With its compact size and short list of things to do, one day is all you really need to visit Congaree National Park. With one day in Congaree National Park, walk the boardwalk trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, and venture farther into the wilderness on one of several other hiking trails in the park.
Quick Facts about Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is one of the smallest national parks in the USA. It is located just a short drive from Columbia, South Carolina and this city makes a great home base for exploring the park.
Congaree National Park is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, since this park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland forest in the southeastern United States.
This park sits inside the Congaree River floodplain. It’s not a swamp (an area of land that is permanently saturated with water), it’s a “bottomland,” an area of land that floods on a seasonal basis. Of the estimated 30 million acres of bottomland forests that once covered the USA, only 40% remains.
In Congaree, you can see some of the tallest Loblolly pines still alive today as well as bald cypress trees that are over 500 years old. Tupelo trees sit alongside slow moving creeks and oxbow lakes. Fish, amphibians, deer, raccoon, feral pigs, bobcats, and numerous species of snakes and birds all find refuge inside this park.
One Day in Congaree National Park: Best Things to Do
With one day in Congaree National park, here are the best things to see and do:
- Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail
- Go Kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek
- Hike the Weston Lake Loop Trail
- See Wise Lake
If you get your timing right (by visiting Congaree between Mid-May and mid-June), you can also see the synchronous fireflies.
There are many more hiking trails in the park, but since the views don’t change a whole lot from what you see along the Boardwalk Loop Trail and the Weston Lake Loop Trail, you don’t miss much by skipping these. But if you have more than one day in Congaree, consider hiking a few more trails or taking a longer canoe or kayak trip on Cedar Creek.
For a full list of things to do, read our article Top 10 Things to Do in Congaree National Park.
One Day in Congaree National Park Itinerary
Morning: Boardwalk Loop Trail & Weston Lake Loop Trail
Boardwalk Loop Trail
Distance: 2.6 mile loop | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 to 2 hours
The Boardwalk Loop Trail is the #1 thing to do at Congaree National Park. This 2.6 mile loop is flat and very easy to walk. It starts and ends at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and takes 1 to 2 hours to walk the full loop.
The “trail” is an elevated boardwalk that loops through the bottomland, where you get to see bald cypress and tupelo trees standing in the water.
Before starting the walk, pick up the Self-Guided Boardwalk Trail brochure at the Visitor Center. This guide points out both natural and historical sites along the trail. It’s well worth it, to get the most out of this experience.
Weston Lake Loop Trail
Distance: 4.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 2 to 3 hours
This is a longer trail that heads deeper into Congaree National Park. It includes most of the Boardwalk Loop Trail, but a series of dirt trails takes you farther into the woods, where you can see more bottomland forests and walk along Cedar Creek. This hike is completely flat, so it’s easy to do and it only adds another hour or two onto your day.
This hike is worth it if you want to see more of Congaree and leave some of the crowds behind.
Starting at the Visitor Center, hike the Boardwalk Loop Trail in a counter-clockwise direction. At the first trail junction, follow signs for Weston Lake and you will now be on trail #3 (there will be small, white signs on the trees with the number 3 on them). You will now be on a dirt trail in the forest.
The Weston Lake Loop Trail will follow alongside Cedar Creek for almost one mile. At the next trail junction, go left to continue on the Weston Lake Loop Trail and head back towards the Visitor Center. When the trail rejoins with the boardwalk, walk out to the viewpoint of Weston Lake. Then take the boardwalk back to the visitor center.
Cedar Creek seen from the Weston Lake Loop Trail
Bald Cypress Trees
Bald Cypress “Knees”
One of several bridges on the Weston Lake Loop Trail
Optional Detour: Wise Lake
If you plan to hike the Weston Lake Loop Trail, this short detour is well worth your time. Weston Lake is nice, but Wise Lake is one of the prettiest places we saw in Congaree National Park.
From the Boardwalk Loop Trail and the Weston Lake Loop Trail junction, walk 0.6 miles on the Weston Lake Loop Trail until you get to the trail junction with the River Trail. There are signs here that direct you to Wise Lake. From this junction, you will walk about 100 meters to get to Wise Lake.
There are no restaurants in Congaree National Park, with very limited options just outside of the park. The best thing to do is to pack a picnic lunch. If you choose to drive to Columbia, it’s a 30-minute drive one way, so doing this will use up a lot of your valuable time today. But Columbia makes a great place to get dinner!
Afternoon: Canoe or Kayak on Cedar Creek
Canoeing on Cedar Creek was our favorite experience in Congaree National Park. We spent two hours canoeing on Cedar Creek, starting and ending at the Cedar Creek Canoe Launch. For us, two hours was the perfect amount of time.
We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but Cedar Creek is beautiful, and to drift along the water, listening to the birds and the crickets, and to see these majestic old trees, was a very memorable experience.
Cedar Creek is a very slow moving creek. We paddled downstream first. Paddling upstream, to return to our starting point was easy, and really not any harder than going downstream, at least when we did this.
As water levels change, you might have obstacles along the creek that impede your progress. Water levels were low when we did this, which allowed us to duck under some fallen trees. There is a chance that downed trees can block the creek, forcing you to turn around or pull your kayak/canoe up onto land to carry it around the downed tree.
Renting a Canoe or Kayak
We rented a canoe from River Runner Outdoor Center. You can either pick up the canoe from their office in Columbia (in the morning before driving out to Congaree), or, for an additional fee, have them deliver it right to the canoe launch. We chose to have it delivered, since we did not want it sitting on top of our car when we were out hiking.
At 2 pm, our canoe was delivered by Gus from River Runner Outdoor Center. Gus gave us a great overview of Cedar Creek and told us what to keep an eye out for as we paddled on the creek. For two hours, Tim and I paddled on Cedar Creek and once we were finished, Gus picked up the canoe and we were on our way. Having the canoe delivered to Cedar Creek made the logistics super easy.
Canoeing on Cedar Creek
Optional: Bates Ferry Trail and the General Greene Tree
By walking the Boardwalk Loop Trail, the Weston Lake Loop Trail, and spending some time on Cedar Creek, you covered the top experiences in Congaree National Park.
If you still have time and want to do something else, I recommend hiking the Bates Ferry Trail to the General Greene Tree.
The General Greene Tree is the largest bald cypress tree in Congaree National Park. It is named for Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene.
You can pick up a copy of the directions to the General Greene Tree at the Visitor Center and/or follow our directions below.
From the Bates Ferry trailhead, walk 0.4 miles. On the left will be an unmaintained road. To the right is a metal trail marker with a #7 on it. Walk about 20 feet farther and to your right will be a trail leading into the woods. Take this trail.
On this trail, you will cross a metal bridge over a creek. The trail narrows beyond this bridge. Once the trail bends to the left, look for cypress trees standing in water off to the right side of the trail. The General Greene tree is located here.
General Greene Tree
The total distance from the Bates Ferry Trail to the General Greene Tree is 0.2 miles.
If you continue past the General Greene Tree, in about 0.1 miles you reach another unmaintained road to the right. Follow this for another tenth of a mile and you come to this low area, filled with tupelos and bald cypress trees. It’s a beautiful part of Congaree National Park.
GETTING TO THE BATES FERRY TRAILHEAD: This trail is located in the far eastern section of Congaree National Park on Highway 601. As you drive south on Highway 601, the turn off for the trailhead is located just past the bridge that crosses Bates Old River.
While in Congaree National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
Evening: Dinner in Columbia
We spent several nights in Columbia, South Carolina so we had lots of time to sample different restaurants.
Bourbon was our favorite restaurant. The bourbon list is extensive and the food is very good (Cajun and Creole). Motor Supply Company Bistro serves farm-to-table fare for lunch and dinner and the menu changes daily. Saluda’s serves southern fare with a twist and it is a fine dining restaurant.
For any of these restaurants, make your reservation in advance.
Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park
The best time to visit Congaree National Park is in the spring and the fall. In the spring and fall, temperatures are warm (daytime highs can get up into the 70’s) and mosquitoes are low. In both the spring and fall, Congaree gets about 3 inches of rain per month.
Peak fall colors occur at the beginning of November. We visited Congaree from November 8 through November 10. Daytime highs were in the high 60’s to mid-70’s and at night it got down into the 40’s. We had bright sunny skies each of the three days that we were here.
During the summer months, Congaree is hot and humid. Temperatures frequently get up into the high-90’s and even up over 100°F. The humidity makes it feel worse and mosquitoes are at their highest levels at this time.
Flooding tends to occur during the winter months. Temperatures can be chilly but snow is unusual.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: This park floods on a regular basis. After a heavy flooding, the Boardwalk Loop Trail, and other trails in the park, can temporarily close. Before planning your trip, and just before your visit, visit the National Park Service website for updates on park conditions to avoid any unfortunate surprises. We had to postpone our trip several times in the spring since many of the trails flooded and closed right before our visit.
How to Get to Congaree National Park
The closest major airport is located in Columbia, South Carolina, which is about a 30 minute drive from Congaree National Park. Charlotte Douglass International Airport, which is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a larger airport with more flight options. It takes 2 hours to drive to Congaree National Park from here.
If your visit is part of a bigger road trip, here are the driving distances and times to nearby destinations:
- Columbia, South Carolina: 18 miles, 30 minutes
- Charleston, South Carolina: 105 miles, 2 hours
- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: 130 miles, 2.5 hours
- Charlotte, North Carolina: 112 miles, 2 hours
- Asheville, North Carolina: 180 miles, 3 hours
- Savannah, Georgia: 150 miles, 2.5 hours
- Augusta, Georgia: 90 miles, 1.5 hours
Where to Stay
Inside of Congaree National Park, your only option is tent camping. There are two campgrounds, the Longleaf Campground and Bluff Campground, and you must make your reservation in advance.
Outside of the park, Columbia is the best place to stay. It is just a 30-minute drive to get between Columbia and Congaree National Park.
There are numerous hotels in Columbia to choose from. We stayed at the Hilton Columbia Center and had a great experience but the Graduate Columbia, Staybridge Suites Columbia, Aloft Columbia Downtown, and the Courtyard Columbia Downtown all are highly rated and have a great location in downtown Columbia. From these hotels, you can easily walk or Uber to some great restaurants.
On the outskirts of Columbia, the Courtyard by Marriott Columbia Cayce gets wonderful reviews. It has an onsite restaurant and it is 10 minutes closer to Congaree than the hotels in downtown Columbia.
Entrance Fee: Free! There is no fee to enter Congaree National Park.
Hours of Operation: The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Get updates on road conditions and trail closures, as you plan your trip and just before your visit, on the National Park Service website.
If you have any questions about how to spend one day in Congaree National Park, let us know in the comment section below.
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