North Carolina Paddle Boarding Tips: 10 Absolutely 'Can't Miss' Places

kayaking in nc

kayaking in nc

Abigail Scott

Abigail Scott
Mother, Professional Kayaker, and Software Engineer

Updated on 12/6/2022

Paddling on rivers, creeks, and lakes in North Carolina is the most enjoyable in the Southeast. It can be hard to figure out where the best places to kayak in North Carolina are when there are so many options, no matter where you live.

No matter your skill level, there is a place for you in this beautiful state. It has a wide variety of flatwater paddling opportunities and some of the best whitewater in the country. Whatever you do, you're sure to have a great time.

When is the best time to kayak in North Carolina?

During the summer, many people kayak, but there is something special about each season. Enjoy cool temperatures during the spring when beautiful blooms line the banks. Summer brings bigger crowds and warmer temperatures so that you can soak up the sun. During summer, many people like to pack a fishing rod.

The fall brings cooler temperatures and changing leaves. Winter is an excellent time to kayak in Western NC, but you can easily kayak near the coast if you head east. Getting dressed doesn't require as many layers as it does down east.

Guided tours versus self-guided tours

The state has many outfitters who provide the equipment and run the shuttle, so you only need to bring your vehicle to the takeout. During the year, you should only go kayaking once.

Buying your kayak or canoe instead of hiring someone every time you want to hit the water can save you money if you love kayaking. Having to haul your boat(s) is the only negative aspect.

Are there any license requirements?

There is no license requirement for paddling a kayak. Personal floatation devices, paddles, water bottles, and snacks are required. You will need a fishing license if you plan to fish.

Western NC

French Broad – Asheville

French Broad – Asheville

French Broad – Asheville

Whitewater and flatwater can both be paddled on the French Broad. You'll pass the Biltmore mansion in the flatwater sections, then up to the River Arts District, and bent Creek Park to Hominy Creek is a popular section.

This river is wide and ideal for beginners. There isn't much shade during the summer, so pack plenty of sunscreen and water. If you need gear, French Broad Outfitters rents it out, and they also provide shuttles.

If you're looking for whitewater outfitters, you have many options, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center and French Broad Rafting are top choices. In some sections, you'll run Class I-III rapids, while in others, you'll run Class III-IV rapids.

New River – West Jefferson

New River – West Jefferson

New River – West Jefferson

The New River is near Boone and West Jefferson, an excellent place for picnics, lazy days, and fishing. If you go to New River Outfitters, they can provide you with gear, or they can run shuttles if you have your own. In addition to old-timey candy and sodas, the little shop will take you back in time.

Take a picnic to enjoy on a riverbank beach while on your trip. Delicious sandwiches are available there. If you prefer to run the river on your own, you can take the Wagoner Access down to US 221 or go from 221 to Kings Creek.

Green River – Saluda

Green River – Saluda Kayak

Green River – Saluda Kayak

The thrill-seekers will love this one. Each of the three sections varies in difficulty, and there are three upper sections, three narrow sections, and three lower sections. The Upper is moderately complex in Class II-IV. The Narrows are difficult with Class Vs. The Lower is easy with only Class II.

If you don't feel comfortable making the trip on your own, Green River Adventures is a great option. They offer guided river tours as well as waterfall treks and ziplining tours. Upon finishing the Upper section, you will need to hike out approximately 0.7 miles.

Nantahala – Bryson City

Nantahala – Bryson City Kayak

Nantahala – Bryson City Kayak

The Nantahala River was the first whitewater river in North Carolina. There is a kayaking class at this river for those who want some confidence starting or wish to hone their skills. Most of the river is Class II, and the Nantahala Falls are Class III. 

Rentals, shuttle service, and more are available at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. A ropes course, hiking trails, an outfitter store, and two restaurants are located on-site. You'll have plenty of options once you reach the Outdoor Center when you get off the river, and it's an attraction in itself.

Central NC

Yadkin – Wilkesboro/Elkin

Yadkin – Wilkesboro/Elkin

Yadkin – Wilkesboro/Elkin

As with the Yadkin, it meanders through the farmland of Wilkes, Surry, and Yadkin Counties before heading southward. Multiple access points make it easy to run many sections, and some of our favorite spots include the Ronda Access and the Burch Station to the Yadkin/Shore Access.

Because of its reddish soil and muddy nature, the Yadkin River is not the best for fishing. Still, you might get lucky sometimes. You can find an outfitter near The Rockford General Store called Yadkin River Adventures. Don't forget to pick up a smoker at the General Store.

US National Whitewater Center – Charlotte

US National Whitewater Center – Charlotte

US National Whitewater Center – Charlotte

To get more people outside, the Whitewater Center was built. The river is a Class III-IV river that is entirely artificial and can be rafted or kayaked. Kayaks and SUPs can be rented on the Catawba River if you'd rather paddle flatwater.

Whitewater Center offers plenty of activities for people who do not love kayaking. If you come with friends who don't enjoy paddling, there is no problem with zip lining, a ropes course, a rock-climbing wall, hiking trails, and more to do. In addition to the grab-and-go options, there are also sit-down restaurants on-site.

Eastern NC

Roanoke – Williamston/Jamesville

Roanoke – Williamston/Jamesville Kayaking

Roanoke – Williamston/Jamesville Kayaking

Would you like to camp on raised platforms above the river? Then you're in the right place. You can check out Roanoke River Partners to plan an overnight trip along the river because there are over 20 unique camping platforms.

Depending on water levels, there is one section of Class II or III rapids on the Roanoke River. There are multiple points of public access to the river.

Three Sisters Swamp – Atkinson

Three Sisters Swamp – Atkinson Kayaking

Three Sisters Swamp – Atkinson Kayaking

You will experience a sense of time travel as you paddle through Three Sisters Swamp, surrounded by ancient cypress trees. There is a tree in eastern America called Methuselah that scientists believe to be the oldest tree.

There are multiple public accesses along the Black River, which runs through Three Sisters. It is possible to paddle upriver from the public boat landing off of NC 3 near Atkinson, or if you wish to make a full-day trip, you can paddle down from Beatty's Landing to the same public access.

Rachel Carson Reserve – Beaufort

Rachel Carson Reserve – Beaufort Kayaking

Rachel Carson Reserve – Beaufort Kayaking

Rachel Carson Reserve is just 20 minutes paddle away from downtown Beaufort, where you can see animals in their natural habitat. Among the area's attractions are wild horses and different bird species. You can meander along water trails and marshes once you reach the reserve.

The beaches are great for a day trip, or you can take advantage of the hiking trails to get out and stretch your legs. You can either rent kayaks from Beaufort Paddle and launch there (the trip will last longer) or take the kayaks to Front Street and found there. They will deliver kayaks if you wish.

Merchants Millpond – Gatesville

Merchants Millpond – Gatesville Kayaking

Merchants Millpond – Gatesville Kayaking

The NC State Park system includes Merchants Millpond, located near North Carolina and Virginia border, where swamps and hardwood forests meet. The state park offers canoe and kayak rentals , or you can bring your own. The park map shows the paddle trails you can follow.

Consider going canoeing and camping overnight if you're feeling adventurous. Explore the park on foot or by paddleboard with the hiking and paddling trails. If you have fishing poles, bring them to test your luck in the water.