Visit Congaree National Park!
My husband and I visited South Carolina’s only national park last fall – Congaree National Park. The trip had two purposes. On Thursday night we went to Charlotte to watch the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the Panthers during the early part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. We spent the night in
Rock Hill and then visited Congaree on our way home. Our visit to Congaree was our first joint visit to a national park and we planned it as an exploratory trip for the nine-month RV cross-country tour that was just beginning to take hold in our minds.
There are several things we learned from the trip to Congaree that will help us on our cross country national park adventure, planned to begin in mid-August, and which will help you enjoy your visit to Congaree and other parks around the state and country.
1. Use a road atlas, not just your GPS, to get there. Congaree is located just a few short miles off of I-77S (which we were traveling on home from the game in Charlotte) near Columbia. Yes, we did learn the park location, but we also learned that we should have looked on a map as our GPS took us on an extremely long and circuitous route – we actually circled the entire park by car for about an hour when it should have taken about 15 minutes or less from exit 6. If you come from Daniel Island, it’s only an hour and 45-minute drive. Take an atlas in addition to your GPS.
2. The highlight of this park is the trees. The park’s website notes that it features the “largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.” You can view the trees and the general diversity of this ecosystem on the well-marked trails. If you pick up a map at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, you will see a variety of hiking options detailed by length, ranging from very short trails (.3 miles) to trails over 11 miles. None of the trails are extremely challenging as the entire park is relatively flat throughout. The map also provides a numbered system that informs you about the various trees and ecosystems you are encountering. We chose a longer hike and were rewarded with sights of interesting vegetation and a near heart-stopping encounter with two water moccasins. I spotted the first one downstream from a small footbridge we crossed. We watched it from a safe distance as it swam away from us. It was when I leaned over the bridge that a second snake appeared right beneath me. Yikes! Thankfully, I was far enough away to avoid a strike and I think I startled it as much as it startled me.
3. Research the camping facility in advance of your visit. We opted to make it a day trip but we did explore the camping facilities, which are relatively primitive, but do include vault toilets without running water. Camping is tent only, no RV or car camping. The park also allows backcountry camping.
4. Bring your pet to Congaree, but not all national parks allow them. Congaree allows pets on leashes on the trails and at the camping areas. We didn’t have our dog with us on this trip, but we did encounter other visitors with dogs. We do plan to take her on our long trip, and already discovered that dogs are not allowed on most of the trails at the Smokey Mountain National Park in Tennessee.
5. Check out what other adventures the park has to offer. Congaree offers hiking, fishing, backpacking and backcountry camping, canoeing, and kayaking. Additionally, the 50-mile Congaree River Blue Trail, perfect for kayaking and canoeing, starts in Columbia and passes through the park.
6. Read up about special events. We planned our trip at the last minute. You may want to plan a trip next year during late May and early June as that is typically when you can see the Synchronic Firefly spectacular. The park updates its website yearly on when the fireflies arrive and on special viewing evenings. I wish we had seen this – the site explains the phenomena: “Synchronous flashing is defined as concurrent rhythmic group flashing. Although the males appear to be continuously synchronic, they are actually intermittently synchronous. Flashing of the group is continuous, but individual fireflies flash synchronously for several cycles and then pause for several cycles.” How cool is that?
The website, https://www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm, is very informative. And if you are a real planner, you can download trail maps, as well as information on the various plant and animal life you are likely to see, in advance of your visit.
We proudly got our first stamp on our National Park Passport and are looking forward to getting many more!
National parks, forests and other designations