South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is a wilderness unlike any other. It is home to the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in North America and the tallest trees in the eastern US. Some even reach an astounding height of 170 feet, creating one of the highest forest canopies in the world.
Located at the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers, the park sits on a floodplain that covers more than 26,000 acres. Following heavy rains, it is not uncommon for more than 90% of the park to be submerged under water, making it a popular destination for kayakers. But raised wooden pathways grant access even during a flood, providing a unique experience for visitors looking to wander under the massive trees.
Best of all, Congaree is amongst the least visited national parks in the US, providing plenty of solitude for travelers who make their way to this unique setting. If that sounds like the kind of place you would like to visit, here are some tips to make the most of your time in the park.
Why Visit Congaree National Park in an RV?
As with any national park, an RV makes for a great basecamp for your outdoor adventures. That holds true for Congaree as well, although there are a few limitations that RVers should be aware of when planning their trip. Most notably, there are no RV campsites inside the park itself, and sleeping in a vehicle is prohibited. There is also limited parking for larger vehicles at the visitor center, making things challenging on busier days. If you plan on driving your RV to the park, get there early to claim a spot.
That said, there are plenty of campgrounds outside the park that can accommodate any type of RV. Several of those locations are near Congaree, making them great places to set up shop during your stay. And since the National Park Service doesn’t charge an entry fee, you’ll be able to come and go as you please.
This is especially nice during the warmer months when the hot and humid weather can be oppressive at times. Having a cool, comfortable RV nearby makes it easy to get a break from the heat. Camping nearby also makes early-morning and evening excursions more accessible, which is helpful for avoiding the warm conditions, as well as the traffic on the roads and trails.
When to Visit Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park welcomes visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And since the weather in South Carolina is warm and temperate most of the time, the park sees a steady stream of visitors each month. Seasonal flooding is the biggest concern for most travelers planning a visit, and it is important to check the current conditions before setting out.
Congaree National Park in Spring
Spring in Congaree is very pleasant, with temperatures averaging in the 70s and only moderate rainfall. On occasion, heavy storms bring flash floods to the area, but for the most part, it is a perfect time to visit, with sizable crowds but not overwhelmingly busy roads and trails.
Congaree National Park in Summer
Congaree is extremely hot and humid during the summer months, with temperatures soaring into the mid-90s and beyond. Because of this, the park is often quiet, with a noticeable drop in the number of visitors. That’s good news for those who prefer to avoid the crowds, but the weather conditions can be somewhat daunting.
Summer thunderstorms are quite common and can bring heavy rains. This can lead to flash flooding that makes sections of the park inaccessible, at least on foot. Even kayakers and canoers tend to avoid Congaree’s paddling trails at this time of year, as the deep, fast-moving waters can be dangerous and difficult.
Congaree National Park in Fall
In the fall, cooler temperatures and lower humidity return to Congaree, bringing an influx of visitors along with the seasonal change in weather. Rainfall drops to a more manageable—and predictable—level, reducing the possibility of flooding. Expect temperatures in the 70s on most days, with cooler winds as the season progresses.
Hikers and paddlers return to the trails in more significant numbers during the autumn, particularly from late October thru mid-November. That’s when the park’s trees transition to their fall colors and begin to drop from their branches. It is a special time to be in the park, but expect larger crowds.
Congaree National Park in Winter
Unsurprisingly, winter is the quietest season in Congaree, with a dramatic decline in the number of visitors. Conditions tend to be cool—temperatures average in the mid-50s during the day—with brisk winds and a higher chance of overcast skies.
Despite only occasional rain showers, winter brings the highest water levels and a greater chance of flooding. Heavy rainfall in other parts of South Carolina can cause the Congaree and Wateree Rivers to rise, covering the forest floor in deep water.
For the adventurous traveler, winter can be a great time to visit the park. Just be sure to dress in layers and come prepared for the colder conditions.
Where to Stay in Congaree National Park
As mentioned, there are no RV campsites inside Congaree, so you’ll have to look elsewhere to park your rig. But, if you plan to tent camp while visiting the park, there are two frontcountry campgrounds available, and backcountry camping is an option as well.
Located next to the park entrance, Longleaf Campground is the most accessible of the frontcountry locations. It features ten individual campsites and four group campsites, with a fire ring and picnic table at each location. There are two vault toilets onsite at Longleaf, but no running water is available. Individual campsites offer enough room for up to eight people and three tents, while group sites expand that number to as many as 24 campers and up to ten tents.
Getting to Bluff Campground requires a one-mile hike from Longleaf and you’ll need to haul your gear with you. This location offers six individual camps with up to eight people and three tents at each site. Fire rings and picnic tables are provided, but there are no restroom facilities or running water.
Backcountry camping is an excellent alternative to staying in the Longleaf or Bluff Campgrounds. There are no designated campsites in the backcountry and backpackers can select their own locations, provided they are more than 100 feet away from Cedar Creek, Tom’s Creek, Bates Old River, and Wise Lake. Each campsite is limited to six campers and three tents, and no open fires are permitted.
Tips for Booking a Campground in Congaree National Park
Longleaf and Bluff Campgrounds require reservations prior to arrival in the park. Visit recreation.gov well in advance of your trip to ensure you’ll be able to get a site. It can be especially challenging to find open dates during the spring and fall.
A permit is also required if you plan to camp in the backcountry. That permit can be obtained by emailing [email protected] no less than 72 hours before the start of your trip. There are no fees for camping in the backcountry.
Staying Outside The Park
RVers looking to camp near Congaree National Park have several good options to choose from. Several state parks nearby offer full hookups and private campgrounds are common too. Here are a few places to look into:
- Barnyard RV Park: 129 full hookup sites located about 35 minutes from Congaree NP.
- River Bottom Farms Family Campground: 52 full hookup sites about 50 minutes from Congaree NP.
- Edmund RV Park: 65 full hookup sites about 40 minutes from Congaree NP.
- Sesquicentennial State Park: 84 full hookup sites about 28 minutes from Congaree NP.
- Big Rig Friendly RV Resort: 50 full hookup sites located about 30 minutes from Congaree NP.
How to Get Around
Getting around Congaree National Park is easy. Unlike some of the larger parks, there aren’t many roads to navigate here. Take National Park Road to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, which provides access to nearly all the park’s trails. Once there, the rest of the park is accessible on foot, canoe, or by kayak.
The National Park Service (NPS) recommends that RV owners park in the third parking lot at the visitor center, as it includes spaces for oversized vehicles. During the busier months of spring and fall, the parking lot fills up quickly, so keep that in mind when planning a visit.
If you happen to be towing a dinghy, the parking lot can be extra daunting. On busier days, the NPS recommends unhitching your dinghy to make it easier to maneuver your RV. Better still, drop your RV at the campground and drive your smaller vehicle into the park instead.
Places to Go in Congaree National Park
Due to its location and topography, Congaree doesn’t offer a lot of clearly-defined places to visit within its boundaries. The park consists mainly of the magnificent trees that make up the old-growth hardwood forest. So there aren’t any scenic overlooks, wide-open vistas, or mountain peaks to behold.
But there are a few specific places that stand out. Here are a few to have on your “must do” list while exploring Congaree National Park:
- General Greene Tree: Named for Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, this giant Bald Cypress is more than 30 feet in circumference and stretches higher than 95 feet into the air. The ancient tree can be found at the end of a short hike that branches off the Bates Ferry Trail.
- Wise Lake: When hiking the Weston Lake Loop Trail, look for signs pointing to Wise Lake. A short path will take you to this serene and picturesque location that’s especially beautiful in the autumn when the leaves turn colors.
- Harry Hampton Visitor Center: The visitor center at Congaree is a great place to start your visit. Learn about the importance of the park’s ecosystem, how a bottomland environment differs from a swamp, and why protecting the old-growth hardwood trees is so crucial. Take a stroll through the Harry Hampton visitor center before heading out for a hike and you’ll have a much better understanding of what you’re experiencing once you’re on the trail.
Things To Do
Congaree National Park offers plenty to do, particularly if you enjoy exploring the outdoors. The top activities include:
- Hiking and Backpacking: The park has ten hiking trails of various lengths and difficulties. Most of the trailheads are accessible from the visitor center, with several interconnecting with one another at multiple points. The most popular is the Boardwalk Loop Trail, an easy 2.5-mile walk that is accessible even when much of the area is flooded. The Weston Lake Loop Trail is 4.5 miles long and is a moderately challenging walk, while the King Snake Trail stretches for over 11 miles into the backcountry for those looking for an overnight camping trip.
- Canoeing and Kayaking: To truly see everything that Congaree has to offer, you’ll want to get off the hiking trails and into a canoe or kayak. The park’s Blue Trail is a 50-mile paddling route on Cedar Creek that requires several days to explore fully. However, shorter trails are available and visitors can bring their own kayaks or join an organized tour.
- Fishing: Fishing is allowed throughout Congaree National Park, but a South Carolina fishing license is required. Motorized boats are prohibited, but anglers can fish from a canoe or kayak. Striped, largemouth, and smallmouth bass can be found in abundance inside the park, where catch and release practices are strongly encouraged.
- Birdwatching: The park is home to more than 80 different types of birds, making it a great place to check a few new species off your list. Sharp-eyed visitors can spot goldfinches, kingfishers, egrets, bluebirds, red-tailed hawks, owls, and numerous others as they flit about the forest canopy.
- Synchronous Fireflies: If you’re planning to visit Congaree between mid-May and mid-June, be sure to stay after dark. During that time, the park’s famous synchronous fireflies arrive, putting on a light show for travelers. This species of firefly synchronizes its bioluminescent light so that they blink on and off simultaneously. It’s a truly wondrous sight to behold.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
If you want to enjoy your visit to Congaree National Park, it’s best to come prepared. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan your trip.
- Food and Drinks: There are no restaurants or cafeterias inside Congaree and only a minimal number of drinks and snacks are available for purchase at the visitor center. If you plan on spending time in the park, you’ll want to pack enough food and beverages for your stay. During the warmer months, that includes bringing plenty of water as the heat and humidity can dehydrate hikers and paddlers quickly.
- Clothing: For most of the year, the park is warm and humid, so be sure to dress accordingly. But in the winter, it can get surprisingly chilly at times, with temperatures routinely falling below freezing at night. If you’re planning to visit in December, January, or February, dress in layers to stay warm. And no matter when you visit, bring a waterproof jacket. Rain is never truly out of the forecast in Congaree.
- Internet and Cell Service: The National Park Service offers free public Wi-Fi at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center 24 hours a day. But travelers only have to wander a short distance down one of the nearby trails to lose their connection altogether. Cell service in the park is spotty at best and guests shouldn’t plan on being able to text, access the internet, or make calls while in the backcountry.
- Bug Spray: As a lush, old-growth forest that floods regularly, Congaree is home to many insects. From late spring through early autumn, the mosquitoes in the park are especially bad. In fact, the park has its own “mosquito meter” that rates the current conditions on a scale from one (“all clear”) to six (“war zone”). Anything above a three—which is “moderate” on the mosquito meter—can be frustrating. Unless you’re visiting the park in the winter, be sure to pack bug spray and/or repellant candles to keep the biting insects at bay.
Brief History of Congaree National Park
The old-growth hardwood forest that now makes up Congaree National Park has played an essential role for the inhabitants of the region for thousands of years. Native American tribes called this area home for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Later, the bottomland floodplain would serve as a refuge for General Francis Marion as he battled British forces during the Revolutionary War—earning him the nickname “the Swamp Fox” in the process. And following the end of the Civil War, emancipated slaves hunted and fished throughout the South Carolina woodlands.
In the early 20th century, the forest was owned by a wealthy lumber merchant but was saved from the ax by a man named Harry R. E. Hampton. As a newspaper reporter in Columbia, SC, Hampton loudly advocated for preserving the Congaree floodplain. Eventually, he brought the region to the attention of the National Park Service, which conducted a survey of the area in 1963.
Following the study, the NPS recommended that the old-growth forest be named a national monument, but it took another 12 years before the US Congress acted on that recommendation. In 1975, with the woodlands facing the threat of logging, South Carolina Senators Ernest Hollings and Strom Thurmond introduced legislation that turned it into the Congaree National Preserve. The following year, it became a national monument.
In 1983, Congaree was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned that distinction due to its incredible biodiversity and important role as a bird sanctuary. Its unique combination of plant and wildlife—including some of the oldest trees in North America—prompted UNESCO to declare the area a biosphere reserve.
On November 10, 2003—two decades after being recognized by UNESCO—Congaree National Monument was elevated to national park status. A few years later, its borders were expanded to encompass more than 26,200 acres, creating the park as we now know it. Today, it remains one of the truly pristine and untouched wildernesses in the eastern US.