Congaree National Park: The Complete Guide

Congaree National Park
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Congaree National Park

Address
100 National Park Rd, Hopkins, SC 29061, USA
Phone +1 803-776-4396

One of the country's smallest and newest national parks, the 26,276-acre Congaree National Park in central South Carolina is a hidden gem. Just 18 miles southeast of the state's capital, Columbia, the park contains the country's largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest and one of the world's largest concentrations of champion trees, including a 167-foot loblolly pine and 500-year-old cypress trees. With 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of boardwalk, visitors can hike or paddle through deep forests, wetlands, and lakes to spot mammals, reptiles, birds, and other creatures who make their home here. Congaree is also one of the country's most dog-friendly national parks, with dogs allowed on all trails and overnight campgrounds. Plan your hikes, kayaking route, and overnight stay with this guide.

Things to Do

Just a 30-minute drive from downtown Columbia, Congaree State Park is easily explored in a half-day or overnight stay. The scenic 25 miles of hiking trails here will bring you deep into a hardwood forest of pine and cypress forest and over boardwalks along marshlands, by a serene lake, and to scenic views of the park's namesake river.

Paddle or float along river trails to see wildlife like songbirds and waterfowl up close, stop into the Visitor Center for exhibits on the area's history and unique biodiversity, or stay overnight in one of two on-site campgrounds. The park also has picnic shelters, a bookstore, and fishing access at several creeks and rivers.

Best Hikes & Trails

  • Boardwalk Loop Trail: This stroller and wheelchair-friendly 2.6-mile loop departs from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and traverses through old-growth hardwood forest featuring bald cypress, tupelo, oak, and maple trees.
  • Weston Lake Loop Trail: This 4.5-mile loop incorporates two scenic boardwalks and passes Cedar Creek and Weston Lake, as well as grasslands and the park's famed tree canopy, formed from more than 75 native trees. Route highlights include the nearly 170-foot-tall national champion loblolly pine (the state's tallest tree) at Big Tupelo Gut and wildlife sightings. You'll be able to spot beavers and their impressive damns at Weston Lake Slough, otters and wading birds at Cedar Creek, and wood ducks, feral hogs, red-bellied woodpeckers, and red-shouldered hawks along the route.
  • Oakridge Trail: Another loop path, this 6.3-mile loop is another favorite for hiking, bird watching, and running. Accessed from the Boardwalk Loop, the trail is ideal for seeing the park's signature hardwood forest, including old-growth oaks and bald cypress trees. Note that because much of the path lies along a floodplain, it floods frequently, leading to water crossings.
  • Kingsnake Trail: At nearly 12 miles round trip, this trail is the park's longest and takes you to some of its more remote areas. The trailhead departs from the Cedar Creek Canoe Launch parking area and crosses four footbridges over creeks and rivers before winding to the edges of the park, ideal for birding and quiet hikes. Return to the start via Cedar Creek and the Weston Loop Trail.

Kayaking and Paddling

Explore the park by boat via the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, which begins at Bannister's Bridge and winds along the Congaree River and through the park's forests and wetlands. Visitors must bring their own equipment, including a canoe or kayak, plus a personal floatation device. The park also recommends bringing water, insect repellent, and a whistle as well as checking water levels via the Cedar Creek Water Level Chart before your journey. Be mindful of downed trees and related hazards like poison ivy and stinging insects, which are common in the summer.

Fishing

For visitors with a valid South Carolina license, fishing is permitted in all areas of Congaree National Park, with the exception of anything within 25 feet of man-made structures like bridges and boardwalks. Motorboats are prohibited and angling is limited to hook and line, fly rod, casting rod, pole and line, and hand line.

The best spots for catching river striped bass as well as catfish and crappie include the Congaree River, Cedar Creek, and the oxbow lakes. Catch and release is encouraged.

Visitor walkway through trees in Congaree National Park
Craig Lovell / Getty Images

Where to Camp

Stay overnight at the Longleaf Campground, conveniently located near the park entrance, which has 10 individual and four group camping sites for tent and hammock camping. The campsite is pet-friendly and has two vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables.

Or trek the park's remote backcountry trails to the Bluff Campground, located along the Bluff Trail one mille from Longleaf. The campground has six tent and hammock campsites, with fire rings and picnic tables, but no restroom facilities or running water.

Advanced reservations are required via Recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777 and permits are required for backcountry campsites.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are several accommodation options for those wanting to stay outside the park, including hotels in the Fort Jackson area southeast of Columbia and campgrounds.

  • Comfort Inn & Suites Ft. Jackson Maingate: An option for budget-minded travelers, this pet-friendly hotel is located approximately 13 miles from the park off I-77, convenient for those wanting access to restaurants and shops. Rooms are clean and modern, amenities include free Wi-Fi, laundry services, and grab-and-go breakfast.
  • Hampton Inn & Suites Columbia/Southeast-Ft. Jackson: Another reliable chain in the same area, the Hampton Inn is moderately priced, with family-friendly amenities like rollaway beds, in-room refrigerators and microwaves, free continental breakfast, a 24-hour fitness center, and an indoor pool.
  • River Bottom Farms Family Campground: An all-around favorite for families and those wanting a more remote stay, this campground is worth the 40-minute drive to Congaree. Accommodations range from fully furnished rental cabins to 70 RV and camping sites on grassy sites with fire rings and access to laundry facilities, an accessible bathhouse with hot showers, and a general store stocked with camping supplies. Other amenities include stocked fishing ponds, a swimming pool, a playground, nature trails, yard games, and an arcade.

How to Get There

From downtown Columbia, take Assembly Street, SC-48 E southeast and continue on SC-48 E/Bluff Road for 11 miles. Keep right to Old Bluff Road and follow for 4 miles, then turn right on National Park Road. Follow straight ahead into the park and the parking area and Visitor Center.

From downtown Charleston, take I-26 W for 50 miles, then take exit 169B to I-95 N/Florence. After ten miles, take exit 97/US-301 toward Orangeburg and turn left onto US-301. Then take a slight right onto SC-267 N, then right onto US-601 N after 20 miles. Then turn right onto US-601 N, left onto SC-48 W, right onto S. Cedar Creek Rd, right onto Old Bluff Road. After 2 miles, turn 2.6 miles, turn left onto National Park Road and follow the directions above.

Accessibility

Congaree National Park welcomes visitors of all ability levels to its parks. The Henry Hampton Visitor Center has designated accessible parking spaces, and is itself fully accessible, including the exhibit space, restrooms, and water fountains. The park's introductory film is closed-captioned for guests with hearing challenges. The Boardwalk Trail is paved and has several ramps to help visitors using wheelchairs and strollers navigate the terrain and enjoy the old-growth forest, wetlands, and local wildlife.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Parking lots can fill up quickly, especially on weekends, so plan on arriving early. Keep in mind that there is limited parking for large vehicles like RVs.
  • Eighty percent of the park lies within the floodplain of the Congaree River and as a result, several trails and parts of the park can flood and become inaccessible to visitors. Check trail and park conditions via the park website before and during your stay.
  • Permits are required for backcountry camping and must be requested at least 48 hours in advance by emailing cong_information@nps.gov.
  • Mosquitos are common from mid-spring until mid-fall, so bring insect repellent and apply generously. Also check yourself and pets for ticks during warm months, especially when hiking more remote trails.
  • The more strenuous backcountry trails often require tree and water crossing, so be sure to grab a map from the Visitor Center and pick a trail appropriate for your level of expertise.
  • Pets are allowed on all trails and campgrounds, but please keep animals leashed at all times and clean up and carry out waste.
  • The park has limited cellphone reception, so carry a map or pre-load directions onto your phone for navigation.
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Congaree National Park: The Complete Guide