North Carolina is home to 17 river basins many of which connect to the biggest waterways in the States, such as the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. Getting in a kayak and paddling down these rivers is one of the best ways to get up close to nature and some of the birds and wildlife that live along our coastline.
We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite kayaking routes perfect for a coastal adventure.
The Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail (SECT) connects the Chesapeake Bay and the Georgia-Florida border. For over 800 miles, the SECT hugs the coastal waters of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, providing a unique opportunity for paddlers to experience an unbroken trail through four states in the tidal marshes and rivers of the southern USA. The North Carolina segment of the SECT is approximately 300 miles long.
In the North Carolina section, there are many natural and cultural features to explore. The famous Outer Banks and two National Seashores, Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras make up a large part of the trail. The Intracoastal Waterway overlaps with the trail in several of the segments. As in the other states, the North Carolina section is greatly influenced by tidal changes. Especially in the sounds and at the confluence of the rivers and the coast, the tidal changes can be very significant.
Little River to Cape Fear
This 45-mile section of the North Carolina coast is known as the Brunswick Islands, a combination of 5 barrier islands, 6 beaches, and 3 mainland towns. These short barrier islands hug the coast and create protected back-barrier estuaries connected to the ocean by three inlets. The beaches are south facing, due to the curve of the coastline. Calabash, at the southern end, Shallotte in the middle, and Southport at Cape Fear, are all small towns along this section.
Cape Fear to Cape Lookout
Wilmington is on a cone-shaped peninsula created by the Cape Fear River. Across the peninsula on the Atlantic side is Wrightsville Beach. South of Kure Beach is the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. The North Carolina Aquarium is located at Fort Fisher. North of Wrightsville Beach past the Topsail Inlet, a 26-mile long barrier island consists of three towns; Topsail Beach, Surf City, and North Topsail Beach. The Intracoastal Waterway passes Camp Lejeune Marine Base north of the New River Inlet. Hammocks Beach State Park is on Bear Island. Bogue Banks, a 25.4-mile long barrier island creates the Bogue Sound. Bogue Banks extends from Bogue Inlet to Shackleford Banks. Fort Macon State Park is at the eastern end of the barrier island. The Shackleford ponies run wild on the island. Beaufort and Morehead City are on the mainland across from Bogue Sound.
Cape Lookout to Cape Hatteras
The long barrier islands that form the famous Outer Banks are several miles across the open water of the Albermarle-Pamlico Sound. Closest in is the hook of Cape Lookout. As the islands extend north they are more and more distant from the mainland. The lighthouse on Cape Lookout in the Cape Lookout National Seashore is most recognized for its large black and white diamond design. Originally rejected by 19th-century mariners, her structure was later used as the model for future Outer Banks Lighthouses. The oldest still-operating lighthouse in North Carolina is on Ocracoke Island. The whitewashed lighthouse is one of the nation’s five oldest still-active facilities. At Buxton, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. As the nation’s tallest and most recognizable lighthouse, it is commonly referred to as “America’s Lighthouse”.
Cape Hatteras to North Landing River
From Cape Hatteras, the National Seashore extends northward almost to Nag’s Head. The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is just south of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. At the northern end of the coast in Corolla, is the Currituck Beach Light Station which opened and began protecting the shoreline in 1875. Hugging the barrier islands, the trail then passes by the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge and the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge before crossing the border into Virginia and the North Landing River.
Located near the new and developing RiverLights community, this route will connect to the Cape Fear River, an excellent place for viewing local wildlife and numerous species of trees and vegetation. This route is approximately 3 miles long and depending on weather and tides can be a smooth ride or good for a moderate kayaker. Make sure to keep an eye out for low hanging branches or broken trees. You can launch from the public boat ramp located at 5006 River Rd, Wilmington, NC 28412-7502.
The Black River
The Black River is a tributary of the Cape Fear River and is over 60 miles long. Kayaking a section of this river makes for a good adventure. You may need extra transportation for both put-in and take-out as the river will only run one way. The Black River is home to the oldest bald cypress, the fifth oldest tree species in the world, and it can only be found alongside Black River’s meandering black waters in southeastern North Carolina. These ancient trees are easily recognized by their huge buttresses and gnarly flat tops sculpted by countless storms. One tree along the river was scientifically dated to 605 B.C.E in 2019 and confirmed by The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program which protects the river. Three Sister’s Swamp is a section containing many of the rivers Bald Cypress trees and a great place to start exploring the river.
There are numerous launch points along the river depending on how far you are wanting to travel along the 60-mile long river.
The Brunswick River
This trail is a roughly 6-mile trek for the whole route beginning from Northern Eagle Island to Southern Eagle Island. This section is wide and slow-moving, with little to no boat traffic. The river is affected by the tides so it’s best to time your trip with the tide. The best launch point to start this trip is at the Bellville Riverwalk located at 580 River Rd SE, Leland, NC.
If you ask me I don’t think I’d want to go anywhere near the Alligator River, but luckily the river isn’t known for having many alligators. It is known for a lot of wildlife however including, red wolves, ducks, geese, black bears, turtles, herons, woodpeckers, raccoons, deer, quail, northern river otters, and of course the occasional alligator. As it turns out, this section of North Carolina is one of the northernmost homes for alligators, and though rarely seen, an occasional visitor may catch a glimpse of one burrowed beneath the surface of the brackish waters.
The Milltail Creek Canoe and Kayak trail allow kayakers to explore the salty waterways that run throughout the refuge. Located at the southern end of Buffalo City Road, this trail veers out into four separate routes spanning a total of 15 miles. Easy-to-see markers are located throughout all four trails to guide visitors through the deep yet desolate waterways that snake through the refuge.
Milltail Rd, East Lake, NC 27953
A Wild and Scenic designated river in south-central North Carolina, the Lumber River which is over 13o miles long offers great swamp and eastern hardwood habitats and eventually crosses into South Carolina into the Pee Dee River. With 24 canoe put-ins at road crossings, there is ample opportunity to see a wide variety of wildlife like deer, mink, ducks, and even alligators, rare at this latitude.
For birders, the uppermost section of the river offers the opportunity to see the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Many other rare species can be found here such as pine barrens treefrog, river frog, and the giant yucca skipper. Novice paddlers will find the lower sections to be more accessible, as the upper section requires advanced skill to navigate around the fallen logs and other obstructions. While these logs and sandbars may make it harder to paddle, they do create important habitat for a number of species. Numerous artifacts and fossils from early Indigenous people can be found along the shore.
Carolina Beach State Park
Carolina Beach State Park is arguably one of the best destinations for paddlers, thanks to its ample parking, on-site seasonal kayak rentals, easy launching site, and miles of Cape Fear River terrain. Explore the open waters and small outlying islands, or head east along Snow’s Cut for a different perspective of the region. You can also head north to Masonboro Island Estuarine Reserve, an 8.4-mile long barrier island, home to local birds, fish, invertebrates, and sea turtles. The island is only reachable by boat, canoe, or kayak, but you will find pristine beaches, great fishing, and good shelling conditions.
Just use plenty of caution when exploring the area– maritime traffic of all sizes regularly use this launch site and adjacent marina.
Located on B Road, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Soundside Kayaking in the Outer Banks
Five different sounds separate the Outer Banks from the mainland. In the northern beaches, kayakers can cruise the Currituck Sound. Central Outer Banks vacationers can access the Albemarle Sound, and Roanoke Island claims borders to two sounds: Roanoke Sound to the East and Croatan Sound to the West. Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands border the massive Pamlico Sound, which at an average of 30 miles wide, is one of the largest sounds on the East Coast.
All five sounds on the Outer Banks consist of generally calm salt waters. A gusty day may create small waves and currents, but on a typical summer day with winds of 10mph or less, paddlers can expect smooth sailing.
Despite their large area, all sounds are generally very shallow, with waters ranging on average from 3 to 5 feet deep. The biggest draw to kayaking in the sound is the relaxing pace and the natural setting. Because it’s such a quiet endeavor, it’s not unusual for sound kayakers to encounter an abundance of local wildlife, including great blue herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, ducks, geese, turtles and more.
Throughout the Outer Banks, there are a number of public launches and soundside parks or recreation areas that are popular with kayakers and water sports enthusiasts alike.
Helpful Kayaking Tips
- Be mindful of maritime traffic, especially in larger bodies of water like the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway, which are regularly used by vessels of all sizes.
- Bug spray is a must, and especially in the warm summer months. Sunscreen comes in handy too, as the sun in the Cape Fear region can be especially strong off the water.
- Watch for winds and tides, which can influence an abundance of local waters. Use caution cruising through or around the local inlets, where the currents can be deceptively strong.
- Be mindful of local reptiles. There are several poisonous species of snakes in southern North Carolina which are found close to the water.
- Want to make some new paddling friends? Check out the local meet-up sites. There are several meet-up websites dedicated to gatherings of all varieties, which includes group paddle adventures.
- Bring along the rods and reels! Kayak fishing is big in the region, and especially in salty bodies of water like the Cape Fear River where a wealth of species can be reeled in. Just be sure and pick up a North Carolina Saltwater Fishing License ahead of time.
- The major waterways that surround North Carolina Beaches are used by maritime traffic of all varieties, and all sizes. Use extra caution, and stick close to the borders of the shoreline/mainland whenever possible.
- Likewise, in the summer months, the ocean beaches can be enjoyed by a number of water fans, including surfers, swimmers, and fishermen. Paddle out away from the crowds to avoid a possible mid-water collision.
There is no shortage of rivers, creeks, sounds, and waterways to paddle here in North Carolina, so get in your kayak and explore them!
Article information sourced from SeaCoastPaddlingTrail.com, AmericanRivers.org, OuterBanks.com, Cape Fear Visitors Guide