Looking for a completely different National Park experience? One with less crowds, a mosquito meter, and creepy nature? Read on to find fun things to do in Congaree National Park.
Our national park obsessed family enjoyed exploring this unusual park. We also found some unique things to do to share with you. Let’s plan your perfect trip to Congaree.
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Exploring The Only National Park In South Carolina: Congaree National Park
Most people have never heard of Congaree National Park. It is on the list of least visited national parks.
This remotely located Central South Carolina park outside of Columbia, SC was a national monument until 2003. Many people simply don’t know that it is a national park.
What Is Congaree National Park Known For?
You may be surprised to learn that Congaree is a national park not because of its swamp-like scenery but due to its trees!
Congaree exists to protect some of the old-growth tallest trees forests in North America. A large number of hardwood Champion trees, including tupelo trees, are what makes this area one of a kind.
In fact, Congaree National Park isn’t a swamp at all. It may look like a swamp landscape with its watery scene filled with cypress tree knees.
Congaree is actually a flood plain for the Congaree River. Its eerie-looking landscape really is one of a kind in the national park system.
Instead of Congaree Swamp national park, it should really be known as Congaree River national park.
The park is also known for Congaree National Park fireflies. This is one of the few places in the country to view the rare display of synchronous fireflies.
In fact, attending the annual Firefly Event is one of the most unique Congaree National Park things to do.
Congaree’s Most Pesky Residents: The Congaree National Park Mosquito Meter
See all of this creepy stagnant water? There are some serious mosquitos in this park.
If people knew they would be greeted with a mosquito meter at the door, there would probably be even fewer visitors to this park.
The gift shop has a little fun with its insect residents by selling “I Gave Blood At Congaree National Park” swag.
In a way, the Congaree insect is like the park mascot!
Many people plan trips to avoid the Congaree National Park mosquitos. Consider even calling to ask what the reading is on the Congaree mosquito meter today before heading out.
Honestly, I am glad I didn’t know about the mosquitos or the Congaree mosquito meter prior to our visit. I hate getting chewed on and may have skipped this park.
During our visit in late April, the mosquito meter Congaree was on a level 2. We wore lots of natural bug spray and got some bites, but it wasn’t too terrible.
If you strongly dislike insects, then this park may not be the perfect place to visit on your trip.
Best Time To Visit Congaree National Park
The Congaree National Park mosquito season is the worst in the late spring and summer months during the wet season.
Summers are incredibly hot and humid like all of the national parks in the Southeastern United States. Winter can also have frequent flooding.
The Congaree National Park best time to visit is late fall or early spring when you can enjoy lower humidity and keep the blood donation to a minimum.
The river levels are perfect for paddling during the fall. Camping is also best during the fall when the park is in the dry season.
Congaree National Park Weather
The winter, spring, and summer months are the wet season. The park is more beautiful with all of the water filling the flood plain, but this is also what fuels all of the summer mosquitos.
Spring highs are in the 70s with frequent rain showers. Summer has even more rain and some storms, with average daily temperatures of 90-100.
The fall is the dry season and the best time to visit. The humidity and bugs lessen. The average daily temperatures are in the 70s.
Congaree National Park winter months have the least mosquitos but also have common flooding. For example, Congaree National Park in January may have trail closures.
Winter daytime temperatures are in the 50s and it can be below freezing at night.
Best Things To Do In Congaree National Park
Wondering what to do in Congaree National Park? Check out the many fun outdoor activities to enjoy in this Congaree National Park guide!
1) Explore The Educational Displays In The Harry Hampton Visitor Center
By exploring the displays in the Congaree National Park visitor center before heading out to explore, you will better know what to look for in the park.
We really enjoyed the hardwood tree display. The visitor center has a tree guide to take along when walking through the park.
After checking out the tree display, it really helped us to be able to identify the trees along the Boardwalk Trail.
2) Watch The Park’s Free Film
There is a free quick film in the visitor center theater. The film is a great way to learn more about the history and nature found in Congaree National Park.
Visit The Information Desk At The Visitor Center
This one is less a thing to do and more of an important safety task. Make sure to get trail maps for on land as well as the paddling trails.
Ask for directions to go check out the General Greene Tree. This largest tree in the park doesn’t have published directions in the park materials, so you will have to get info at the desk.
Internet and phone service is not good within Congaree park, so it is helpful to have paper maps or to download maps before setting out on your adventure.
This is also where you will get the brochure to participate in the free Junior Ranger Program.
3) Hiking The Boardwalk Trail
The most popular activity in Congaree is the 2.4-mile flat easy walk Boardwalk Trail.
This best things to do at Congaree National park is an easy way to enjoy the beautiful but creepy swampland and get acclimated with the park.
On our visit, the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail was partially flooded and we were only able to walk about 1 mile to remain dry. The wet season had begun and the flood plain was filling up.
The ranger told us that we could continue on the boardwalk through the water if we wanted. No thanks! The water here is stained dark from the plant tannins, so you can’t see much of what is in it.
I can only imagine the snakes and gators hanging out in the water. We enjoyed the dry shadowy trail and headed back once we felt we had enough bug bites.
The elevated Boardwalk Trail is the most popular trail for hiking in Congaree National Park. This short hike connects to the other park trails that wind through the floodplain.
It showcases the old-growth hardwood forest found throughout the park. Grab the self-guided boardwalk tour brochure to learn more about the trees along the trail.
Looking for another easy trail option? Check out the Bates Ferry Trail. This 2.2 mile easy trail showcases some of the park history of area ferries which used to cross here.
There are 25 miles of Congaree National Park hiking trails to enjoy. Keep reading to learn about more hiking trails in Congaree so you can choose one that is right for you.
4) Go On A Ranger-Guided Nature Discovery Walk
Congaree NP offers a ton of free guided activities. Check the Congaree schedule of events to see what is planned during your trip.
Saturdays are the most commonly scheduled day of the week, but there are also sometimes weekly events.
During this guided walk, you will take the boardwalk trail with a park naturalist while learning about the plants and animals that call Congaree home.
Make sure to wear comfy shoes and allow 2 hours for this event. Reservations are required and can be booked 2 weeks ahead of time.
5) Take The Big Tree Hike With A Ranger
Congaree Natl Park naturalist John Cely will guide you to view and learn more about the park’s largest trees. This hike is 5 miles and will take about 3 hours.
An activity reservation is required and can be made 2 weeks in advance. This hike goes off the trail, so be prepared for mud.
6) Check Out The Other Congaree Forest Program
The Other Congaree Forest is a 1.8-mile ranger-led hike through the upland pine forest.
This unique small section is a drier area that thrives on fire versus the bigger old-growth bottomland hardwood forest that thrives in the park flood plains.
You will learn all about this unique ecosystem during this guided hike.
7) Birdwatch While Hiking The Weston Lake Trail
This trail takes you through a dried-up river bed where you can view many bald cypress trees knees.
The highlight of this trail is viewing Cedar Creek, where wading birds like to hang out.
The Weston Lake Trail is 4.5 miles and is considered moderate in difficulty. Another great trail for birdwatching in the park is the 12 mile Kingsnake Trail.
8) Look For Turkey And Deer On The Oakridge Trail
The Oakridge Trail is a beautiful part of the old-growth forest. This low-lying area is also a popular place for the deer and turkeys to hang out.
The trail is 7.1 miles and is considered difficult due to some sections. Be sure to grab a Congaree National Park trail map before you head out.
9) Canoe Or Kayak The Cedar Creek Canoe Trail
This paddle trail is 15 miles and runs from Bannister’s Bridge to the Congaree River. You can put in at South Cedar Creek Landing to begin your paddling adventure.
Getting out on the water is a great way to experience the Congaree wilderness. The paddle trail passes through a unique old-growth forest.
Getting out on the water is a great way to spot and watch the Congaree National Park alligators as well as park bird species.
Paddling trail markers are available but may not be as visible in high water. Be sure to bring along a map and compass
During high flooding seasons, there may be a rapid current not suitable for beginning paddlers.
Make sure to watch for logs and other river obstacles. Sometimes there are log jams in the water.
10) Take A Longer Paddle On The Congaree River Blue Trail
The Congaree River Blue Trail is a 50-mile paddling trail dedicated to recreational uses. The trail begins in Columbia, SC, along the Three Rivers Greenway.
Paddlers cross the fall line and view sandbars, high bluffs, and floodplain habitats before ending up in Congaree National Park.
The Congaree River later converges with the Wateree Rivers to form the Santee River.
Look for river otters during your paddle.
Be sure to grab the Blue Trail paddling route map from the Congaree Visitor Center before heading out.
Map Of Congaree Paddling Trails
National Park Service map of Congaree National Park paddling trails.
11) Go On A Ranger-Led Paddle
Periodically, Congaree National Park offers free ranger-guided paddling trips on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.
This is a limited experience, and you must sign up in advance. Sign-ups are available 2 weeks in advance.
Note that canoe or kayak rentals are not available in the park but will be provided for this activity.
Rentals are available outside of Congaree if you would like to paddle on your own.
Check the Congaree activity schedule to see if a ranger-led paddle is happening during your visit.
12) Visit Wise Lake
One of the most scenic areas of Congaree National Park is the lookout platform at Wise Lake.
To get to Wise Lake, hike the Boardwalk Trail and get on the Weston Lake Loop Trail. When you reach the River Trail, look out for signs to Wise Lake.
Check the trail conditions before heading out. The Weston Lake Loop Trail and the River Trail are sometimes under water during flooding seasons.
For another unique park lake experience, check out Oxbow Lake found along the Fork Swamp Trail. This lake was formed by a 1852 hurricane.
13) Synchronous Fireflies
The Firefly Viewing Event for 2023 will be on May 13 through May 16 and May 19 through May 24, 2023. Only 130 vehicles will be allowed per evening to attend the viewing.
To attend the Firefly Event, you must get a vehicle pass as part of the lottery system at Recreation.gov.
One person per household may try for the lottery and the cost is $1 to enter.
If you get the vehicle pass through the lottery system, you will be charged an extra cost of $24 for the event pass.
Lottery Dates For The 2023 Firefly Event
You can try for a vehicle event pass beginning at 10:00 am EST on April 6 through 10:00 am on April 12.
Lottery winners will be notified on April 17th if they receive a pass.
Change Of Congaree Hours During The Firefly Event
Congaree will close daily at 4:00 pm EST daily beginning May 7 through May 27 to prepare for the Firefly Event.
If you are in the park and have a vehicle event pass to attend the Firefly viewing, you will still have to exit the park at 4:00 and reenter for the event.
Important Things To Know About Congaree’s Firefly Event
The only lights allowed are those that have a red filter. No cell phones can be used for photos, videos, or as a flashlight.
The best time to see the fireflies is from 9-10:00 pm EST.
All insect repellant needs to be used BEFORE coming to the park. No repellant is allowed in the park during the Firefly Event to protect the fireflies.
14) Go On An Owl Prowl
Head out on a one-of-a-kind activity in Congaree National Park. This ranger-guided 2.5-mile night hike along the Boardwalk and Sims trails
Learn about owls while also searching for them on this unique night trail experience.
Reservations are required and can be made up to 2 weeks in advance.
15) Go Fishing
Fishing is allowed throughout Congaree National Park with a current South Carolina fishing license.
The only park areas where fishing isn’t allowed are within 25 feet of bridges, overlooks, and boardwalks.
No motorized boats are allowed inside Congaree National Park. There is also no use of fish eggs, minnows, and amphibians as bait.
16) Enjoy Bird Watching
Grab some binoculars and head out on your own to go bird watching or join the ranger-led Woodpecker Walk.
This 2-mile hike through the pine forest along the Bluff and the Firefly Trails is perfect for looking for woodpeckers and learning more about them.
You can also find many other bird species to enjoy in Congaree National Park. This is a great opportunity to take Congaree National Park photos of birds.
17) Congaree National Park Camping
Only tent campsites are available at this park. There isn’t enough bug spray in the world for me to want to camp in this park, but it is an option.
The fall would be the best time to camp. Advance reservations are required at Recreation.gov
There are no RV campsites available at Congaree National Park. Keep reading to find a great place for RV camping nearby.
Congaree Front Country Camping
Front country camping is available at the Longleaf Campground for $15 per tent site. Group campsites are also available for $25. There is no water available but there are vault toilets.
The Bluff Campground is a hike in campground from the Bluff Trail. Each site has fire rings and a picnic table. There is no running water or bathrooms. These campsites cost $10 per night.
Congaree Backcountry Camping
Backcountry camping is available by permit for free. Permit applications can be made at least 72 hours before your visit date.
To apply for a backcountry permit, email [email protected].
18) Forest Wellness Program
The Forest Wellness Program is a unique free program to reconnect with nature and relieve stress.
Check the park event schedule to see when this program is offered.
There are many events offered as part of this program and this is one of the most special things to do Congaree National Park.
Spring Forest Wellness Journaling
The Spring Forest Wellness Journaling class is a Forest Wellness Class focusing on meditation, journaling, meditative walk, and reflection.
Forest Wellness Yoga In The Park
This program is part of the Forest Wellness Program that includes a guided hike 2-mile walk. The walk is designed to connect with nature.
At your destination, you will have a yoga class among majestic tall loblolly pine trees.
Forest Wellness Beginner Birding
In this beginner birding program, you will go on a guided 2-mile hike through the forest to look for birds and draw sound maps.
Binoculars will be provided for this activity.
19) Junior Ranger Program
There is a Junior Ranger program for kids to participate in at Congaree National Park. This is a free educational program offered throughout the national park system.
Kids, and sometimes adults, complete a small workbook with activities as they explore the park. You can pick up the free activity booklet in the visitor center.
When completed, they repeat a pledge to protect nature and are given a Junior Ranger badge.
Sissy has over 100 badges and takes great pride in each one. She enjoyed completing the Congaree program during our visit.
Pets At Congaree
Congaree National Park has Nova the B.A.R.K. Ranger mascot. Pets are allowed in Congaree and encouraged to follow the B.A.R.K. principles during their visit.
Congaree National Parks B.A.R.K Stands For:
-Bag pet waste to keep the park clean.
-Always keep your pet on a leash to protect them from hazards in the wilderness.
-Respect all wildlife by keeping your distance from animals you spot.
-Know where you can go with your pet in the park. Pets can visit any of the trails in this national park Columbia SC.
How Many Days Do You Need In Congaree National Park?
You may be wondering how long to visit Congaree National Park? Congaree is a very small park. Most people will explore this park in half a day to one day.
If you are interested in paddling, you may allow 2 days for your Congaree National Park itinerary, one day for hiking and another day for paddling.
We spent 1 day hiking and exploring Congaree National Park. If we return, we would love to kayak the paddle trail.
This park could be a great day trip or road trip from other areas you are visiting in South Carolina.
Important Things You Need To Know Before You Go
– cell service in the park is not reliable
– WIFI is available at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center
– download all maps before coming to the park and have a compass
– flooding is frequent, and it helps to check the water levels for both the Congaree River and Cedar Creek
– the park is free to enter, there is no entrance fee
– Congaree SC national park is open year-round 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
– The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open daily from 9-5:00 EST.
How To Get To Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is located in a very rural location. Use the park address for navigation: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061
It may be difficult to get ride-share companies to pick you back up from this Columbia SC national park.
You can take the COMET bus, which offers public transportation from Columbia to Congaree National Park.
The closest airport to Congaree National Park is 30 minutes from Congaree at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Best Places To Stay Near Congaree National Park
Hotels Near Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park hotels are all located near Columbia, South Carolina. For a convenient nearby hotel option, consider the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Columbia.
Rather rent a private home with plenty of space to stretch out during your trip? Consider the 2-bedroom Hopkins Home with a game room and fire pit.
Camping Near Congaree National Park
Looking for RV camping near Congaree? Check out the nearby Palmetto Shores RV Resort which has a fantastic pool and lazy river.
Things To Do Near Congaree National Park
There are many fun things to do near Congaree National Park in Columbia, South Carolina.
This charming state capitol offers fun for the whole family. Consider checking out the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and the EdVenture Children’s Museum.
For art and history lovers, go see the Columbia Museum of Art and the South Carolina State Museum.
Map Of Congaree National Park
Here is a Congaree National Park Map from the national park service.
What To Pack For Your Congaree Trip
Congaree can be extremely hot and humid, depending on your visit date. Consider packing lightweight layers to help you stay cool.
Also, consider bringing a sun hat and neck towel to stay cool out on the trails.
Pack hiking shoes that can get wet and muddy or water shoes if you will be paddling.
One of the most important things to bring on your trip to Congaree is bug spray. The bugs are brutal, and you will be glad to have it with you.
If you plan to come for the Firefly Festival, be sure to bring a red light or red-filtered flashlight.
Is Congaree National Park Worth Visiting?
We enjoyed viewing the eerie wet landscape on the Boardwalk Trail.
Sissy was fascinated by the weird cypress tree knees that stick out all over the water. It was also a great place to learn about the many hardwood tree species.
We felt like it was worth visiting Congaree National Park SC and would love to go back to do either the paddle trail or the Firefly Festival.
Should Congaree Be A National Park?
I am going to share our honest opinion here and say that we think this park fits better as a national monument or state park status.
It would possibly make more sense as Congaree State Park or even Congaree Swamp National Monument.
It is great to protect all ecosystems and to create places for people to learn and explore these spaces. Congaree National Park South Carolina just wasn’t a destination national park for our family.
We are glad we visited and would go back again if we found ourselves in the area.
FAQs Things To Do Congaree National Parks
What Is Congaree National Park Famous For?
Congaree National Park is famous for preserving the largest area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in our country. It is also a beautiful eerie landscape of shadows and water.
Are There Alligators In Congaree National Park?
Yes, there are many alligators and snakes in Congaree National Park. The boardwalk is a great place to hike while staying dry and usually avoiding dangerous Congaree National Park wildlife. You may see alligators while paddling in Congaree.
What Is Cool About Congaree National Park?
There are a lot of cool and unique things about Congaree National Park. The eerie wetlands are full of Cypress trees and trees knees sticking out of the water. It’s a unique and beautiful unexpected landscape to explore.
Is Congaree National Park Free?
Congaree National Park is free to enter and enjoy. There are some activities within the park that are pay activities, but to enter the park it is free.
Is Congaree National Park A Swamp?
Congaree National Park is not a swamp but looks very similar to one. Technically this national park is a flood plain and river ecosystem.
Is Congaree National Park Open?
Congaree National Park is open year round. There are times when trails or sections of trails are closed due to flooding. Part of the main boardwalk trail was underwater during our visit.
Is Congaree National Park Dog Friendly?
Congaree National Park is a dog friendly park. Pets are welcome if they remain on leash at all times. The boardwalk trail is a great place in the park to walk dogs.
Can You Drive Through Congaree National Park?
There is no road to drive through Congaree National Park. You can park at the visitor center, walk the trails, camp, or paddle the river. Congaree is not a drive through national park.
Where To Stay When Visiting Congaree National Park?
Most of the places to stay when visiting Congaree National Park are found in nearby Columbia, South Carolina. The park is located in a very rural location. Other than tent camping within the national park, you will need to drive into town for accomodations.
Is Congaree National Park Accessible?
Congaree National Park does have accessible areas. The boardwalk trails are handicap accessible and one of the best ways to enjoy the park.
Is There Congaree National Park Kayak Rental?
There are no kayak or watercraft rentals for Congaree National Park kayaking. There are however equipment rentals outside of the park and approved Congaree commercial outfitters that offer guided tours.
Are You Excited To Visit And Find Your Best Things To Do In Congaree National Park?
Congaree National Park is definitely one of a kind. The eerie wet landscape is both beautiful and unusual. Whether it should have national park status or not, it’s still a fun park to explore. Will you plan to visit?
Want to know my secrets for booking hard to get national park campsites? Check out: How To Score Sold-Out National Park Campsites.
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Have you visited Congaree National Park? Were you able to get past the mosquitos and enjoy the park? Please leave a comment! I would love to hear about your adventures.
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Enjoy Your Adventure!
Scott and Van of The Adventure Detour are travel writers focusing on RV travel, family outdoor travel, national parks travel, and hiking. They have been full-time RV living and traveling across the US since 2015. In 8 years of full-time RVing, they have visited 38 national parks so far with the ultimate goal to see them all. They work as digital nomads while roadschooling their daughter nicknamed Sissy. On the way to all 50 states, they have visited and hiked through 42 states so far. The travel bucket list is forever growing!