Kayaking in North Carolina: 12 of the Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

Looking for some inspiration for kayaking destinations in North Carolina? Well you’ve made a good decision as it’s one of the most beautiful states with diverse landscapes that range from mountains to rivers, lakes, and the sea. The area has multiple water bodies that are perfect for various outdoor activities like kayaking and canoeing

Whether you prefer the Atlantic Ocean to the east or the multiple lakes and rivers inland, there are several waterways to explore as a kayaking enthusiast. If you are new in the area and don’t know where to begin, we have some ideas to help you out. Here are 12 of the best places to kayak in North Carolina.

1. Roanoke River, NC

Roanoke River, NC by -ted (CC BY 2.0)

Flowing through the northeastern side of North Carolina, this 410-mile-long river is rich with recreational opportunities. Initially, the waterway was a trading route, but now it offers superb fishing, paddling, and kayaking spots.

There are roughly 16 camping points/access points along the waterway to launch your kayak and take some rest. They dot nearly 140 miles of the shores, from Weldon to the Albemarle Sound.

Once you begin kayaking, you will spot various wildlife along the way. The corridor is home to over 200 bird species, the black bear, bobcat, and river otter.

Generally, the river flows smoothly along its entire stretch, so it is perfect for kayaking beginners. Some sections like Devil’s Gut near Jamesville have still, black water, which can be creepy after dusk. You should consider getting a guide if such waters scare you.

2. Lake Brandt, Greensboro, NC

Named in honor of Leon Brandt (the mayor of Greensboro from 1907-1908), Lake Brandt is a municipal reservoir spanning 816 acres. It has a launch ramp for private boats, kayaks, and canoes.

No swimming is allowed, so you must remain in your kayak at all times. However, fishing is not prohibited. You can catch some crappies, catfish, and largemouth bass if you have the necessary gear.

If you don’t have a kayak, there are boat rentals on the lake. A solo kayak goes for $15, while a tandem kayak goes for $25 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

3. Pamlico Sound, NC

The Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the East Coast. It measures 80 miles long and up to 20 miles across (on the broadest sections).

A row of sandy islands, such as Cape Lookout National Seashore, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, separate the lagoon from the Atlantic, making its salty waters generally calm. Therefore, it is an ideal kayaking location for beginners.

The area has a wide variety of large fish populations, shrimps, oysters, and blue crabs. If you are not interested in fishing, there are many miles to explore when checking out the numerous creeks and estuaries on the coastline. All these sections are full of wildlife, so you are in for a treat. Just make sure you don’t get lost because the lagoon is vast.

4. Nantahala River, NC

The Nantahala River flows through the western side of the state. It is the ideal place for beginners and experienced kayakers because it has class II-III rapids. The most popular ones are on the upper section of the river, where the water current is moderate with consistent waves.

The waves run through a scenic canyon, where the river is clear and cold as it flows from the Aquone Reservoir. Nantahala means “Land of the Noonday Sun” in Cherokee because the canyon gets light at around noon when the sun is at its peak.

It is important to note that water in this river is dam controlled. More water enters the channel for kayaking and rafting through the summer. Thus, the best time to kayak here is from April to October.

5. Lake Fontana, Bryson City, NC

Lake Fontana is a reservoir formed after the damming of the Little Tennessee River for hydropower generation during World War II. The waters lie between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, so you will have scenic landscapes around when exploring the area.

The lake is probably one of the cleanest in the US as it has beautiful, crystal clear waters. Fishing and swimming are allowed. If you want to explore the shores, there are hiking trails and multiple camping sites all around.

While at it, you should pass by The Fontana Dam Visitor Center to learn more about this mammoth 480-ft wall, which is the tallest dam east of the Rockies. However, the center is open to the public only from April to October.

6. Lake Johnson, Raleigh, NC

Lake Johnson, NC by Sergey Galyonkin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lake Johnson Park covers around 500 acres, with 150 of these being the lake surface. There are some isolated sections of the lake if you go past Avent Ferry Road, where you can explore marshy wetlands and calm fingers.

You can also try out fishing. The lake has plenty of shell crackers, largemouth bass, catfish, carp, bream, and crappies. Admission is free, but there are fees for boat launching and renting if you don’t have one.

Aside from kayaking, the area around the lake has paved greenways and natural surface trails under tall tree covers. There’s also a swimming pool!

7. Cheoah River, NC

Experienced kayakers will find the Cheoah River super exciting due to its whitewater. The stretch is full of class IV and V rapids, where you will encounter multiple boulder fields and a 12-foot waterfall.

However, the river’s flow is dam-controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority. You might find different rapids depending on the time of year. The TVA makes public the water-release dates, though, so you can plan accordingly.

After experiencing all this, you can stop by the Historic Tapoco Lodge Resort down the river to get some rest and grab a bite.

8. Wrightsville Beach, NC

Wrightsville Beach, NC by Dan J (CC BY 2.0)

Wrightsville Beach is known for its crystal blue waters, which are the perfect playing ground for most kayakers. The town is right next to the Atlantic. As such, you can rent your kayak from different places like Wrightsville SUP, Wrightsville Kayak Company, or Wrightsville Beach Kayak Company.

Generally, the waves on this part of the ocean are calm. Therefore, kayaking is ideal for beginners, but things might change. Always remain vigilant.

Back on land, you will find spacious beaches and a highly active island lifestyle, which are perfect for leisure travelers. What’s more, restaurants in the area serve fresh and healthy seafood and farm food.

9. Three Sisters Swamp, NC

If you like blackwater paddling, you should head to the Three Sisters Swamp on the southern side of the state. Located along the Black River, this section has some of the oldest trees in the world.

Two bald cypress trees, 2,624 and 2,068 years old, respectively, were found in the area. Radiocarbon analysis ascertained their age, and researchers believe older trees might exist in the swamp or along the river.

Paddling here will take you through the scenic softwood and hardwood trees that line the corridor. There are many meanders, though, so be sure to pick the right path.

10. The Rocky River, NC

The Rocky River is one of the few uncrowded kayaking spots near Charlotte. Beginning in Mooresville, the kayaking corridor extends to the confluence with the Pee Dee River, passing through Cabarrus, Union, Stanly, and Anson counties. Along the route, you will spot scenic rock outcrops and diverse wildlife while riding swift rapids.

There are multiple launch points along the river, such as Pharr Family Preserve, Oakboro Blueway Park I & II, and Norwood. Unlike most rivers, this one is not dam-controlled. Thus, you will find good water levels throughout the year.

11. Milltail Creek, NC

If you prefer paddling in wild, remote places, Milltail Creek in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is the best place to go. The creek has close to 10 miles of roundtrip kayaking space through marshes and woods.

Thanks to a successful reintroduction program, you will find red wolves, black bears, several bird species, copperheads, timber rattlers, and cottonmouths. As you kayak northwards, you will most likely encounter alligators, which are the majority of residents of the area. There are varying seasons of wildlife, which means you will spot different animals during each season.

The area is perhaps the wildest region in North Carolina, and if you are wary about kayaking alone, the refuge sponsors frequent paddle trips.

12. Lake Norman State Park, Near Charlotte, NC

Lake Norman State Park sits on the shores of the largest artificial lake in North Carolina. The lake covers 129 km2, which is equivalent to about 32,000 acres of water surface.

Kayaks are available for rent at the Park Lake visitor center. If you have a boat, there is a public boat launch area on the park’s south end that is free to use.

Apart from boating, other activities to try include hiking, biking, fishing, camping, picnicking, and swimming.

Summing up the Best Places to Kayak in North Carolina

There you have it. The beautiful and scenic state of North Carolina has all kinds of waterways to suit beginners and expert kayakers. We hope this post inspires you to visit the area and try out the different kayaking places.

As usual, remember to carry all the required safety gear for the recreation activity. If you are new to kayaking or don’t know the water routes well, go with a guide. Enjoy safely!