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Congaree National Park is a great winter destination

For ages, I’d been curious about the Congaree National Park in Hopkins, but it wasn’t a place I wanted to see in summer because the area gets so hot and muggy. Winter turned out to be a great time to explore, without contending against the park’s dreaded “Mosquito Meter.” The day my family chose was a mild 55 degrees.

The park is a cypress swamp intersected with creeks and lakes. The cypress trees grow with the bases of their trunks underwater.

Unlike many national parks, Congaree has free admission.

More: Let’s Hike: A double cascade plus Cathedral Falls is just as grand as it sounds

The simplest path for new visitors is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail. Its raised planks are less likely to be washed out than the muddy trails on the ground. However, even a large part of the boardwalk was under water on the day we visited.

We could only do half the trail and turn around (still getting in our 2.4 miles though). The 5-year-old in our group started to run out of steam near the end, but he stayed in good spirits.

The friends who accompanied me had seen all kinds of turtles and salamanders on previous visits. The turtles must have been hibernating, though, because we only saw one lonely lizard on our walk.

We did hear an owl in the daytime, which was cool, and several other birds. On our way to the park, we passed a pond with a white heron, and he was the showstopper of the wildlife that day.

In some spots, water was crystal clear and pretty, and we could the grassy plants growing under the water. In other areas, the water was stirred up and muddy, which was disappointing at first. Then, we noticed how it made the sticks in the water bob. At first, we thought it was something alive! It was a remarkable phenomenon.

At the midpoint of the Boardwalk Trail, we reached Weston Lake. There was an observation area where many had cameras and binoculars to watch for birds. We were probably a bit noisier than they would’ve liked, so we just stayed long enough for a snack, some rest, and a few photos.

One disappointing thing about this park is that there were very few picnic shelters. We ate our lunch with a view of the parking lot instead of the swamp. But, given that the park was free, I suppose we shouldn’t complain about amenities.

If I were to go back, I’d be curious to try one of the eight other trails in this huge park, now that I feel a little bit more familiar with the area. We happened to go on a day that was a federal holiday, so no rangers were present, and the information center was closed. I felt safe enough on the Boardwalk Trail without a map, especially with my friend as a guide, but I wouldn’t attempt another hike without a little research and a proper map.

Also, this is not a park I’d visit in midsummer, as I understand the mosquitos are unbearable. Winter and early spring (before the bugs come out) are more enjoyable times of year to visit.

You can go

Congaree National Park is located at 100 National Park Road, Hopkins. It is approximately two hours from Greenville and near Columbia. Admission is free. Visit for details.