North Carolina’s 3 Best Parks for Canoeing and Kayaking

Paddle the Tar Heel State

Merchants Millpond State Park.

Merchants Millpond State Park.

By Brad Beggs

Paddling in eastern North Carolina is almost always perfect. Rarely is the temperature too hot or cold, the water is usually at an ideal level, neither too fast nor too low. And animal life abounds. There are an estimated 20,000 black bears (one of the highest concentrations in America) in the eastern part of the state along with over 100,000 migratory birds that pass thorough each year on the Atlantic Flyway. There are even alligators.

These two state parks and one national seashore offer the best in wildlife and paddle camping. Each park has options suitable for friends, families, couples, and the seasoned soloist.

You'll find peace and a connection with nature on the first paddle stroke.

Hammocks Beach State Park.

Hammocks Beach State Park.

Hammocks Beach State Park
Before slipping your kayak from the floating dock, keep an eye out. (And not just for the numerous birds — egrets, ibis, osprey.) When you launch on the outgoing tide, it is not uncommon to spy dolphins right off the dock. If you don't, don't worry. Once you make camp among the sand dunes, you'll likely see the them on the hunt just beyond the surf zone.

The park's Bear Island offers six miles of undeveloped white sand beaches, with two group and ten very private individual campsites. The warm water of the Atlantic is moments from your site. You'll need a boat to reach Bear Island but your camping isn't entirely primitive. The island offers potable water, concessions, and restrooms.

The main trail is three miles one way but numerous options (out and back or loops) are possible for casual paddling, birding, and rough water play.


Cape Lookout National Seashore (CALO)

Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Cape Lookout National Seashore.

In early fall when the nights are still warm, you don't need anything other than a towel to lay on. Twenty yards away the Atlantic laps onto Shackleford Island, and in the far distance Cape Lookout Lighthouse flashes every 15 seconds. But the night sky holds your tongue silent, and keeps your attention fixed on Orion, the Big Dipper, and the Milky Way as you can only experience from an empty barrier island.

CALO offers open water paddling, a historic working lighthouse, wild ponies, unspoiled beaches, with options for luxury (water access, pit toilets, and primitive rental cabins) to remote backcountry camping on empty beaches of Shackleford or North Core islands. At 56 miles long CALO is the largest uninterrupted and pristine barrier island chain in the southeast, offering options from one to four nights. You can plan trips that range from relaxing to full-on expedition, but CALO is not for the inexperienced.


Alligator lurks at Merchants Millpond State Park.

An alligator lurks at Merchants Millpond State Park.

Merchants Millpond State Park
An alligator lurks in the millpond, among the cypress and tupelo trees. Though the millpond, originally built to produce a water source for a mill, is only 760 acres, you'll feel the urge to look around every stand of trees. Search for waterfowl, snakes, songbirds, and of course, the resident alligator.

Merchants offers relaxing one or two night trips among gnarled cypress, tupelo gum trees, and croaking frogs. Explore the mysterious Shrek-like millpond first, then make camp at the designed campsite on the banks of the pond. On the second day, portage the old dam onto Bennetts creek, a narrow, winding creek through a bottomland forest. Camp 4.5 miles downstream on either a land-based site (fires allowed) or on a three-pod camping platform. Bennetts creek is 5.7 miles long, with a nice bike shuttle; you can also easily share a ride with other paddlers.

The park offers canoe and kayak rentals.


— Brad Beggs helps paddlers find the best places to paddle in eastern North Carolina and Outerbanks at For detailed paddle guides, more photos, and interactive paddle map for each park, visit

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