Exploring Congaree National Park

When most people think of visiting a National Park, they immediately think of the many amazing parks out west. However, there are some hidden gems within the National Park system on the east coast including Congaree National Park. Keep reading to plan a day exploring Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park entrance sign

Congaree National Park – The Basics   

  • Address: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, South Carolina 29061 
  • Hours: Open 24 hours a day year round 
  • Visitor Center: Harry Hampton Visitor Center  
    • Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM 
    • Closed on major holidays 
    • Portions of the visitor center including the museum and park film remain closed due to COVID19.  
  • Entrance Fee: None 
  • Activities: Camping, fishing, hiking, paddling  
Trees with standing water that has a rainbow pattern of colors in the water

How to get to Congaree National Park

Driving

Congaree National Park is an easy day drive from several locations within Florida. We drove from Tampa as part of a longer road trip and also visited Asheville, North Carolina and Helen, Georgia.

Driving distance from select Florida cities:  

  • Jacksonville: ~4.5 hours 
  • Gainesville: ~5.5 hours 
  • Orlando: ~6.5 hours 
  • Tallahassee: ~7 hours 
  • Tampa: ~7.5 hours 
  • Miami: ~9.25 hours 

Flying

There are three main airports to choose from if flying to reach Congaree National Park.  The closest airport is approximately 30 minutes from the park. 

  • Columbia Metropolitan Airport  

Other larger airports are located approximately 2 hours from Congaree National Park. 

  • Charlotte Douglass International Airport 
  • Charleston International Airport 
A picture of me in front of a very tall tree

Where to stay to visit Congaree National Park

Hotel or Airbnb in Columbia, South Carolina

If you prefer to stay in an Airbnb or hotel Columbia, South Carolina is the perfect city to stay in while visiting Congaree National Park. It is located approximately 30 minutes from the park and there are many accommodations to choose from.  We stayed in this cute Airbnb for a couple nights during our visit and we found it very convenient with a short drive to the park. This also allowed us to explore the city during the evening and try some of the local cuisine for dinner.

Camping in Congaree National Park 

Two campgrounds and backcountry camping are available if you prefer to stay within Congaree National Park. Both campgrounds require advanced registration and can be made through recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. A small fee is required, but senior citizens or access pass holders receive a 50% discount.  

  • Longleaf Campground: $10 for a regular tent site or $20 for a group site
  • Bluff Campground: $5 for a regular tent site

Backcountry camping is free but requires a permit. Permit requests should be made at least 48 hours in advance. Requests can be sent via e-mail by clicking here.

A large tree with standing water at the base

When to visit Congaree National Park

Congaree can be visited year-round, but the weather will vary. The most pleasant times of year to visit are in the spring and fall. This will allow for more comfortable temperatures without the extremes of weather conditions present during the winter or summer.

Winter: The weather tends to be mild compared to many more northern destinations, however temperatures may go below freezing. Snow is uncommon but can occur. 

  • Average temperature: 50’s (high); 30’s (low)  
  • Average rainfall: Minimal 

Spring: Temperatures in the spring and fall are similar and it is a wonderful time to visit the park. We visited during early March and trees were mostly bare as you can see from my pictures.  

  • Average temperature: 70’s (high); 50’s (low)  
  • Average rainfall: 3 inches/month 

Summer: The summer months can be extremely hot with temperatures easily reaching the upper 90’s and some days over 100°F. Thunderstorms and rain are more common during the summer months and mosquitos may also be more bothersome so be sure to pack your bug spray. 

  • Average temperature: 90’s (high); 70’s (low)  
  • Average rainfall: 4.5 inches/month 

Fall: If I were to visit the park again, I would pick the fall to try and see the leaves changing colors. Peak leaf season is between the end of October and early November. Camping, hiking, or paddling are all ideal activities to plan at this time of year.  

  • Average temperature: 70’s (high); 50’s (low)  
  • Average rainfall: 3 inches/month 
Skinny trees with standing water at the base of them, stains on the tree of higher water levels are visisble

How many days to spend in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is just over 25,000 acres. We only spent a day exploring the park as it was one stop on our road trip. One day is adequate time to explore what the park has to offer. However, if you are interested in camping and hiking more of the trails you could spend a weekend or longer. Many National Park entrance fees are only good for 7 consecutive days, however since there is no entrance fee for the park you are not limited to any specific duration of your visit.

What is there to do in Congaree National Park

Hiking

Hiking is always one of my top priorities when visiting a new national park. It is a great way to spend time exploring Congaree National Park and there are a variety of trails for all skill levels. The hikes are rated from easy to difficult and vary in distance from about one-half mile to just over 11 miles. When planning your hikes, I recommend checking the park trail information website to verify current conditions of trails as some may be closed due to flooding or difficult to follow. 

Congaree National Park Trails

  • Boardwalk Loop Trail: 2.6 miles 
  • Bluff Trail: 1.8 miles 
  • Sims Trail: 3.2 miles 
  • Weston Lake Trail: 4.5 miles 
  • Oakridge Trail: 7.1 miles  
  • River Trail: 11.1 miles 
  • Kingsnack Trail: 5 miles – partially opened at the time of this positing  
  • Bates Ferry Trail: 2.2 miles 
  • Longleaf Trail: 1.3 miles (one-way) 
  • Fork Swamp Trail: 0.6 miles 
  • Firefly Trail: 1.8 miles  

While there are many great hikes to consider the Boardwalk Loop is a must do when visiting the park. It is one of the most popular trails in the park. I really enjoyed the boardwalk trail because you can pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the visitor center to follow while walking. There are 20 different places you can stop to read the brochure to learn more about the park!

Boardwalk trail and trees surrounding it at Congaree National Park

Paddling

Cedar Creek is a paddlers paradise and another great way to explore Congaree National Park. There are a few important things to note before you plan a kayak or canoe trip. 

Bring your own kayak or canoe. There are no kayak or canoe rentals within the National Park, if you have your own kayak or canoe you are able to launch within the park.

Check the water level before your trip. Water level varies greatly depending on the time of year and recent rainfall. If the water levels are too high (over 8 feet) or too low (less than 2.5 feet) paddling may not be safe. The ideal water conditions are 4-7 feet. Water levels above 8 feet are concerning for flooding and paddling is strongly discouraged. 

Always bring a map. Because the water levels vary so greatly the trail markers may not always be visible depending on the current conditions.

Book a guided paddle adventure. If you do not have your own canoe or kayak there are options for guided paddling tours that can provide canoe or kayak rentals. Additional options for kayak or canoe rentals are also available. More information can be found at the individual websites.    

Lake at Congaree National Park with mostly leafless trees surrounding it

Congaree National Park – Final Thoughts

Congaree National Park is a great spot for camping, hiking, and paddling. It is conveniently located 30 minutes outside of Columbia, South Carolina and is a great National Park to explore, especially if you live on the east coast. Spring and fall provide the most favorable weather conditions, but the park can be visited year-round. Have you visited Congaree National Park? What was your favorite part of the park? Let me know in the comments below! 

Looking for more national park adventures? Be sure to check out the below posts to inspire your next adventure!

Information above was accurate at the time of publishing to the best of author’s knowledge and will be updated periodically. If you are planning to visit Congaree National Park I recommend also visiting the park’s website.

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