9 km) round trip trail that takes you deep into the park’s wilderness. You’ll encounter some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States, including cypress trees. Keep an eye out for wildlife and the park’s champion trees. You will need about 2 hours to complete it.

Note: Consider the weather conditions, as parts of the trail may flood during wet seasons.

  • Sims Trail: An easy 3.2 miles (5.1 km) round trip trail that takes you on a journey through the park’s forest and offers a quiet escape from the more crowded areas. You’ll encounter unique flora and fauna along the way. You need about 3-4 hours to complete it.

Note: This trail is less frequented by most visitors, providing a peaceful hiking experience.

  • Oakridge Trail: This is a difficult 7.1 mile (11 km) round trip trail leading into the park’s backcountry. Oakridge Trail allows you to explore the park’s higher ground and offers a different perspective of the forest. Keep an eye out for signs of animals, such as feral pigs and feral dogs. You need about 4-6 hours to complete it.

Note: Be prepared for a longer hike and potentially less shade on this trail.

  • River Trail: This is a difficult 11.1-mile (17 km) round trip trail that runs along the Congaree River, offering beautiful river views and opportunities for fishing. The forest surrounding the trail is home to diverse plant and animal life. You need around 6 hours to complete it.
  • Kingsnake Trail: This is another difficult 12-mile (19 km) round trip trail providing a peaceful hiking experience, often with fewer hikers. You need approximately 6-7 hours to complete it.

Note: Enjoy the solitude and be aware of the possibility of encountering large animals like feral pigs and feral dogs.

  • Longleaf Trail: This is an easy 2.6-mile (4 km) round trip trail that takes you through the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, a unique area within the park. It offers a different perspective on the diverse Congaree scenery. It also connects the Longleaf Campground to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

Note: Enjoy the tranquility of this less-visited trail and be prepared with essentials like bug spray.

  • The Congaree River Blue Trail is a 50-mile (80 km) paddling route that can be explored by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. It takes you through the river, providing beautiful views of cypress trees and other stunning scenery. Check out the Trail Map here.

Note: Expect an unpredictable current with the potential for log jams and strainers on this trail

When hiking in Congaree National Park, follow any guidance from a park ranger regarding trail conditions and safety.

Camping

Camping in Congaree National Park offers a chance to immerse yourself in the park’s pristine wilderness and discover the beauty of its old-growth bottomland hardwood forest.

There are two designated campgrounds in the park: Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground, both of which provide unique camping experiences. However, reservations for these frontcountry campgrounds must be made at Recreation.gov through the National Park Service.

  • Longleaf Campground: This is the park’s main camping area. Facilities include a campground kiosk, restrooms, and picnic tables. Additionally, camping is available year-round, and there are 10 individual campsites. Campfires are not allowed; camp stoves are the only permitted cooking method.
  • Bluff Campground: Situated along the Congaree River, Bluff Campground offers a more remote and primitive camping experience. This campground has six individual campsites and is accessible from the Bluff Trail. Campers must obtain a reservation before setting out. Campers should practice Leave No Trace principles and be prepared for a more rustic experience. Fires are not permitted at this campground.

Backcountry Camping

For those seeking a more adventurous experience, Congaree National Park offers backcountry camping opportunities.

Backpackers can explore the park’s remote areas, but they must obtain a backcountry camping permit. This permit ensures that park staff are aware of your plans and can provide essential safety information.

Check out some Backcountry Camping Information before setting out.

Canoeing and Kayaking

Paddling along the marked Canoe Trail is a must-do activity in the park. You can rent a canoe, or kayak, or bring your own (with proper permits).

Explore the park’s waterways, such as Cedar Creek, admire the towering cypress trees, and get up close to its diverse aquatic life.

Fishing

The Congaree River and Cedar Creek are excellent spots for fishing. Anglers can cast their lines in search of a variety of freshwater fish, including catfish, bream, and bass.

Be sure to have a valid South Carolina fishing license before you start fishing, Check out the fishing regulations here.

Ranger-Led Programs

The National Park Service offers an array of ranger-led programs, including guided hikes, talks, and educational programs. These programs provide valuable insights into the park’s ecology, history, and unique features.

Check with the Harry Hampton Visitor Center or the Schedule of Events page for the latest schedule of ranger-led activities.

Trail in the woods

Birdwatching

Congaree National Park is designated an Important Bird Area due to its diverse avian population. Birdwatchers can spot numerous species, including the colorful prothonotary warbler, barred owls, and herons.

Bring binoculars and a field guide to enhance your birdwatching experience.

Photography and Nature Observation

With its serene waterways, Congaree is a photographer’s dream.

Capture the park’s stunning scenery, unique flora, and fauna during your exploration.

The golden hours between sunrise and sunset offer excellent lighting opportunities.

Where to Stay

Camping within Congaree National Park allows you to fully immerse yourself in the natural surroundings, while nearby towns like Columbia provide additional amenities, dining, and entertainment options. However, consider your preferred level of comfort, budget, and proximity to the park when planning your stay.

Here’s a look at the accommodation options available:

Inside Congaree National Park

  • Camping: The park provides two designated campgrounds for visitors—Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground. These campgrounds offer a chance to experience the park’s natural beauty up close and are ideal for those who want to camp amidst the serene topography.
  • Backcountry Camping: For a more adventurous experience, backcountry camping is available. Obtain a permit from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to explore the remote areas of the park while camping in the wilderness.

Nearby Towns

  1. Columbia, South Carolina (17 miles/27 km from Congaree National Park, via SC-48 E/Bluff Rd.): Columbia (map) offers a range of accommodation options, including hotels, motels, and vacation rentals. You’ll find a variety of choices to suit different budgets and preferences. Staying in Columbia provides easy access to the park while enjoying the amenities of a city.
  2. Cayce, South Carolina (Approximately 20 miles/32 km from the park, via SC-48 E/Bluff Rd): Cayce (map) offers a few lodging options, including hotels and inns. It’s a convenient choice for those who want to stay close to the park while having access to dining and shopping in the town.
  3. Eastover, South Carolina (Approximately 10 miles/16 km from the park, via SC-48 W and Old Bluff Rd.): Eastover (map) is a smaller town with limited accommodation options, including some budget-friendly choices. It’s a quiet and peaceful place to stay if you prefer a more rural setting.
  4. Gaston, South Carolina (Approximately 26 miles/ 41 km from the park, via US-321 N and SC-48 E/Bluff Rd): Gaston (map) offers a few lodging options, mainly small hotels and motels. It’s a good choice for visitors seeking a quieter atmosphere and proximity to Congaree National Park.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Visiting Congaree National Park is an adventure in itself, and reaching this lush oasis in South Carolina is part of the journey.

Here’s how to get there:

By Air

The nearest major airport to Congaree National Park is the Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE), located approximately 23 miles (37 km) northwest of the park via SC-48 W/Bluff Rd. This airport serves as a convenient entry point for travelers coming from various locations.

From Columbia Metropolitan Airport to the Park:

  • Rental Cars: Renting a car at the airport is the most convenient way to reach the park. Many major car rental agencies operate at the airport, offering a range of vehicle options.
  • Shuttle Services: Some hotels in Columbia provide shuttle services to and from the airport. Check with your accommodation to see if this option is available.
  • Rideshare Services: Popular rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft operate in the Columbia area and can take you to Congaree National Park.

Navigating Within Congaree National Park:

Visitor Center: Start your journey at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, which serves as the park’s main hub for information, permits, and guidance from any park ranger. Here, you can obtain permits for camping, backcountry hiking, and guided programs.

Transportation within the Park

  1. Hiking: The best way to explore Congaree National Park is on foot. Routes like the Boardwalk Loop Trail and Weston Lake Loop Trail are easily accessible from the visitor center.
  2. Canoeing and Kayaking: You can either bring your own canoe or kayak or rent one from an outfitter outside the park to navigate the waterways and explore the marked Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.
  3. Bicycling: Bicycles are allowed on certain park roads, but they are not permitted on the boardwalk.

Cypress Trees Rainforest

Conclusion

If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure that combines both natural beauty and human history, Congaree National Park is the perfect destination. From its tall trees to its ancient cypresses, this national park offers something for everyone and is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

So what are you waiting for? Plan your trip today, and let the wonders of Congaree National Park surprise and delight you.

Check out our National Park Guides to find more exciting destinations like this.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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