This National Park Floods in Winter—and That's Precisely When You Should Visit
The US is blessed with 63 national parks, stretching from above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and down to Virgin Islands National Park in the West Indies. While some of these parks are massively popular (we’re looking at you, Yellowstone!), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.
The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century. “By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining,” explains Jon Manchester, the chief of visitor services there. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country, and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world, with the average canopy reaching to 100 feet. “It doesn't sound all that tall, but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive,” says Manchester. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it. Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina (which receives direct flights from 11 cities), Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022, about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park. In fact, more people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.
What makes winter the best time to explore?
While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s, and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds. As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds, paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.
Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. Actually, it’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees, and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows. Manchester notes that the rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. He says that though the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss and other climate change-related factors, the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird, so he hopes the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil. Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients, which, in turn, help produce the park’s high number of “champion-size” trees—the largest documented specimen of their species.One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.
Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged), as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.
Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded, visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters, which are less out-and-about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.
Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree
Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round, though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.
A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline-Biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke, making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water, though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet. Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged, even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.
When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek, which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest, but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood, the water level rises, and the creek rises up and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain. Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest, as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.
Planning your trip to the park
At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park, so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours, so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.
And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market. Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Basically, Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina, or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that advance reservations are required.
If the park isn’t flooded during your visit, your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest, perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.
In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails, like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding, though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes, but if a blazed tree falls, you could be in danger of getting lost. That’s even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.
If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail, but lucky for you, it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail, and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them, so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.
Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items, such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the “knees” of the cypress trees, which are knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots. Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps, though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.
Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history, including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans, who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness. Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest, where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. In fact, much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.
As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park, this is when you’ll also find the most activities, such as twilight hikes and owl prowls, which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions, but be sure to check the park’s calendar, which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.
Exploring the backcountry
If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center, which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours, but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. This water “trail” begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end, which costs about $175. According to Manchester, paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.
Manchester says that while it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging). While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases, you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Manchester says that most paddlers do this as an overnight trip, which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.