Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

14 Awesome New Skills to Learn in 2024

With a New Year come new possibilities

As we move further into 2024 there are all sorts of opportunities to learn new skills.

Whether you want to become a sommelier or professional photographer there’s a world of new skills out there to master and I’m here to spur your imagination.

This is a list of 14 awesome new skills to learn in 2024.

Here we go!

Photographing birds at Whitewater Draw in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Learn photography

Photography is a lot of fun and it’s also a valuable skill.

Whether you want to start with just learning the basics of snapping better photos on your smartphone or are looking to upgrade to a professional camera, there are many wonderful resources to become a great photographer.

I recommend starting with this list of helpful articles:

2. Start a stamp collection

Nowadays it’s all about text messages and e-mails but back in the day people sent these incredible things called letters. And to send them they used stamps.

Stamps are actually very cool and collecting stamps teaches you so much about history, geography, and the world.

Growing up my uncle got me into stamp collecting and I just loved getting packages of stamps from him and fitting them into the stamp collecting book.

It’s easy to get started in just a few simple steps. You don’t have to buy expensive equipment to enjoy this hobby. Some simple stamp-collecting accessories will serve you well.

You’ll need some stamps to get started but it makes sense to spend more on stamps and a lot less on equipment than vice versa. The basic equipment I recommend includes:

  • A pair of stamp tongs or tweezers
  • Magnifying glass
  • Stamp albums
  • Hinges (small gummed strip that’s used to fix a stamp to the page of an album)
Wine tasting at Black Hills Winery near Oliver, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Become a sommelier

You know what would go down really smooth right now?

A nice, classy, delicious glass of wine! Red, white, rose, you name it!

If you want to take it up a notch, learn the art of being a sommelier, a professional wine taster who is also an expert in pairing wines with food and grading them.

Even if you don’t do it as a job it’s an impressive skill to have.

Are your taste buds tingling? I have some articles on wineries, wine regions, and wine tasting:

Truth BBQ in Brennan, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Start smoking

Another excellent skill to try out is smoking. I don’t mean cigarettes or cigars, of course, I mean food!

Smoking meat is a stupendous skill and the result is mouth-wateringly delicious meats. You will need a smoker but it’s well worth the money and the variety of flavors of smoke you can do is amazing.

You don’t need a decade of practice to get the hang of smoking but it’s more demanding than a round of grilled cheese. First, there’s the heat—you’ll want the temperature low over a long period. And then there’s the smoke—you need to keep it smoking for hours.

In addition to hardwood and charcoal, you’ll also want:

  • A culinary brush used to swab meat with sauce
  • A mop, a tool that looks like a miniature mop that is used to apply sauce
  • A rib rack (if you plan on smoking ribs)

I expect to be invited over later to share in the tasty treats.

Check this out to learn more: Texas BBQ: By Meat Alone

5. Write a blog

Blogs are very rewarding and interesting and almost anyone can write one!

As for the subject matter think about what you love, hate, find funny, or what makes you unique.

Then write, video, and post photos about it on your blog. Readers will start coming and taking a look at what you’re up to.

6. Start journaling

Keeping a journal is something I’ve done for years.

But I will say that the journaling I have done has been rewarding and helped me get my thoughts in order. There’s just something about getting your words on the page that helps clarify various situations, thoughts, and even dreams.

Here are some tips for starting and keeping a journal.

7. Find inner peace

Inner peace is underrated. When you feel good about yourself many things fall into place and even those aspects of life which are kicking your ass stop crushing you so badly.

You get back in the driver’s seat of life refocus on what’s in your control and rediscover that inner peace that’s so vital to survival and thriving.

Inner peace is a skill we could all use more of, 100 percent.

Take up knitting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Knitting

Knitting is nifty and you can learn it in no time flat.

Whether you embark on an ambitious project like knitting a sweater or something simpler like a small scarf, knitting is an enjoyable and absorbing activity. Try out knitting and see how it goes.

9. Become a biker

One of the best exercises you can do is bicycling. For less than you think you can be outfitted with a mountain or road bike, a helmet, and a nifty backpack to go on short trips.

Then head out into the fresh air and enjoy our beautiful planet.

Get started with cycling today.

10. Practice better planning

Planning is a skill that ties all sorts of other skills together. When you get better at planning you get better at…well…everything.

There are simple things like keeping an agenda, various online scheduling tools, making a vision board, and more but there are also techniques and mindsets which will help you plan more consistently in your life.

Here’s an excellent guide on planning a cross-country road trip.

11. Pick up healthy habits for longevity

Having a few good days is enjoyable but having a life of healthy habits can add years to your longevity and make the time you have on our planet all the more amazing.

Picking up healthy habits for longevity isn’t just about exercise, a healthy diet, and breathing well, either. It’s also about healing and owning those difficult emotions and experiences that challenge us in life and optimizing our mental and emotional health.

Let’s call this self-actualization.

12. Learn to canoe or kayak

If you want to learn to canoe or kayak your best bet is to go to an outdoors or boating store and see if they offer lessons and rentals.

By the way, I have a post on Exploring National Water Trails.

Horseback riding in Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Learn to ride a horse

Equestrian sports are an excellent hobby although they can add up in price.

Having said that, going for a trail ride and learning basic horse riding is not necessarily that expensive. If you have a love of the outdoors and have always hankered to try out horse riding there are all sorts of opportunities to try it out and see what you think.

Look for a paddock near you that offers trail rides.

Spend time in nature © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Spend time in nature

There’s nothing quite as healing and spiritually revivifying as spending time in the great outdoors. Listening to the loons out on the lake and contemplating the horizon or walking a quiet forest trail as shafts of sunlight danced between the trees has a kind of magic that nothing else can match.

Nature has been linked with the divine and with spiritual regeneration since the earliest days of humankind and it’s still a place of refuge and peace every day for people all across the world.

As Taoism founder Lao Tzu put it: Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

An amazing insight for all of us to ponder!

Worth Pondering…

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

—Les Brown

Camping, Hiking, Biking, Canoeing, and More at Shenandoah River State Park

About five miles of shoreline border the South Fork of the Shenandoah River

The Park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. The park opened in June 1999. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east.

A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Twelve riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are nine river access points that enable visitors to reach the Shenandoah River. These are all good spots for fishing and tubing. If you wish to swim or put a canoe or kayak on the water, there is a boat launch near the trailhead for the Hemlock Hollow Trail and the massive picnic area. Many visitors also drop their inflatable tubes in at the boat launch. In the picnic area, there are three large picnic shelters and plenty of picnic tables.

With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure. Expansive views of the river and valley can be seen from high points along the trails.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain biking seems to be growing in popularity. While truly advanced cyclists might find the trail system more fun than challenge, new and intermediate riders can find easy, flat routes by the river along with moderate hills and the occasional lactate-searing climb (a cycling term meaning the fastest pace you can maintain).

Here are five of most popular hikes at Shenandoah River State Park. Every one of these hikes rewards with river, mountain, even forest views.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redtail Ridge Trail: This scenic 3.7-mile loop cobbles together three park trails—Big Oak, Redtail Ridge, and Tulip Poplar—plus a connector trail, to create a pleasing walk in the woods. The red-blazed Redtail Ridge Trail is the most scenic of the paths wowing visitors with three west-facing river overlooks. There are comfy benches, too. 

Culler’s Overlook: The hike to Culler’s Overlook is a winner thanks to spectacular views across Massanutten Mountain as well as the Shenandoah Valley. Savor the vistas and read up on Everett Cullers and the role he played in creation of the park. To reach Culler’s Overlook, take the Hemlock Hollow Trail to the Overlook Trail. You’ll pass the visitor center then it’s on to the wooden overlook.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Trail & Wildcat Ledge: The easy hike along the Cottonwood Trail leads to a delightful slice of boardwalk trail. There are open clearing views as well as vistas of Massanutten Mountain. As you close the boardwalk loop, look left for the Wildcat Ledge Trail. This narrow, rocky trail is short, but it’s steep. The Wildcat Ledge Trail ascends to a largely unobstructed view of the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah Valley. Settle in on a rocky outcrop for the vistas.

Bear Bottom Loop & River Trail: This scenic hike cobbles together the Bear Bottom Loop Trail, Shale Barrens Trail, Culler’s Trail, and River Trail for a 6.9-mile trek across Shenandoah River State Park. This loop begins as a long walk in the woods. It’s beautiful, quiet, and shady thanks to an abundance of leafy trees. You’ll walk alongside the Shenandoah River. Stop for river views or a rest on a wooden bench. Keep your eyes open for rafters, tubers and kayakers.

Bluebell Trail: The forested one-mile Bluebell Trail is a must in late-March and early-April when visitors are wowed with a lush carpet of iconic bluebells. The blooms last just three weeks but by many accounts they are very much worth the wait. This wooded point-to-point trail set along the Shenandoah River is mostly flat, making it a good pick for families with small children. It’s dog-friendly, too.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available year-round. Shenandoah River’s developed campground has 31 sites with water and 20/30/50-amp electric hookups suitable for tents, popups, and RVs up to 60 feet in length. More than half of the sites have shade. The shaded camp sites are 1-18 while sites 19-31 are in full sun. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers and a coin-operated laundry.

Sites have steel fire-rings for cooking and campfires, picnic tables, and lantern holders. Twenty-six sites are back-in and five are pull-through. Firewood can be purchased on-site for $6 per bundle. The family campground is a short walk from two river access points (for fishing, not for swimming or paddling) as well as the Campground Trail.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the family campground, there is a primitive campground for tents-only on the north side of the park that has 12 canoe-in or walk-in sites. All camp sites offer shade and require a walk on gravel path from the parking lot. There are wagons at the entrance to help transport gear to your site.

At the back of the Right River Campground is a group campground that can accommodate up to 30 people.

Reservations can be made on line or by calling 1-800-933-PARK (7275). All sites are specifically reserved.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other lodging options include three yurts, four camping cabins (bunkhouses), regular cabins, and a lodge. Camping cabins sleep four people by way of two sets of bunk beds. Yurts sleep up to four people by way of one queen-size bed and a twin-size trundle bed. Bring linens for camping cabin and yurt stays. Pets are not allowed in yurts. You can bring pets to camping cabins but you will pay a $10 per night fee.

A non-refundable $5 per transaction fee is charged for overnight site rentals. The fee is directly tied to expenses that support overall facility rentals—credit card fees, 800 number fees, and overnight inventory and reservation system vendor fees. It is charged per reservation and for walk-in stays.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Be sure to bring confirmation letter(s) or reservation number(s) when you check in. If someone else is checking in for you, make sure the person has the reservation number. The number is needed to enter the cabin or lodge. Camping, cabin and lodge guests should also be prepared to show an ID.

Shenandoah River State Park is a good central location for the area’s many activities. Caverns and caves such as Shenandoah Caverns and Luray Caverns make good activities for rainy days. Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive is a short distance away making for a great day trip. The area is also famous for its many vineyards.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Elevation: 547 feet

Park size: 1,619 acres

Trails: 24 miles

Park admission fee: $10/vehicle

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping fee: $40 + $5 transaction fee (Virginia residen); $46 + $5 transaction fee (non-Virginia resident)

Location: The Park is in Warren County, 8 miles south of Front Royal and 15 miles north of Luray. It’s off State Route 340 in Bentonville

Address: 350 Daughter of Stars Drive, Bentonville, VA 22610

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

Camping Activities Guide

Fun things to do while camping

It doesn’t matter how you camp—in a tent or an RV. Camping is an opportunity for serious fun and activities. Moreover, it’s an experience that you can customize for your family’s interests based on the season and where you’re camping.

You don’t have to pack to the hilt to stay entertained. In fact, there are plenty of simple activities for your next family vacation by the lake or in the mountains. 

Here’s my super RVing with Rex Checklist of Camping Activities.

Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Water-based activities

There are tons of exciting things you can do in the water if your campsite is near a lake, seashore, river, pool, or other body of water. Some are very active; others are for lazy relaxing days. Slip on your bathing suit and have some fun in the water—here’s how:

  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Floating or lounging
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Boating
  • Water skiing
  • Tubing
  • Water volleyball or basketball
  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Water balloon fight
Hiking is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Sports-related activities

Not all camping and RV resorts have a full list of amenities. If you’re rustic camping in the wild or you’re somewhere with limited amenities—or maybe just want some more variety—here are some great ideas to stay active with your family:

  • Disc golf (Frisbee golf)
  • Horseshoes
  • Ringtoss
  • Corn Hole
  • Lawn bowling
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Kickball
  • Baseball
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Nature walks
  • Spelunking/caving (make sure you have an experienced guide with you)
  • Capture the Flag
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tag (there are dozens of variations)
  • Red Rover
Combining photography with birdwatching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Nature-related activities

Part of the joy of camping is being closer to nature. Explore the great outdoors more with these activities. Be sure to respect the area where you are. Don’t disturb or damage the wildlife.

  • Birding (bird watching)
  • Animal watching
  • Photography
  • Sketching
  • Catching fireflies
  • Collecting leaves
  • Cataloging rocks
  • Fossil hunting
  • Exploring
  • Search for wild berries, nuts, and other edible plants
  • Watch the sunrise/sunset
  • Camping scavenger hunt
  • Geocaching
Canoeing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Winding down activities

Staying active and enjoying the day is an important part of every camping trip. But you also need to embrace the down time and give your mind and body a rest. Camping to relax and get away from daily stress? Here are some great ways to relax and enjoy the family camping trip:

  • Swing in a hammock
  • Watch the trees blowing in the breeze
  • Listen to nature
  • Take lots of naps
  • Daydream and let your mind wander
  • Float on the water
  • Stargaze
Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Downtime activities

Maybe the kids need some downtime in the tent. Or perhaps someone isn’t feeling well. There could be some unexpected weather that is keeping you indoors.  Of course, you could just be relaxing under the protection of your tent to escape the bugs. There are plenty of things you can do inside the tent or RV either alone or with friends and family:

  • Read books and magazines
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Crafting (knitting, sewing, drawing)
  • Watch movies on portable devices
  • Play on other electronic devices (iPods, iPads, Gameboys, etc.)
  • Make up stories to tell each other
  • Snuggle
Enjoying nature is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Evening activities

The camping trip doesn’t end when the sun sets. A whole slew of activities become available when evening comes and dark settles on the campground. The darkness is a thrilling time while family camping because you’re not dealing with the lights and commotion of the city. Check out these awesome evening activities:

  • Sit around the campfire
  • Sing campfire songs
  • Play a guitar or other instrument
  • Dance around the fire
  • Try out new varieties of s’mores
  • Make colored fire (packages of colored fire crystals or pine cones are sold at many camping supply stores)
  • Make shadow puppets
  • Go for a nighttime walk (with a flashlight, of course)
  • Stargaze
  • Play flashlight tag
  • Play hide and seek in the dark
  • Go for a midnight swim
  • Play glow in the dark bowling. Put glow sticks in 2-liter bottles filled with water. Use a ball to knock them down.
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Play Truth or Dare

Now that you have great ideas for things to do while camping, it’s time to get out there and try them.

Enjoying nature while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related Posts:

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park

Home to the largest old growth hardwood forest in the American southeast

Just a half-hour outside of the state’s capital, Columbia, Congaree National Park is the only national park in South Carolina. Some of the tallest trees on the east coast are located inside Congaree which was named after the Native American tribe that used to reside in the area.

Unlike many hardwood forests, Congaree was largely spared by the lumber industry in the late 1800s and was eventually designated as a national monument and then a national park thanks to the work of preservationists. The terrain includes the forest, the Congaree River, and the floodplain.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is not a swamp but a dynamic river floodplain running through an old-growth forest of naked Cypress trees. When the waters flood in from the adjacent Congaree and Wateree Rivers, nutrients and sediments sweep in with them nourishing the ecosystem that is home to a diverse habitat of birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, insects, and mammals.

The weather in this part of South Carolina can be hot and humid throughout the year. With average highs in the 70s, springtime is one of the park’s most popular times for visitors. In the summertime, temperatures can reach up into the 90s with regular thunderstorms and an average monthly rainfall of 4.5 inches. The rain continues into the fall season, but temperatures typically dip back into the 70s withless humidity. Winters tend to be mild with daily highs in the 50s although snow does occasionally fall in the park. Winter is also the season that Congaree is most likely to flood, making it the slowest season for visitors.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The benefits of traveling during the off-season are astounding. We felt as though we had Congaree to ourselves. We did. We were the only people out there that day in mid-November. And we were mosquito free.

When you get to Congaree National Park, you first want to stop in at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. This is the hub of the park and has a nice-sized parking lot for cars. There is also limited parking for RVs and other oversized vehicles.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, the visitor center has exhibits set up to give visitors some information on the park and you can gather plenty of information by chatting with the friendly rangers here. 

In addition to talking to the rangers, the visitor center as a place to use the restroom, refill water bottles, purchase snacks if needed, grab maps, ask for a Junior Ranger book, and pick up a Self-Guided Boardwalk Tour sheet. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are three ways to take in South Carolina’s only national park. The first is to walk the Boardwalk, a 2.4-mile loop that meanders through stands of massive bald cypress trees with their distinctive knees over creeks that move so slowly they resemble a swamp (but, technically, is not). You’ll stroll past turtles, snakes, alligators, deer, woodpeckers, deer, wild pigs, river otters, and even bobcats—some of which you will see but many of which will be invisibly watching you. Wide, handicapped-accessible, and sturdy, the boardwalk allows exploration without getting dirty, wet, or lost—a bonus for the directionally challenged or parents of young children.

For a bit of adventure, hop off the boardwalk and hike a section of the Sims Trail which runs from just past the Harry Hampton Visitor Center to Weston Lake remaining within the boundaries of the boardwalk the entire time. Challenge yourself even more and hike into the park’s wilderness, an area of nearly 22,000 acres.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With generally flat trails, hiking at Congaree National Park is great for visitors of all skill and age levels. Each of the park’s 10 trails starts at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and ranges in length from 0.3 miles to 11.7 miles.

You’ll find about 25 miles of marked trails but they’re primitive: one of the ways that Congaree National Park maintains a pristine environment for all the senses is by prohibiting power tools that change the nature of the park with their noise and smell. For hikers, this means that when a huge tree falls across the trail, it’s often left there to be climbed over or walked around. Fast-growing plants and vines thanks to the park’s nutrient-rich soil also tend to spill into paths necessitating long pants and proper hiking boots.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An easy way to catch a glimpse of the Congaree River is to hike the Bates Ferry Trail, a just-over-one miler that opened in 2015 at the far eastern end of the park. The shady path leads to the site of Bates Ferry which shuttled travelers across the river for decades.

The third is to take to the water: a marked, 6.6-mile canoe and kayak trail follows Cedar Creek as it twists and turns through the park’s northwestern sector. It’s a safe, but challenging, course, bursting with both low-key natural wonders—silent owls, slithery snakes, champion trees—and a bevy of obstacles that include vines, fallen trees, live trees, more cypress knees, and outstretched limbs. It’s quiet, but not, thanks to the steady hum of birds, insects, frogs, and creatures rustling through dry leaves.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can explore on your own or participate in regularly-scheduled paddles led by the park’s team of rangers who come armed with facts, stories, lore, and history. It’s known, for instance, that runaway slaves set up communities within this unforgiving landscape, living “free” but remaining close to enslaved family members who risked their lives to provide food and clothing until the family could be reunited. Later, during Prohibition, these deep woods attracted bootleggers who found an easy place to hide their stills and thanks to the river transported their moonshine.

If you’re looking for events inside the park, National Park Service rangers coordinate several educational hikes and tours throughout the year. Learn more about owls and other nocturnal animals at the Owl Prowl or take a wilderness canoe tour through the forest to learn more about the park’s flora and fauna. The Audubon Society also leads a birdwatching tour on the second Sunday of every month.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is welcomed (and free) in the park and the riverbank is a glorious natural campsite particularly if you stumble onto a sandbar large enough for your tent. The four-or-so-mile Weston Lake Loop, for instance, leads to a point on Cedar Creek that just happens to be a favorite with river otters. The ten-mile-long River Trail leads to the Congaree River, a curling ribbon of placid water that forms the park’s more than 25-river-mile-long southern border. Along the way, there are sandbars, ancient bluffs, and all manner of wildlife. Camping is also permitted in the high-ground section of the park where an actual campground means you can have a fire.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re camping in an RV as we were, there are a few nearby state parks that have hookups for campers and trailers. Or you may opt to stay at one of the area’s many private RV campgrounds which tend to have more amenities like laundry facilities and pools.

However you choose to experience Congaree National Park, don’t forget to look up. The startlingly tall canopy which changes with the seasons from summer’s green veil to the sunset shades of fall and finally winter’s stark sculpture is remarkable to behold.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 24,180 acres

Date established: November 10, 2003

Location: Central South Carolina

Designations: UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and National Register of Historic Places

Park Elevation: 80 feet to 140 feet

Park entrance fee: Free admission

Recreational visits (2021): 215,181

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reservedA

How the park got its name:  The Park is named after the Congaree People, an American Indian tribe who lived in the area of central South Carolina before it was inhabited by settlers. 

Iconic site in the park: The trails among the Cypress trees. Preserved at Congaree National Park is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the United States. The trees growing in the area are among the tallest in the Eastern U.S. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: The undisputed champion of this park is the elevated Boardwalk Loop stretching 2.4-miles from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center through the forest and its surrounding waterways. Slightly less accessible when covered with water. 

Big adventure: Canoeing or kayaking Cedar Creek provides 15 miles of Congaree Wilderness to visitors where they can explore the primeval old-growth forest from within while viewing various wildlife species such as river otters, birdlife, deer, turtles, armadillos, snakes, and alligators. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know? 

The mosquito meter at the visitor center ranges from “1 – All Clear” to “6 – War Zone!”  You can find the war zone during summer months. 

Until 2003, when Congaree became the first and only national park in South Carolina, it was known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument.

American Indians used the wood from the Cypress trees to make canoes and structures, so much so, that there is very little of this tree left in North America.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within the park are cattle mounds. These mounds were built to allow livestock to climb to higher ground during floods. In 1996 these mounds were added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

At Congaree, you will find one of the most diverse forests in North America with 22 plant communities living in the park.

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Everything You Need for Lake Camping

Summer is prime camping season but if you don’t pick the right destination you may find yourself sweltering in the heat instead of enjoying yourself. That’s why camping near the water is key!

Lake life is where it’s at. Camping near a lake allows for playing at the beach, going fishing, boating, canoeing, or stand-up paddle boarding. Being by the water not only gives you plenty of things to do but also triggers a sense of calm and joy. I love hearing the sound of birds calling or waves hitting the shoreline. And there’s nothing better than ending a beautiful day of RVing with an even more beautiful sunset over the lake.

To prepare for a week of RVing at the lake, there are a few essentials to check off the list to make sure you have a great time while lake camping.

Boating on Lake Okeechobee, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Book early

Waterfront campsites are among the most popular spots at campgrounds. Be sure to book your lake campsite far in advance if you want to guarantee a spot for your RV. Be sure to hit the refresh button often and check for last-minute cancellations at campgrounds. 

Screen room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoo, bugs!

Where there is water, there are typically pesky insects—especially when temperatures heat up. It’s the unfortunate part of camping near a lake or in the woods. It is hard to truly enjoy the outdoors when you’re constantly swatting away unwanted insects. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks are among your worst enemies so come prepared with you anti-insect weapons of choice: bug spray with DEET, permethrin-treated clothes, Thermacell, and a screen room.

Related Article: 6 Scenic Lakes for Camping in the Southwest

Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bug spray: Look for a spray with 25 to 50 percent DEET. Spray every couple of hours especially if you’re using repellent that isn’t waterproof. After a day on the water, douse yourself in bug spray before coming back to the campsite.

Permethrin: Treat your clothing with permethrin a few days before your camping trip for best results. The treatment usually lasts up to five or six washes. The best part is that after you treat your clothes there’s no odor or sticky residue that bug spray often leaves behind. 

Lake Martin near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thermacell: Create your own little forcefield of protection around your campsite by using a Thermacell or two. It works wonders for any outdoor area whether it’s the dock, beach, campsite, or the park. Thermacells run off a butane cartridge which heats up a replaceable mat that’s saturated in a repellent called allethrin which releases into the air to create a protection zone. 

Screened room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Screened room: A screened room is an easy way to create an outdoor space that’s bug-free. It’s basically a large tent with screen walls so that you can still see and feel the outdoors while keeping unwanted pests away. It does take up space so ensure you have room for one when booking a campsite. 

Related Article: 14 of the Most Beautiful Lakes for RV Travel

Fishing at Parker Canyon Lake in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reel in your next big catch

If you’re camping by a lake, be sure to pack your fishing gear. In fact, many RVers choose lake campsites because they want to fish. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors alone or with friends and family. Consider keeping an extra travel rod in the RV in case you forget to pack the fishing gear or end up breaking a rod.

Fishing at Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Telescopic rods are perfect for RVers. The telescope in and out so that they can be a full-sized rod but also collapse to fit inside a backpack for portability. Be sure to have a ready-to-go tackle box filled with a variety of lures including spinners, jigs, bare hooks, crankbaits, spoons, and bobbers. And be sure to swing by the bait shop for minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers, or grubs depending on what you’re fishing for.

If you plan to catch and cook, then be sure to pack a sharp filet knife, cutting board, and your favorite dry batter. If you keep these fish fry essentials in your RV pantry at all times there will be fewer things you need to remember to pack.

Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Safety first with life jackets

When it comes to spending time on the water, safety is always first. If you plan to boat, kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board, a life jacket should always be worn or at least on board.

If you don’t like the bulk of life jackets, there are lower profile vests as well as inflatable vests that inflate upon immersion in water or manually inflate when you pull the inflation handle.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay safe in the sun

While soaking up the sun and having fun, it’s easy to forget about sun protection. Before heading out onto the lake, plan ahead and lather on your sunscreen. A day on the water usually means stronger sun rays due to reflection from the water.

Related Article: 10 Best Campgrounds with Lakes

Lake Mead, Nevada

UV rays can even impact your skin even when swimming in a lake as the rays penetrate through the water. Look for a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and apply it often.

If you’re not vigilant about putting on sunscreen, there are plenty of athletic and outdoor apparel brands with built-in UPF 50+ sun protective clothing. The material is lightweight and breathable while protecting your body from sun exposure.

Lake George, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And don’t forget to protect your noggin and peepers by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. A hat can not only be stylish but also helps block the sun from burning our scalp and ears. Eyes also need protection from sun exposure too. Look for sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection.

Boating (and fishing) on Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get on the water without towing a boat

No lake getaway is complete without a way of getting on the water. When towing isn’t an option because you’re already hauling an RV, there are still other ways to bring a boat with you to the lake. You can paddle around on a lake in a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board. It allows you to fish and explore different areas of the lake that you otherwise can’t experience.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many kayaks can fit through the door of most RVs. Wrap your kayak in a blanket before sliding it in to avoid scuffing up cabinets and walls.

Most toy haulers are perfectly suited for hauling all your water sports equipment. Kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards will easily slide through the ramp door opening. Canoes tend to be longer than kayaks, especially if it’s a tandem, so be sure to measure your canoe before attempting to make it fit in your RV. Another advantage of a toy hauler is that they have hooks on the floor to secure any objects while on the move.

Canoe on a roof rack goes where you go © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to be able to take your kayak to a lake that isn’t within walking distance, you’ll want a roof rack for your toad/tow vehicle. Again, you’ll want to take note of the length of your kayak and how far forward you can secure it onto your roof rack so that there is enough clearance between your RV and kayak when making turns. 

If you don’t want to deal with hauling a kayak or canoe, look into the wide variety of inflatable boats that are available today. From kayaks to stand-up paddle boards, floating docks, and regular tube floats—there are many durable and versatile options to get on the water.

Many inflatable kayaks come in a kit with a carrying case for storage and portability and a manual pump so that you can pump them up anywhere. Since it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fully inflate, consider an electric pump.

Fish Lake, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach Party Essentials

A day at the lake may put you in the mood for a beach party or at least the atmosphere that feels like a beach party.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Must-pack essentials that make your lake day feel more like a party may include:

  • Folding beach wagon to carry all your items for a day at the beach
  • Beach bag to carry additional essentials
  • Sand-free beach towels as a way to mark your home base on the beach and to dry off after a dip in the lake
  • Portable beach chairs that you can place on the shallow shoreline to cool off your toes (ideally one with a cup holder)
  • Cooler to keep your food and drinks perfectly chilled throughout the day (throw in some freeze pops for a summer treat and also to keep items cold)
  • Umbrella or portable beach shade to protect little ones and grownups from the sun
  • Waterproof Bluetooth speaker to blast some Beach Boys or other lake-vibe tunes
  • Beach games like volleyball, water frisbee, water pickle, and velcro ball toss 
Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake camping comes with some preparation work but packing the essentials and planning ahead will help you enjoy your RV getaway even more. After that, relax! You’re on lake time.

Worth Pondering…

It is good to appreciate that life is now. Whatever it offers, little or much, life is now—this day—this hour.

—Charles Macomb Flandrau