How to See the Synchronous Fireflies in Congaree National Park + Is It Worth It?

Dark woods with a few fireflies lit up

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While National Parks are always available for you to enjoy, some National Park have separate events that can be harder to score a ticket to. And the synchronous fireflies in Congaree National Park in South Carolina is one of those.

To be able to see this natural phenomenon, you have to enter their lottery and score a ticket. Thousands enter each year, but only a few hundred are chosen. AND this event is only for about 2 weeks during the spring, so it’s a limited-time deal!

We were lucky enough to win a ticket to the event, so I want to tell you all about it, how to get a ticket, and what to expect. Plus, we’re going to talk about whether it’s worth it or not (spoiler alert: it’s cool but didn’t blow my mind.)

Green trees surrounding raised wood boardwalk with railings
It was still pretty light when we arrived for the firefly event!

What Are the Synchronous Fireflies?

So, Congaree National Park, which is located near Columbia, South Carolina, has a firefly species that comes out every spring and lights up for a few hours in synchronicity.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how/why this is, but most think it’s some kind of mating ritual. Although it’s also been pointed out that the fireflies blink so fast that it’s not necessarily that they’re synched, and more like they just can’t help blinking at the same time.

This is another thing I learned here: there are lots of different species of lightning bugs!

The ones in Congaree were so different from the lightning bugs we have at home in Alabama. Ours have a slow and gentle blink with a yellow light. These were much faster with a whiter light.

Getting Tickets to the Synchronous Fireflies

Because this is an event that is just during a small two-week span of time and there is a lot of demand for it, Congaree runs a lottery system.

You can enter the firefly lottery beginning sometime in the spring, and they will notify the winners a few weeks later. For 2024, we entered at the beginning of April and were notified we won a ticket on April 16 for the event at the end of May.

It does cost $1 to enter the lottery, and if you win you will automatically be charged the $24 for the ticket.

The ticket covers your entire car, but no RVs or other large vehicles can enter. Vehicles can have a maximum of 8 people.

Breezeway at Visitor center with a few vendor tables set up. Top is lit with red string lights.
Educational Booths set up at Visitor’s Center during the firefly event.

What To Expect at the Congaree Synchronous Fireflies

Here’s our experience of the Congaree National Park fireflies.

We arrived about 5 minutes before the gates opened at 7:00 p.m. (on days when the firefly event is going on, they close the park early and then reopen it for the event) and there was already a short line to get in.

Once we arrived we parked in the parking lot in front of the Harry Hampton Visitor Center.

One important thing to note: Even though there are signs around the park that say you must apply bug spray ONLY in the parking lot, for the firefly event you CANNOT even apply bug spray in the parking lot. So make sure to put it on before you arrive. (And trust me…you’ll need it!)

There was still over an hour to wait before it got dark, and you can use that time to explore the boardwalk some. Since we had already done that earlier in the day though, we mostly hung out at the Visitor’s Center (which was open for the event). They also had some tables with local vendors out front who were giving away freebies and talking about local events.

As it started getting dark, we started finding a place to watch the fireflies. There is a “Firefly Trail” near the boardwalk that most people will go to. And while I expected people to walk around and view the fireflies in different spots, most people actually parked themselves along the trail in one spot to see the fireflies.

Pro Tip: *Before* it gets dark, walk the firefly trail so you can get the lay of the land. This is something we didn’t do and I wish we had!

Then you can sit back and watch the fireflies!

A few things that are important to note about the experience:

  • You cannot use your phone to take pictures or videos during the event.
  • You can only use red light flashlights (they provide one for each vehicle).
Daytime boardwalk trail through the woods (but no railing in this one).
While the fireflies were cool, hiking in Congaree was my favorite part of our visit!

Is Seeing the Synchronous Fireflies Worth It?

Now here’s where we can talk about expectations…and how mine were too high. I thought there would be just millions of fireflies lighting up the forest. But that was really not what it was.

It was more like staring into the woods and seeing a kind of starry sky that kept blinking on and off, but that wasn’t actually super bright. And there weren’t nearly as many fireflies as I expected.

So…the experience was cool and I’m really glad we got the opportunity to do it.

BUT it didn’t amaze me as much as I thought it was going to.

I even asked one of the park rangers on our way out how the night had been, wondering if maybe the fireflies had been less active than is typical. But he told me it was a great night and they had been really showing off.

So while Congaree National Park was really cool and I loved our experience there, I don’t think you necessarily need to go out of your way to plan a trip around the fireflies.

If you have the chance and win a ticket? Cool!

But if not, you’ll still have such a great time at Congaree! My favorite parts were hiking the boardwalk trail during the day and kayaking in the park!

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