Congaree National Park is a hidden gem in South Carolina, with beautiful old-growth cypress trees, lush greenery, and abundant wildlife. It’s absolutely worth a visit while you’re on the East Coast—and best of all, given its small footprint, it’s easy to see its best highlights with just a short amount of time in the park. Here’s exactly what to do in Congaree National Park if you have just one day to explore.
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What is Congaree National Park?
Congaree National Park is home to the largest old-growth hardwood bottomlands in the southeastern United States.
So, what’re bottomlands exactly?
Well, I’m so glad you asked!
Bottomlands are kind of like a swamp—basically a low-lying land that floods on a seasonal basis. A swamp is flooded all of the time, however, bottomlands only flood intermittently. There once was quite a bit of bottomlands in the United States—30 million acres, in fact—but now less than 40% of them remains.
Bottomlands have a rich ecosystem, thanks to the waters that sweep through their forests, and render the land incredibly fertile and full of biodiversity.
For example, Congaree is known for its towering loblolly pines and bald cypress trees, which can live to over a thousand years. Because of its nutrient-rich soil and year round warm temperatures, Congaree National Park actually has one of the tallest deciduous forests on the planet, earning it the title of the “Redwoods of the East.”
But beyond its trees, it also has incredible wildlife—in fact, during my husband, Justin’s and my visit, we saw TONS of different wildlife, including (VERY plump) gray squirrels, green anole, and pileated woodpeckers with vibrant red heads!
Congaree also just so happens to be one of the least visited U.S. National Parks, with just 200,000 annual visitors—which means you’re more likely to enjoy all those tall trees and the wildlife in relative peace and quiet!
How to Get to Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is in Kingville, South Carolina. It’s conveniently located less than half an hour away from Columbia, the state’s capital city, or less than two hours away from either Charleston or Charlotte, North Carolina.
If you happen to be flying to visit Congaree, you could theoretically fly into Columbia’s teeny airport, but you’ll likely find better deals flying into either Charleston or Charlotte (we always find the best deals for airfare on Skyscanner!). Regardless of which airport you fly into, you’re going to want a rental car to get to and around the Columbia area.
Unlike most national parks, it’s totally free to get in!
What to Do in Congaree National Park in One Day
In terms of national parks, Congaree is quite small—just over 40 square miles. So one of the best things about Congaree is how easy it is to see most of the park’s highlights in just a short period of time.
When you arrive at the park, head to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, which has a big ol’ lot with ample parking. Not only is it a handy place to ask rangers any questions you might have and pick up a souvenir or two, but it’s also where the trailhead for the most popular hike in the park, the Boardwalk Loop trail, departs from.
So let’s kick off our one day in Congaree!
Morning: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail and Weston Lake Loop
Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail
Kick off your time with this 2.6 mile trail—but before you hit the boardwalk, don’t forget to pick up an interpretive map of the trail from the Visitor Center. It provides interesting information and background on sites that you’ll pass along the trail, from an abandoned moonshine still from Prohibition to the dwarf palmetto plants that dot the forest floor.
Along this flat, wooden boardwalk, you’ll wander through a cypress-tupelo flat, parts of which are totally submerged in water. The cypress trees and their knobby knees jutting out of the soil seriously look like something from another planet!
Make sure to stop at the Weston Lake overlook to see if you can spot any turtles or fish in the tannin-stained water below.
Add-on the Weston Lake Loop Trail
If you want a slightly longer hike, add on the Weston Lake Loop, which delves even deeper into Congaree’s bottomlands. A significant portion of the trail follows along the Boardwalk Loop Trail, with an additional 2.3 miles of a flat dirt path that follows along Cedar Creek and loops around the northern shoreline of Weston Lake, the largest oxbow lake in the park.
To hike along the Weston Lake Loop, take the Boardwalk Loop Trail clockwise from the Visitor’s Center and hike 1.2 miles until you hit the Weston Lake Overlook. The Weston Lake Loop trail continues on from this point to your left hand side, around Weston Lake, until you hit the junction with the Carolina Slims Trail, 3.2 miles in.
Before following this trail north, back to the Boardwalk Loop Trail, consider taking a slight detour (i.e., a couple hundred feet) south to Wise Lake, which is a beautiful lake that’s great for spotting birds, otters, or even alligators. Otherwise, you’ll hike 0.6 miles back north to the wooden boardwalk.
To be honest, the scenery along the Weston Lake Loop is pretty similar to what you’ll see along the Boardwalk Loop, but it’s definitely a lot less crowded if you truly want to feel immersed in nature (the sounds of Congaree are INCREDIBLY peaceful!).
I’d recommend packing a lunch for your day in Congaree—the closest restaurants you’ll find are about half an hour away (one-way) in Columbia. There’s a sweet little picnic shelter, right by the Visitor Center, which would be perfect for nomming down on some PB&Js.
Afternoon: Kayaking down Cedar Creek
Kayak on Cedar Creek
One of our favorite things to do in Congaree National Park was to kayak along Cedar Creek, a gentle creek that slowly weaves through the park’s cypress forests. There’s a 15-mile (one-way) Cedar Creek Canoe Trail that runs along the river, so you’ll have plenty to keep you busy for the afternoon!
Just a short drive away from the Visitor Center, the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing offers a gravel parking lot and a trail, a couple hundred yards, down to a little wooden platform that’s perfect for launching canoes or kayaks.
We used our inflatable kayak (check out our review of the Intex Explorer K2 Kayak), which was a breeze to carry down to the little dock area. However, if you don’t happen to have a nifty inflatable kayak, there’s a number of outfitters where you can rent hard shell kayaks from, including River Runner Outdoor Center, Palmetto Outdoors, J.K. Adventure Guides, and Carolina Outdoor Adventures.
The rental prices vary significantly, but you can expect to pay at least $100 for two and a half hour kayak or canoe rental and a bit more if you want the equipment dropped off and picked up for you.
We paddled upstream first and let the gentle current carry us back to the launchsite when we were done. I’d recommend doing this as well—you can get the “hard” part out of the way first (it’s really not very hard!) and can just relax and enjoy the float back.
One thing to be aware of is that, depending upon the water level, downed trees can get in the way of paddling—sometimes, you’ll need to duck down low to make sure you don’t get smacked in the head or, alternatively, a big ol’ tree might get in your way underwater (this happened to us!). You’ll either need to paddle to shore and carry your kayak or canoe on land around the downed tree or simply turn around.
Evening: Head to Columbia
To be honest, I had literally never heard of Columbia before road tripping to Congaree (guess I never memorized those state capitals!) and was pleasantly surprised to find a bustling little city that’s the perfect place to cap off a day exploring the national park.
There’s definitely plenty of things to do in Columbia, South Carolina to keep you busy for a couple of nights, like exploring the city’s hopping brewery scene (we liked River Rat Brewing, which has a KILLER rooftop patio) or its plethora of restaurants, like Transmissions Arcade, with a fun vibe and cool retro arcade games.
If You Have Extra Time in Congaree National Park
To be honest, those are pretty much the major things to do in Congaree National Park, but if you have more than one day here and are looking for more adventures, there’s a variety of other hiking trails that you can hit, like:
This 7.6 mile trail would definitely be my choice if you wanted to add on another hike in Congaree. Along this trail, you’ll walk along a flat dirt path and wooden boardwalks through a quiet section of Congaree’s cypress-tupelo flat. Because of its remoteness, this is the best trail in the park to spot wildlife, especially birds, but you can also see deer, opossums, and even mountain lions!
General Greene Tree
Congaree is home to the General Greene Tree, the largest bald cypress tree in the park (at least, that’s been discovered so far!). Measuring a whopping 30 feet in circumference, this tree was recognized as a South Carolina Heritage Tree by the non-profit organization, Trees SC, which promotes the protection of the state’s forests.
If you want to see the tree up close and personal, you can hike to it by taking a portion of the Bates Ferry Trail. From its trailhead, hike about 0.4 miles into the trail until you see a path on your right hand side (you’ll also see a trail on the left side shortly before reaching the trail you’re looking for, so don’t be fooled!). Follow this path across a metal bridge and continue until it starts curving to the left. Here, take a look to your right—the famed General Greene is amongst the cypress trees standing in water here.
Beyond the General Greene tree, I’m not totally convinced that hiking the entire 2.3 miles of Bates Ferry Trail is worth it—it’s quite buggy, can be overgrown, and doesn’t have as pretty scenery as the Boardwalk Loop or Weston Lake Loop. But if you’re looking for something off-the-beaten path in Congaree and don’t mind some mosquitoes and cobwebs, you might love it!
This loop trail leads to Bates Old River, an oxbow lake that was created by a storm in 1852.
Similar to the Bates Ferry Trail, this trail can be a bit hit or miss—sometimes, it’s flooded, full of cobwebs, or incredibly overgrown. It’s also not super close to the Visitor Center, about a 23-minute drive one way. So I’d really only recommend driving out here if you have low expectations and are okay with having to turn around if the trail is inaccessible or just unenjoyable.
Best Time to go to Congaree National Park
Really, Congaree can be quite lovely to visit most of the season, but for its sweltering and buggy summers.
Of all the times to visit Congaree, spring (March through May) may just be the best, with warm, pleasant temperatures and relatively bug-free conditions.
Well, most of the annoying bugs, anyway.
One of the coolest things to see in Congaree is its synchronous firefly viewing, when a special species of fireflies flash in unison to find their mates (fun fact—while there’s over 2,000 species of fireflies on the planet, only three of them synchronously flash!). This typically takes place sometime between mid-May and mid-June—so if you can time your visit between then, I’d definitely recommend it (it’s totally on our bucket list!).
As mentioned above, summer is… not great in Congaree.
From June through August, temperatures can often exceed 100 degrees during the day, with the soupy humidity making it feel even hotter. Additionally, it’s the wettest time of the year, making many of the trails likely to flood and become inaccessible, and also the buggiest (bring lots and lots of bug spray, friends!).
So, yeah, maybe avoid going to Congaree in the summertime.
September through mid-November is a pleasant time to visit, with temperatures in the 70s, relatively low humidity, and way less bugs than the summertime.
If you want to see the fall foliage in the park, try to time your trip around late October through early November. Come fall, the cypress trees turn fiery colors of cinnamon and orange, while the tupelos offer scarlet and golden foliage.
Given its subtropical climate, South Carolina in winter remains pleasantly warm, with temperatures usually reaching into the lower 60s or upper 50s. Plus, Congaree has the least amount of bugs in the winter.
However, it’s also most likely to flood during winter (late November through February). Congaree actually sits on a watershed that’s the size of the state of Maryalnd—so rainfall in different parts of the state can very much cause flooding within the park, even if the Columbia area hasn’t received much rainfall. So, if you visit during the wintertime, I’d recommend coming with a positive attitude, waterproof boots (I have this pair and Justin has this pair), and a willingness to be flexible and adapt if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.
For what it’s worth, we visited in late November and had perfect weather (with highs in the mid-70s!) and dry trails!
Where to Stay When Visiting Congaree National Park
Columbia is a great homebase to stay when you’re visiting Congaree, with plenty of hotels to choose from and shops and restaurants to keep you busy once you’re done exploring the national park. Consider:
- Hotel Trundle: Hands down, this is our go-to pick in Columba—the hotel is stylish, yet cozy and has so many incredible extras, from a complimentary beer or wine upon check-in; complimentary made-to-order breakfast for the first two guests; and plush robes to get comfy in at the end of the day.
- Graduate Columbia: This hotel was recently renovated and boasts a cheeky decor, with lots of quirky nods of Southern charm. It’s conveniently located within walking distance to tons of restaurants and offers a sweet little onsite bar and restaurant.
- 1425 Inn: If you prefer more intimate accommodations, consider this sweet little inn, housed in a historic home. The rooms are spacious and clean, with nice extras, like a simple continental breakfast and complimentary snacks and coffee throughout the day.
I hope you have a better idea of exactly what to do in Congaree National Park! Do you have any questions about visiting the park? Let us know in the comments below!