Two Great Days in Congaree National Park

Two Great Days in Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park, located in South Carolina, is one of the smallest and least visited national parks in the United States.  Because of this, it is easy to explore on a weekend, or even one very full day.  We spent two days in Congaree National Park and share our itinerary below.

First of all, why is Congaree a National Park?

Congaree National Park protects the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.  Hundreds of years ago, these forests stretched from Texas all the way up to Virginia.  Logging and development slowly erased these forests over time, leaving just a few pockets.  In the 1950s, fierce advocation for preservation of what was left of these forests resulted in protection of this area.   This ultimately led to Congaree being elevated to national park status in 2003 and Congaree National Park was born.

A Floodplain vs. A Swamp

Congaree National Park lies in a floodplain.  The trees in Congaree rise up from standing water, which is often mistaken for being a swamp, which it is not.  A floodplain is an area that is slightly elevated a few feet above an adjacent river that frequently floods.  Flooding lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.  The flora and fauna that live within the floodplains thrive on land that cycles through both wet and dry periods.

A swamp is a low-lying area that is saturated with water most of the year.  The flora and fauna that exist in swamps have adapted to thriving in standing water.

Congaree’s Trees

Congaree National Park protects the Bald Cyprus Trees, large trees with fluted bottoms and massive root systems with “knees” that pop up from the ground.  These knees, along with the roots, help stabilize the trees.  Bald Cyprus thrive in the floodplains of Congaree.

Bald Cyprus “knees”

The largest trees in Congaree are Loblolly Pines, the tallest measuring 167 feet.  The Loblolly Pines have needles that begin high up near the canopy of the forest, with long exposed trunks.

A giant Loblolly Pine

Palmetto palms and a variety of other hardwood trees populate the park.  Congaree has “acre for acre more record trees than any other place”.

CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Home to the largest bottomland old growth forest in the United States

  • LOCATION:  South Carolina
  • CLOSEST CITY:  Columbia, SC (18 miles away)
  • ANNUAL VISITORS: 251, 000 (2021)
  • 52nd most visited US National Park (out of 63)
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  2003
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  Canoeing or Kayaking the Cedar Creek River and hiking the Boardwalk Trail

Our Two Day Itinerary

We drove from Atlanta, GA, where Mike was working.  It was a four hour drive from Atlanta to Columbia, SC, where we based during our visit to Congaree National Park.

Where we stayed

Aloft Hotel | Columbia, SC

Not only is Columbia a great place to base when visiting Congaree National Park, but the Aloft Hotel is within walking distance to many great restaurants.  We walked to dinner from our hotel each evening.

When we visited

Early September.  The temperatures were in the 80s and a little humid, although comfortable in the shade of the trees in the woods.

Day 1

On Today’s Agenda:

  • Arrive in Columbia
  • Check in to hotel
  • Lunch:  Railroad BBQ
  • Canoe the Cedar Creek River
  • Dinner:  Cola’s
  • Drinks:  Gervais & Vine

We drove from Atlanta, GA to Columbia, SC, which took just under four hours.  We checked in to the hotel and then headed out for a quick lunch.

We ate lunch at Railroad BBQ, a highly rated BBQ restaurant.  Located next to a railroad, this small joint served up great BBQ.  We had a hearty meal of potato salad, coleslaw, and pulled chicken (me) and green beans, coleslaw, and brisket (Mike).  Both the food and service were great!

Canoeing the Cedar Creek River

Our next stop was picking up our canoe from River Runner Outdoor Center where we had reserved a canoe ahead of time.  They helped us load the canoe on to the top of our car, complete with tie downs, and gave us recommendations as to where to go on the river.

NOTE:  Canoeing or kayaking is one of the most popular things to do in Congaree National Park.  There are several companies that do guided tours, but we wanted to explore on our own and not have a time constraint.  So, we opted to rent the canoe and River Runner Outdoor Center was the company who offered this.  They also offer to deliver the canoe and pick it back up.  That is a great option, but since they were around the corner from our hotel, we just picked it up ourselves.

We arrived at the South Cedar Creek Canoe Landing about 30 minutes after leaving River Runner Outdoor Center.  We had a short walk to the canoe landing.  The folks at River Runner suggested putting the canoe in to the left of the bridge, where the platform was.  This worked out great.  Soon we were paddling away downstream.

Our canoe, just before the bridge

We saw a few other paddlers as well as people fishing along the river bank.  The river was very slow moving and the reflection in the water was unreal.  It was peaceful just listening to the sound of nature and seeing all the beauty around us.  

Canoeing on Cedar Creek

We turned around and went upstream as well.  The current definitely carries you faster downstream, however it is so slow moving it was relatively easy regardless of the direction.

Canoeing upstream, towards the bridge where we let in the canoe

To disembark, we went to the right of the bridge and slid right up on shore.  We climbed out, cleaned the canoe with the provided cleaning kit, and loaded it back up.  What a great first day in Congaree National Park!

For dinner we dined at Cola’s, a short walk from Aloft. 

Cola’s | Columbia, SC

Mike enjoyed a chopped salad and chicken parmesan and I loved my meal of a chopped salad and chicken primavera.  Our meals were big portions and delicious.  Our cocktails were also excellent!

Delicious cocktails at Cola’s

From here, we went to Gervais & Vine, a wine bar and tapas restaurant.  We sat at the bar were I had a rosé wine flight and Mike had Pinot until we called it a night!

Gervais & Vine | Columbia, SC

Day 2

On Today’s Agenda:

  • Pick up picnic supplies at Whole Foods
  • Harry Hampton’s Visitor’s Center
  • Hike The Boardwalk and Weston Lake Trails
  • Picnic lunch at the Harry Hampton Visitor’s Center
  • Hike the Bates Ferry Trail to see the General Greene
  • Dinner:  Motor Supply Co Bistro

We started our morning early heading right for Whole Foods, located in Columbia, grabbing coffee and take away breakfast items to eat on the way to Congaree National Park.  We also assembled a picnic lunch for later. 

The Harry Hampton’s Visitor’s Center

We arrived at the Harry Hampton’s Visitor’s Center in Congaree National Park around 9:00 am.  There were just a few other cars here at this time.  We put on bug spray and Cliganic bracelets as Congaree is known for its ferocious beasts (mosquitos!).  In fact,  the Mosquito Meter is located just outside the front doors of the visitor’s center, to warn visitors of that day’s mosquito rating!

The Mosquito Meter, located outside of the Visitor’s Center

The visitor’s center is small and compact, yet shares all the facts in an easy-to-explore way.  There is also a movie on a continuous loop, sharing the history of the park.  We watched the movie and checked out the displays before heading out for the hikes.

TIP:  Grab a trail map as well as a Self-Guided Boardwalk Tour brochure before beginning the Boardwalk Trail.  Throughout the Boardwalk Trail are numbered signs corresponding to numbered facts in the brochure.  There is a lot to learn about on this trail!

Morning Hikes

The Boardwalk Trail departs from the Harry Hampton Visitor’s Center and is completely on an elevated boardwalk.  It is accessible for the entire duration, taking you past the Bald Cyprus and Loblolly Pines, palmettos, and the famous “knees”, part of the root structure of the Bald Cyprus trees. 

The Boardwalk Trail

Besides the flora, there are plenty of animals in the park as well.  While here, we saw an armadillo scurrying past the boardwalk and an alligator lounging on a log in Weston Lake, which was visible from the Boardwalk Trail.  We also heard feral pig squeals in the distance!  A variety of birds and many fox squirrels scampered about while we walked this trail.

An alligator sunbathing in Weston Lake

If you want to detour a bit and later rejoin the Boardwalk Trail, the Weston Lake Trail is an additional 4.5 mile trail, taking you off the boardwalk and on a “backwoods trail”. 

To leave the Boardwalk Trail and connect to Weston Lake Loop, follow the path that leads under the bridge

The trail runs parallel to the river for a bit and is a nice walk in the woods, away from the crowds.  The trail is a dirt path and relatively flat and easy.  When we completed the Weston Lake Trail, it simply joined back up to the Boardwalk Trail.  

THE BOARDWALK TRAIL:   2.6 miles round trip | Easy | Accessible

WESTON LAKE TRAIL:  4.5 miles round trip | Moderate | Dirt Path

TOTAL TIME COMBINED:  It took us 2.5 hours to complete the above trails together.  This accounts for time stopped to take photos, do the self-guided stops on The Boardwalk Trail, and have a couple snack breaks.

Bald Cyprus as seen from the Boardwalk Trail

Afternoon Hike

After a picnic lunch in the shade of the big trees at the visitor’s center, we headed off to Bates Ferry Trail. Bates Ferry Trail is at the southeastern end of the park, about 8 miles from the visitor’s center.

Our main reason for this hike was to see the General Greene, the largest Bald Cyprus tree in Congaree National Park.  Named for General Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War General, the tree escaped logging because it is hollow in the center.  This massive old tree stands among much smaller new growth of Bald Cyprus and Tupelo.  

The Bates Ferry Trail is a 1.1 mile (one-way) straight, relatively flat trail to the Congaree River.  Our plan was to hike the beginning of the trail and detour to see the General Greene and head back.

The trail is not well marked and there is not any signage directing you to the General Greene tree.  

We looked up directions online to direct us to the General Greene tree.  However, the directions were ineffective.    We ended up going past the General Greene initially, searching for it as we hiked.  At the end, where we could go no further, we were mesmerized at the beautiful floodplains with massive old growth Bald Cyprus. 

The beautiful floodplain

This was the most magnificent area of Congaree that we saw!  While here, we saw feral pig tracks in the mud and it was also here that a large snake slithered across my path before disappearing fast into a hole in the ground!

Feral pig tracks in the mud

We turned around and were on our way back to the trailhead, still searching for the General Greene, when we realized we were directly in front of a massive Bald Cyprus!  We happened upon the General Greene!  Referencing the original directions we followed, the description of the General Greene was spot on.  We were happy to have finally found it!

There it is, the General Greene

Below are our directions to reach the General Greene from the Bates Ferry Trailhead, in hopes it will help you find it with relative ease!

Park at the Bates Ferry Trailhead, which is located at the far southeastern end of Congaree National Park. 

The beginning of the Bates Ferry Trail

From the trailhead walk straight on the path for 0.43 miles to the road that branches off from the trail to the right.  Before reaching this road you will see a trail sign with the number “7”, which is the corresponding number of the Bates Ferry Trail.   Once you’ve turned onto the road, it is about 70 yards to an old steel train bridge that you will cross above the river. 

The steel train bridge

After this train bridge, about 35 yards ahead you will cross a dried up river bed.  Large rocks were placed here to create a footpath for crossing. 

Rocks to walk over in the dried up river bed

About another 400 feet on the right hand side is a floodplain.  Look for the big tree standing in the floodplain – it’s the General Greene!

The General Greene, the largest Bald Cyprus in Congaree National Park

NOTE ABOUT THE TRAIL:  We found this trail very overgrown with downed brush and trees that we had to scramble over at the time of our visit. 

Lots of brush blocking the trail

It was surprising considering it is in the national park and leads to one of the park’s stars.  Not only was there not any signage directing one to General Greene but the trail was difficult in areas due to the poor maintenance.  However, even with the conditions, we thought the trek was worth it to not only see the General Greene but to see the beautiful floodplain at the far end of the trail.  

Dinner tonight was at Motor Supply Company Bistro, located in an old historic building a few blocks from our hotel. 

Motor Supply Co Bistro

We had a great farm-to-table meal, beginning with charcuterie followed by a dinner of steak, peppers, and potatoes.  I had probably the best espresso martini I’ve ever had while Mike enjoyed the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cocktail.

The delicious charcuterie

Motor Supply Company Bistro is a fabulous restaurant!  They pride themselves on local food and have a board up in the restaurant where they list the local farms that source all of their food.  We highly recommend dining here.  Reservations recommended.

With two days you can see the best of Congaree National Park.  Pair it with some incredible restaurants in Columbia and you have a wonderful weekend getaway!

OUR PACKING LIST

Here is our packing list for Congaree National Park:

  • Dry bag:  We use this one to keep our bags dry while canoeing.  
  • Small dry bag:  I had this one for my camera to keep it protected in between pics while canoeing.
  • Booebag:  This worked great!  A small cross body bag where I could store our phones and essentials, also while canoeing.
  • Bug spray & Cliganic bracelets:  We are frequent users of Cliganic bracelets, which you can find here.
  • Keens:  Rugged waterproof shoes are really good to have when getting in and out of the canoe and walking along the muddy shore.  
  • Our go-to hiking backpacks are Osprey brand.
  • Camelback water reservoirs are a must when hiking.
  • I really like these trekking poles.  These fold up and are lightweight, especially great for packing when traveling and taking along on hikes.
  • No hike should be without a mini first aid kit.

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