As full-time RVers, we are on a quest to see as many National Parks as we can. This means traveling to the big names and most popular parks, as well as the ones with less notoriety. What we have found is that even the smaller, less visited parks have surprised us. It is easy for parks like Congaree National Park to be overshadowed, but it is full of unique features that make it worthwhile to explore if you get the chance to make your way to the rich history and temperate climate of the southeastern United States. In this article, we break down the Congaree National Park Trails you don’t want to miss and help you plan your journey to the last of an ancient, floodplain forest.
About Congaree National Park
South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is a unique and diverse wilderness that preserves one of the largest intact expanses of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States, with 11,000 acres left after 35 million acres were lost as trees were cut and floodplains drained.
Covering an area of over 26,000 acres, the park is characterized by towering trees, scenic waterways, and an abundance of wildlife. Congaree National Park is home to some of the tallest trees in the state, on the East Coast, and even in the nation. Dubbed champion trees, you can find a variety of these towering trees, including pawpaw, loblolly pines, and sweetgum.
One of 8 National Parks in the Southeastern United States, the park’s diverse ecosystem provides a habitat for numerous species, including white-tailed deer, river otters, barred owls, and the pileated woodpecker. When visiting Congaree National Park you can explore the park’s extensive network of trails, paddle along the Congaree River, go birdwatching, or participate in ranger-led programs to learn about the unique natural and cultural history of the area.
Whether you are seeking solitude in nature, want to immerse yourself in a lush forest, or simply enjoy outdoor activities, Congaree National Park offers a serene and captivating experience.
- Great place to start your visit: Harry Hampton Visitor Center
- Two Park Sections: The floodplain and the uplands
- Best Time to Visit: We loved visiting in the winter months, as the weather was mild and the crowds were small. Spring, early summer, and fall would also be great times to visit. Summer can be hot and humid, and while we did not experience bugs during our visit in February, you will most likely want insect repellent if you visit in the warmer months, with mosquitos being highest in the summer months where temperatures can reach 90s-100. Winter and early spring are most likely to be impacted by flooding and trail closures, so definitely check before visiting. You may want to consider a trip in the cooler, drier fall season (October-November) where flooding and damage are less likely and bugs should be less of an issue.
Congaree National Park is located not far from South Carolina’s state capitol, making it convenient to plenty of civilization, even though it feels fairly remote when you are lost among the towering trees!
- Distance from downtown Columbia South Carolina: 18.5 miles, 30 minutes
- Distance from Columbia Metropolitan Airport: 24.5 miles, 32 minutes
Congaree National Park may be a small park run by the National Park Service compared to other more popular parks. Still, it offers a lot to learn about the unique ecosystem preserved within its boundaries!
Park Hours: Open Daily, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Harry Hampton Visitor Center Hours: Open daily 9am-5pm, with the exception of New Year’s Day, President’s Day, Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Cost: FREE; no entrance pass or entry fee required
Pets: Dogs are allowed on all trails in Congaree National Park!
Parking: The main parking area is a large lot located on National Park Road directly in front of the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. From here you can access many of the park’s trails. As park visitation is increasing, this parking lot can fill up early in the busier seasons, so try to arrive early! There are also additional parking lots at the Bates Ferry Trail and Fork Swamp Trail.
What Makes Congaree National Park The Perfect Spot for Hikers & Nature Lovers
Congaree National Park is a haven for hikers and nature lovers, providing a remarkable experience with its distinctive tree species and captivating landscapes. The park’s old growth bottomland hardwood forest is a treasure trove of biodiversity. Towering above the forest floor, the loblolly pines command attention with their impressive height and sturdy trunks. These majestic pines are a defining feature of the park and create a unique vertical dimension to the forest.
Another notable tree species in Congaree National Park is the tupelo tree, particularly the water tupelo. These majestic trees thrive in the park’s wetlands and are easily recognizable by their broad crowns and distinctive swollen trunks. The tupelo trees provide essential habitat for a variety of wildlife, including birds, amphibians, and insects.
Adding to the park’s enchantment are the majestic bald cypress trees, standing tall with their characteristically knobby roots, known as cypress knees. These ancient giants dominate the park’s floodplains and create a mystical atmosphere. The bald cypress trees are well-adapted to thrive in the park’s wet conditions and provide important nesting sites for various bird species.
The presence of these unique tree species contributes to the exceptional beauty and ecological significance of Congaree National Park. Exploring the park’s trails allows hikers to immerse themselves in the wonders of the old-growth forest, appreciating the grandeur of the loblolly pines, the serenity of the tupelo trees, and the ancient wisdom embodied by the bald cypress trees and their intriguing cypress knees. Congaree National Park truly stands as a testament to the diverse and remarkable flora that thrives in this protected sanctuary.
With thousands of birds who migrate through the park or stay the winter in the Congaree International Biosphere Region, the park is also a true bird lover’s paradise where you can spend hours looking for birds and other species of wildlife in their natural habitat.
Congaree National Park offers a unique combination of ancient trees, diverse wildlife, and serene trails, making it an unforgettable destination for those seeking to connect with nature.
Best Trails in Congaree National Park
With 25 miles of trails, including 2.4 miles of boardwalk, there is plenty to explore! We hike around 1,000 miles a year in all different types of parks and terrain. Here are some of our favorite Congaree National Park trails:
Boardwalk Loop Trail
One of the most popular trails in the park, the Boardwalk Loop Trail is an elevated boardwalk that takes you into the heart of Congaree’s swamp, where you can immerse yourself in the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest and catch a glimpse of the life that calls it home. The trail is fun, easy to navigate, and offers some of the best views of the unique trees that call this park home.
- Distance: 2.3 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 13 feet
- Estimated Duration: 40 minutes- 1 hour
Weston Lake Loop Trail
The Weston Lake Loop trail offers great views of Cedar Creek and Weston Lake. You can check out Wise Lake while doing this loop as well, which offers a peaceful place to look for wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any river otters during our visit (most likely due to flooding), but this trail would be a great place to spot them!
- Distance: 4.7 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 16 feet
- Estimated Duration: 1.5 hours
After spending time in the dense, old, flooded forest the Bluff Trail offers a stark contradiction. Rather than the moss-covered towering trees and lake forests, the Bluff Trail takes you through a young new forest in the uplands section of the park, featuring Loblolly Pines and Longleaf Pines.
The tall trees are much more sparse, and along the trail, you will see plenty of young seedlings sprouting, protected by controlled burns to keep the fast-growing hardwood trees from taking over. This is part of a conservation effort that aims to bring back rare animals and plants, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. This trail also leads to the more remote Bluff Campground!
- Distance: 2.1 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 19 feet
- Estimated Duration: 30-45 minutes
This is mostly a gravel trail, that starts up where the Boardwalk Trail begins, but also connects to the Weston Lake Trail and can be used to explore further along the Oakridge Trail and River Trail. We recommend taking the Boardwalk trail in order to appreciate all of the Bald Cypress trees and unique cypress knees, but the Sims trail offers a great alternative and different perspective when looping back to the Visitor Center after making it down to the intersection of Cedar Creek and Wise Lake.
- Distance: 3.0 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 16 feet
- Estimated Duration: 45 minutes – 1 hour
A loop trail that takes you out to and then along a section where you can get a glimpse of the Congaree River. This is one of the longer trails in the park and falls into a section of the park that is likely to be impacted by winter and early spring flooding. During our visit in February, we started to hike out toward the River Trail, but found the trail to be flooded and impassible.
- Distance: 9.9 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 45 feet
- Estimated Duration: 3 hours
This trail is longer if you hike out to it from the Visitor Center, rather than stating it as an out-and-back trail from the South Cedar Creek Parking area and canoe launch. Also prone to flooding from Cedar Creek and impacted by downed trees, this trail may be best enjoyed during the summer or fall months. We hiked out to the start of the trail, where it meets with the Weston Lake Trail, but opted to loop back and check out the drier Bluff Trail on the north section of the park away from the floodplain.
When it is dry, this would be a great place to observe wildlife and get totally immersed in an enchanted forest atmosphere.
- Distance: 7.6 miles out and back
- Elevation Gain: 13 feet
- Estimated Duration: 2 hours
This is another longer trail option in the park that includes boardwalk sections and takes you into more remote areas, where you may be more likely to enjoy more peace and solitude in the company of enormous trees, a variety of wildlife, and forest lakes. This trail was also flooded during our winter visit.
- Distance: 6.7 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 16 feet
- Estimated Duration: 2 hours
Design Your Adventure
Longest trails in the park: River Trail, Kingsnake Trail, and Oakridge Trail will bring you on the longest excursions into more remote areas of the park. Further into the park, you may be more likely to see additional wildlife, but could also run into more overgrown and muddy conditions, depending on flooding and the time of year.
Easy trails: Most trails in Congaree National Park are easy, with limited elevation gain and generally flat even terrain. Many trails also feature some well-placed boardwalk sections. The top easy trails include the Boardwalk Trail and the Weston Lake Loop Trail.
Short trails: Boardwalk Loop Trail, Firefly Trail, Bluff Trail, and Weston Loop Trail. Fork Swamp Trail is also a short option (0.6 miles), but many have reported that it is overgrown and requires a lot of bushwhacking
In addition to stopping by the Visitor Center for a trail map, we also use AllTrails to help us with all of our National Park adventures and beyond!
Congaree National Park Hiking Tips:
- Water levels can vary and flooding is common after rains and during the rainy season. This can wash away sections of trails and bridges or boardwalks and lead to trail closures. Check with the Park Rangers at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center about trail conditions before heading out on any trail. They will have helpful trail maps, as well as a large trail map with any affected trails highlighted for easy route planning.
- Due to wet and potentially buggy conditions (depending on the time of your visit, with warmer summer months having higher mosquito activity), we recommend waterproof or water-resistant shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy, trekking poles if you want to feel a bit more sturdy in remote sections of the park, and insect repellent or clothing treated with an insect repellent such as permethrin.
You can see a lot of the park with only a day trip (whether that is a full day or even just a half day) to Congaree National Park. The following is an example hiking itinerary that will take you on a large loop through the park!
Our simple 1-day Itinerary:
- Stop at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to check on trail conditions and learn about the park and its unique ecosystem through interactive displays and an educational film
- Start on the Boardwalk Loop, venturing over flooded areas of Bald Cypress trees and Water Tupelos, and keep an eye out for different bird species making their homes overhead
- Hop on Sims Trail down to Wise Lake
- Connect over to Weston Lake Trail Loop
- Hop back on the Boardwalk Loop Trail, making your way back to the Visitor Center via the Firefly Trail if you want a change of scenery (this is where the synchronous fireflies can be seen in May/June)
- Loop onto the Bluff Trail and venture through a young forest of Loblolly Pines and Longleaf Pines that is fed by fire rather than floods, before returning back to the Visitor Center Parking Lot
Other Popular Congaree National Park Activities
Congaree National Park offers an array of attractions and activities beyond hiking and nature exploration. The park’s diverse waterways provide an excellent opportunity for canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts. Navigating through the serene waters of the Congaree River or exploring the park’s meandering creeks and sloughs allows visitors to immerse themselves in the peaceful beauty of the park from a different perspective.
Canoeing and kayaking in Congaree National Park offer a tranquil and immersive experience, allowing adventurers to witness the park’s vibrant ecosystem up close and encounter wildlife in their natural habitat.
Another unique attraction at Congaree National Park is the mesmerizing synchronous firefly display. During a short window of each year, these special fireflies in the park synchronize their flashing patterns, creating a magical spectacle of twinkling lights in the forest. The synchronous firefly viewing draws visitors from near and far to witness this enchanting natural phenomenon.
- Canoeing and kayaking on the Congaree River or Cedar Creek, with designated paddling trails
- Congaree River Blue Trail: 50-mile designated paddling trail stretching from Columbia to Conagree National Park. Learn more about this recreational aquatic trail on the NPS website.
- The park also has 2 boat launches: South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing & Bannister Bridge Canoe Landing
- Synchronous Firefly Viewing (typically the end of May to early June each year): Due to high demand, this event requires a reservation via a lottery. Applicants require a $1 fee for applying to the lottery and then are charged an additional cost of $24 for the tickets if they are selected. Check out the NPS for more information about dates, the lottery, and park closures during the event.
Fulfilling Travel Tips
As you can see by the trails we were unable to hike during our trip to Congaree National Park, the time of your visit can really impact how much of the park you are able to see.
Our biggest tip for visiting Congaree National Park is to select the time of your visit carefully. If you are able to be a bit more flexible, you may want to check conditions prior to visiting.
We found the winter months quiet and still full of wildlife while being free from pesky insects and mosquitos. This being said, we visited during the flood season, and many of the trails were closed or impassable due to the Congaree River and Cedar Creek overflowing. This leads to animals like river otters and larger animals moving out, so we didn’t see some staples of the park (deer, otters, hogs, etc.).
We still had a great visit and were able to get a great feel for the park and see much of what we had hoped to, barring some of the more remote sections of the park (although most of the park felt remote due to low visitation).
While we would love to see the synchronous fireflies, if we were to return we may opt for a visit during the milder fall season (October or November). Ideally before the flooding and after the mosquitos have died down for the year.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK
Entry into Congaree National Park does NOT require an entrance fee:
- Cost: Free
- If you are planning to visit other parks in the Southeast or beyond, there will most likely be an entrance fee, and National Park Passes will be accepted and are a great way to save money if you plan to visit 3 or more parks in a year
One of the best ways to visit Congaree National Park is by camping right in nature!
Conagree National Park Campgrounds
- Longleaf campground (walk-up sites not far from the Visitor Center)
- Bluff Hike In Camping (Bluff Campground – frontcountry camping with a more backcountry feel)
- Backcountry Camping: Camping in the park that can be reached by foot or by canoe or kayak. The NPS states: “Campers may select any suitable place, as long as they remain 100 feet away from Cedar Creek, Tom’s Creek, Bates Old River, and Wise Lake When requesting a backcountry camping permit, applications should be be made at least 72 hours in advance. To obtain a permit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Other Area Accommodations:
Finding private campgrounds and RV parks outside of Congaree National Park can be a bit tough, especially if you have a larger rig. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
We chose to stay at Big RIg Friendly RV Park in Columbia, due to its proximity to the park. We typically prefer State Parks or boondocking, but have had to be a bit more flexible while exploring the East Coast.
RV Rentals: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
You can explore all Congaree National Park area accommodations, including hotels and private rentals, and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for high-quality and unique stays at the best rates.
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Looking for more fun on the East Coast?