Until recently, Eastern North Carolina’s greatest asset as a paddling destination was also its greatest drawback.
It’s well-kept secrets were a little too well kept.
The vast, expansive sounds and bays at the coast, the swamps and tannic creeks slightly inland, meandering creeks and rivers as you advanced toward I-95. They were, the locals knew, great places to dip a paddle — if you knew where these waterways were and how to find them.
Then about 20 years ago, the N.C. Paddle Trails Association was formed to get the word out. Among their early initiatives was a bid to compile a comprehensive list of paddle trails in the eastern part of the state (roughly east of Interstate 95). That list quickly grew to include 2,500 miles of documented paddle trails including all the essentials for a successful trip, from put-in to take-out. Counties in the eastern part of the state quickly got on board and produced their own maps as well. The result: those paddle trails you once heard about in sketchy terms are now as easy to find as the search engine on your computer.
You won’t be disappointed in what you find.
To celebrate Eastern North Carolina paddling, we set out to identify the Top 10 Paddle Trails in Eastern North Carolina, but soon realized that, with all the great options, such a winnowing was near impossible. Just as we’d found 10, we stumbled across another that deserved a spot. But which one to replace?
Instead, we’ve selected 10 paddle trails in eastern North Carolina that offer a good representation of the varied flatwater paddling you’ll find. They are among the best, and odds are they’ll enter your personal pantheon of primo paddles. Their selection is also based on a specific element of Down East paddling that they represent. To wit:
* Meandering river. Once you pass the fall line delineating the Piedmont from the coastal plain it may be all downhill to the coast, but not by much. The Roanoke River (recommendation No. 1), for instance, leaves Weldon at an elevation of just 75 feet above sea level and loses only about a half foot in elevation per mile by the time it reaches Albemarle Sound some 140 miles later. That’s a lot of flat country for a river to roam through, river that, much as it takes its sweet time picking a path to the coast encourages you to do the same.
* Passage through an otherwise impenetrable coastal forest. The 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is about as wild as it gets. It’s a rich, dense, wooded wetland home to all manner of wildlife, from black bears, red wolves and alligators, to three types of venomous snakes. Not a place most folks would feel comfortable taking a hike. A kayak, on the other hand, heading up Milltail Creek (No. 2) is the perfect way to explore such forbidding terrain.
* Taste of adventure on a beach vacation. Beach vacations are great, but sitting in the sun day after day can, strange as it seems, become tedious. In the Oak Island/Holden Beach area you can quickly escape the tedium with a paddle adventure on one of seven designated paddle trails on and around the island. You thought that first night in the rental was wild? Wait ‘til Day 3 when you’re paddling up Davis Creek (No. 3).
* Barrier islands. True sea kayaking can be as demanding of your paddle skills as whitewater paddling, what with the currents, the surf, the tides, the wind and the overall exposure. But there are places where a beginner can safely get a taste of the big water experience. In Beaufort, for example, you can paddle for maybe 10 minutes and reach a barrier island — or four: Carrot, Bird Shoal, Town Marsh and Horse, all part of the Rachel Carson Reserve (No. 4). Once you’re comfortable with that experience, cross Back Sound and head over to Shackleford Banks, an uninhabited (save for the horses) barrier island where you likely won’t see a soul.
* What creek? Before the N.C. Paddle Trails Association’s push, most people had at least heard of some of the coastal rivers: the Chowan, Roanoke, Neuse, Black. But there were scores of rivers and creeks only the locals were aware of — Contentnea Creek (No. 6), for instance. Despite the fact it runs 100 miles from northeast of Raleigh to the Neuse River in Craven County, Contentnea was an exceptionally well-kept secret. Says the paddle club named after the creek, “You will be hard-pressed to find as beautiful and remote-feeling a stream with such easy access and solitude.”
* Wild and Scenic. When you think of rivers that have received the federal Wild & Scenic designation, you tend to think of waterways crashing through remote, pristine mountain settings: the Chattooga, Horsepasture and New rivers, and Wilson Creek. Well, add to the list two sections totaling 81 miles of the Lumber River (No. 7), which flows through the southeastern part of the state. Hard for a river to earn better paddling credentials.
* Coastal millpond. Coastal millponds are popular because they’re generally easy to paddle (no shuttle needed) and they offer a swamplike thrill (with less likelihood of getting lost). The most well-known millpond in the east is Merchants Millpond, in the eponymously named state park in Gates County. But just to the south, in neighboring Chowan County, is another popular millpond paddle, Bennett’’s Milpond (No. 8).
Check out our 10 recommended coastal paddles (and another 10 we’ve recommended near Greenville and Wilmington.) If you don’t have a boat, you can find 44 places in North Carolina that rent them here. And if you take a paddle and decide you want a boat of your own, test drive before you buy at one of our boat demos scheduled throughout the summer. Learn about them here.