15 Cool Things To Do in Congaree National Park in South Carolina

There’s nothing I love more than exploring a lesser-known national park. I enjoyed visiting Congaree in South Carolina because its lush cypress swamps and protected old-growth ecosystems give off a completely different vibe than most other national parks.

Fun things to do in Congaree National Park range from observing fireflies and owls as part of evening group tours to canoeing through flooded river valleys to hiking on moss-draped hardwood forest trails.

I participated in a ranger-led “Owl Prowl” and our group was fortunate to spot multiple owls high in the trees!

congaree national park activities

Congaree National Park may not be the first place that people think of when planning a vacation, but for those looking for a place to reconnect with nature and experience relative solitude, this park is a cool destination.

All photos in this article are my own, except for a couple which are clearly credited to the National Park Service.

Quick Summary: The Top Three Things To Do at Congaree National Park
1 Hike the Boardwalk Loop and the Sims Trail
2 Canoe or kayak at Cedar Creek
3 Join a firefly viewing tour (May-June) or an owl prowl tour (fall through spring)

Things To Do at Congaree National Park: Basic Stuff

Congaree National Park was established in 2003, making it one of the newer national parks.

It’s also one of the least-visited parks, attracting roughly 200,000 visitors last year, or about 3000 per day. That somewhat low figure has more to do with its location in rural South Carolina, rather than a lack of activities.

visitor center sign

Congaree is a remnant of a massive network of old-growth floodplain forests in the southeast, most of which was destroyed over the years due to development. So this is a special area that serves as a trip back in time.

Let’s go over some of the most fun activities in the park!

1 Harry Hampton Visitor Center

Even if you’re someone who often doesn’t bother with visitor centers, the Harry Hampton Visitor Center at Congaree is worth a stop.

harry hampton visitor center

In addition to picking up the usual park map, you’ll find another glossy pamphlet of all the park’s hiking trails, and a separate paper document that will be invaluable when you walk the Boardwalk Loop.

Plus, the center has important information on weather and bug conditions. Yep, mosquitoes can be a real problem here, so there’s a dial at the visitor center updating guests on their current status.

I don’t want to be here when it’s set to the highest level!

mosquito meter congaree

Many of the trailheads begin at the visitor center, so you’ll need to stop by here anyway. And the center has the usual amenities – bathrooms, water fountain, some nature exhibits, park rangers to answer your questions, and a stamp for your National Parks Passport book.

Also, take note of the weird signs on the way in – there are “Speed Limit 27” and “Speed Limit 13” signs. When you have ever seen that before?!

speed limit 13

2 Picnicking

The visitor center also has some picnic tables under a pavilion, so if you arrive and the shelter is unoccupied, relax here and enjoy your snacks surrounded by wilderness.

The picnic shelter is reservable in advance. You can book the 9 am to 1 pm time slot, or the 1 pm to 5 pm slot.

picnic pavilion

3 Take a Guided Tour

Like many national parks, Congaree has offered “Walks and Talks” – guided nature walks and guided hikes.

These activities are always great because the rangers always provide a ton of information that you’d never get walking through these areas on your own.

It appears as though Congaree may have eliminated (or greatly scaled back) its guided activities, since none appear on the schedule as of this writing.

Go here to see the park’s event schedule to see if any guided activities are planned for the dates of your visit.

Congaree Outdoor Activities

4 Fishing

Fishing is permitted in most of Congaree, but there are several rules. First, a South Carolina fishing license is required.

Fishing is not allowed within 25 feet of man-made structures such as boardwalks and overlooks. Good fishing spots include the Congaree River itself, Cedar Creek if it’s flooded, and the small lakes.

You may find species such as striped bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish, among others. See the full list of fishing regulations.

boardwalk flood
In times of heavy rain, the Boardwalk and other trails can flood (NPS.)

5 Canoe or Kayak

Cedar Creek can be a perfect place to canoe or kayak. The shallow waters and variety of fish make it a great location for both first-timers and experienced paddlers.

You’ll need to bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent one in the city of Columbia 20 miles away. The park has even offered guided canoe trips during some months.

The park warns that when the creek is above 8 feet, paddling is not advised, because the trail becomes difficult to follow. Downed trees and log jams are possible at any time, so be prepared to have to grab your vessel and walk at times.

Read the park’s canoe trail page for all the detailed info on safely navigating the creek.

6 Notice the Trees and Plant Life

You may think there wouldn’t be much plant diversity in a swampy area like Congaree, but that’s not the case. A difference of just a few feet in elevation can result in a different collection of plants growing.

More than 1,000 species of trees call the park home, including some of the tallest trees in North America.

Look up to find the Loblolly pine tree, which can exceed 150 feet tall.

loblolly pine tree

The more common tree around the swampy areas is the bald cypress tree, which has trunks that sort of fan out at the bottom.

congaree swamp

Dwarf palmettos are common on parts of the forest floor where a gap in the canopy allows sunlight to shine through. Dwarf palmettos are relatives of the cabbage palmetto, the state tree of South Carolina.

dwarf palmetto

You will likely see mushrooms, mosses, or other types of growths and fungi on some of the trees.

fungi tree

You may see some flowers as well, such as butterweed, a bright yellow flower that blooms in the spring.

The Wildlife of Congaree NP

7 Synchronized Firefly Viewing

Every May or early June, for just a couple weeks, the synchronous lightning bugs come out in Congaree.

This is a really cool moment when thousands of fireflies are blinking at the same time. The park holds special evening events around dusk to celebrate this natural phenomenon.

synchronous fireflies congaree
Seeing the synchronous fireflies is one of the best things to do in Congaree National Park (NPS.)

These insects live only 3-4 weeks as adults, using much of that time to flash their lights in an attempt to attract a mate.

The fireflies at Congaree are one of only three species of fireflies in America capable of synchronizing their lights.

Congaree now requires tickets (event passes) to the synchronized firefly viewing for peak dates in May. Only 130 vehicles are permitted to enter the park on these dates.

Sign up for the ticket lottery here, and learn more about the firefly viewing on the official page.

8 The “Owl Prowl” Evening Hike

The Owl Prowl was the coolest thing I did at Congaree. From fall through spring, rangers lead occasional night hikes through the forest in search of barred owls.

The event is free, but guests are advised to sign up in advance. Bring your own flashlight. You’ll be given a piece of red cellophane to cover the light so that the owls are not bothered by bright lights.

owl prowl hike
The Owl Prowl hike group getting ready to head into the forest.

The group gathers at the visitor center, and follows a guide listening for owl hoots and looking for shadows high up in the trees. The walk takes 1-2 hours.

My group saw a couple of owls in the trees, which was an awesome sight!

9 Do Some Bird Watching

Bird watching is another of the best things to do at Congaree National Park. I’m not into birds that much, but even I found the variety of birds here to be impressive.

In terms of birds of prey, there are hawks and eagles here, in addition to those owls. Sometimes eagles can be seen diving into the river for fish.

I spotted a bunch of cardinals in the shrubs and trees while hiking the Bates Ferry Trail. Their bright red feathers are unmistakable! I also saw (and heard) a few woodpeckers near the Boardwalk Loop.

Other birds common in Congaree include wrens, warblers, sparrows, robins, and other small birds that like the forest and wetlands.

cardinals bird watching
A cardinal in the branches (NPS.)

The park has some turkey vultures and black vultures as well. The latter group are the same birds that eat windshield wipers in the Everglades!

In the summer months you can stay until the sun sets to watch birds in migration. The April and October migrations of wood storks provide great opportunities to see them in the Fork Swamp Area.

10 Look for other Wildlife

Seeing wildlife is always a crapshoot, but Congaree has all sorts of reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals that you may be lucky enough to encounter.

I saw mostly squirrels and spiders, especially on the boardwalk. Other visitors I spoke to encountered river otters and feral pigs while exploring the park.

Keep an eye out for turtles (yellow-bellied slider and common snapping turtle) in Weston Lake. They are often seen here from the Boardwalk Trail in warmer months.

snake - congaree NP wildlife
A red-bellied watersnake in Congaree National Park (NPS.)

Are there alligators at Congaree National Park? Yes, sometimes. During warmer months, American alligators are sometimes spotted in the eastern section of the park around the Fork Swamp and Bates Ferry trails.

Don’t worry – gators need open areas of sunlight to keep themselves warm, so the more swampy and tree-covered parts of the park near the visitor center and boardwalk trails are not ideal habitat for them.

Other animals that live in Congaree include box turtles, raccoons, opossums, beavers, coyotes, deer, and several kinds of snakes.

You probably won’t have to worry about bears for now. Black bears are uncommon in this part of South Carolina.

Rangers say they have seen occasional signs of bears wandering through the edges of the park, so it’s possible they will eventually return to Congaree.

Congaree Hiking Trails

11 Boardwalk Loop

By far the most popular trail at Congaree is the Boardwalk Loop. The 2.4-mile loop is mostly flat and even has benches.

The trail leads hikers from Harry Hampton to Weston Lake and back. It passes through swampy areas, forested areas, and everything in between.

things to do in congaree national park - hiking

The Boardwalk Loop has 20 numbered trail markers along the way. Be sure to pick up the Boardwalk Tour pamphlet at the visitor center so you can read as you go and understand the significance of each marker.

Among the highlights: Marker 10 notes a fallen loblolly pine tree that stood for roughly 200 years before being taken down in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo; marker 15 points out an old iron sill, a box used by bootleggers to create alcohol during prohibition in the 1920s.

12 Sims Trail

The Sims Trail is 1.6 miles each way (3.2 miles total), starting from the visitor center and going past the boardwalk down to Cedar Creek and Wise Lake.

sims trail hike

The Boardwalk Loop doesn’t go all the way to Cedar Creek, so Sims Trail is one of the best opportunities to see the creek. The path is completely flat and follows an old gravel trail.

13 Bates Ferry Trail

Over in the eastern side of the park, you’ll find the Bates Ferry Trail. It’s a straight out-and-back trail covering 1.1 miles each way.

This is one of the few trails in the park that reaches the Congaree River – most others stop at Cedar Creek or one of the lakes.

congaree river
Glimpsing the Congaree River from the Bates Ferry Trail.

This trail is rarely busy. I was the only human on this trail at 2 pm on a weekday. The canopy is a little more open here, allowing the sun to shine through.

I’ve never found so much solitude on a national park hiking trail. The only drawback? It’s close enough to Highway 601 that you can hear the traffic noise.

About a mile away is the Fork Swamp Trail, the only other hiking trail on this side of the park. It’s a short half-mile loop along Old Bates River.

14 Kingsnake Trail

The Kingsnake Trail gets you into the less-visited center of the park. Find the trailhead on South Cedar Creek Road, and be prepared with lots of sunscreen, bug spray, snacks, and water.

The full trail is 12 miles and passes through several sloughs which may be filled with water depending on the season. It’s a great trail for birdwatching.

You’ll pass over several wooden bridges on this trail. For a shorter version, turn around at the 1.8 mile mark, when the trail veers back to the north.

15 Congaree Campgrounds

Congaree is not a big park for camping. In fact, there are just 20 camping sites in the entire park, split between two campgrounds.

Very near the visitor center, Longleaf Campground has 10 individual campsites and 4 group sites. Each has a fire pit and picnic tables.

Two vault toilets are shared among all campers. There’s no running water here, but you can find water at the visitor center not far away.

The Bluff Campground, meanwhile, is even smaller, with just 6 campsites and no bathrooms. This one requires a one-mile walk from the visitor center. It’s essentially backcountry camping.

The campgrounds here may be small, but for those of us who prefer smaller crowds, they can be ideal.

Congaree FAQs: Best Time to Visit, Map, Hotels

Is there a Congaree NP map?

Here’s a glimpse at the main park map from the brochure. You can find additional maps for hiking and driving on the NPS site.

congaree national park map

What’s the closest airport to Congaree National Park?

Congaree is only 25-30 minutes from downtown Columbia, South Carolina, so the nearest airport is Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE).

Only 23 miles away, it’s one of the closest urban airports to a national park in the U.S.

Charleston Airport (CHS) is about 96 miles, or an hour and a half, from the park. That’s not outrageously far. So if you’re flying to South Carolina specifically to visit Congaree, check flight prices at both airports.

What’s the best time to visit Congaree National Park?

Spring and fall provide the best weather, as summers can get hot and sticky (and buggy, as in mosquitoes.) But summer is still fine if you’re ok with hot temperatures.

Late May is obviously ideal if you want to see the synchronous fireflies. Earlier in spring or later in autumn would be better for the Owl Prowl.

October and November are peak season for seeing the leaves change colors.

Every season has its advantages here, so when you should visit Congaree depends on what you plan to see and do.

hiking congaree

How many days do you need in Congaree National Park?

For most visitors, one day will be plenty. You can see most of the sights and do a hike or two in a single day in the park.

The only reason you’d need two days is if you plan to camp overnight, or if you plan to spend a whole day canoeing or kayaking and would like a second day for hiking.

Where can I eat near Congaree?

There aren’t many food options near Congaree NP. The closest restaurant is a small, no-frills family restaurant called JD’s Place, located just 7 minutes from the park entrance.

JD’s sits in a plain building that may not even look open from the outside, but step inside anyway for Southern food and burgers. Look at this plate of chicken, mac & cheese, and cornbread!

food near congaree

If you’re willing to drive further, the Highway 378 Diner and Big T BBQ are both popular establishments about 15 minutes north of the park.

Of course, you can always drive the 20-25 minutes west to Columbia for all the big-city cuisine you could want.

How do I know what the current Congaree water level is?

Check the water conditions here. This is obviously crucial information if you plan to canoe or kayak. The creek should be between 3 to 8 feet deep for optimal navigation.

Where should I stay while visiting Congaree National Park?

There are plenty of hotel options within 20 miles of the park, so visitors can be as near or far from the action as they’d like. I stayed at an Airbnb in Columbia, since it was only a half-hour drive from the park.

All of the closest hotels are 30 minutes away in Columbia, and they are national chains. The Courtyard by Marriott and the Holiday Inn Express are your best options.

As for campgrounds outside the park, Poinsett State Park has 24 sites with electric hookups and can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet, while Elliott’s Campground has 47 full hookup RV campsites.

Do cell phones work in Congaree National Park?

Sometimes. Reception is limited, depending how deep you venture into the forests and swamps. Be prepared to go offline for a while inside the park.

congaree parking

Are pets allowed in Congaree?

Yes! Unlike most national parks, Congaree permits dogs on every trail and in every campground. Pets must be kept on a leash less than six feet long. Bring plenty of water, especially if you’re visiting in the summer.

Are park trails wheelchair accessible?

Most are not, but the Boardwalk Loop is a flat wooden path that wheelchairs can absolutely navigate. That’s great because you’ll see a lot from the boardwalk. The parking lot and visitor center are also fully accessible.

What else can I do in South Carolina?

Columbia has a lot of cool activities, including the state capitol building, the campus of South Carolina University, and the quirky Hootie & the Blowfish monument in honor of the city’s most famous rock band.

Go further north to reach Sumter National Forest, or drive a couple hours east to the ritzy island of Hilton Head or the city of Charleston, where you can find vintage houses and historic sites like Fort Sumter, the spot of the beginning of the Civil War.

Check out my driving guide from Charleston to Orlando, Florida if you’re interested in a cool road trip along the southeastern Atlantic coast!

What are you favorite things to do in Congaree National Park?

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