Exploring South Carolina’s Captivating Congaree National Park


When you paddle the waters of Congaree National Park, you are transported to a disappearing world. Often called a swamp since the area is sometimes quite wet, Congaree National Park is one of the last old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the United States. In fact, the park is home to six national and 23 state champion trees.

These massive trees tower over a rich forest floor, littered with cypress knees, lush underbrush and wildlife. The creeks and guts meander through the old banks of the Congaree River, creating highways through the bottomland. Some of those meanders have been cut off, creating small lakes throughout the park.   

A point of view shot from a man sitting in a kayak. His feet are visible in the bottom of the shot, In the distance are two kayakers paddling a creek with trees on both sidees.
Kayaking Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is one of the least-known of the named National Parks but well worth its designation. It is located just southeast of Columbia, SC. The park was created in 1976 as Congaree Swamp National Monument but was redesigned as a National Park in 2003, appropriately dropping “swamp” from its name.

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What to Do in Congaree National Park

Visit the Harry Hampton Visitor Center

We always recommend starting any visit to a National Park at the visitor center and Congaree National Park is no different. 

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is both pretty cool and a bit dated. The visitor center itself has the distinction of being built by Army Reserve and National Guard engineer units. It does a good job explaining the nature of the bottomland forest and what to expect on your visit. That said, all of the exhibits still identify the park as Congaree Swamp National Monument, despite it being more than 20 years since the park’s designation was changed.

Still, the park movie is quite good and gives an excellent overview of the park.

Walk the Boardwalk Trail

If you do nothing else in Congaree National Park, you should walk the Boardwalk Trail. It leaves from behind the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. 

This 2.6-mile loop winds through the bottomland forest and has a self-guided informational brochure. Keep your eyes open on this trail, both on the forest floor and in the canopy. You will be surprised how much wildlife can be found on this trail. 

As you wrap around the bottom of the loop, you will be on Weston Lake, which used to be where the Congaree River flowed. Keep an eye out on the lake for turtles and, possibly, an alligator! 

You will also pass by one of the former state champion loblolly pines, a massive tree among many big trees. 

A woman standing next to a massive pine tree.
The Richland County Pine, a former state champion loblolly pine tree in Congaree National Park.

This trail is easy and ADA-accessible, making for a great way to see this lush ecosystem. Plan on spending at least an hour so you can take your time. Also, be sure to apply bug spray out in the parking lot so you don’t inadvertently kill the fireflies. 

Take a Hike into the Backcountry

There are 10 other hikes in Congaree National Park, varying from 1.8 miles to 12 miles. Most are easy to moderate but the three longest are rated difficult. 

We chose the Bates Ferry Trail, an easy 2.2-mile trail on the eastern side of the park. We had just gotten done paddling, so were a bit tired and did not want anything too strenuous. 

We drove out to the trailhead and hiked this old Colonial-era road out to the Congaree River. Along the way, there were several informational signs on the importance of this area to the Patriot cause during the American Revolution. 

The trail was pretty flat and gave us a nice view of the Congaree River at the end. This would be a good choice for anyone looking for something a little different than some of the other trails. Still, if we come back in the fall, we might make a point to do some of the more backcountry trails.

Check out our 10 essentials for hiking here.

Paddle Cedar Creek

The National Park Service does sometimes offer a ranger-guided tour of Cedar Creek. You can check recreation.gov to see if they are offering ranger-led canoe tours. They were not when we visited. Honestly, I would not expect it any time soon. The National Park Service is generally understaffed and a lot of visitor services, like ranger-led tours are paying the price. 

That said, there are several concessionaires that offer canoe/kayak tours of Cedar Creek. We ended up using Carolina Outdoor Adventures and we had an excellent trip with them. 

We started our paddle at South Cedar Creek boat launch and spent about three hours on the creek exploring the park. It was so quiet and peaceful. The guides, including the owner, were spot on, finding several snakes hanging out in the trees (don’t worry, they were just sunning themselves) and pointing out one of the state champion trees. 

Pro tip: the kayaks sit a bit high… don’t lean too much trying to get a picture of a water snake… you might end up swimming with it like Grant did! 

In all, we had a blast and recommend Carolina Outdoor Adventures. 

Plan Your Visit to Congaree National Park

When to Go to Congaree National Park

The first thing to know about visiting Congaree National Park is that the season you visit can make a huge difference in your experience. 

The park recommends visiting in spring and fall. The temperatures and insects tend to be milder than in the summer. Spring tends to get some rain but not the floods of the winter. Fall tends to be less humid and dryer. Summers in the park are hot and humid with lots of mosquitoes. Winter tends to be cooler but not typically freezing, though it does happen. That said, water levels tend to be much higher and the park floods most often in the winter. 

A wooden sign that says Mosquito Meter with a dial that goes from one to six. One is 'All Clear." Two is "Mild." Three is "Moderate." Four is "Severe." Five is "Ruthless." Six is "War Zone." The meter is currently set at three.
The Mosquito Meter is a bit humorous but it is pretty telling of one of the main hazards when visiting Congaree National Park.

We visited in late May and we quite enjoyed our time in the park. The temperatures were in the mid to low 80s and the mosquitos were not bad at all. We still used bug spray to keep the more voracious mosquitoes off us but we did not need the bug nets we keep with us in our packs.

Pro tip: There are a few events to pay attention to in the Columbia area that can dramatically increase hotel prices.

  • Home football games for the University of South Carolina in the fall
  • Basic training graduations at nearby Fort Jackson
  • Graduation weekends in the spring for the University of South Carolina

Read our guide on National Parks Trip Planning here.

How to See Synchronous Fireflies

Aside from the massive concentration of champion trees, Congaree National Park is also known for its population of synchronous fireflies. These rare fireflies flash in sync with each other. Along with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Congaree National Park holds a special event to see the fireflies. The event happens sometime from mid-May to mid-June. This year, it ended the weekend before we got to Congaree in late May.

A man and a woman standing on a boardwalk trail through the trees.
Selfie on the Boardwalk Trail in Congaree National Park

This event is quite popular and the park holds a lottery for passes to see the event. You can enter the lottery at recreation.gov. If you win a spot in the event, you will be able to walk the trail and view the fireflies. 

You can still visit the park even if you don’t have a pass to see the fireflies but most of the park closes at 4:30 p.m. and there is no camping during the firefly event.

Check the National Park Service site for more information on synchronous fireflies.

Where to Stay Near Congaree National Park

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Columbia – Fort Jackson, which was about 15 miles from the visitor center. We found the hotel quite comfortable and would certainly stay here again. 

A hotel room with a king bed, night stands, a couch and a coffee table. There is a metal guard rail by the bed and a small step down.
Our room at the Holiday Inn Express outside Congaree National Park

We recently added the IHG Premier Credit Card to our collection of credit cards with the intent of making use of IHG as an alternative to Hilton properties. Thus far, we have been pleased with our experience at the Holiday Inn Express line of hotels, which is on par with the Hampton Inn line from Hilton. 

Read TripAdvisor Reviews and Book the Hotel

There are several other hotels in the same area and this cluster of hotels seems to be the closest accommodations to the park.

For campers, there are two front country tent (and hammock) campgrounds that require up to a 100-yard walk from the parking lot. For RV campers, the park recommends nearby state parks or checking with the Experience Columbia website for a private campground in the area.

Where to Eat Near the Hotel

We were keeping things fairly cheap on this trip, so we opted to keep things either fast food or fast casual for this trip. 

While staying at the Holiday Inn Express, we tried out Nick’s Gyros and Seafood and Slim Chickens. 

A chicken gyro on a plate with a side of curly fries.
A chicken gyro at Nick’s Gyros and Phillies in Columbia, SC.

Nick’s Gyros and Seafood was quite good and we both enjoyed the chicken gyros we got. We would recommend it for a good, quick meal. 

We can’t, however, recommend Slim Chickens. While the food was good, the tenders were pretty small and not that different from either Zaxby’s or Chick-Fil-A. There are other, better options in the area. 

A basket of chicken tenders, fries and Texas toast
Chicken tenders at Slim Chickens

One thing to note regarding food and the park: there are no restaurants anywhere nearby the park. The closest restaurant is about half an hour’s drive away. If you are planning on spending the day in the park, I recommend taking a picnic lunch with you. There are plenty of grocery stores nearby, including an excellent Whole Foods with plenty of premade sandwiches. 

Final Thoughts on Visiting Congaree National Park

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Congaree National Park. There is something truly magical about paddling through the water and enjoying the absolute quiet. There is something inherently awe-inspiring about the massive trees. 

A selfie of two people with life jackets on sitting on kayaks on a creek.
Selfie on the kayaks

We highly recommend getting out on the water for your visit to Congaree National Park. While you can see a lot on the Boardwalk Trail, it is just not the same as seeing the park from the water. 

While you could see this park in one busy day, we recommend planning a second day to make sure you have time to really enjoy both paddling Cedar Creek and getting in some hiking beyond the Boardwalk Trail.

Travel Resources
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What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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