I have been working in the education sector for the past 15 years. Currently, I serve as the vice principal of a junior high school in Modesto, California but I grew up in Lexington, South Carolina not too far from Congaree National Park (it was called Congaree Swamp National Monument when I was a kid).
My parents always invested time and energy into traveling around the Southeast and beyond. They took me on some fantastic local trips. During that time, I grew a passion for photography. My mom still lives close to Congaree National Park – so anytime I visit her I visit the national park.
Why Congaree National Park should be on your Bucket List
I like to explore the park at various times of the day and year. Each season and time offers a chance to see different types of flora and fauna. I spent a lot of time in Congaree in December, 2020 – making five separate morning and afternoon trips. On each of these visits, the park was becoming more and more covered in water due to it being a vast floodplain.
The most popular walk/hike of Congaree is the Boardwalk Loop Trail. It encompasses two miles of trail through dense forest. The boardwalk has been designed so half of the walk is above the floodplain and the other half is on ground level. Oftentimes, the lower boardwalk is submerged in water.
There have been a couple of times when I have ventured out onto the path when the water was only a couple of inches higher than the boardwalk. It’s fascinating to see fish swimming above the boardwalk in a dense forest.
One of the greatest highlights of the park – besides being the largest and one of the last remaining tracts of old growth bottomland hardwood forests in the US – are the amounts of birds and wildlife which you can discover. Owls, otters, herons, hogs, deer, gar, fireflies, snakes, lizards and squirrels are just a few of the species one can encounter.
Congaree is an intimate place. It’s only around 27,000 acres (Everglades National Park is 1.5 million acres). So it’s easy to become attached to all parts of the park. For those seeking solace, the backcountry is the way to go. Kayaking is popular and offers an outstanding fish-eye view from Cedar Creek. If you want the boardwalk, you will see many visitors but it’s worth it!
5 Best Things To Do in Congaree National Park
Visitors wanting to experience the best of Congaree can look forward to the following experiences. There is something for everyone, including the kids!
- Birdwatching: Birds are abundant in this national park. The rangers and staff in the visitor center can give you a wonderful overview of what bird species to find. Keep an eye out for owls, herons and more.
- Kayaking: It’s always fun taking a kayak out on the beautiful Cedar Creek and going for a paddle. No matter the season, this is an awesome activity. Just be sure to dress appropriately for those colder months.
- Boardwalk Loop Trail: Take this stunning 2.4-mile hike through a cypress-tupelo flat all the way to Weston Lake. If you want to deviate from the loop trail a bit, continue down Sims Trail to Wise Lake.
- Junior Ranger Program: This program is a wonderful way to immerse children in the park and help them connect with the biodiversity on offer. Head to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and pick up an activity book. Upon completion, kids will receive a Junior Ranger badge.
- Fireflies Festival: In the early summer, visitors have the chance to experience the Fireflies Festival in Congaree National Park. You will have to check whether or not the festival will be held in 2021 and beyond (due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic) but it’s always a fun time.
Accommodation Options for Congaree National Park
Congaree has camping options available. The two campgrounds – Longleaf and Bluff – require reservations in order to go camping. If visitors want to camp in the backcountry then they must have a valid permit issued by the park and must follow guidelines for Leave No Trace. For people who don’t want to camp, Columbia is just a short drive away. Hotels include:
- Hilton Columbia Center ($$$$)
- Aloft Downtown Columbia ($$$$)
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Columbia Greystone ($$$)
- Hampton Inn & Suites Columbia/Southeast-Ft. Jackson ($$$)
- Home2 Suites by Hilton Columbia Harbison ($$)
- Hampton Inn Columbia I-26/Harbison Blvd ($$)
- Country Hearth Inn & Suites Cayce / Columbia ($)
Columbia, South Carolina has many fantastic hotel and dining options. Pre-pandemic, Gervais Street Vista was full of nightlife and dining. Located not far from the Vista is the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina State Museum, EdVenture Children’s Museum and Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. All wonderful additions to your trip to Congaree National Park.
Exploring more of South Carolina
The best part about South Carolina is that it’s a small state. Therefore, going to Congaree National Park places travelers close to the geographic center of the state. If you are a person who loves national park sites then lands managed by the NPS in South Carolina are the following ones below.
Some of the best include: Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Cowpens National Battlefield, Kings Mountain National Military Park, Ninety Six National Historic Site and Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.
Riverbanks Zoo also offers a wonderful botanical garden with a great trail that leads from the main zoo up to the garden. It passes Civil War sites. Lake Murray Dam is a popular boat launching and picnicking area not far from Columbia. Overall, if you are in South Carolina, be sure to make time for Charleston and Beaufort on the coast and Greenville in the Northwest.
Need to Know Before you Go
- Mosquitoes can be intense in summer. Bring organic insect spray (do not bring chemicals as it could damage the ecosystem).
- South Carolina is a rainy state in general. Weather can change instantly and without warning. Be prepared for afternoon summer storms and for the national park to be underwater at times.
- Congaree National Park has limited cell phone service. Always let others know about your travel plans just in case of an emergency.
- The park has boundaries against private property. Do not wander onto property that goes beyond the boundaries.
- Snakes are abundant in the summer. Take caution while walking the trails. They will come onto the boardwalk, as well.
- Leave no trace. Take out whatever you brought into the park.
- Do not collect plants, animals, artifacts or anything else from the park. It’s a federal crime to remove anything – from soil and rocks to animals.
- Enjoy Congaree National Park. It’s a beautiful and intimate place!
In conclusion, Congaree is special to me because my father took me there so much as a child. It was one of the last places I went with him before he passed away. This park will always hold a special place in my heart not just because of the beauty but also because of the memories I have. Thanks for reading and enjoy your visit to Congaree National Park!