Flatwater Paddling in Eastern North Carolina

More than 2,500 miles of paddle trail meanders through eastern North Carolina, making it one of the richest paddling destinations in the country. East of Interstate 95 you’ll find opportunities to satisfy every paddling interest, from sea kayaking on the big water of the sounds to Class III whitewater kayaking on the Roanoke River at Weldon. But it’s the quiet paddling on the tannic waters of lazy coastal rivers, amid ancient bald cypress in old millponds and on intimate creeks that make the region one of the nation’s top flatwater paddling destinations.

Day 1: Scuppernong River

A late start to a three-day Down East paddling weekend isn’t a problem because of the abundance of easily accessible options. Put in on the Scuppernong River behind the visitors center on U.S. 64 in Columbia and paddle upstream as long as daylight allows. The big water feel at Columbia quickly vanishes as the river chokes down, providing an intimate late afternoon on the water.

Two friends paddling in yellow kayak on calm river with cypress trees in background
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Make sure you’re off in time for the 45-minute drive to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the popular evening Red Wolf Howlings. Shortly after the red wolf was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1967, efforts began to boost their numbers. Today, around 40 red wolves call the region home, and you can chat with them Wednesday evenings in the summer – plus select Saturdays in the offseason – with the help of a naturalist who speaks their language.

Day 2: Get Your Paddle On

Head back to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge the next morning and find three unique paddling options at the end of Buffalo City Road. For the most intimate (and shortest) paddles, try either the 1.5-mile Sandy Ridge Loop or the 2-mile paddle to Sawyer Lake. To really explore the heart of this 150,000-acre refuge, head out to Milltail Creek. Left takes you upstream 5.5 miles, right takes you 4 miles to the Alligator River. Both will provide ample opportunities in warmer weather to spot the gators that patrol these waters. Don’t see one? Keep watching those logs along the riverbank and see if they blink. Kitty Hawk Kites offers guided kayak tours, and booking early is recommended.

There’s a lot to see in the refuge, a lot which you may not have seen before. Spend a few minutes to learn more about this complex ecosystem and 10 others in the area at the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center across Croatan Sound in Manteo. Opened in 2012, the center uses dioramas and interactive exhibits to explain the role of the refuges.

While you’re in Manteo, take a break from your exploring to enjoy a late lunch at Lost Colony Brewery and Café. Refuel with the Carolina Crab Cake, Roanoke Shrimp Melt or Lump Crabmeat Au Gratin Burger, take a quick tour of the brewery and you’re ready for more exploring of the natural world variety.

You might want to start exploring on foot to work off lunch. A short drive east to the Outer Banks is the Nags Head Woods Preserve. More than 5 miles of trail penetrate this 1,100-plus-acre preserve, one of the largest remaining maritime forests along the East Coast. Keep your binoculars handy to check out the more than 100 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles documented in the preserve.

Up for more? Good, because on select weekday evenings May through August, Kitty Hawk Kites leads 2-hour kayak tours at Bodie Island. Or you can take a Bioluminescence Kayak Tour  at 8:30 p.m. on select nights and check out the underwater light show provided by glow-in-the-dark marine creatures.

Day 3: Explore More Intimate Inland Waters

Your attention shifts inland on Day 3, with an early start from base camp Edenton. And because of your long and busy Day 2, the day should probably start with a caffeinated beverage, along with a baked-on-the-premises biscotti at the Edenton Coffee House Bakery and Cafe downtown. As you wait for your Nutter Butter Mocha, call down the street to Emilio’s General Store for a “take away” sandwich (the Edentonian, perhaps: a deli sandwich with a splash of pimento cheese).

A walk down South Broad Street to the Town Harbor reveals spiffy sailboats and yachts – and out-the-door canoe and kayak rentals for a trip on Queen Anne Creek, which feeds the harbor. The nice “urban” paddle gives you a different perspective on the waterfront and Edenton’s Cotton Mill Historic District.

Cluster of trees in middle of calm sound during dusk

Drive north of town on NC 32 and check the various millponds and sleepy creeks that feed the Chowan River. The Dillard Creek paddle trail begins at the base of an old milldam and meanders 4 miles to the Chowan. The surrounding country is actively farmed, but a narrow buffer of ancient bald cypress and coastal hardwoods insulates the creek from civilization. Be patient, paddle softly, and your likelihood increases of catching a wood duck before it erupts from the brush or a yellow slider before it abandons its sunny perch on a downed log.

You won’t want to be on the creek come sunset, but the adjoining millpond is a grand place to end the day. Leave a small light at the put-in, paddle out to where you can still see the light, and end your eastern North Carolina paddling journey in a blaze of orange and yellow fading to pink, purple and crimson.

Visit Outdoor NC for additional tips on how to connect with nature and help preserve the natural beauty of our state.

Updated April 14, 2021
About the Author

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is the author of Adventure Carolinas and other guidebooks. He writes about health, fitness and adventure.

Top of Page