My favorite dog friendly national park was established in 2003, making it one of the newest national parks in the United States.
About the Park
Nicknamed “Redwoods of the East,” Congaree hosts a 130 foot high tree canopy of oaks, tupelos, cypress, and more. It is in fact one of the world’s tallest forests. To some it may appear to be a swamp, but this is an ecologically inaccurate term. It is technically a floodplain forest. It is full of hardwood trees that attracted loggers in the early 20th century, nearly decimating them and destroying multi-century old trees in the process.
The park floods several times a year and more than half of the area is usually flooded. Sometimes, the floods submerge the famed boardwalks.
The name of the park refers to the Congaree people, native inhabitants of the area prior to being ravaged by diseases like smallpox brought in by Europeans and sold in slavery.
It is one of the least visited parks in the country with about 130,000 visitors a year.
Related: Channel Islands National Park
I visited the park for a few hours as part of a small detour from Highway 26 on a road trip between Asheville, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina.
Located about 20 miles north, the nearest city is Columbia, South Carolina. You can reach the park from many major southeast American cities. It is within a few hours drive from Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina as well. Regardless of which direction you come from, you’ll follow Old Bluff Road to the park entrance.
Once you arrive to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, there are no further roadways in the park. The rest must either be explored on foot or by boat.
When to Go
The park is best in the spring and fall. It is during this time when migratory birds frequent the area. Any season can see rain, but it is most common in the summer. Furthermore, the summer is hot and humid. Mosquitos are the worst at this time.
I visited in July 2021 and I can attest that there is an army of mosquitos, however with enough bug spray we were still able to enjoy a couple miles of hiking on the boardwalk.
If you’ve ever visited a national park in the United States with a dog, you are familiar with the challenges it brings. Dogs are often allowed in the park, but usually limited to the parking lots or specific campgrounds. This leaves dog owners unable to hike and explore as liberally as they would like. For example, we had to take turns waiting in the car for an hour while we each hiked to see Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Congaree National Park however allows dogs on all of its trails, to include the boardwalk loop. This was a pivotal reason as to why we loved Congaree so much; we were able to explore it with our four-legged best friend.
If you are visiting with your dog, be sure to have poop bags, a water bowl, and to keep your dog leashed. There is good shade coverage in the woods and a flat path so protective paw booties are probably unnecessary. Beware of high temperatures in summer months.
Related: Pet Safety at Congaree
Day Trip Activities
The boardwalk loop trail is the primary attraction for day trip visitors. Starting at the visitor center, the 2.4 mile trail takes visitors through the woods with both high and low boardwalk heights. You move through old growth loblolly pines and hardwoods, as well as the swampy low land.
From the boardwalk loop trail, you can see many examples of the interesting stalagmite-like roots of bald cypress trees poking out from the ground. This complex root network serves as a grip for the tree, both to the ground and to other trees. This is essential in an environment where the soil is often soft and ever changing.
Beyond the boardwalk loop, there are an additional 25 miles of trails. You can also canoe along a marked canoe trail on Cedar Creek.
If you’d like to fish, you are allowed to do so with a valid South Carolina fishing license. Learn more about the regulations for fishing here.
There are more than 25 types of snakes, including brown water snakes and copper heads. Weston Lake is home to many types of fish, venomous snakes, snapping turtles, and alligators. Wild boar also frequent the area.
Along the boardwalk trail you can spot a variety of large spiders and skink.
There are nearly 200 types of birds in the area. This includes woodpeckers and anhingas.
If you take the boardwalk trail, be sure not to rush it as many of Congaree’s creatures camouflage well with their surroundings. Keep a sharp eye and you might be surprised by how much biodiversity you find.
What to Bring
Water and bug spray are absolute must haves during a visit to Congaree. You’ll also likely want to bring a hat, good shoes, and a camera. A lightweight rain jacket is advisable in the summer as short showers are common.
If you’d like to hit the water, you’ll need to bring your own canoe or kayak. These can be rented in Columbia.