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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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