Long Brown sign with National Forest Service logo on left - Text in Center: "National Park Service US Department of the Interior" in small text at the top followed by " Congaree National Park Below. Blue logo on teh right with a pair of trees with a moon behind that reads "Congaree" in large letters and "National Park" below in smaller letters. Trees are behind the sign and smaller plants around base.
Entrance to Congaree National Park just south of Columbia SC

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.

squirrel sitting on elevated wooden walkway
Wildlife abounds at Congaree National Park. Keep your eyes open and you might see squirrels, deer, bobcats, coyotes, feral pigs, turtles, snakes, fish, and even the ever elusive alligators.

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.

Paved Wooded path leading to a long wooden building. The Congaree National Park visitor center blends into the surrounding woods.
Follow a short wooded path to get to the Visitor Center at Congaree National Park. An open air section runs through the center. To the right are the bathrooms and water fountains. A volunteer may be on duty behind a window a little further on. On the left, the park office/store. Be sure to pick up a map and Boardwalk Guided Tour pamphlet on wall past the entrance to the office.

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.

A number of trees growing in swampy area including cypress with wide bases and "Knees" - cone shaped outcroppings of up to two feet high
Congaree National Park is home to a number of Bald Cypress Trees. The “Knees” can be seen growing out of the ground. Part of the Tree’s root system, the Knees provide extra stability and can be seen throughout the forest floor.

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

Start of the Boardwalk at Congaree National Park. An elevated wooden walkway with wooden rails on each side and wire inserts between railing slats. A pergola indicates the start of the trail.
The start of the Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park. The most popular trail in the park, the Boardwalk and runs through several different habitats in the park including the wetlands most conmanly associated with the Congaree.

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.

Overlook along the Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park. Wooden elevated walkway with rails about three feet high on each side leading to an larger deck like area with a bench running down the right hand side - stairs can bee seen leading down on the right just before the deck
The first overlook along the Boardwalk Trail has a long bench and access to ground level trails. There are benches all along the Boardwalk if you need a rest.

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.

Side View of the elevated boardwalk at Congaree National Park - the walkway is about 6 feet above the ground surrounded by trees with some water below reflecting the sry.
The Boardwalk at Congaree National Park ranges from elevated to ground level depending on the terrain. If it’s been particularly rainy you may want to call ahead to make sure the trail is open as it’s prone to flooding.

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.

Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park as it snakes it's way around trees - wooden walkway with three foot high railing making s curves around trees on either side of the trail
The Boardwalk Trail runs for 2.6 miles through a variety of terrain.

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.

Ground level boardwalk at Congaree National Park - trail just inches above water with swollen trunk trees grown and other vegetation growing in standing water
The Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park runs just inches above the ground for a good bit of the loop letting you feel apart of the Carolina wetlands without getting your feet muddy.

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

small lake with still water surrounded by woodland. Blue sky above reflected in the water.
Weston Lake in Congaree National Park is home to a variety of wildlife including fish, turtles, gar, and reportedly alligators. All wildlife in the park is protected, so no fishing is allowed.

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.

three turtles seen from above
Turtles are abundant in Weston lake. These three spent a lot of time directly under the lake overlook.

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.

two turtles seen from above

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.

wooden deck looking out over a lake with a bench on the right side and "No Fishing" Sign on the front railing
The overlook at Weston Lake along the Boardwalk Trail at Congaree National Park.

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.

large open field with a couple pine trees - a picnic table can be seen in the distance
Tent camping is available at Congaree National Park. Campgrounds like this on offer picnic tables and fire pits at the camping spots. Registration is required and there is a fee for camping.

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.

swampy arrea with trees growing surrounded by water cypress knees can be seen in the distance
Largely untouched, Congaree National Park looks today as it did to early explorers of the region. It’s easy to see how it was a perfect spot for hiding from the British during the American Revolution and even hiding from revenuers during Prohibition.

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.

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