Congaree National Park is the sort of place that reveals its beauty slowly. On the surface, it’s just a forest, similar to many places in the southern US. But if you stay a while, you begin to understand that Congaree is something different. Beneath its canopy, you walk through the last relic of an ancient sea of mighty trees.
I visited the park during my solo pandemic road trip, and, while my personal experience was marred by burnout and loneliness, I left with an appreciation for the place. I feel the need to write a short guide so you may succeed where I mostly failed.
Congaree National Park is a 20,000-acre forest that sits along the Congaree River, just south of Columbia, South Carolina. It’s one of the last surviving areas of old growth forest in the southern US, with some of the tallest deciduous trees you’ll find in the country. It’s a forest at full potential and the perfect habitat for many species of animals that call Congaree home.
The park has 25 miles of hiking trails, but essentially they are all flat and traverse similar areas. If you’re like me and have a short attention span, I’d say only plan one day hiking. If you want to see more, spend a second day kayaking or canoeing.
When to visit
The park varies a lot with the seasons. Best times are in spring (March to May) and fall (September to November), when the trees are looking their best but it’s not crushingly hot.
Keep an eye on the river level, as the park gets significant flooding several times a year. I visited in November, when the park was flooded. Most of the trails were underwater, but the elevated boardwalk was open. Scope out the current conditions online and double-check with the park rangers when you arrive.
Things to do
Visitor center – start here to plan your visit and learn about the park. It’s a story worth hearing. The land was once owned by a logging company, and with logging operations still active nearby, it’s sort of amazing that the forest survives. You can also check the current trail conditions, including the mosquito meter (it goes from “1-All Clear” to “6-War Zone”).
Boardwalk Trail – this is the must-see feature of the park, a 2.6 mile loop through the old growth forest. It starts at the visitor center. Get the most out of your walk with the self-guided brochure. Part of the boardwalk is elevated above the forest floor. In addition to looking cool, this means that part of the trail is accessible even during moderate flooding.
Other trails – If you want to see more, you can hop off the Boardwalk Trail and add the Weston Lake Loop Trail to your hike for an additional 4.4 miles. You don’t really want to hike farther than that, do you?
Canoeing and kayaking – Full disclosure, I visited during the off season and a pandemic, so there was no kayaking for me. But this would definitely be a beautiful way to see the forest. Several outfitters run trips through the area; refer to the list on the park website.
Where to stay
The park is a short drive southeast from Columbia, where there are many hotel and Airbnb options. Check out the area around Fort Jackson for convenient access. I’m not a camper, but the park has two tent camping areas if you’re into that sort of thing.