Congaree National Park is home to the last 11,000 protected acres of what used to be 35 million acres of old-growth floodplain forests that used to grow in the southern United States. The bald cypress, old-growth oaks, and loblolly pines are all equally impressive and among some of the tallest trees on the east coast. Standing far beneath their shady leaves was truly an amazing adventure. The park is located in Hopkins, South Carolina and offers over 25 miles of hiking trails, as well as canoeing and kayaking on the 15 miles of the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. You can bring your own canoe or the NPS website has a list of several companies to rent or book with. We spent one very full day here, but you could easily spend more!
Entrance Fee: FREE
Lodging: Congaree National Park has 2 campgrounds- both require prior reservations at recreation.gov, and there is backcountry camping as well with a proper permit. When we visited, we stayed in Columbia, SC about 20 minutes from the park. There is plenty of excellent dining and lodging options and plenty more to explore there if you would prefer not to camp!
Dining: Small number of snacks and drinks available in the gift shop. No other food options onsite.
Must Know Before You Go:
1. Check in with the ranger about trail closings before heading out. Most of this park is located on a floodplain and often trails or boardwalks can be damaged. The water level was relatively low when we were there, so it was easy to adjust and just walk around the damaged portion of the trail but that would not be possible with higher water levels. And in some places, even with lower water levels it was still not safe to step off the boardwalk.
2. They have a mosquito meter the second you drive into the park….. bugs love this place, just like us, so you may want repellent!
Cell Service: We had decent cell service near the visitor center and sporadically on the trails near the visitor center but for the Bates Ferry Trail and Fork Swamp Trail we had no cell service at all.
One Day Itinerary
Harry Hampton Visitor Center- The first half of the day starts right at the visitor center. This is also a good place/only place to use the restrooms and check with the park rangers on trail closures. They also have several maps and a self-guided brochure for the Boardwalk Loop Trail that our kiddos loved following along with. All trails are given a number and you will see that number posted to trees throughout the trail so it is easy to determine if you are following the right path.
Boardwalk Loop Trail/Weston Lake Loop Trail(3)– This 4.8-mile roundtrip trail is easy to moderate in difficulty and starts right at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. The Weston Loop Trail portion of this hike is not stroller accessible, but the Boardwalk Loop Trail is. It is obviously boardwalk but there were many areas you needed to walk around where the boardwalk was damaged, so I would not recommend a stroller before speaking with the park rangers about possible breaks in the boardwalk. All three of our children easily completed this hike on their feet (we took a carrier just in case but ended up not needing it for this park with the mostly flat terrain). I would start this trail by walking through the visitor center and taking a right on the boardwalk. The Boardwalk Loop Trail will run right into the Weston Lake Loop Trail about a 0.5-mile in. It is well labeled-you cannot miss it. Also, if that entrance is closed, you can continue the boardwalk loop and turn right on the Sims Trail to meet up with the rest of the Weston Loop Trail before heading back to the Boardwalk loop and heading back to the visitor center. Just something to note- you will be walking in a forest and swamp area where it is often muddy and an experience you will share with many mosquitos if visiting May-September, so bug repellent and hiking books are recommended. This was definitely our favorite hike and if you only had time for one this is the one I would choose😊
Bluff Trail (1)– This 1.8-mile roundtrip trail is easy for any age to accomplish! The terrain is very flat on a wide, well-marked trail and you leave and return from the visitor center. The trees on this trail are quite impressive! I was also really impressed with the park rangers at Congaree. They even explained to our kids how and why they do controlled burns in the forest to keep the area healthy and safe. They had completed one recently on this trail, so the kids got to see the aftermath while hiking it.
For the next two trails you will have to leave the visitor center and drive about 20 min to the other side of the park. If you put either trail head into google, it will take you right there (East on SC-48, and South on US-601). Both trailhead entrances have their own parking areas off unmarked driveways off US-601. Please use google and take a map because they really just look like a driveway down into a swamp area, so the parking areas are easy to miss. I would also like to note that both trails are in a very isolated area and we have no cell service. We were also out there for several hours on a Friday and never saw anyone on these two trails even though the visitor center trails were quite busy that day. The trails are well marked but overgrown and even in April the bugs were quite abundant. All of that to say- go anyways! They are definitely worth it😊
Bates Ferry Trail (7)- This 2.2-mile roundtrip trail is easy in difficulty. The trail was pretty overgrown when we were there but was very wide and still very easy to walk. There are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife and beautiful views of the Congaree River at the turn around😊
Fork Swamp Trail (9)- This 0.6-mile roundtrip trail is marked moderate in difficulty. It is a short loop hike along the Bates Old River. Our kiddos loved this area- It was overcast, which made the forest and swamp appear darker, and the trail is incredibly quiet and isolated. They thought this would be the perfect opportunity to spot an alligator! While we did not see one, the kids had fun searching anyways😊
Hope you have a wonderful adventure!