Looking for a quiet, adventurous getaway? I highly recommend checking out Congaree National Park in South Carolina!
Congaree National Park was the 21st national park I’ve been to. In my quest to see all the U.S. national parks, I’m not sure how this hidden little gem escaped my notice — especially since it’s the geographically closest park to me.
I’m a big believer in exploring your local opportunities for adventure. It’s often much more budget-friendly to take a long weekend trip to a location you can drive to and save yourself the cost of a plane ticket!
So when my boyfriend and I were trying to plan a budget-friendly trip with my sister and brother-in-law last March during Spring Break, we decided to drive 4 hours north to explore Congaree National Park just outside of Columbia, South Carolina.
Is Congaree National Park Worth Visiting?
I went in to our Congaree trip with low expectations — swampy, no mountains, not so great hiking opportunities. I figured it’d be a peaceful and smaller national park (which I tend to really love!), but I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular.
To say this park blew my expectations out of the water is an understatement.
Congaree National Park is one of the most unique parks I’ve ever visited! And I think it should be added to the top of everyone’s must-visit parks list.
8 Reasons You Should Visit Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is known for their synchronous fireflies each summer — when thousands of fireflies light up the park at the same time each night to look for a mate.
And though this is a spectacular and rare event, I actually think there are a lot of other reasons to visit this park.
If you’re wondering what’s special about Congaree National Park, these are 8 reasons I think this park is definitely worth visiting!
1. It’s the “Redwoods” of the East.
This park often gets the nickname “Redwoods of the East,” and you can instantly see why when you first set foot inside Congaree’s beautiful old growth, bottomland hardwood forest — the largest intact area of this kind left in the entire United States.
The tall, towering, magnificent trees left us in awe with their beautifully colored canopy up above us.
I honestly prepared to be a little underwhelmed, since I’ve been to the Redwoods. But this was a different type of forest and every bit as beautiful as the Redwoods in its own way.
It was hard not to permanently keep my gaze upwards while hiking and canoeing.
2. It offers unparalleled solitude.
The solitude and quietness it offered was unparalleled and reminded me of being in the magical Hoh Rainforest in Olympic Park.
We saw exactly three people while hiking and probably 10 other canoe boats while canoeing. It was solitude heaven.
3. It has a unique flood plain ecosystem totally worth seeing.
We went just after a high flood period, which was the perfect time to experience the unique flood plain ecosystem of this park.
During a flood, the waters can rise as much as 10 feet on Cedar Creek and over 20 feet on the Congaree River. And the park gets about 10 full floods every year.
If you look at the photo above, you can actually see where the layers of flooding had recently receded.
The waters were still high enough that we were able to witness the beauty of the park being flooded, but they had receded enough that we were able to still hike trails and canoe without getting lost.
4. It provides really unique day hiking opportunities.
Our trail adventures were some of the best I’ve experienced. We were told we couldn’t get through the trail we chose due to flooding. But we got creative and found ways to cross flooded areas.
Navigating our way through muddy sinkholes and crossing flooded waterways with balancing acts on fallen limbs gave us such a sense of accomplishment afterwards. It was such a unique adventure!
And since the landscape changes so much depending on what flood stage you visit during, the hikes can be a completely different experience every time you go!
5. You can easily access the park wilderness by canoe/kayak.
Experiencing the park by water in our canoe was the most unique part, by far.
We were able to get into the wilderness heart of the park that you couldn’t access by foot, and it was SO beautiful.
We rented our canoes from Adventure Carolina, a small locally owned outdoor equipment store in West Columbia about 30 minutes from the park. They were amazingly helpful and friendly! And the owner even helped us with our canoe trail map and gave us extra tips.
If you go to Congaree National Park, definitely be sure to try to experience it by water, if at all possible! This was without a doubt the highlight of the trip (and that’s hard for my hiker heart to admit!).
6. Entrance is FREE.
Most National Parks require some sort of entrance fee, typically $20-$35 per car. But Congaree National Park is completely FREE!
And this tucked away little slice of heaven — labeled as the smallest park in the national park system — is completely volunteer run. There are only TWO full-time employees!!
The volunteers were some of the most helpful, kind, and enthusiastic park personnel I’ve ever interacted with. I loved how passionate they were about the park and their responsibilities.
7. You can hear the mysterious Barred Owls at dusk.
While we were finishing up our hike on the Oak Ridge Trail, the Barred Owls started hooting about an hour before dusk.
It was almost as if you could just close your eyes and experience the park fully just from the sounds filling the floodplain forest.
One of the friendly volunteers was kind of enough to alert us to take our time on the way out so that we could wait and hear the owls. He also told us to not be alarmed if we thought we were hearing monkeys — because that’s 100% what they sounded like! It was crazy!!
And on our canoe trip the next day, we were lucky enough to see one of them fly right across the water in front of us!
8. It’s a birder’s paradise.
If you love birding, you must go to Congaree National Park!
Not only do they have almost 200 species of birds — including 3 species of owls, 8 species of woodpeckers, and several species of hawks — but the aforementioned solitude allows you to hear the calls so clearly.
While canoeing, I loved just sitting back and listening to nature. It was pure wilderness, and the only sounds were birds and insects.
Note: If you go to Congaree National Park for the birding, be sure to hike the Kingsnake Trail — as it is the best trail to see a large variety of birds!
When is the best time to go to Congaree National Park?
The weather at Congaree is a little tricky, since it floods so frequently and without warning.
Winter is prone to the most flooding, and Summer is hot as sin with the bugs being at “war zone” level (yes — that’s an actual term on their mosquito meter at the park!). So I would probably avoid those two times of year.
Note: If you want to see the popular synchronous fireflies in May/June, it does come at the price of visiting the park during the Summer. You are sure to deal with extreme heat and mosquitos. Also, because of the rising popularity of this event, the park will be packed with people so you’ll miss out on the unique solitude of the park that I mentioned previously. Though you’ll see a beautiful display of fireflies, you’ll also miss out on a lot of other intriguing aspects of this park!
In my opinion, the best time to visit Congaree National Park is in either the Spring or Fall. These are ideal times, because rain and flooding aren’t quite as frequent and the weather is beautiful.
We went during March and the weather was absolutely perfect. As already mentioned, we did get really lucky because the park had just been at full flood and the waters had started receding. This gave us the best of both worlds — getting to see the park while flooded, but also still getting to hike without obstacles and canoe without getting lost.
You can go HERE to see more info on the seasonal weather trends and temperatures at the park.
How to Prepare for a Trip to Congaree National Park
If you’re interested in visiting this park, here’s what I would recommend:
- Decide which aspect of the park is most important to you. (Full flood, fireflies, hiking, canoeing, birding, etc.)
- Depending on that, decide which season is best fit for you to visit.
- Decide how long you need to explore the park. (A simple day trip or an overnight trip.)
- If staying overnight, research camping options.
- Figure out what safety equipment and gear you need for your adventures.
- Plan your trip and have fun!
These are a few other tips, based on my experience:
- If you’re camping, pack light. Even the two main campsites require some walking. You don’t want to have tons of camping gear to carry in.
- Dress in layers. When we went during the spring, it was really cold at night and slightly warm during the day.
- If you plan to canoe, check the flood gauge and weather ahead of time. And be sure to take a map, GPS, and compass. If the waters are really high, it is super easy to get lost. (Many, many experienced canoers have gotten lost out there during flood periods.) Even with the waters receded as much as they were when we went, we still had moments where we got turned around. We were very thankful to have a GPS with us.
- Wear waterproof shoes if you plan to hike. You never know when you’ll have to cross water while hiking in a floodplain!
- Don’t forget sunscreen and insect repellent, especially if you’re going during the summer.
- Take your sense of adventure! If the flood levels change and “ruin” your previous plans, try to enjoy the park for its current conditions! This park has so much to offer at various times.
Overall, I rate Congaree National Park in my top 5 national parks, and I highly, highly recommend this hidden gem that deserves so much more of the world’s attention!
Just make sure to plan ahead, know the weather, and figure out what aspects of the park are most important to you!
Have you ever visited Congaree National Park? I’d love to hear your thoughts, if so!
May your life be an adventure, today and always…