Best Places for Kayaking in North Carolina

Finding the perfect place to paddle in North Carolina isn’t hard, even if it’s your first time visiting the state. North Carolina has diverse landscapes that can serve as the backdrop for your aquatic adventure.

For kayaking, you can launch your boat in a sparkling mountain river or float peacefully along a gorgeous lake as you fish or photograph the wildlife.

You can even test your sea kayaking skills on the Atlantic Ocean, where you might spot a pelican diving for fish.

The only bad thing about choosing to kayak in North Carolina is narrowing down the fantastic options to figure out where you want to paddle first. 

The state hosts 17 river basins; many are connected to the most extensive waterways in the United States, including the Mississippi River.

Figuring out where to go kayaking is as simple as checking out this list of beginner-friendly kayaking locations. The following locations give paddlers a sense of this state’s natural beauty.

Roanoke River

The Roanoke River begins in Virginia and is 410 miles long, but 200 miles run through Northeastern North Carolina. This river provides you with the option to choose your own adventure.

You can launch before or after the section known for its Class II and III rapids. If you crave a little whitewater, you’ll want to launch from the Gaston Road boat ramp off Route 48, slightly north of Roanoke Rapids.

The rapids run for about six miles, where you can choose to get out at Weldon or continue on for a calmer end to your trip.

Suppose you prefer to avoid getting your feet or gear wet on the rapids. In that case, you can enjoy a more peaceful paddling experience by getting in at Weldon, just off Route 58.

You can paddle for around 15 miles to get to the Tillery Camping platforms. You can also keep floating towards Plymouth and find more camping spots.

As you paddle, make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife. Bears, deer, and a wide range of different bird species are all known to inhabit the area.

Barnard’s Creek

 If you travel down this creek long enough, it will eventually connect to Cape Fear River. This little stretch of creek is only around three miles, which is excellent for a day when looking for a shorter trip.

The creek is located close to the residential RiverLights community. It is perfect for stepping into an outdoor adventure without venturing too far from the amenities of being near a community.

You can admire the fauna that lines the shoreline as you paddle through mild to moderate waters. The water conditions here can vary from one day to the next depending on the weather and tides, so consider that.

You’ll also want to watch out for low-hanging branches and downed trees as you paddle. A public boat ramp at 5006 River Road gives you fast access to the water. This is a great spot to back a kayak trailer and park nearby.

Pamlico Sound

The Pamlico Sound offers many fantastic sights you’d see out on the ocean, with a safer opportunity to see the wildlife from the calm waters of this lagoon. The water can be shallow enough to stand in half a mile out in most areas.

So you can paddle far out from shore while still feeling pretty confident that you’ll be able to get back as a beginner. You can have fun looking for skates, small sharks, turtles, and tons of fish in the water.

The lagoon is the largest one on the East Coast. It is 20 miles across and 80 miles long at the broadest sections, which gives kayakers plenty of room to explore on even a busy day.

In addition, a row of sandy islands between the lagoon and the Atlantic helps keep the water calm enough for beginners. 

Once you get comfortable with paddling around the lagoon, you can make your way into the many creeks and estuaries along the shoreline. You’ll just want to make sure to keep your bearings straight.

The lagoon is so vast that losing sight of where you’ve been is easy. You can find public docks to launch near the Ocracoke Museum, which makes portage very easy. If you drive north on Highway 12, then there are creeks that you can use to access the lagoon. 

Three Sisters Swamp

Going blackwater paddling is a surefire way to know you will see beautiful vegetation. The slow-moving waters here are perfect for beginners to take it easy.

At the same time, they get acquainted with what it feels like to go kayaking in North Carolina. 

The swamp is located along the Black River. Paddling here lets you get an up-close view of one of the oldest trees in North America, which is lovingly called Methuselah.

While Methuselah had its reign, it is now believed that even older trees lined the waterway. Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine that two bald cypress trees are over 2,000 years old.

Paddling here often feels like you are in another world, and it is easy to lose track of time and space, so make sure to follow your path. There are also many opportunities to wade around and snap up those fantastic photo opportunities.

You’ll want to put in here at Beatty’s Bridge Road, just south of Ivanhoe. The trip is about 13 miles downriver, where you’ll hop out at Hunt’s Bluff Boat Ramp.

If you feel like sticking around, there’s a campground here where you can enjoy some extra outdoor adventures.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

If you’ve ever finished a kayaking trip disappointed by the lack of wildlife, this won’t happen here. Instead, kayaking in North Carolina gives you the best chances of seeing black bears and alligators if you dare.

Although they can be elusive, this protected wildlife area is also home to red wolves, and you might even see some fun-loving otters

The refuge has four designated paddling trails you can choose from once you enter the park. For the Mill Creek paddling trail, you’ll want to go to the end of Buffalo City Road to launch your kayak.

You can then paddle the creek for eight miles up to Alligator River, which has a put-in site off Highway 64, just after you cross the bridge leading to the refuge. 

Lumber River

A trip to south-central North Carolina can take you to this scenic river that feels as though it is untouched by the rest of the world. The swamp offers eastern hardwood habitats that provide a home to many native creatures, including mink and the pine barren tree frog.

While paddling the uppermost section of the river can require some technical skills to maneuver around debris, such as fallen logs, the extra effort is worth it if you can.

In addition, tackling this section of the river could lead to a sighting of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Don’t worry if you’re worried about heading toward a trickier part of the waterway. You can still see deer, ducks, and other wildlife in the lower sections. The Lumber River has 24 put-in spots that you’ll find at the road crossings.

Carolina Beach State Park

Visiting this state park gives you bragging rights for kayaking on the Atlantic Ocean. If you love kayak fishing, you can pick your catches along the waterways here.

Sheepshead and flounder are popular catches here, and you can also explore miles of the Cape Fear River. Once you launch, you can paddle along on the open water or branch out further to find one of several outlying islands.

Remember that the water on a calm day can turn choppier anytime. So stay within the range of your kayaking skills, and remember that you are always safer when you paddle with friends.

To get to the Carolina Beach State Park, hop on Highway 421 and drive south towards Wilmington. At Dow Road, North, take a right at the light, and you’ll start to see signs directing you to the beach.

You’ll also notice the abundance of wildlife as you pull into the park. Launching is quick and easy at the boat ramp at the end of State Park Road, and you’ll soon be on your way to spotting dolphins and osprey on your grand adventure.

Fontana Lake

Beaches, swamps, and blackwater rivers aren’t the only places to kayak in North Carolina. Every visitor to the state is also promised the chance to paddle near mountainous forest terrain.

This reservoir lies between the Nantahala National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Both are great places to enjoy hiking or camping after spending a day paddling on the crystal blue water. 

You can also soak up a little history by visiting the dam built for hydropower generation during World War II. At 480 feet tall, you can claim that you saw the tallest dam that exists east of the Rockies.

Besides that, you might even be hauling back a trophy fish. The lake is known for being a bass tournament lake, and the bass here can be over 10 pounds.

In North Carolina, you don’t need a permit to go kayaking, but you will want to ensure you follow the laws. Ensure you carry a whistle and have a PFD for every person in your kayak.

Then, clear your schedule and plan to enjoy several hours exploring your chosen waterway. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some time to paddle in multiple spots in your itinerary.

So you can enjoy the diverse landscapes that make North Carolina a prime destination for kayakers worldwide.

While visiting, check out other fun things to do in Charlotte, NC.

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.