Visiting Congaree National Park
Many of the travelers we know are looking to visit as many U.S. National Parks as possible, but don’t have a good basecamp to do so. Columbia, SC is the perfect base for a visit to Congaree National Park.
There are currently 62 parks that have made the cut to be protected and managed by the national government. There are around 420 total national protected lands, monuments and parks, though. The full list of parks can be found at www.nps.gov. Families, couples, and solo travelers are looking to the challenge of visiting the U.S. National Parks.
If you or someone you know is headed to the East coast, consider South Carolina for a stop for a few days. Congaree National Park sits right now at 51/62 on the popularity scale, which is measured by the amount of visitors per year, just above far reaching parks in Alaska, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands!!! It’s also a free entry, so no pass needed.
Know Before You Go
The Congaree National Park Visitor Center is the perfect place to start your adventure. The park sits at sea level, which will become very noticeable if you visit after a heavy rain or during a particularly rainy season. The boardwalks have been developed in a way that can withstand the rising Congaree swamp wetlands that meander through the park. You can enjoy the beauty of this park in half a day.
The best time to visit Congaree National Park is before June and after September. The summer months are hot and humid and very buggy. Visiting Congaree in winter is wonderful with mild temperatures and enough precipitation to keep the water levels up and interesting. The Congaree National Park fireflies dancing in synchronization, which typically happens at the end of May, is one of the most incredible experiences inside the park.
Another favorite activity is a canoe or kayak on the 15 mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, winding through the wilderness waterways. You will need to bring your own watercraft and equipment, or find an outfitter in nearby Columbia that hold official commercial permits to rent what you will need.
We think a long weekend in the city of Columbia, SC as your basecamp for visiting Congaree National Park gives you the whole southern experience in your quest to conquer the National Parks list.
Columbia, South Carolina as Basecamp for Congaree
Here are 5 reasons Columbia, SC is the best basecamp for a Congaree National Park adventure.
1. There are several airports you can utilize near Columbia for access
Consider flying in/out of Charlotte, NC or Greenville, SC or Charleston, SC as well as Columbia. With this many options you are sure to find a great flight deal! All of those airports are less than 2 hours drive to get you to Congaree. All have plenty of rental cars available and can get you where you are going with ease.
2. History: Columbia is steeped in both Revolutionary War and Civil War history
The SC State House gives tours and there are many historic homes that conduct tours in the downtown area as well. The SC State Museum and the EdVenture children’s museum also boast fun, interactive exhibits that tell so much about the history of the area. This is the perfect answer to a rainy or super hot day in Columbia.
3. Art: if you are an art lover, you will find wonderful spots in Columbia to enjoy
First, the Columbia Art Museum is right downtown with a lovely outdoor courtyard to enjoy before or after your visit. There are numerous outdoor murals around town to explore and take photos and you can use the website above that offers an interactive map of all the public art available throughout Columbia. The fabulous hand blown glass gallery at One Eared Cow is another medium that is fun to do as a group.
4. There are a host of other outside activities you can participate in while visiting Columbia.
Soda City Market: Every Saturday, rain or shine from 9-1 on Main Street in downtown Columbia.
Riverwalk/Timmerman Trail system: great for bikers, joggers, dog walkers and antsy kiddos who need a little nature nurture. If you visit in the hot months, you can even tube down the river from the West Columbia location.
Sporting events: depending on what time of year you visit, you can catch a Columbia Fireflies baseball game or a University of South Carolina varsity sporting events.
Riverbanks Zoo: a small enough zoo to see every animal in one day, but with spectacular exhibits and a high ropes course to boot!
Lake Murray: a boater’s paradise with every kind of water activity available. Our kids love to wake board, tube, fish, and sail on Lake Murray. It’s a huge manmade lake with hundreds of coves, several marinas and ample open space for all the boating activities you heart could ever desire. Here is a resource for all the FUN to be had.
5. The Eateries are Endless
There are a multitude of incredible restaurants and eateries for every time of day. Columbia is not only the state capital, but is also a university town. We all know that keeping visitors happy starts with their bellies. I promise you won’t have enough time to even scratch the surface. Any of these restaurants can fuel you for a great day at Congaree or bolster you back up after a day exploring. Below is a short list, but our biggest advice is to trust the locals.
- SmallSugar– incredible pastries! (During COVID pick up or outside eating)
- Cafe Strudel– hearty sit-down breakfast with Southern flair
- EggsUp-typical breakfast diner type restaurant
- Cinnamon Roll Deli-we aren’t huge fans of the cinnamon rolls, but the breakfast sandwiches and the grits are YUM
- Drip– fabulous pour over coffee and my (Jen’s) favorite honey lavender scone
- Indah-awesome ambience and great coffee with treats for a light breakfast
- DiPrato’s– NY Italian style deli with delicious pimento cheese
- Small Sugar– healthy, extremely satisfying. The greens & grains bowl is dreamy!
- The Gourmet Shop– known for their chicken salad, paninis & cheese plate
- Crave– this place is packed every day. John swears by the hot dog, but I love the Korean pulled pork sandwich. The chef here is something special!! (website does not do the place justice. TRUST US).
- Terra– our “go to” offering American fare with local ingredients. Mike and crew consistently produce excellent food and Andy at the bar is our favorite bartender!
- The Warm Mouth– our best description: restaurant worthy camp food. We love the pickle plate and the chicken bog…oh and the ribs.
- Bourbon– cajun creole cuisine with classics like etouffee and gumbo. (closed until August 2020 due to COVID-19)
- Baan Sawan– high end Thai food with a fantastic wine list
- Hall’s Chophouse– just what it sounds like: great steaks. Special occasion spot.
- Il Focolare– legit Italian oven pizzeria. (take out only due to COVID-19)
- Lula Drake Wine Parlour- if you are a wine lover, you ought to make this place a stop. John and I love to dine here on snack and small plates while enjoying a glass or two, and we can’t wait to utilize the upstairs space that offers a private booking as well.
Hotels Near Congaree National Park
There are several areas of Columbia you can choose to stay if camping in Congaree National Park doesn’t appeal to you. The neighborhood around the University offers a Courtyard or a Hilton Garden Inn near the airport. Both are easy on the budget and are located for easy access to Congaree. If you are willing to spend a bit more and are looking for a fancier option, check out The Graduate Columbia or the local boutique Hotel Trundle. RVers enjoy River Bottom Farms Family Campground for a great set up in the Columbia area and to set up for a Congaree adventure.