Congaree National Park
Whether by canoe or on foot, the ever changing floodplain within Congaree National Park is worth exploring.
Congaree National Park, located a short distance outside Columbia, South Carolina, is a relatively small and often overlooked unit in the National Park system. Preserved within its borders is the largest old growth bottomland hardwood forest left within the United States. The lush floodplains of the park are home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern U.S., forming a world class canopy. A diverse range of wildlife calls the park home, including river otters, fox squirrels, deer, and a range of amphibians, fish, and reptiles.
Situated on the banks of the Congaree River, flooding is an integral part of the park’s ecosystem. An average of 10 floods a year contribute to an ever changing landscape dotted with oxbow lakes, meandering creeks, and quiet ponds hidden among the towering cypress and swamp tupelos. Flooding will leave many of the parks hiking trails impassable, and is most common during winter. Water levels can be checked online before visiting.
To get a look at the park’s namesake, from the visitor center connect the Boardwalk Trail to the River Trail. Cypress knees rise up through the grass of the forest floor around you, misshapen spires of roots that serve an unknown purpose. Meadows of wildflowers give way to wetlands and ponds. The lush environment crowds around peaceful lakes and swampy sections of bottomland forest, bulbous tree trunks emerging out of the dark, stagnant waters. Several trails offer options for various loops through the park’s wilderness. The accessible boardwalk is an easy stroll and an informative introduction to the rich flora found within the park.
Congaree truly comes alive along its creeks and lakes, so take to the water if you can. Cypress trees and loblolly pines form a canopy overhead as you float along the quiet waters of Cedar Creek. Nestled in the fork of a tree branch, a water moccasin warms itself in the sun. The smooth surface of the slowly flowing water suddenly erupts as the occasional fish makes a meal out of a passing insect.
Check at the visitor center for an update on possible portages before you put in at the South Cedar Creek trailhead. Paddle along the creek in either direction for as far as you like as it snakes through the forest. If you have multiple cars and don’t mind portaging around downed trees, you can launch at Bannister Bridge as well and follow the marked Cedar Creek Canoe Trail to South Cedar Creek. Canoes can be rented in Columbia, or join a ranger led canoe tour on Fridays and Saturdays during the spring and fall.
Best Time to Go: The park is open year round, but best visited in early spring and late fall when the temperatures are lower and there are fewer bugs. Winter can be excellent, but flooding is more common, which may make parts of the park inaccessible.
Fees: Entrance to the park is free. Campsites range from $5-$10. Backcountry permits are free, but must be obtained at the visitor center.