Navigating North Carolina’s Waterways

Nantahala River Rapids

Whitewater rafters paddle over the rapids on the Nantahala River towards near Bryson City, N.C.

No matter where you are in North Carolina, navigable water is never far away. With more than 370,000 boats registered in the state, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians take to the water every year.

Motorboats, rafts, canoes, kayaks, sailboats and other types of vessels coupled with the state’s various watery venues—from whitewater mountain streams to lakes to lazy rivers to vast expanses of sound and ocean—give North Carolinians a dizzying array of choices when it comes to water-related activity.

There’s no better place to start than North Carolina’s mountains, called by one outdoor magazine “the top whitewater destination in the United States.” The western portion of the state is home to nearly two dozen outfitters who will arrange and guide raft, canoe, kayak, or drift boat excursions on the French Broad, Nantahala, Tuckaseegee and other mountain rivers.

“We’re open year-round, but we’re usually booked heavily in the summer months,” says Barbra Rodichok at Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, which offers raft, kayak and canoe outings on nine rivers. “A rafting trip is a great way to cool off in the hot summer months. And it’s an authentic way to be on the water; it’s not like a theme park.”

These excursions don’t require expertise in whitewater paddling. There’s something for all skill levels.

“We do three rivers mostly in North Carolina, and they’re mostly family-friendly,” Rodichok says. “But there are so many options. For example, we do trips on the Pigeon River just over the border in Tennessee with kids as young as 6. Then we have rivers like the Cheoah in the far western part of the state, where you have to pay attention to every paddle stroke.”

Nantahala, like most outfitters, also offers a paddling school, rentals and lake outings.

If whitewater rafting doesn’t sound like the ideal vacation, the lakes in Western and Piedmont North Carolina provide an abundance of boating opportunities. Farthest west, Hiawassee, Santeelah, Fontana, Nantahala and Chatuge lakes all offer spectacular mountain scenery, convenient boat access, a variety of water sports and excellent fishing. Boat rentals are available at most of these western lakes, and many areas also include family-style campgrounds.

Fishing on boats in Lake Norman

Anglers compete in a bass fishing tournament on Lake Norman in Mooresville, N.C.

In the Piedmont, 32,000-acre Lake Norman, near Charlotte, is the state’s largest man-made lake, with more than 520 miles of shoreline, and provides opportunities for swimming, fishing, skiing, cruising and other water-related activities.

“It runs the gamut,” says Kelly Cook, a ranger at Lake Norman State Park. “At our boat launch, we see everything from jonboats to big ski boats, even kayaks and canoes.”

Boating opportunities also abound farther east, at Jordan, Harris and Falls lakes near the Research Triangle, and at Kerr and Gaston lakes on the North Carolina-Virginia border. All offer convenient boat access, full-service marinas, picnicking, great fishing and plenty of open water on which to cruise. Most also offer other activities, including camping, hiking and bike trails.

Mention Eastern North Carolina and thoughts immediately drift to the ocean. Oregon Inlet, the Morehead City-Beaufort-Atlantic Beach area and the Wilmington-Southport areas are meccas for offshore boaters and fishermen. Marinas and boat suppliers are abundant in all of these areas, and dozens of charter-boat operators are available for offshore or inshore fishing or for cruises.

But the East isn’t all ocean. The Roanoke-Chowan, Pamlico-Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, along with Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, offer every type of boating activity imaginable—from kayaking and canoeing, to skiing and waterboarding, to sailing and powerboat racing. Public access areas are scattered all along the coast, and in towns such as Elizabeth City, Plymouth, Belhaven, Washington, New Bern, Beaufort, Swansboro and Wilmington.

If sailing is of interest, Oriental, just off the Intracoastal Waterway in Pamlico County, bills itself as the “Sailing Capital of North Carolina.” The village boasts two sailing schools and anchorage for more than 2,700 sailboats. Facilities for kayaking and other types of boating also are available.

“We have about 300 people a year in our classes, and we’re seeing more people every year,” says Chris Daniels, chief instructor at Oriental’s School of Sailing. “It’s a great activity for families. From young to old age, all can do it. Anyone can steer the boat.”

Sailing also taps into a real human yearning.

“It’s an idea, a dream—sailing off into the sunset and all that,” Daniels says. “It looks majestic and pure, in a way, to see if you can make the boat move without power.”

To truly find some peace and quiet on the water, try a canoe or kayak trip along one of the state’s “paddle trails.”

“Paddling is one of the fastest-growing recreational activities,” says Tom Potter, executive director of the North Carolina Paddle Trails Association. “It’s a great family activity, and it’s not all that expensive to get into.”

But, if just riding along sounds more appealing, North Carolina has that, too.

At Lake Lure, in mountainous Rutherford County, guided pontoon boats lead leisurely cruises, exploring scenic Hickory Nut Gorge and visiting the inn where the movie “Dirty Dancing” was filmed.

At Lake Norman, visitors can enjoy a dinner cruise on a 48-foot yacht; the cost is about $225 per hour, not including fuel. At Beaufort, the Diamond City charters offshore excursions to watch dolphins and treat large groups to a pig-pickin’ out on the Atlantic Ocean. Costs run from $15 to $33 per person.

From Murphy to Manteo, from Cherokee to Calabash, there’s no shortage of things to do on the water in North Carolina.


  1. sklep wedkarski

    May 31, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Cool site, i will come back here, regards

  2. teksty z linkiem

    June 4, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Interesting website, i have bookmarked your site for future referrence 🙂

  3. Steve Young

    August 14, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Can you take a boat from Lake Norman to the coast

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