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Kayaking In North Carolina – Our Top “Tar Heel” Kayak Locations

Mark Armstrong
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Kayaking in North Carolina can let you discover the natural beauty surrounding the state’s waterways. There are thousands of miles of estuarine coastline, a few hundred miles of shoreline on the Atlantic coast, plus thousands of miles of rivers.

With mountain scenery, lush forests, swamps, and coastal beaches, the Tar Heel State has a diverse range of locations that are ideal for paddling. To help you narrow down your search, here are a few of our top picks.

Kayaking In North Carol - PinterestPin

7 Best Places To Kayak & Canoe In North Carolina

1: Roanoke River

The Roanoke River flows over 200 miles through northeastern North Carolina from Roanoke Rapids to Plymouth after beginning its journey in Virginia.

If you like to run whitewater, there’s a six-mile section from Roanoke Rapids to Weldon that features Class II and III rapids. You can launch from the Gaston Road boat ramp and take out at the Weldon boat ramp.

After Weldon, it can be a more peaceful trip, more suitable for beginners. A 15-mile trip from Weldon brings you to the Tillery Camping Platform and a further 15 miles brings you to Edwards Ferry Boat Ramp. However, you can continue along the river to Plymouth where you’ll find several camping platforms along the route.

The area is surrounded by wildlife, with cypress swamps and forests providing habitat for deer, black bears, and many different birds.

Kayak rentals can be found in Hamilton.

Whitewater kayak buyer’s guide

How to get there:

The boat ramp is located just off Route 48 north of Roanoke Rapids. The take-out and alternative launch, avoiding the rapids, is at Weldon Boat Ramp just off Route 58.

2: Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Kayakers the swamp at the Alligator River National Wildlife RefugePin
Courtesy: Pat (Cletch) Williams on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a large protected area with paddling trails and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife, including (you guessed it) alligators. But there are also red wolves, otters, and black bears.

There are four designated paddling trails inside the park, offering several miles of paddling, where you can explore the creeks and look for wildlife. To launch directly into the Mill Tail Creek paddling trail, there’s a put-in at the end of Buffalo City Road. The trail from the launch in Mill Creek to Alligator River is an eight-mile round trip.

You can also launch into Alligator River just off Highway 64 once you cross the bridge into the wildlife refuge. Kayak rentals and tours can be found nearby in the Outer Banks.

How to get there:

Take Highway 64 east from Columbia until you reach Buffalo City Road. The launch is at the end of the road.

3: Three Sisters Swamp

The Three Sisters Swamp can be one of the most remarkable places in North Carolina to paddle. The swamp is located on the Black River and you can paddle alongside some of the oldest trees on Earth.

This swamp is home to Methuselah, originally thought to be the oldest tree in eastern North America. However, many of them have since been dated to be even older, dating back over 2,000 years.

You can launch at Beattys Bridge Road, south of Ivanhoe and paddle along through the swamp to the take-out at the Hunt’s Bluff Boat Ramp, which is roughly 13 miles downriver. There’s a campground at the take-out.

Kayak rentals and tours can be found in Wilmington.

How to get there:

From Atkinson, head west on Beattys Bridge Road to the launch at the bridge.

4: Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is made up of around 200 miles of barrier islands located just off the coast of North Carolina. This can be the ideal paddling spot with numerous places to access the water, whether you’re looking to paddle in the sounds or in the ocean.

One of the islands you can explore is Roanoke Island. The island’s famous for being the last known location of the Lost Colony of English settlers who disappeared in the 16th century. You can launch at the public ramp in Manteo and paddle past the replica ship, similar to what the colonists would have arrived on.

Kitty Hawk Bay can also be a great place to explore, with marshes, creeks and a coastal reserve that can be ideal for wildlife viewing. There’s a public ramp at the end of Dock Street in Kill Devil Hills. Kayak rentals and tours are available in Kill Devil Hills and in many locations in the Outer Banks.

How to get there:

From Columbia, head east on Highway 64. There’s a boat ramp at Manteo Bridge on Roanoke Island or you can continue east and head north on Highway 58 to Kitty Hawk Bay or south on Route 12 to Pea Island and Cape Hatteras.

5: Carolina Beach State Park

Carolina Beach State Park can be easy to reach, located just south of Wilmington. With plenty of places to paddle, including Cape Fear River, an intracoastal waterway, and the Atlantic Ocean.

This can be a fantastic place for kayak fishing, with flounder, sheepshead and many other species being found.

The area is also known for its wildlife and the many bird species, both resident and migratory, that can be spotted. Brown pelicans, ospreys and warblers can be viewed, along with a diverse range of plant life. You can also spot dolphins in some areas.

The state park has a marina and boat ramps, and you can even rent recreational and fishing kayaks on-site.

How to get there:

Head south of Wilmington on Highway 421. Take a right at the lights onto Dow Road North and follow signs for the state park. The boat ramp is at the end of State Park Road.

6: French Broad River

Two kayakers at the French Broad river on a sunny dayPin
Courtesy: Anoldent on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The French Broad River flows from near Rosman to Knoxville, where it eventually becomes the Tennessee River. The paddle trail begins in Rosman so you could potentially paddle the river to Knoxville.

A good spot to launch for both day trips and multi-day trips is at Bent Creek River Park. From here you can paddle just over six miles to Hominy Creek. This mostly flatwater route passes alongside the impressive Biltmore Estate and kayak rentals are available at Hominy Creek.

You can choose to continue your trip through Asheville and beyond. There are plenty of access points in Asheville. North of Asheville, you can find up to Class IV whitewater on the section between Barnard Bridge and Hot Springs. This section is not ideal for inexperienced kayakers but can be very scenic and close to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Brush up your kayaking skills

How to get there:

Bent Creek River Park is located near the corner of Brevard Road and Blue Ridge Parkway, south of Asheville.

7: Merchants Millpond

Canoeing through the pond on a sunny dayPin
Courtesy: Kristy Dactyl on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Merchants Millpond features a rare coastal swamp habitat with large bald cypress trees that can be the perfect mystical backdrop to your paddling trip. The pond is surrounded by Merchants Millpond State Park, which offers canoe rentals at the visitor center and paddle-in campsites for wild overnight trips.

There’s a kayak launch near the park office parking lot and another just across the bay, off Mill Pond Road. The pond has creeks and swamps with marked paddling trails so you can easily find your way through the wilderness.  

Merchants Millpond is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including water snakes, turtles, bats, many birds, otters, deer, and some alligators.

This can also be a good place to fish for largemouth bass and bluegill.

How to get there:

The state park can be reached from Route 158. Head south on Mill Pond Road at Eason Cross Roads.

What Are The NC Kayak Laws?

US Coast GuardPin

Remember to follow the rules and regulations set out for the specific body of water where you plan to paddle, which may vary across NC. Our guide is for reference and is not legal advice.

  • PFD is required for each person on board a kayak or canoe. This must be USCG approved and in a suitable size.
  • All children under 13 are required to wear their PFD while paddling or a passenger.
  • Registration is not required for kayaks and canoes, unless the boat has a trolling motor attached.
  • Boating Under the Influence (BUI) is illegal. The blood alcohol limit in NC is 0.08%. However, some areas may not allow any alcohol on-site at all.
  • whistle is required for canoes and kayaks.
  • white light is required for paddling between sunset and sunrise.
  • Visual Distress Signals (VDS) for night use are required when paddling in coastal waters between sunset and sunrise.

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around NC

If you don’t have a kayak there are plenty of places in NC where you can rent one or take a guided tour of some of our favorite places.

Final Say

North Carolina has a fantastic range of places to paddle, with something to suit just about everyone – even if you’re looking for whitewater.

Remember to pack your bug spray if you’re heading into the wilderness. 

Maybe you’ve checked out some of these spots before? Tell us about it. Let’s encourage others to paddle in NC by sharing this guide.

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