Congaree National Park – Field Report
For more about Congaree Forest including its history and ecology and everything you need to know to plan your visit, check out our Congaree National Park Page.
Today’s expedition found me below the fall line exploring the Congaree National Park just south of Columbia, South Carolina. Conragee is one of the spots in the Columbia area where people have spotted wild alligators, so I’ve been looking forward to this visit for a while.
It was forecast to be in the 70’s after a cool night, so I hoped to catch the gator sunning itself on a sunny log. Now if you’re hoping to find pictures of the gator, I’m sorry to disapoint. It didn’t make an appearance, so my hunt for the Alligators of Columbia goes on.
First Impressions of Congaree National Park
I was surprised at how busy the park was for a Thursday, but with the cooler weather, lots of other people had the same idea as me. The parking lot is big with picnic tables scattered around and a shelter just off the first parking area.
The visitor center is a short walk down a wooded path from the parking lot. It was open, but the inside was mainly a park store with a few displays. I was directed back outside where a volunteer was manning a booth to answer questions and hand out maps. I picked up a map and we ended up going back inside the Visitor Center for some brochures they had behind the desk.
Unfortunately, I didn’t pick up the Self Guided Boardwalk Tour brochure. They were on the wall to the left as I passed through the open air section of the Visitor Center. It would have been something nice nice to have, but I didn’t realize they existed until I saw numbers along the boardwalk corresponding to entries in the brochure.
Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park
The Boardwalk starts on the right hand side the behind the Visitor Center and runs 2.6 miles through the park. The start of the boardwalk is elevated and seems to be newer than the rest of the trail, but the entire loop feels solid with no wood rot or sagging planks.
Before reaching the start of the loop, there’s a large overlook with a long bench on one side and stairs leading to the ground with access to a few other trails. Trail access includes to the picnic area near the parking lot, the Longleaf Campground, and the Bluff Campground.
After returning to the boardwalk, I continued on to the start of the loop going straight at the intersection. This is the point where the wood on the boardwalk becomes noticeably older but still solid. The trail soon drops down to almost ground level at an area with a bench. More benches are scattered along the entire trail, so people if all fitness levels can enjoy the park.
The boardwalk continues along through the wetlands with bald cypress trees and water tupelo towering overhead. The ground is full of the cypress tree “knees” and various types of vegetation in the dryer areas while the wetter parts are covered with mud and water.
The Boardwalk Trail soon makes a left turn at the Oakridge Trail and River Trail access. Today, those trails were closed because of a bridge being out, but there’s also a warning that they both run through the Congaree Park Wilderness Area.
Weston Lake on Boardwalk Trail
From here the trail runs along the back of the loop through more wetlands until it reaches Weston Lake. There you can leave the boardwalk to take the Weston Lake Loop. If you’re looking for wildlife viewing, this might be the trail for you, but be warned, it can get muddy along the trail.
Back on the boardwalk, it becomes elevated again and turning to the right leads to an overlook of the lake. I was told that lots of people have seen an alligator from here, but no luck today. There were lots of fish and at least three turtles at the base of the overlook. Some gar were paroling the lake. They just looked like long shadows under the water, but as they cam close to the overlook, I could see the outline of their fins. So still, no alligator.
Back on the elevated boardwalk, I began making my way back to the start. The trip goes past strands of cabbage palmettos and even an old moonshine still. During Prohibition, bootleggers used the swamp as a refuge for their illicit activities.
A Sort Diversion to Bluff Campground
The boardwalk once again falls to ground level and crosses the Firefly Trail that leads to Bluff Campground. I decided to follow to check out the trail and the camping facilities. This trail is fairly rooty but solidly packed, so probably won’t get very muddy. It’s mostly level with slight elevation changes and runs through a pine and mixed hardwood area of the park. It can get a little overgrown in places, but it’s still really easy to follow. The trail blazes are reflectors attached to trees with a number corresponding with the trail.
It’s a short half mile walk to Bluff Campground. It’s a large grass clearing with campsites around the perimeter. Each site has a picnic table and a fire pit. There’s no road access, so the only way to get to this campground is the short 1 mile hike in.
After making my way back to the Boardwalk which soon became elevated again and returned to the start of the loop.
Final Thoughts about Congaree National Park
Although it’s not far from Columbia, Congaree National Park feels like a world away. It still looks very much like the area did in the 1780’s when Francis Marion used the swamps in hide and seek raids against British Colonial forces.
Today was a nice and cool Fall day, and I never felt the need to drink any of the water I brought. But if you’re visiting on a warm or hot day, be sure to bring plenty of water. You’re walking through a swamp and although it’s shaded, it gets hot and humid. And since it’s a swamp, be sure use bug spray or some other type of insect replant.
The Boardwalk Trail is easily the most popular. It’s an easy hike, level, and in the shade. If you’re looking for something more challenging or want to get away from the crowds, take one of the ground level trails. But if you do venture off the Boardwalk, be sure to wear appropriate clothing. The park is prone to flooding, so it’s a good bet that you’ll be walking through a good bit of mud. And keep an eye out for snakes and the ever elusive alligators.