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The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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Keri Stooksbury

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Congaree National Park is located 20 miles from the state capital of Columbia in South Carolina. This amazing national park is comprised of old-growth floodplain forests, rivers, and creeks. Each year, over 200,00 visitors come to explore and discover the majesty of Congaree National Park. Whether you’re up for some backcountry camping or want to experience a walking tour with a ranger, you’ll find it here in this incredible part of the world.

How To Get to Congaree National Park

Where Is Congaree National Park?

Congaree National Park is located near the capital city of Columbia, South Carolina. Centrally located in the state, this national park stretches over 20,000 acres of wilderness just waiting for visitors to explore. Congaree is nestled in the Sandhills region of the state.

Nearest Airports to Congaree National Park

Visitors coming to Congaree National Park typically utilize a small airport and a couple of major airports. The major airports will require a 2-hour drive to the park compared to the small airport nearby. Take a look at the airport options for flying to Congaree National Park.

Charleston International Airport (CHS)

Charleston International Airport is a major airport located in Charleston, South Carolina. Flying into this airport can get you very close to Congaree National Park.

The airport offers nonstop flights to dozens of cities around the U.S. and connecting flights to many locations worldwide. CHS services major airlines, including American, Avelo, Delta, Frontier, and JetBlue.

Once you arrive at Charleston International Airport, you are approximately 2 hours from Congaree National Park. The airport has rental car kiosks to help you access a vehicle to get you through the final leg of your journey.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is located in Charlotte, North Carolina. The drive from this airport to the park entrance will take approximately 2 hours.

As one of the busiest airports in the world, this airport provides nonstop flights to 184 locations across the globe. Charlotte Douglas International Airport services 8 major airlines, including Air Canada, American, Contour, and United.

Flying into Charlotte Douglas International Airport may work best for your travel needs and help you make the most of your travel time.

Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE)

Columbia Metropolitan Airport is the closest airport to Congaree National Park. This airport is in Columbia, South Carolina, about 20 miles from the park’s entrance. 

This airport has nonstop flights to 8 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and New York City. CAE services well-known airlines such as American, Delta, and United. For a convenient trip to Congaree National Park, you should consider booking a flight that will take you to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

Driving to Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is located in Hopkins, South Carolina, near the state’s capital. This park is accessed by Interstate 77 or Interstate 26. The road taken from the interstate is SC-48, Bluff Road, which forks into Old Bluff Road. The park entrance is located on Old Bluff Road.

Public Transportation to Congaree National Park

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority offers public bus transit, or COMET, for visitors who prefer not to drive to the park. This bus service stops at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and is only $4 for an all-day pass. This is an excellent way to get to and from the park, so you don’t have to worry about parking or driving and can get right to exploring.

Getting Around Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park Elevated Boardwalk Flooded
Image Credit: NPS

The best way to get around Congaree National Park is on foot, by canoe, or by kayak. Since most of the park is covered in a floodplain, driving is not an option. Visitors can park their cars at the visitor center and start exploring from there.

What To See and Do in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park has a variety of activities and sites for guests to explore during their visit. From hiking and canoeing to informative ranger-led programs, there is something for everyone to enjoy during a trip to this national park.

Canoeing and Kayaking

Canoeing and kayaking are some of the most popular activities for guests in Congaree National Park. Cedar Creek is the best place for canoeing and boating. This creek passes through old-growth forests that showcase some of the tallest trees in the easter region of North America.

Cedar Creek is approximately 15 miles long and takes visitors through the Congaree wilderness to the Congaree River. Taking a canoe or kayak down Cedar Creek is one of the best ways to see the park’s wildlife. Guests often spot deer, turtles, river otters, water birds, and sometimes alligators.

The park has an abundance of information for those who want to paddle through the park. Brochures, maps, and trail information are available in the visitor center or on the park’s canoe trail webpage.

Fishing

Fishing is a favorite activity in Congaree National Park. Fishing is allowed in all parts of Congaree National Park as long as you are further than 25 feet from bridges, boardwalks, and overlooks.

If you hope to fish in this national park, it is important to note that boats with motors are prohibited. It is also essential for anyone planning to fish to obtain a fishing license before casting a line. Some popular fishing locations include Dawson’s Lake and Cedar Creek. On top of catching some incredible fish, it is highly likely to spot river otters and other wildlife in these watery areas of the park.

Bottom Line: Fishing is the perfect way to enjoy a quiet day and take in the stunning sights and sounds in Congaree National Park.

Hiking

Hiking Congaree National Park
Image Credit: Leslie Cross via Unsplash

Hiking is one of the top activities guests enjoy at Congaree National Park. There are several miles of trails available for every level of ability. The most popular hike at Congaree National Park is the Boardwalk Loop Trail. This easy trail is 2.4 miles long and takes visitors through an old-growth hardwood forest and through the swampy areas of the park. 

Other popular trails are the Weston Lake Trail, the Kingsnake Trail, and the Firefly Trail. Each trail is rated as easy, moderate, or difficult. All the trails are for foot travel, and most begin at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. For those who intend to hike, bringing a compass, map, or other forms of offline GPS tool is recommended.

Hiking is one of the best ways to see the different landscapes and biomes through the park and the variety of animals that live there, including deer, snakes, turtles, alligators, and bobcats.

Junior Ranger Program

The youngest tourists in Congaree National Park will want to take advantage of the Junior Ranger Program. This program allows children of all ages to explore the park and complete learning activities along the way.

This program has a variety of activities and quests for children to complete while visiting the park. Once the activities are complete, the activity booklets can be submitted to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Children who complete the Junior Ranger activities can earn a Junior Ranger Badge for a unique souvenir of Congaree National Park.

Ranger-led Programs

Ranger led programs Congaree National Park
Image Credit: NPS

Ranger-led programs are one of the best ways to learn about Congaree National Park. Rangers lead several walking tours and talks throughout the weeks at this national park. 

One of the most popular ranger-led programs is the guided canoe tour. These tours take place many times throughout the year. They offer an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity of the park. Rangers can point out the variety of wildlife found in the park and teach about the park’s history.

For a peaceful yet informative way to explore Congaree National Park, sign up for one of the many ranger-led tours offered. You will learn much more than trying to explore and learn independently.

Best Times To Visit Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is a fantastic park to visit, no matter which time of year you plan a trip. If you are hoping to schedule a visit and want to experience a particular event or sight, there may be better times than others to plan a visit. Let’s explore the best times to visit Congaree National Park.

Best Time To Visit Congaree National Park To Avoid the Crowds

An uncrowded visit to a national park is what most people long for when traveling. If that’s the case for you, you should plan a trip to Congaree National Park during the month of August.

During this month, there will be very few human visitors, but be aware that the number of insect visitors will be much higher due to the higher heat and humidity. If you plan to enjoy Congaree National Park during its least crowded month, be sure to come prepared with lots of insect repellent for those pesky mosquitoes.

Best Time To Visit Congaree National Park for Fall Colors

Congaree National Park for Fall Colors
Image Credit: Ashley Chappo via Flickr (license)

If you love autumn, you should definitely plan a visit to Congaree National Park in early November. The first week of November is when the fall colors are at their brightest in this national park. The temperatures during the day reach a high in the 60s or 70s, and the sun typically shines brightly during this time.

If you are seeking a fall trip, planning to arrive at the beginning of November will give you a spectacular show of the vibrant colors of the park with ideal temperatures for hiking and enjoying time outdoors.

Cheapest Time To Visit Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is one of the few national parks that does not require an entrance fee, which means that no matter when you plan a visit, you will save money. If you want to plan a trip to this national park and go easy on your budget, the best time to visit is mid to late September. September has lower lodging rates in the nearby cities, and there are cheaper flights during this time of year.

Bottom Line: Planning a visit during September is the best way to get the most bang for your buck when visiting Congaree National Park.

Annual Events in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park hosts various events throughout the year that occur regularly. There are a couple of events that take place each year. Take a look at the yearly events at Congaree National Park to see if you would like to plan your trip during one of these events.

National Park Week

National Park Week takes place each year in April at Congaree National Park. Each year, guests are invited to explore and learn about the park. This event takes place at each national park, where fees are waived. The park hosts a variety of guided tours, special programming, activities, and workshops that teach about the park’s history, nature, and culture.

Planning a visit to Congaree National Park during National Park Week would be an incredible opportunity for visitors of all ages and stages in life.

Synchronous Firefly Event

Synchronous Fireflies at Congaree
Image Credit: NPS

The Synchronous Firefly Event takes place each year for 2 weeks in mid-May and 2 weeks in mid-June. There are only 3 places in North America where fireflies synchronize their illumination for others to see, and one of those places is in Congaree. Guests come from all around to see this phenomenal event.

These insects glow simultaneously because they are searching for a mate during these times. This event is a beautiful sight to behold and creates a magical atmosphere.

Where To Stay In and Near Congaree National Park

There are plenty of lodging options for your Congaree National Park, no matter if you choose to stay in the park’s boundaries or a town nearby. From camping in the great outdoors to luxury hotels, there’s something for every traveler in this part of South Carolina.

Inside the Park

Whether you prefer camping in a developed campground or the backcountry, Congaree National Park has a perfect location for you to stay within the park’s boundaries. The only option for lodging in Congaree National Park is to sleep under the stars at one of the several campgrounds on the property. Let’s check out the 3 campgrounds at Congaree National Park and see which sounds best for your national park vacation.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is an incredible way to fully appreciate Congaree National Park. There are campsites that can be accessed on foot or by kayak or canoe. Anyone who wishes to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free permit before setting up camp for the night. There are no specific campsites designated in the backcountry, but camping is permitted 100 feet from Tom’s Creek, Bates Old River, Wise Lake, and Cedar Creek.

Bottom Line: Backcountry camping provides a primitive experience for visitors to enjoy the beauty and wonder of Congaree National Park without the distractions from everyday life.

Bluff Campground

Bluff Campground is one of the 2 developed campgrounds at Congaree National Park. This campground is located a mile from the Longleaf Campground and the Harry Hampton Visitor Center on the Bluff Trail. 

These campsites feature a fire ring and picnic table for guests to utilize during their stay. While this is a developed campground, there are no restroom facilities on site. This campground is exclusively for tent campers, and vehicles are prohibited, meaning visitors must carry their equipment in. For the perfect mix of primitive and modern camping, plan a stay at Bluff Campground.

Longleaf Campground

Longleaf Campground is located near the park’s entrance road. This campground is composed of 10 individual sites and 4 sites for groups.

The campsites at Longleaf Campground feature a fire ring and a picnic table. There are vault toilets available at the front of the campground, but there is no running water available. These campsites are exclusively for tent campers. Vehicles in this campground are not permitted.

If you are looking for a campground near the entrance to Congaree National Park with some camping conveniences, Longleaf Campground may be a perfect choice.

Towns Near Congaree National Park

There are several options for setting up a home base near Congaree National Park. These towns range from 30 minutes to several hours from the park. Let’s take a look at the 3 closest cities to Congaree National Park to help you plan for your national park adventure.

Augusta, Georgia

Augusta is 90 miles from Congaree National Park. This city has many options for lodging, hundreds of options for dining, and abundant entertainment opportunities. It takes approximately 90 minutes to get to the park from Augusta. 

Every street has several contemporary chain hotels, historic inns, and budget-friendly motels. Many tourists opt to stay in one of the historic inns to experience authentic Southern charm. Augusta is the perfect place to set up a home base while visiting Congaree National Park.

Dining is quite an experience in Augusta. There are restaurants everywhere you look, serving everything from Southern comfort foods to fine dining. While staying in Augusta, the hardest decision you will have is deciding where to dine each day.

Augusta has much to offer when it comes to recreation and entertainment. From touring the historic city to music and history museums and exhibitions to opportunities for outdoor adventure like kayaking and baseball, there’s something for everyone in this exciting city.

If you seek a city where the excitement never ends, plan to stay in Augusta. With so much to do and see in Augusta, it is well worth the drive to and from Congaree National Park.

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston South Carolina
Image Credit: Leonel Heisenberg via Unsplash

Charleston is 105 miles from Congaree National Park. This town is a popular tourist town with many places for lodging, dining, and entertainment.

Every type of accommodation imaginable is available for tourists to choose from, including chain hotels, locally owned bed and breakfasts, cottages, historic inns, and beach resorts. No matter where you want to rest your head during your Congaree National Park vacation, you can find precisely what you are looking for in Charleston.

Charleston has a superb dining and nightlife scene. There are many restaurants serving fresh, authentic international cuisine, southern comfort foods, and gourmet dining. There is also an abundance of breweries and wine bars for those who enjoy craft beers, fine wines, and signature cocktails.

There is something that appeals to every type of traveler in Charleston. This city offers a variety of tours to well-known attractions, museums for arts and culture, and plenty of boutiques and specialty shops for shopping enthusiasts. There are beauty and wellness spas for guests seeking rejuvenation and restoration and outdoor adventures like fishing and golf.

It takes about 2 hours to get to Charleston from Congaree National Park. With so many places for lodging, dining, and entertainment, this city makes a wonderful home away from home during your national park vacation.

Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia is the closest city to Congaree National Park. This city is 18 miles from the park, about a 20-minute drive. There are several places for lodging, eating, and recreation in Columbia. Columbia has a variety of hotels to choose from, including modern chain hotels, affordable inns and motels, and many privately owned rentals.

There are many restaurants to choose from in the lively town of Columbia. The majority of the restaurants in Columbia are locally owned and serve one-of-a-kind creations that will make your tastebuds sing for joy. From gourmet dining to casual diners and dives, there’s something for every palate in Columbia.

There are several shopping districts in Columbia as well as a downtown that has been recently revitalized for those who enjoy shopping for unique souvenirs and gifts. There are also plenty of places to tour, such as historical parks, museums, and performing arts centers.

Bottom Line: With its proximity to Congaree National Park and its endless list of activities, dining, and accommodations, Columbia is the ideal location to set up a base camp during your national park vacation.

Where To Eat Near Congaree National Park

There aren’t any restaurants in Congaree National Park, but several options are nearby. If you are hoping to eat during your park adventures, it is best to pack a lunch and have a picnic in one of the beautiful areas in the park’s boundaries. Let’s explore some of the options for dining near Congaree National Park.

Big T’s Bar-B-Q

Big T’s Bar-B-Q is a southern-style barbecue joint located in Gasden, South Carolina. This restaurant is just 5 miles from Congaree National Park. Big T’s Bar-B-Q serves old-fashioned pit-cooked pork, chicken, beef, and home-cooked classic sides like collard greens, french fries, and green beans. 

For an exceptional meal you won’t forget, be sure to visit Big T’s-Bar-B-Q during your vacation to Congaree National Park.

JD’s Place

JD’s Place is an exceptional restaurant located 5 minutes from Congaree National Park, also in Gasden.

This family-owned restaurant serves classic diner foods like cheeseburgers, french fries, and Southern comfort foods like biscuits, gravy, hashbrowns, and grits. JD’s Place is the ideal location to stop to fill up or refuel before, during, or after your Congaree National Park excursions.

Katie’s Sandwich Shop

Katie's Sandwich Shop
Image Credit: Katie’s Sandwich Shop

Katie’s Sandwich Shop is an excellent place for a delicious meal near Congaree National Park. This restaurant is located in Gaston, South Carolina. 

This restaurant serves an impressive menu of specialty sandwiches, hot wings, and salads. Guest favorites include the chef salad, the Philly steak and cheese, fried pickles, and the Southern pimento cheese sandwich.

Katie’s Sandwich Shop is the perfect stop for dining in or taking a meal on the go when visiting Congaree National Park.

Mr. Bunky’s Market

Mr. Bunky’s Market is located in Eastover, South Carolina, just 11 miles from Congaree National Park. This facility is a general store and full-service restaurant serving hand-crafted pizzas, burgers, sub sandwiches, salads, and more made to order. Guests rave about the fried chicken and famous Bunky Burger. 

This restaurant has so much to offer besides great food. Once you get your belly full at Mr. Bunky’s Market, don’t forget to look around the general store for unique trinkets and souvenirs. Be sure to stop at Mr. Bunky’s Market for a great meal and a fun time during your Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park Facts

1. A New National Park

Congress declared Congaree a national park in 2003. Before this was a national park, it was established as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976.

2. What’s in a Name?

Congaree National Park is named after a Native American tribe that lived on the floodplain. This tribe was called the Congaree Indians. Sadly, this tribe was wiped out by the smallpox epidemic that began when European explorers came to America.

3. Protecting America’s Last Old-growth Bottomland Forest

Congaree National Park protects America’s last remaining lot of old-growth bottomland forest. It also covers an area shaped by the people who lived or visited the site and the mark they left on the land.

4. A Hiding Place

Congaree National Park was a refuge for slaves who escaped and sought freedom. The Congaree area was a hiding place during this horrific time in history.

5. Sustained by Fire

Congaree National Park uses fire to help protect its landscape. Throughout the year, the park uses prescribed fire to help restore the longleaf ecosystem. Prescribed fire also protects the park from the risk of wildfires and invasive plants overtaking the native plants. These prescribed fires began being used in 1984.

6. An Abundance of Animals

A wide variety of animals makes their home in Congaree National Park. Some animals that can be seen in this park include wild pigs, woodpeckers, river otters, deer, bobcats, and alligators. Several animals that are endangered can be found in this park, including the red-cockaded woodpecker.

7. Helpful Water

Water from the Congaree River and the Wateree River brings nutrients and sediments that help the ecosystem of Congaree National Park. These nutrients also helped to support the growth of the national and state champion trees.

8. Congaree Biosphere Region

Congaree National Park partners with the Congaree Biosphere Region, which helps protect and preserve the biosphere region and helps sustain the natural and cultural legacies in the South Carolina Midlands.

9. Logging at Congaree

In the late 1890s, loggers began harvesting timber from the Congaree area. This temper was gathered for Francis Beidler’s Santee River Cypress Lumber Company. Still, because of the terrain, they had to end their work in the late 1910s.

10. Harry Hampton’s Efforts

Harry Hampton was one of the dedicated conservationists who fought to save the land in Congaree and have it designated as a National Park. Hampton is honored today as the visitor center was named after him.

Final Thoughts

Congaree National Park is a park filled with beauty and wonder. This national park isn’t one of the most well-known, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it when planning your national park adventures. There is so much to see and do in this mesmerizing park. Book your trip to Congaree National Park and see what this park has waiting for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to enter Congaree National Park?

Congaree National Park is one of the few national parks that offer free admittance to visitors.

How many days should I plan to visit Congaree National Park?

A half day to a full day is recommended for those visiting Congaree National Park. This length of time allows visitors to walk popular trails and take part in kayaking or canoeing on the infamous Cedar Creek.

Can I explore Congaree National Park on my bicycle?

Bicycles are prohibited on all the hiking trails in Congaree National Park. If you hope to spend some time cycling in this national park, the only place where bikes are permitted are on the paved road from Old Bluff Road to Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

Can I bring my dog to Congaree National Park?

Dogs are permitted at Congaree National Park. There are several guidelines that must be followed. Dogs must be kept on a leash and supervised at all times. Pet owners are required to clean up after pet waste. Dogs are permitted in the campgrounds and on all of the park trails.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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