Located about thirty minutes outside Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, Congaree National Park is one of the nation’s newest national parks, receiving that designation in 2003.
For years, it was locally referred to as Congaree Swamp, but because it doesn’t retain water year-round, it’s technically a floodplain that accepts the overflowing water of the Congaree River, Wateree River, and other tributaries. The floods (which can occur up to 10 times a year) unload rich silt that promotes forest growth. Due to the difficulty of removing trees from this sequestered site the area was never logged.
Accordingly, approximately 90 tree species have reached heights and circumferences found nowhere else in the state, and six trees hold national records.
Trees that hold national titles include laurel oak, loblolly pine, water hickory, swamp tupelo, and sweet gum. Recognized state champions include a chestnut oak, cottonwood, holly, and silver maple. Being able to view a 300 year old loblolly pine that rises 167 feet into the sky is truly extraordinary.
Many of the other record holding trees however are harder to view as they are often far from the commonly used trails. Lightning strikes and harsh storms can change these champion designations.
Overall, Congaree National Park is second only to the Great Smoky Mountains in the total number of tree species in one national park. Congaree has 93 trees on record compared to 151 in the Smokies, despite being only one-tenth of the size of its northerly neighbor.
While the bald cypress doesn’t make an award winning designation, they are still impressive. At Congaree there are bald cypresses with circumferences of 275 feet. Due to the prodigious height of Congaree’s canopy, it is considered one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world and is the largest interconnected swathe of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the country.
Sidling with this forest is also a large assortment of wildlife. Known to live at Congaree are bobcats, deer, feral pigs, coyotes, turkeys, river otters, and armadillos.
Congaree is named after a Native American tribe that once lived in the area but was eradicated by smallpox in the 18th century. It has been designated a national natural landmark, a globally important bird area, and an international biosphere reserve. There are many reasons to walk along Congaree’s elevated boardwalks or it’s ancient forest.
Floods at Congaree National Park
The Congaree River, as previously stated, breaks over its banks about 10 times each year, and floods a significant portion of Congaree National Park. Sounds scary, but it does result in a healthy forest. This also means some, if not most, of the trails can be unapproachable at times. Check the Current Conditions on the Congaree National Park website before visiting to verify trail conditions.
The hiking trails at Congaree National Park meander through one of the most distinctive and arresting topographies in the country. There are 10 hiking trails to revel in, and all but two begin from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
1. Boardwalk Loop Trail
The 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail is the most popular and winning hiking trail in Congaree National Park. It is an easy hike along a raised boardwalk, some of it just above the ground. The trail commences at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is a wooden boardwalk with ramps, no steps, and is entirely accessible by wheelchair.
The loop trail begins along the raised level until it diverges. The raised boardwalk continues to the left while the lower boardwalk begins to the right. There is no difference in which direction to hike. There are benches spaced every couple hundred feet along the Boardwalk Loop Trail.
During heavy rain periods it’s not unusual for the low boardwalk to be under water. Seldom, however, do the floodwaters prevent usage of the high boardwalk, which affords views of the bottomland hardwood and upland pine forest. Seeing the park when it is flooded is singular and worth an individual visit.
The Boardwalk Loop Trail leads to Weston Lake, an oxbow lake formed when the river curled back around on itself creating a U-shaped bend. An overlook allows visitors to see the primitive long-nosed gar (fish), a variety of turtles (including the ill-tempered snapping turtle), and an occasional snake.
2. Bluff Trail
The 1.7-mile Bluff Trail winds around the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The trail begins in the rear of the visitor center, crosses the park entrance road, leads to the Bluff Campground, and returns along a short section of the raised Boardwalk Loop Trail. This is an ideal walk if you want something short and undemanding. The trail passes through a longleaf pine forest with majestically tall straight trees.
3. Longleaf Trail
This 0.6-mile spur trail leads from the Bluff Trail to the Longleaf Campground. The views are primarily those of the Bluff Trail and are mostly used by campers.
4. Sims Trail
This 3-mile trail is the easiest in Congaree National Park. It consists of a flat, wide gravel path, though the gravel is worn to powder. The trail begins on the Bluff Trail near the visitor center, crosses the Boardwalk Loop Trail twice and ends at Cedar Creek in a confluence with the Weston Lake Loop Trail and River Trail. If you want to enjoy a shorter section of the Boardwalk Loop Trail this is the way to go.
5. Weston Lake Loop Trail
This 2.6-mile hiking trail is a favorite way to extend your hiking at Congaree National Park. The trail begins and ends at opposite corners of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. The complete hike along the Boardwalk Loop Trail and Weston Loop Trail is about 4.4 miles.
There’s a good chance that you might see some otters along Cedar Creek. It’s also a productive trail if you’re training for a 10k because if you add in the Bluff Trail it’s exactly 6.2 miles long (10K).
6. Oak Ridge Trail
The 3-mile Oak Ridge Trail is a wonderful place to spot wildlife. It’s a lesser hiked trail and there’s a good chance that you will have the trail to yourself. The trail begins along the River Trail and ends at the Kingsnake Trail.
7. River Trail
Despite the national park being located at the edge of the Congaree River, it’s pretty difficult to actually get to the river. The River Trail begins at Cedar Creek on the Western Lake Loop Trail. You’ll wind through old growth forests before ultimately splitting into a loop and shortly thereafter reaching the Congaree River. About a half-mile segment of the trail tracks along the river. The trail then reverts to its origination point at Cedar Creek. If you begin the hike from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and complete the entire River Trail the distance will be about 10 miles.
8. Kingsnake Trail
At 11.7 miles, this is the longest trail in Congaree National Park. It starts at the Cedar Creek Canoe Launch parking area about 6 miles from the visitor center. Because of the paucity of hikers and scarcity of trees in this area, this trail is the prime spot for birding in the entire park. It is arguably the most tranquil and undisturbed trail in the park.
After traversing a wooden footbridge over Cedar Creek, the first of four footbridges on the trail, the Kingsnake Trail weaves through the most isolated area of the national park. After hiking about 6 miles you will be back at Cedar Creek and then the trail flanks the Weston Lake Loop Trail.
9. Bates Ferry Trail
This is a 2-mile round trip that mirrors an old road that at one time led to a ferry crossing on the Congaree River. It is the least strenuous hike to view the Congaree River in the park. The parking area for the trail is located on Highway 601 about 15 miles from the visitor center.
10. Fork Swamp Trail
This 0.6-mile trail is the park’s newest. It was created in 2017 and provides access to the Fork Swamp area of the park. The trail runs alongside a narrow section of Bates Old River, a large oxbow lake formed by a hurricane in 1852. This is a short trail but a great vantage point for viewing the otters that inhabit the area. The trail entrance is on 601 in the vicinity of the Bates Ferry Trail.
Congaree National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Because the park does not offer much in terms of recreation opportunities it is rarely crowded and provides a “wilderness setting.” There are only two primitive walk-in campgrounds for tents only and a single visitor center. Yet, there’s one other way to explore the park: on the water.
Paddlers can enjoy seeing Congaree National Park from the interior of their watercraft. For starters, there’s the slow-moving Cedar Creek, a blackwater creek that barely crawls its way through the forest. Blackwater is colored by tannins in the water (rather than bacteria) and is actually very clean despite its baleful appearance.
The Congaree River marks the southern boundary of the park, and paddlers can travel on it for more than 25 miles. The best time to paddle is in the winter and early spring when rains boost water levels.
Also not to be missed are the rare and unusual synchronized firefly displays. The mass synchronization has only been documented at a few places such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Congaree’s firefly is the same species as those in the Smokies, but it appears in smaller numbers. These insects are visible usually from late May to early June, blinking in unison and imitating holiday light displays. A call to the rangers station will verify if the spectacle is underway.
While the visitor center is closed at night, the park remains open. Visitors should bring flashlights covered with red cellophane that create less light pollution, making the fireflies more visible. The fireflies can usually be seen from the boardwalk about a quarter of a mile from the visitor center.
Congaree Rangers also lead “owl prowl” walks, big tree hikes, and other excursions.
Good to Know
- Bring mosquito repellant. The entire park is a floodplain and a refuge for mosquitos. April to October is their peak.
- There is limited cell phone reception on the trails so be sure to bring a trail map or a GPS device with preloaded maps.
- Pets are allowed on all trails but must be kept on a leash all the time.
- The Boardwalk Loop Trail is a handicap accessible trail.
- Bring plenty of water. There are no sources of drinkable water on any of the trails or parking areas except for the visitor center.
- All the trails at the park are generally level and easy to hike but it is wise to wear some form of hiking shoes. Most of the trails are rudimentary with sticks, roots, rocks and there are snakes on the trails.
Where to Stay
As we have said, Congaree National Park is not nearly the most secluded national park, but there is also nowhere in the immediate vicinity to spend the night. The campgrounds in the park are for expert, diehard campers. However, within 20 minutes from the park you can reach the Fort Jackson area of Columbia where you will find a Comfort Inn, a Hampton Inn, and a Holiday Inn Express.
Where to Eat
We would recommend heading into Columbia as there is a dearth of restaurants near the park. If you want to try some iconic Columbia restaurants and 21 dishes that you don’t want to miss, then click on to our Food & Drink section where we’ll give you everything you need to know about Columbia classic dining.
Enjoy the Trails!
Getting to Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is by no means remote like some parks (especially in the West) but it is in the archetypal “middle of nowhere.” The entrance to the park is located closest to I-26, but there is no direct route from that interstate to the park. Your best bet is to use a GPS device or an app such as Google Maps but DO NOT USE “Congaree National Park” as your destination. Instead, use the “Harry Hampton Visitor Center.”