Easy Trails in Poinsett State Park & Congaree National Park
We took our first real camper van trip recently, staying in Poinsett State Park in South Carolina. With COVID and minimal travel recently, getting to go somewhere was a dream! I picked this region of South Carolina because it wasn’t too far from home (about 6 hours from Richmond). Plus with Congaree National Park nearby we could hit a state park and a national park in the same trip.
We picked Poinsett State Park to camp in the can since there aren’t electrical hookups/RV sites in Congaree. Poinsett State Park and Santee State Park are both within an hour of Congaree National Park. I went with Poinsett because it had a smaller campground with less spots booked.
We had never been the this region of South Carolina. Most of our drive was along I-95. Driving in from the interstate, the roads were quite bumpy. Poinsett State Park butts up to Manchester State Forest and the Poinsett Bombing Range, which we drove past on the way in. Despite being so close to the bombing range, we didn’t hear anything while we were there.
Poinsett State Park
At around 1000 acres, Poinsett State Park is a medium sized park with lots of hiking trails and a lake near the park office. It was named for Joseph Poinsett, who was the first ambassador to Mexico. As a hobby botanist Poinsett popularized Poinsettias, which were named for him.
The roads in the park, including the one to the campsite, are pretty narrow. It wasn’t an issue, but worth keeping in mind when driving through the park. Everything is well marked with signs.
The campground is organized in two sections, with the front section having electrical hookups/RV sites, and the back section without electricity, intended for tents. The road through the campground is one way and mostly sand. I thought it would be an issue, but the van (and a few RVs we saw move) went over it just fine. There’s a bathhouse in each section, a large open area for gatherings, and a spot for trash.
I picked camp site #24, which is at the beginning of the tent section, but still has electricity. My thought was that we’d be away from people, and my plan worked. Because we were there in mid November and it was chilly at night, there were no tent campers around. The weather also helped us with bugs. Gnats were only an issue for about 2 hours in the afternoon. Once we got a fire going, they went away.
We were a little removed from the RVs camping in the front section and felt like we had our area to ourselves. This site was perfect size for the van, had a picnic table, and a fire ring. With no people near us, the bathhouse was empty every time either of us went in.
A few of the trails in Poinsett State Park connect with The Palmetto Trail that crosses the state of South Carolina. Several of the trails start around the park office, that sits on a lake. Near the lake are the remnants of a grist mill that dates back to before the Revolutionary War. The water from the lake runs into a small waterfall near the mill ruins.
We chose the Coquina trail, because it was a loop and had some lake views. The trail was quite enjoyable, but just after it crossed the Laurel trail, it was flooded. We followed Laurel briefly to catch Hilltop to get back to Coquina (rather than backtrack through all of Coquina). The trails were narrow, and moderately difficult. Our dog, Gimli, sets a swift pace which always makes hikes feel a little harder to me. The Hilltop trail did have more dramatic elevation changes, but the sites were worth it.
The views around the lake were pretty, and the but the Spanish moss was my favorite. When the sunlight passed through it almost glowed. Having to detour on the trail gave us more variety in the terrain we saw. Bikes are allowed on portions of the trails. We didn’t see anyone on the trail until we were almost done.
About 45 minutes away from Poinsett is Congaree National Park. There are over 20,000 acres of forest in the park, with some of the national’s oldest bottomland hardwood forests. These forests grow in swampy areas in river floodplains. What’s so cool about Congaree are the knees of the cypress trees that can be seen sticking up out of the ground. The flooding of the river covers everything in a grayish mud. Combined with the cypress knees looking like tall skinny mountains, the terrain has a very unique appearance.
We parked at the visitor center. The van fits in a regular parking spot, but there was an area for larger vehicles like RVs too. I was afraid the park would be busy with the number of cars in the lot, but it wasn’t. We got there around 10 am on a Tuesday and didn’t encounter more than a handful of people until we were leaving around noon.
The Boardwalk Loop Trail starts and ends at the visitor center and goes right through the flood plain. We started going to the right. But the boardwalk is two-way; it doesn’t matter which side you start on. The tour brochure from the visitor center points out different types of trees, sites, and historical stories along the boardwalk. Worth reading as you go, rather than on the car ride home like I did.
The well maintained and flat boardwalk makes this is an easy hike for anyone, including kids. Portions of the boardwalk have railings along the side. Be mindful of others when passing, as everyone stays on the boardwalk you can’t walk off the trail to let someone pass. We kept our masks handy for those moments. There are benches set in little alcoves along the boardwalk which provide a good place to pause when passing others. We made sure Gimli went to the bathroom before we got on the boardwalk, since he wouldn’t have a potty spot on the trail.
Towards the end of the boardwalk loop as we were heading back to the visitor center there were dwarf palmettos growing. Not the same palmettos that make South Carolina “the palmetto state” but still fun to see.
Bluff Trail connected with the boardwalk on that side too. After walking on the boardwalk for so long this trail was much quieter. Your shoes don’t make noise on dirt, the same way they do on wood.
Terrain on Bluff Trail looked much different than the mud covered landscape along the boardwalk. It had wide, well marked trails, with a less dense forest and tall trees. There was evidence of planned burns on some of the trees. This trail also leads to one of the campgrounds in the park and extended our boardwalk trip before taking us back to the visitor center.