Pets allowed
Allowed with Restrictions
Guided tours
No
Backcountry camping
Yes
Lodging
No
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Congaree National Park Overview | Hiking | Paddling | Camping | Weather | Pets

Overview

Congaree National Park is an unexpected pocket of wilderness in midland South Carolina, and it is one of the largest stands of old-growth forest remaining in the Southeast U.S. Known as the "Redwoods of the East," the huge trees here hold many records for tallest known individual of a species. In fact, Congaree is thought to contain more record trees than any other area of comparable size on the planet. Old-growth is a term for forest that has never been logged, where the canopy is dominated by long-lived, large trees. The particular forest type in Congaree is bottomland hardwood, and is the largest continuous tract in the entire country that can be considered truly old-growth.

In a region of the country where almost no forest has escaped logging, Congaree's long-lived trees stand today as testament to the Environmental Movement of the 1970s. Back then, Congaree Swamp seemed destined to go the way of surrounding forests and be cut down for lumber. The land had been always been privately owned, but the logistical diffulties of removing trees in this particularly remote area inhibited logging for many years. By 1969, increasing demand and exhaustion of other forests in the region made Congaree look more profitable, and the owner began logging. The loss of huge trees was alarming to many birdwatchers and hunters who also used the forest, most notably Harry Hampton, a local journalist who decided to do something about it. He used his positions as local hunting club member and newspaper editor to garner support for conservation--an idea not widely popular in the region at the time. Harry fought the odds, however, and gradually more people valued the Congaree forest for more than just lumber. A movement had begun. Harry and others successfully urged congressional acts that purchased a 22,200-acre tract and designated it a national monument in 1976. Much of the land within was designated wilderness in 1988, and the monument became a national park in 2003 along with a 5,000-acre expansion.

It has remained a lesser known unit of the park system, however, and even many South Carolina residents do not realize they have a national park in their state, especially one that is a natural site rather than historic. Due to its location and low visitation, Congaree has in many ways retained the feel of a neighborhood park. It is small as far as national parks go, has no entrance fee, allows dogs on trails, and is used far more by locals than by travelers. Boy Scout troops have done a lot of the trail work, for example, and the park often hosts community events for Columbia residents. The city is only about an hour away, but the park is not along any major transportation routes, so it remains undiscovered by many would-be visitors. It is well known by birdwatchers, wildlfower lovers, and tree enthusiasts for its exceptionally diverse ecosystem, but the park has plenty to offer for anyone who enjoys a walk in the woods.

Hiking

  • Boardwalk: A 2.4-mile loop of ADA-accessible trail constructed over the floodplain. This is Congaree's most popular trail, and it links to several others.
  • Weston Lake Loop: A 4.4-mile loop along Cedar Creek and Weston Lake with more varied terrain and different kinds of trees than the Boardwalk. 
  • Sims Trail: A 3-mile round-trip walk along an old road across the floodplain, leading to a clearing where Harry Hampton's hunting club used to have its lodge. This trail can easily be linked with Boardwalk or Weston Lake Trail.
  • Oakridge Trail: In a 6.6-mile round-trip hike from the visitor center you can extend the Weston Lake Loop to the Oakridge Trail, which tours even more remote forest and wildife viewing opportunities.
  • River Trail: This 10-mile loop is Congaree's most unique trail because of its views of Wise Lake, the Congaree River, and multiple forest types.
  • Kingsnake Trail: 11.7-mile round-trip hike into the heart of the wilderness area. This trail is great for birding and wildlife spotting, but it may require rugged hiking through sloughs and downed trees.
  • Bluff + Longleaf Trails: A 2.3-mile hike through an upland pine forest that links the visitor center and both campgrounds.
  • Bates Ferry Trail: A 2-mile out-and-back walk in the park's eastern portion that is completely isolated from other trails. It is an old road leading to a colonial-era ferry launch on the Congaree River.

Paddling

  • Cedar Creek provides an extensive water route through the national park and its wilderness area. Sections of the creek can be paddled in either direction as day or overnight trips. Camping is allowed in certain areas with a backcountry permit. Traveling downstream (east) is generally much easier, especially when the creek is not in flood stage. Normal water levels make navigation easy as the creek is confined to its banks, but in the wet season when the swamp fills with water, navigation can become very difficult. Conditions on the creek vary greatly throughout the year with water level and downed trees, so be sure to check with the visitor center for current conditions and permit information.
  • The Congaree River borders the national park for several miles, and though it is shared with motorized boats, it makes an excellent paddle trip of its own. The only launch point in the park is at the far eastern end, so paddling along the park boundary requires launching farther upstream. For overnight trips, camping on the park side (river left) with a backcountry permit is recommended because most of the right bank of the river is private property. You can obtain a camping permit for Congaree River trips up to 30 days in advance by calling the park visitor center.

Camping

  • Bluff + Longleaf Campgrounds: These are the park's only campgrounds, and both are rather primitive compared to typical national park accomodations. They are walk-in tent camping only and provide limited amenities. You must register in advance through Recreation.gov. Vehicle and RV camping are not available anywhere in the park.
  • Backcountry camping is allowed free of charge in the wilderness area of the park whether you will be hiking or paddling in. This requires a backcountry permit that can be obtained in person at the visitor center or by phone during business hours. You can get them up to 24 hours in advance. Be sure to read and follow all of rules and restrictions for backcountry use.

Weather

Conditions in Congaree are generally mild, but they can become extreme with seasonal variables like thunderstorms and flooding. The best times to visit are spring and fall when temperatures are cooler, weather is fairer, and the bugs are less of a problem. Summer can mean intense heat, humidity, pop-up thunderstorms, and hordes of biting insects. Nonetheless, the forest is lush and beautiful at this time, and Congaree is definitely worth a visit if you come prepared. Winter is chilly, trees lose most of their leaves, and the understory dies back. It is also when the swamp most commonly floods, though this can happen during spring and summer as well. Be sure to check with the visitor center for current conditions and forecasts, especially if you are planning on paddling or camping.

Pets

Unlike most national parks, Congaree is pet friendly. Dogs are allowed on all trails and in campgrounds as long as they are always kept on a leash no longer than six feet and never left unattended. Expect to share the space with other visitors, their dogs, and wildlife. Keep your pets behaved and be sure to clean up after them.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

"Redwoods of the East." Free park. Pet friendly. ADA trails.

Cons

Limited camping. Mosquitoes. Trails may flood.

Features

ADA accessible
Backcountry camping
Flushing toilets
Picnic tables
Old-growth forest
Fishing
Bird watching
Wildlife
Big Game Watching
Wildflowers
Family friendly
Covered picnic areas

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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