Miles with McConkey at Congaree National Park

The Big Question: Is Congaree National Park Worth Visiting?

While most travelers think about a romantic getaway for Valentine’s Day, Julie and I decided to visit our 17th national park during a flood. Just like beauty, romance is in the eye of the beholder. We will cover what you need to know about the park. Most importantly, we will answer the question that all outdoor enthusiasts want to know – is Congaree National Park worth visiting?

What Is Special About the Park?

The lower Boardwalk Loop Trail is submerged
Part of the boardwalk’s lower level is submerged. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Congaree National Park, over 26,000 acres in central South Carolina, boasts the most extensive intact stretch of old-growth floodplain hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Yes, Julie and I visited when the park exceeded the flood stage. To be fair, the park sits in a floodplain. As a park ranger advised us, this is precisely what is supposed to happen. It is what makes the park unique.

Walking the park’s Boardwalk Loop Trail gives you a close view of some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. The park’s average canopy height exceeds 100 feet, comprising North America’s highest concentration of champion-sized trees. Although the trees pale by comparison with California’s coastal redwoods, the impressive canopy induces a sense of wonder and calm as you explore the park.

Operating Hours and Seasons

Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.

Entrance Fees

We have more good news for you. The park is free to enter year-round. 

Location

Hiking the Boardwalk Loop Trail during flood stage.
Flood waters rising along the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

The physical address for the park is 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061. It is a quick half-hour drive southeast of Columbia. The Columbia Metropolitan Airport is the nearest major airport. 

You can also fly into Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Charleston International Airport in Charleston, South Carolina. Your drive from either airport is approximately two hours.

WiFi and Cell Access

Looking up at a tree in the Congaree National Park visitor center
Replica of a bald cypress tree in the visitor center. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Many visitors find cell access to be hit-and-miss throughout the park. I suggest obtaining a park map from the visitor center before venturing into the forest.

Harry Hampton Visitor Center offers public WiFi 24 hours a day.

Pets

Congaree National Park is dog friendly, permitting pets in the campgrounds and on all trails, including the boardwalk. Julie and I met a few visitors with a happy furry companion. Please note that pets must be on a leash with a maximum length of six feet.

Accessibility

Most of the park is accessible, including the parking lot, picnic area, visitor center, restrooms, Boardwalk Loop Trail, and a campsite. The visitor center offers Braille brochures and wheelchairs to borrow free of charge.

Harry Hampton Visitor Center

wall mural in the Congaree National Park visitor center
Harry Hampton Visitor Center wall mural painted by Blue Sky. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

The park’s visitor center honors Harry Hampton, a newspaper editor who advocated for preserving Congaree so future generations could enjoy it. Loggers and hunters took a toll on the floodplain forest. Hampton recognized this and fought to protect the unique ecosystem.

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center sits at the front of the park, just behind the parking area. Beyond souvenirs, you will find many engaging displays, park maps, and trail information. Park rangers and staff are on hand to answer questions and provide assistance.

The lengthy wall at the back of the facility displays a gorgeous park mural painted by Columbia, South Carolina artist Blue Sky. In the auditorium, you can watch the park film Congaree Wilderness Shaped by Water.

Weather

Trail is partly under water in Congaree
Celebration time for making it past a partially submerged trail section. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Nestled in South Carolina’s Midlands region, the park has a humid subtropical climate, which yields mild winters and hot, wet summers.

Although spring regularly brings rain, temperatures are comfortable, typically in the mid to upper 70s. The thermometer often rises into the high 90s in summer, occasionally exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Thunderstorms occur regularly, often without warning.

Fall temperatures are similar to spring, with less humidity. Autumn foliage usually peaks around late October or early November. Average temperatures in winter reach the mid-50s. Snow is possible but not likely. 

Flooding occurs most frequently in winter. Please note that rain in upstate South Carolina may result in the park reaching the flood stage.

Visitation Stats

According to National Park Service visitation statistics, Congaree received between 200,000 and 250,000 visitors each of the past three years. Accordingly, it is one of the least-visited national parks in the United States.

Spring consistently sees the most visitors, with summer and fall bringing slightly fewer guests. Winter is the least crowded time of year. Regardless of when you visit, you should find the crowd levels tolerable compared to most national parks.

Congaree National Park Mosquito Meter

Congaree National Park mosquito meter
Mosquito Meter. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

It would be best to worry more about the number of mosquitoes than people. Please be aware that a warm, humid climate and standing waters make a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. 

A mosquito meter outside the visitor center draws a chuckle, but it is no laughing matter. The scale ranges from 1, “all clear,” to 6, a “war zone.” Thankfully, we went on a winter day with the meter pointing to number 1. I suggest you pack insect repellant regardless of when you visit.

Congaree Fireflies

Not all bugs in Congaree are nasty. I have fond memories of chasing lightning bugs with my kids. So, I was fascinated to discover Congaree National Park harbors one of North America’s three synchronous species. 

For about two weeks between mid-May and mid-June, the unique fireflies put on a brilliant display each evening, flashing their lights in unison. The park offers a lottery system for the event, limiting the crowds to allow a better viewing experience and to protect the firefly habitat.

Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Congaree National Park depends on your primary objective. Spring and autumn are the best for ideal weather. Winter is suited to those who want to avoid crowds or have the best chances to see the park at flood stage. 

Summer is the worst time to visit due to overwhelming mosquitoes. While winter is ideal for avoiding pesky insects, spring and fall offer many days with a low reading on the mosquito meter.

Spring and fall offer the best overall experience, so you have comfortable temperatures, lower bug levels, and some colors throughout the landscape. Winter is your time to go if you genuinely want to escape the crowds or see the park flooded.

Iconic Landmark

Many of our national parks have surreal beauty that takes your breath away. Others have an iconic landmark that steals the spotlight, such as the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Although lovely, Congaree National Park does not serve breathtaking landscapes or must-see attractions.

Living in the Midwest, Julie and I have hiked many forested trails. At first glance, Congaree National Park does not appear unique. Please do not let the lack of a show-stopper prevent you from visiting. Once you settle into hiking through the park and take the old-growth floodplain forest for what it is, you appreciate the tranquility and rarity of your surroundings. 

Julie and I were surprised to discover how quiet the park is. As we stood still for a few minutes, the forest came alive. We heard various birdcalls, woodpeckers marking their territory, and squirrels climbing trees. The subtle beauty of the forest fell over us when we paused to take it all in.

Scenic Drive

Some parks are renowned for their scenic drives. Due to the park’s habitat comprising bottomland within a floodplain, no roads exist. You can explore the area by hiking or paddling.

Wildlife

a squirrel climbs a tree in Congaree National Park
Catching a squirrel in action. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Many travelers visit national parks with the hopes of observing exotic wildlife. Although Congaree National Park comprises diverse flora and fauna, you will not find large mammals feeding in the forests or walking through the waters. However, the park provides reasonable chances of spotting owls as you explore. Admittedly, Julie and I were sad we had no such luck during our visit.

Visitors occasionally spot an alligator basking near Weston Lake during summer. Everglades National Park offers the best opportunity for those who want to see alligators in a national park.

The most commonly observed animals are squirrels and birds. We watched squirrels scurrying up trees and woodpeckers making a racket while searching for food. I understand these are not headliners like those found in some other parks. If spotting unique wildlife other than owls is your main objective, you should skip this park.

Trees

bald cypress knees
Bald cypress knees. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Congaree National Park’s forests comprise many trees, including the loblolly pine, tupelo, hickory, swamp chestnut oak, sycamore, and bald cypress. You will also discover groves of dwarf palmettos in the floodplain. 

I find bald cypress trees fascinating. The deciduous conifers appear like evergreens but shed their needlelike leaves in autumn.

While walking along the Boardwalk Loop Trail, you may notice some odd spires or “knees” jutting out of the water. Bald cypress trees regularly grow these peculiar protrusions from their roots. 

Scientists are still determining why this occurs. Some believe the knees help aerate the roots or provide additional stability. Their presence adds a mysterious quality to the landscape.

Popular Activities

Hiking in Congaree National Park, SC
Hiking is one of the park’s top activities. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Hiking, kayaking, and fishing are the park’s most popular activities. To maximize your experience, we suggest you hike the 2.6-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail or go kayaking. Each activity places you within the floodplain, yielding an excellent perspective of the towering canopy.

The Boardwalk Loop Trail consists of lower and elevated sections with benches and twenty points of interest. Due to the park exceeding the flood stage, part of the lower trail was submerged during our visit. We encountered a few other sections where water seeped between the boards when we stepped down with our weight. It certainly added a level of excitement to the hike.

Some national parks boast extensive boardwalk trails. While Julie and I have many parks yet to visit, the Boardwalk Loop Trail is undoubtedly the longest contiguous boardwalk path we have encountered in a national park. The trailhead sits behind the visitor center, and the entire trail is fully accessible.

While the park does not offer guided canoe tours, you can rent a canoe or kayak from an approved local outfitter. Paddling Cedar Creek puts you in the floodplain next to the towering bald cypresses and tupelos.

Other Things To Do in the Area

Shark hanging from the ceiling in the South Carolina State Museum
Preparing to walk under a shark in the South Carolina State Museum. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Columbia offers many accommodations, eateries, and things to do. We suggest two experiences in particular. First, stroll through the University of South Carolina campus. It is free to explore, rich in history, and has distinctive architecture and lovely manicured grounds. 

The Horseshoe showcases the best of these features and is on the National Register of Historic Places. I could sit under the giant shade trees for hours. It is so peaceful and beautiful.

Second, visit the South Carolina State Museum. Although Julie and I have visited Columbia several times, we somehow overlooked the attraction. The museum has exciting exhibits, including dinosaurs, natural history, agriculture, forestry, space, and optical illusions. 

Julie and I particularly enjoyed the digital dome planetary experience, the observatory, and the historic telescope exhibit. If you or anyone in your family enjoys astronomy, it is a must-visit attraction.

The Bottom Line

Congaree national park when the flood stage is reached
Taking a selfie along the Boardwalk Loop Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Is Congaree National Park worth visiting? That subjective question depends on what you want to experience at a national park. 

You will be disappointed if you seek breathtaking scenery or an iconic landmark. Similarly, this is not your park if you hope to spot exotic wildlife or take a beautiful scenic drive.

If you enjoy hiking or kayaking, Congaree offers a fantastic experience. For those who appreciate a peaceful boardwalk stroll or nature’s subtleties, the park will reward you. 

While some parks only allow you to observe from a distance, Congaree National Park puts you in the thick of the action where you feel like you are part of the park. Pack your bug spray and wet weather gear. The Congaree floodplain awaits you.

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

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After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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