Are you planning a trip to Congaree National Park in Hopkins, SC? Whether you want to kayak, canoe or hike through the old-growth forest, Congaree National Park is a fabulous adventure. With unique hiking trails for all skill levels, plus so many natural features and animals to observe, there’s something for everyone at Congaree National Park.
This article includes:
Kayak or Canoe Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park Visitors Center
Congaree’s Old-Growth Forest
The Boardwalk Loop Trail at Congaree National Park
Things to Know Before You Go to Congaree National Park
Places to Stay Near Congaree National Park
Only 145,000 visitors visited Congaree National Park in 2019, as compared to the more than 9 million Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets a year. This alone might be motivation to visit the 26,000+ acre National Park, to find solitude in ancient forests full of native hardwood trees, on boardwalks that meander through cypress bottomlands to hidden lakes.
We visit the Park to discover the resident “champion trees,” the largest of their species, as well as for the wildlife sightings: snakes, birds, fish and small mammals are almost guaranteed to make an appearance on your visit. Congaree is also open to kayaking and canoeing opportunities, hiking, fishing, and camping.
In any case, it is no wonder Congaree National Park has been named one of the “7 Wonders of South Carolina” by the SC7 Expedition! This year the expedition is revisiting Congaree as part of the 2022 expedition, and I hope your family has the opportunity to visit this incredible natural resource.
How to see Congaree National Park
Kayak or Canoe Congaree
The best way to see the enormous forest, 57% of which is a designated wilderness area, might be by kayak or canoe. Kidding Around Greenville correspondent Kristina wrote about exploring Congaree by water: Paddle Through An Enchanted Forest in SC’s Only National Park: Congaree National Park. However, there is still plenty to see and do without a boat!
Visitor Center at Congaree National Park: Jr. Ranger and TRACK trail
Our first visit to the park (back when my oldest son was a preschooler) coincided with a serious downpour, and I thought the trip was a wash. We hurried into the Visitor Center, and to my surprise were kept busy exploring until the rain stopped; the trip was saved! Portions of the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, including the museum and park film, remain closed at this time, but the bookstore is open, and during standard hours park staff and volunteers are available at an information kiosk in the breezeway. Make sure to pick up a Jr. Ranger or TRACK Trail booklet if your kids are interested! The Visitor Center also serves as a trailhead to the trail system, providing access to the boardwalks and multiple other loops.
For more on trails, see the Congaree National Park website, but definitely consider heading out on the Boardwalk Loop Trail; this easy 2.6-mile, stroller-friendly walk winds through the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. Pick up the Self-guided Boardwalk Tour brochure at the Visitor Center before beginning your walk to learn more about the natural and cultural history of Congaree.
See an Old-Growth Bottomland Hardwood Forest
Congaree envelops the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the US; the area escaped being logged like much of the surrounding area due to intermittent flooding. Historically, over one million acres in South Carolina were covered with floodplain forest, but in less than 50 years they were logged and cleared, the surviving remnants drowned by reservoirs. After a campaign by the Sierra Club and local activists, Congaree Swamp National Monument was established in 1976 to protect the forest, although it was 2003 before it was renamed a National Park.
Hike the Boardwalk Loop Trail
The informational booklets provided at the visitor center are extensive and varied. The kids will enjoy searching for trees, animals and other things listed on the Congaree Scavenger Hunt, while adults can learn a few new things from the guided boardwalk tour; the brochure provides interesting factoids corresponding to numbered placards dotting the trail. For example, #11 involved a former state champion tree, a 150-foot loblolly pine. Nearby was another loblolly (#10) that could have been 200 years old; it fell during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. And on the “Big Tree Hike” you’ll find the loblolly pine that measures 170 feet tall and 15 feet in circumference, one of the park’s champions.
In comparison, there is a Bald Cypress in the park over 27 feet in circumference, the wide margin due to the buttressed base. Over the years we’ve learned about cypress knees, switch cane, water tupelos and the area’s rich soil, not much escaping our notice including snakes, lizards, turtles and interesting insects. Often visitors will flush a deer, the whitetail quickly disappearing from view into the dense vegetation.
At the far end of the Boardwalk Loop is the elevated viewing platform for Weston Lake. Once a bend in the Congaree River, Weston Lake is now an oxbow lake. Although it is slowly filling in with clay and organic debris, the lake is home to freshwater turtles such as the yellow-bellied slider and common snapping turtle, as well as catfish, bass and alligator gar. A system of hiking trails fan out from this end of the boardwalk, for those visitors looking for a more intensive glimpse into the Congaree forest. With names like “Kingsnake Trail” you know you are in for an adventure! Just make sure you are prepared with plenty of water and bug spray.
Things to Know Before You Go to Congaree
With a dozen different walks and tours available including the Big Tree Hike, Guided Canoe Tours and night hikes, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in this primitive world while learning all about the floodplain ecosystem. Every year between mid-May and mid-June Congaree hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks, when visitors can experience an awe-inspiring display of synchronous flashing while the fireflies search for a mate; more on next year’s event will be found at the Congaree National Park fireflies site. Or, join a “Yoga in the Park” event – check out the park calendar to see what all is on the schedule!
Visitor Center hours are from 9 am to 5 pm, year-round, except on some holidays; please see Congaree National Park website for more information. You can learn more about the TRACK Trail program in our overview.
Whether you are going for a hike, or exploring Congaree by boat, there are many things to consider on your visit such as water levels, trail closures, seasonal bug levels, weather and safety conditions, and information on hazards you are likely to encounter. We’ve found the Congaree NP website to be an invaluable resource in planning our trip, including downloading brochures, requesting camping permits, choosing trails, and packing.
This article originally appeared on Femme au Foyer.
Places to Stay Near Congaree National Park
Use this map from Stay22 to find places to stay near Congaree National Park. As a Stay22 Affiliate, Kidding Around earns when you book through these links.
Congaree National Park
100 National Park Road
Hopkins, SC 29061