The hiking trails at Congaree National Park wind through one of the most unique and spectacular landscapes in the country. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is one of the most popular in the park, but there are many others to enjoy. Here is a handy guide to the hiking trails at Congaree National Park.
Introduction to Congaree National Park
Located about thirty minutes outside Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, Congaree National Park contains a unique area of “old growth bottomland hardwood forest”. What exactly does that mean? The trees are really old, really tall, and really rare today.
Established in 1976, Congaree National Park now covers about 27,000 acres along the Congaree River. The national park floods frequently but that is a good thing. When the Congaree River breaks over the banks of the river and flood as far as the Harry Hampton Visitor Center it brings with it nutrients necessary for the trees.
While the national park is vital for the protection and education of this old growth forest, it is also a national park without much recreation opportunities. There are two primitive walk-in campgrounds for tents only, a single visitor center, and a canoe trail.
That is what makes the hiking trails at Congaree National Park so special: the trails lead to some beautiful areas and it’s the only thing to really do.
Getting to Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is by no means remote compared to parks in the American West, but it is in the proverbial “middle of nowhere”. The entrance to the park is located closest to I-26 but there is no direct route from that interstate to the park.
The best way from just about any starting point is to get on I-77 around Columbia. Take Exit 5 and turn south onto Highway 48 (Bluff Road) away from Columbia. Continue straight for about 9 miles to a fork in the road. Bluff Road will continue straight and veer to the left; stay to the right onto Old Bluff Road. Continue another 5 miles to the entrance road to Congaree National Park on the right.
Note: There are shorter ways, but with many more turns than I wanted to write here. If you want to use a GPS device or app such as Google Maps do not use “Congaree National Park” as your destination. Instead, use the “Harry Hampton Visitor Center”.
Hiking Trails at Congaree National Park
There are 10 hiking trails to enjoy at Congaree National Park. All but two are accessible from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
But before you head out on the hiking trails there are a few things you might want to know.
- Bring mosquito repellent. The entire park is a floodplain and a haven for mosquitoes. They are quite annoying little bloodsuckers about April – October each year.
- There is limited cellphone reception on the trails so be sure to bring a trail map or GPS device with preloaded maps with you.
- Pets are allowed on all trails but must be kept on a leash at all times.
- The Boardwalk Loop Trail is a moderately handicap accessible trail.
- Take lots of water. There are no sources of potable water on any of the trails or parking areas other than the visitor center.
- All the trails at Congaree National Park are mostly level and easy to hike, but I still strongly recommend proper hiking shoes. Most of the trails are primitive with sticks and rocks and there are snakes on the trails.
Floods at Congaree National Park
The Congaree River breaks over its banks about a dozen times each year and floods a significant portion of Congaree National Park. This is actually a good, and natural, occurrence that promotes a healthy forest.
But it also means some, if not most, of the trails can be inaccessible at times. The River Trail is usually the first to be closed off because it is closest to the river. The Oakridge Trail will usually still be above water, but it’s impossible to reach during severe floods.
The elevated portion of the Boardwalk Loop Trail is sometimes the only trail still accessible during floods. You can hike from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center along this elevated section as far as the observation deck overlooking Weston Lake during most floods.
Check the Current Conditions page on the Congaree National Park website before visiting to verify trail conditions. Keep in mind the park could still be flooded weeks after the last major storm so be sure to check this page.
Boardwalk Loop Trail
This 2.4-mile loop hiking trail is probably the most popular in Congaree National Park. It is an easy hike along a wooden boardwalk. The trail is accessed through the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
The loop trail begins along an elevated section until it splits. The elevated boardwalk continues to the left (east side) while the lower boardwalk begins to the right (west side). There is no difference in which direction to hike, although I always go to the right. There are benches spaced ever couple hundred feet along the Boardwalk Loop Trail.
At the furthest corner of the loop trail from the visitor center is a short spur leading to a wooden overlook at Weston Lake. Be sure to pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour to learn more about the trees and wet lands along this trail.
The Boardwalk Loop Trail is moderately handicap accessible. I say “moderately” because it is a wooden boardwalk with ramps, no steps, and is entirely accessible by wheel chair. However it is a rather lengthy trail.
The 1.7-mile Bluff Trail loops around the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. This trail begins at the backside of the visitor center, crosses the park entrance road, leads to the Bluff Campground, and returns along a short section of the elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail.
It’s a great hike in the national park if you want something short and easy. The mosquitos are not as bad on this trail. The trail passes through a long leaf pine forest with very tall, straight trees.
This 0.6-mile spur trail leads from the Bluff Trail to the Longleaf Campground. The scenery along this short trail is much the same as the Bluff Trail, passing through a long leaf pine forest, and is mostly used by campers.
This 3-mile hiking trail is the easiest in Congaree National Park. It follows an old gravel road so the path is flat and wide, although the gravels have long since vanished. The trail begins on the Bluff Trail near the visitor center, crosses the Boardwalk Loop Trail twice, and ends at Cedar Creek in a connection with the Weston Lake Loop Trail and River Trail.
The Sims Trail is also a great way to enjoy a shorter section of the Boardwalk Loop Trail because it crosses a section at the north and south edge of the loop.
Weston Lake Loop Trail
This 2.6-mile hiking trail is a popular way to extend your hiking at Congaree National Park. The trail begins and ends at opposite corners of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. The entire hike along the Boardwalk Loop Trail and Weston Lake Loop Trail is about 4.4 miles.
I’ve met many hikers and photographers on the Weston Lake Loop Trail who have seen otters along Cedar Creek, but I have never seen any myself. It’s also apparently a great trail to hike if you’re training for a 10K because if you also add in the Bluff Trail it is 6.3 miles long (10 kilometers).
Oak Ridge Trail
The 3-mile Oak Ridge Trail is one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife. It’s a less-frequently hiked trail so there is a greater chance of you having the entire place to yourself.
The trail begins along the River Trail and ends at the Kingsnake Trail. The entire length of the loop hike from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center is about 6.5 miles.
Although not the longest trail in Congaree National Park, the 7.3-mile River Trail is kinda “the” trail to finally tackle. Despite the fact the national park is located at the edge of the Congaree River it is actually rather difficult to reach the river.
Beginning at Cedar Creek on the Weston Lake Loop Trail, the River Trail winds through the old growth forest before eventually splitting into a loop and finally reaching the Congaree River. A roughly half-mile section of the trail follows along the Congaree River.
The trail then backtracks to it starting point at Cedar Creek. The entire hike from the Harry Hampton Visitor Center along the entire River Trail is about 10 miles.
The 11.7-mile Kingsnake Trail is the longest hiking trail in Congaree National Park. It begins at the Cedar Creek Canoe Launch parking area about 6 miles from the visitor center.
After crossing a wooden footbridge over Cedar Creek, the first of four footbridges on the trail, the Kingsnake Trail winds through the most remote part of the national park. After about 6 miles it comes back to Cedar Creek and follows alongside to the Weston Lake Loop Trail.
Because of the lack of frequent hikers and trees in this area, this trail is the best for birding in the national park. Hikers with long camera lenses and binoculars will hike this section most often. It’s among the most peaceful hikes in the park.
Bates Ferry Trail
This 2-mile roundtrip hike follows an old road that once led to a ferry crossing on the Congaree River. It’s the easiest hike to see the Congaree in the national park.
The parking area is located on Highway 601 about 15 miles from the visitor center.
Fork Swamp Trail
This 0.6-mile hiking trail is the newest at Congaree National Park. I have not hiked it yet, and I could not locate it on a map because it is not on any maps yet (including the official maps from the national park).
The trailhead is located just down the road from Bates Ferry Trail parking. The short trail follows alongside the Bates Old River to the Congaree River.