Search for Owls at Night at Congaree National Park’s Ranger-Guided Hike

Many people don’t know that our national and state parks have pretty cool events throughout the year. One of them – the Owl Prowl – is quite the adventure at Congaree National Park in Columbia, SC and Kristina has all the details.

The more I’ve visited local, state, and national parks, the more I’ve learned about the Ranger programs offered, and wow, every single one I’ve been to or done with my kids has been awesome. When I saw an event for the Ranger-guided Owl Prowl in Congaree National Park in Columbia, SC, I immediately signed up.

About Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is South Carolina’s only national park and is located in the swampland of the Midlands outside of Columbia. It’s “the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.” Its swampy floodplain actually makes for quite a unique ecosystem full of wildlife, super old trees, and more than 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.5 miles of boardwalks. Photographers will love this park for its unique nature and wildlife.

Congaree Canoe

The park also has a canoe trail where you can bring your own kayak or canoe and paddle (depending on water levels) or rent a kayak/canoe or go on a guided tour with Carolina Outdoor Adventures. I did this with my kids and our own kayak one spring and it was super cool. We saw tons of snakes and got to experience the park in a pretty fantastic way.

The Congaree River Blue Trail is another way for those who like to paddle to explore the area. The Blue Trail is a 50-mile kayak/trail that runs from downtown Columbia to the park. I have not done this trail myself but have read of adventurous individuals doing a kayak camping trip over the course of a few days here. Pretty cool if you are into that kind of thing.

The park also has a campground (good luck with this during the warmer months) as well as fishing and numerous educational opportunities.

Owl Prowl

The Owl Prowl was a free event but we had to sign up because they only had about 20 spots available. We signed up online and got a confirmation email so we were set.

The Owl Prowl is Ranger-guided and happens after the park closes, which definitely helped us all to feel just a little special. It started at dusk, which was around 7:30pm when we went and lasted a little over an hour and a half. We walked about two miles total, mostly on the elevated boardwalks in the Park.

The program began with check-in at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where we got to meet our head Ranger plus the other participants. There are bathrooms there, which I’d suggest you use since there aren’t any facilities available during the hike.

Once all of us were ready, the Ranger gave us an overview of the owls that live at the park – the Barred Owl, the Great Horned Owl, and the tiny little Screech Owl. She even played us an audio of what each of them sounds like so we would know what to listen for.

Then we were off on the trail. Before we hit the boardwalk, our ranger took out an owl skull to show us what it looked like and how owls hunt. We learned about what they eat and where they live. Once we started along the boardwalk, it was nice to chat with some of the other participants and learn where they were from and such. After all, we already had something in common – our love of owls and evening hikes!

There’s a lot to see along the boardwalks that our ranger pointed out – like water snakes (don’t worry, they are totally harmless), animal footprints, and old moonshine remnants. We stopped at a gorgeous lake and just as we got there, we caught just a few seconds of a Barred Owl’s flight across the water and into the high trees. So neat! We stopped to enjoy the view of the lake while the ranger took out some ropes that she swung around to demonstrate why owls are completely silent during flight.

While we walked along the boardwalk, we definitely heard owls but didn’t see any other ones.

We were nearly back to the visitors center when a flashlight caught movement below us on the boardwalk. I was convinced it was feral hogs or a coyote but nope, it was a few small deer wandering around in the dark. They were cute.

On the Owl Prowl

Once we got back to our destination, the ranger took a few minutes to answer questions and give us some things we could do to help keep owls safe – things like not littering because their prey like mice and small mammals are often attracted to it and then when the owl goes to grab them, they are hit by a car. Other things we learned are harmful to owls are the kind of rodent traps that are sticky. Owls can try to eat prey that are caught in the traps and get stuck themselves, damaging their bodies.

What you need to bring

You’ll have a better time if you come prepared.

Bring bug spray: Congaree National Park is in a swamp which means bugs. A lot of bugs. The weather was warm when we went but thankfully not the worst heat of summer and bugs. I wore pants and a short sleeve shirt but sprayed on the bug spray. Mosquitos are prevalent there except during winter.

Wear comfortable hiking shoes or sneakers: You’ll be walking about two miles so wear comfy shoes.

Leave the pets at home: No pets are allowed on this hike. Most national parks have strict laws about pets so always check before you go.

Bring water: It’s hot, even at night. Don’t forget water.

Bring a small flashlight: The rangers will give you red cellophane to cover it so as to not bother nighttime critters but it will get dark and a flashlight can help.

Finding out about upcoming events

I initially saw the Owl Prowl event on Facebook and I’ve since seen others the same way. Pay attention to the Congaree National Park Facebook page for updated information. They also have an events page on their website and a good Eventbrite page.

If you see an event you are interested in, sign up quickly since they fill up quickly. The rangers told us

If you’re at the park and they don’t have an event, definitely do the Junior Ranger program. These Junior Ranger programs are easily my favorite things to do with my kids at the parks we visit. You learn a lot about the park and local environment and history plus it’s really fun.

Congaree Park also participates in the free Kids in Parks program where kids earn prizes for National outdoor activities.

If you’re looking for places to stay near the park or other things to do nearby, check out our guide to Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park
100 National Park Road
Hopkins, SC 29061

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