The 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a wild island oasis between the North Carolina mainland and the Outer Banks. You will find all manner of wild critters here: black bear, red wolves (thanks to a successful reintroduction program), alligators, three venomous snakes (cottonmouths, copperheads, timber rattlers) and a wide variety of birds, from year-round residents to the migratory milieu that flocks to the North Carolina coast every winter. It is, perhaps, the wildest spot in the state and the best way to explore it is by paddle.

Milltail Creek ranges from extremely intimate (10 feet in width, crowded with all variety of plant growth) to roughly a quarter of a mile. A favorite paddle is Section 2 (“Paddling Eastern North Carolina”), which runs from the shared put-in for all three trips west for 4.2 miles to the 5-mile-wide Alligator River. This stretch takes you through a range of riparian plant and animal life; a favorite pastime of this stretch is to paddle slow and try to determine, from a safe distance, whether that downed log by the bank is in fact a downed log or an alligator. It’s surprisingly difficult to tell the difference.

If you’re leery of venturing into such terrain on your own, the refuge sponsors frequent paddle trips into the refuge. Check the refuge website for scheduled trips.

More info and maps: “Paddling Eastern North Carolina,” by Paul Ferguson or check here.

Getting there: From Buffalo City Road off U.S. 64 between Columbia and Manteo, go south for 2.1 miles. Map here.

Access and shuttle: No shuttle required; out-and-back paddle

milltail creek

Difficulty: Easy
Length: Three sections of 4.5, 8.4 and 6.1 miles
Time to complete: 2-5 hours
Location: Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
City: Buffalo City (between Columbia and Manteo on US 64)
State: N.C.
Zip: 27954
Put-in latitude: 35 50.369
Put-in longitude: -75 55.288