North Carolina offers some of the best rivers, creeks, and lakes to get out and paddle on in the Southeast. There are so many options no matter what part of the state you live in, so it can be hard to find where the best places to kayak in NC are.
No matter whether you’re a beginner or an expert there is a place for you in this beautiful state. There are many opportunities for flatwater paddling but also some of the best whitewater in the country. Whichever you choose you’re sure to have tons of fun.
Best Season to Kayak in NC
Many people go kayaking in the summer, but each season brings something unique. In the spring you can see beautiful blooms lining the banks and enjoy cool temperatures. Summer means larger crowds but better weather for sun-bathing. Many people love to pack a fishing rod during summer as well.
Fall brings back the cooler weather and changing leaves. In the winter only the hardcore kayakers will be visiting Western NC, but you can easily head east and kayak near the coast. The milder weather down east means you’ll just need a few layers.
Self-Guided vs. Tour Company
Across the state, there are many outfitters that will provide the equipment you need and run the shuttle for you so you only have a vehicle at the take-out. If you only go kayaking once during the year then this will be the best option for you.
If you love kayaking and are going to go often then look at purchasing your own kayak or canoe instead of paying someone else each time you want to hit the water. The only downside to this is you’ll need vehicles that can haul your boat(s).
Do you need a license?
You do not need a license to paddle a kayak. What you will need is a personal floatation device, paddle, water bottle, and snacks. If you plan to fish then you will need a fishing license.
French Broad – Asheville
The French Broad offers whitewater as well as flatwater to paddle. The flatwater sections wind past the Biltmore where you’ll catch a glimpse of the mansion and then up to the River Arts District. A popular section is Bent Creek Park to Hominy Creek.
This river is wide and great for beginner kayakers. Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and water during the summer as there isn’t much shade. If you need gear, then you can rent from French Broad Outfitters and they provide shuttles as well.
There are many options for whitewater outfitters if that’s what you prefer. Some of the top choices are French Broad Rafting and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Depending on the section you run, you’ll either hit easier Class I-III rapids or there are harder sections with Class III-IV.
New River – West Jefferson
Near Boone and West Jefferson, the New River is perfect for lazy days, picnics, and fishing. If you go by New River Outfitters they can provide you with equipment or they’ll run shuttle if you bring your own. The little store will also take you back to a simpler time with old-timey candy and sodas.
While you’re there grab a picnic so you can stop on a river bank beach during your trip and have a unique meal. They make delicious sandwiches. If you’d rather run the river yourself, then take the Wagoner Access down to the US 221 takeout or you can go from 221 to the Kings Creek Access.
Green River – Saluda
This one is for the whitewater junkies. There are three sections, the Upper, Narrows, and Lower sections and each one is of varying difficulty. The Upper is moderate at Class II-IV, the Narrows are difficult with Class Vs, and Lower is easy with only Class II.
Green River Adventures is a great outfitter to go with if you’re uncomfortable making the trip on your own. They offer guided tours down the river and much more like waterfall treks and zipline tours. Be sure to note that the Upper section does require you to hike out about 0.7 miles once you’re done on the river.
Nantahala – Bryson City
The Nantahala is where whitewater began in North Carolina. This is another great river for beginners and they even offer a kayaking class for those that want some confidence starting out or those that want to hone their skills. The river is mostly Class II and ends with the Class III Nantahala Falls.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers rentals, runs shuttle, and so much more. There are two restaurants on-site, an outfitter store, hiking trails, and a ropes course. The take-out is at the Outdoor Center so you’ll have plenty of options once you get off the river. It’s a destination in itself.
Yadkin – Wilkesboro/Elkin
The Yadkin is another wide, easy river that meanders through the farmland of Wilkes, Surry, and Yadkin Counties before moving further down south. There are many sections that you can easily run with multiple accesses. A couple favorites include Ronda Access to Crater Park or Burch Station to the Yadkin/Shore Access.
The Yadkin can get very muddy and the area is known for its red tinted soil so it isn’t the best fishing river. You can still try though and sometimes you might luck out. If you need an outfitter for your trip then check out Yadkin River Adventures near The Rockford General Store. Stop in the General Store for their famous sonker.
US National Whitewater Center – Charlotte
The Whitewater Center was built with the goal to get more people outside. This Class III-IV river is completely man made and you can choose to either raft or kayak. If you would rather flatwater kayak or SUP then there are rentals available and you can put in on the Catawba River.
The great part about the Whitewater Center is that there is plenty to do for those who don’t love kayaking. They offer zip lining, a ropes course, rock climbing wall, hiking trails, and more so if you come with friends who don’t love paddling there’s no issue. There are also multiple restaurants on-site from grab & go places to beer gardens to sit down places.
Roanoke – Williamston/Jamesville
Ever dreamed of camping on raised platforms above the river? This is the place for you. There are a little over 20 unique camping platforms along the river and you can check out Roanoke River Partners to plan your overnight trip.
The Roanoke River is mostly flat, but it does offer one section of Class II or III rapids depending on water levels. Otherwise the river is an easy paddle with multiple public access points.
Three Sisters Swamp – Atkinson
Canoeing in Three Sisters Swamp will take you way back in time as you’re surrounded by cypress trees that are thousands of years old. You can try to find what scientists believe to be the oldest tree in eastern America named Methuselah.
Three Sisters is along the Black River and there are multiple public accesses for this river as well. You can either paddle upriver from the public boat landing off of NC 3 near Atkinson or if you want a full day trip you can start at Beatty’s Landing and paddle down to the same public access.
Rachel Carson Reserve – Beaufort
Just an easy 20 minute paddle from Front Street in downtown Beaufort, you’ll find the Rachel Carson Reserve where you can see all kinds of animals in their natural habitat. The most popular are the wild horses and a variety of bird species in the area. Once you make it to the reserve you can meander through the marshes and water trails.
If you need to get out and stretch your legs, there are beaches where you can stay for the day or you can take advantage of the hiking trails. Rent from Beaufort Paddle and you can either launch from there (the trip will be a bit longer) or you can take the kayaks and launch at Front Street. They will also deliver kayaks for a fee.
Merchants Millpond – Gatesville
Merchants Millpond is part of the NC State Park system near the border of North Carolina and Virginia where swamp and hardwood forest meet. You can bring your own canoe or kayak or rent one from the state park. There are paddle trails that you can follow on the state park map.
If you’re feeling adventurous then plan an overnight trip to the canoe-in campgrounds. Between the hiking and paddle trails you’ll have plenty of ways to explore the park. Be sure to bring your fishing poles so you can test your luck in the water.