Congaree National Park, outside of Columbia, South Carolina is home to the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. If you are not an arborist and don’t specialize in forestry, here is what that means in simpler terms: Congaree is a forest swamp along a river that is flooded all or part of the year. The forest is filled with trees such as bald cypress and water tupelo that are able to survive in flooded conditions. Visiting Congaree National Park can be disastrous if you’re not prepared, but I’ll let you know what to do so you can have a great trip.
Why You Should Visit Congaree
Now, if you are like me, thinking, “What makes a swamp forest so special?” I’ll tell you, it’s the size of the trees and the biodiversity that exists within it. The cypress trees here are some of the tallest in the nation. They don’t compare to the sequoias or redwoods, but these giant cypress trees are still pretty amazing. I also love the look of their tapered trunks coming out of the water.
This park is also home to a wide range of wildlife, including a variety of birds and fish as well as wild boar, bobcats, and river otters, just to name a few. While we were visiting, we got to see a huge pileated woodpecker, several turtles, and just missed a wild boar according to some hikers we passed on a trail.
When to Visit
John and I visited the park in mid April. The weather was perfect. We were worried because we read about how hot and humid it can get. John went to college in Columbia and will attest to how stinking hot it can get! A few days before we arrived the area got a lot of rain, bringing cooler weather (but very muddy trails). According to the park service, the best times to visit are spring and fall. Specifically, March-May and September-November. During these months the weather is generally cooler. It is also not as humid and the insects aren’t out in full force.
The temperature were in the mid-to-upper 60s when we visited—even cooler than we expected and there was no humidity. We also didn’t encounter any mosquitos during our hike, a very unexpected bonus! I wouldn’t recommend visiting the park without bringing bug repellent regardless of when you plan on visiting. This is one of our favorite bug sprays. John swears by it, and the bugs love him so he would know! I’d also recommend lightweight long sleeves and long pants to help save you from bug bites as well. We used this clothing spray while we were in New England, since lyme disease from ticks is so prevalent there. It worked really well and didn’t stain our clothes.
Things To Do While Visiting Congaree National Park
This park is fun to explore on foot or by boat. There are over 25 miles of hiking trails in Congaree National Park and the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail which extends through 15 miles of the park to the Congaree River. The park has several different canoe trip ideas available here with distances and approximate times to make planning easier.
Before heading out on your hike, make sure to have plenty of water. The heat and humidity can really sneak up on you. Also make sure you have a sturdy and water resistant or waterproof hiking shoes. This is a swamp and the trails can be very muddy. I absolutely love my Ahnu hiking boots. They are so light weight, totally waterproof, and got me through the trails without any problems.
Boardwalk Loop Trail
Since John and I were only visiting for a day, we decided to stick to the land and do some hiking. All trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, which is really convenient. Congaree’s Boardwalk Loop Trail is 2.4 miles long and the whole trail is on a wooden boardwalk. This trail is easy to walk and you get excellent views of the swamplands from the boardwalk. There are also several benches along the way if you get tired.
Oak Ridge Trail
John and I decided to hike the Oak Ridge Trail after talking to some park rangers for recommendations. Both rangers we spoke to said this was their favorite trail and the one that would allow us the most bang for our buck as far as seeing wildlife and truly understanding what makes Congaree National Park great.
This trail is a 7 mile loop that passes through old-growth forests and low lying sloughs. It was VERY muddy the day we went, but this trail took us through different forest ecosystems which were cool to see. Unfortunately, we had to turn around about halfway through because the trail was still flooded and impassable from storms earlier in the week.
Since we had to cut our hike short, we went back to the visitor center the long way, so we could check out the whole boardwalk loop. Whether you are planning on doing additional hiking or not, I would recommend walking the entire Boarwalk Loop Trail at some point during your visit.
Where to Stay When Visiting Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park has two small and primitive front country campgrounds: Longleaf and Bluff. Both only allow tents (no RVs or trailers). Neither have running water. Bluff Campground does not have restroom facilities (Longleaf has vault toilets). Congaree also allows backcountry camping but there are no designated campsites, you just have to stay 100 feet from creeks, rivers and lakes.
We stayed with family in Columbia, South Carolina, while we were visiting. It was an easy drive into the park from there and saved us the hassle of lugging out our tent for a night. If you are set on camping, there are several state parks in the region that allow RVs and trailers.
Have you visited Congaree National Park? Let us know what you thought of it or if you have a favorite trail!
If you love national parks as much as we do, you might like some of our other national park related posts. Check them out below!
24 Hours in Everglades National Park
Top 5 Things to Do: Big Bend National Park
The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Winter