Featured Destination: Roanoke River Paddle Trail


The Roanoke River Paddle Trail is for the birds. Overflown by 214 native and migratory birds, the floodplain at the terminus of the trail functions as a neotropical songbird factory, where 44 species of tropical songbirds nest. Opportunistic osprey, owls, and bald eagles also abound. Need a further fix of feathers? The river skirts the Sylvan Heights Bird Park, a sanctuary for over 2,000 birds from South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

You don’t need an ornithological bent to appreciate the Roanoke River Paddle Trail, however. It is an especially well-equipped trail, with 16 raised platform campsites, some with docks, boardwalks, and screening. You can preview and reserve all the campsites at roanokeriverpartners.org, a cornucopia of a site, with historical and environmental info on each campsite spilling out of the website.

Roanoke River Paddle Trail camping platform. Courtesy Roanoke River Partners

If you elect to run only the 137-mile Roanoke portion of the trail, it begins as a rocky, roaring river at the aptly-named town of Roanoke Rapids and eventually slows and widens between cypress trees and tupelos. Bears and otters loping along the banks aren’t uncommon and there are optional paddling detours along the way, as the entirety of the trail consists of more than 200 miles of interconnected creeks, rivers, and black water swamps along the Roanoke River. There are also 11 towns along the way, if you hanker for sweet tea and barbecue, and the Roanoke River Partners website delineates the charms and idiosyncrasies of each, such as the town of Scotland Neck’s Crepe Myrtle Festival and Plymouth’s and Bear Grass’s claim as the “Moonshine Capital of the World.”

Egret on the Roanoke. Photo by K.G. Lubbock

History is key all along the Roanoke River. The name, ‘Roanoke,’ is a native word meaning “river of death.” Its Class II and III whitewater near the trail’s beginning could have been deadly pre-YMCA swimming lessons, Royalex boats, and helmets. Ironically, it is conjectured that the Roanoke was a river of life for the fabled Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, a group of sixteenth-century colonists long thought to have mysteriously disappeared, though recent evidence suggests they may have simply made their way upriver and been assimilated by native communities. The Roanoke was also a river of life for slaves seeking freedom, as they traveled along it, some finding refuge in a nearby Quaker community. Paddlers will pass more recent history in the rusting bones of the lumber industry’s machinery and abandoned, dented stills of moonshine entrepreneurs, which can be seen in the brush.

Wherever you go in the 56,000 acres that comprise the river corridor, you’ll find your own sweet, little nest.

Schwartz said, “It’s vast, so you can keep paddling forever and ever, but the camping platforms will keep you high and dry.”

In an age where swamps are filled and condos erected, Schwartz attributes the pristine condition of the trail to the people along the river.

“They’re conservation minded folks. They realize the importance of the river.”

And if you like to fish? Paddle in March and your arms will ache by day’s end.

“It might be the best striped bass fishery on the eastern seaboard. You can catch them every cast when the shad come in and you’ll understand why they’re called freshwater tarpon.”

So it turns out, Roanoke River Paddle Trail isn’t just for the birds.

In fact, as Carol J. Shields, Director of Roanoke River Partners, Inc., puts it, the trail is “a wild gem and a perfect destination for canoeists, kayakers, campers, bird watchers, photographers, and all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts and visitors.”

If You Go:

  • Camping Reservations, maps, off-the-water info: roanokeriverpartners.org
  • Cost: One camper – $20 per night; Between 2- 6 campers – $10 per person per night

Outfitters & Guides

  • Roanoke Outdoor Adventures provides guide and outfitting services for canoeing, kayaking, camping, and hiking on the Lower Roanoke River and adjoining waters. Call 252-809-9488 or email: [email protected]
  • Frog Hollow Outdoors provides residents and visitors of the Triangle and North Carolina a resource for canoe & kayak education, the exploration of nature, relaxation, adventure, self-discovery, and a greater overall connection with the outdoors. Call 919-416-1200 or email:[email protected]
  • Cardinal Canoe serves the eastern North Carolina and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. Call 252-752-0697 or [email protected]

Flow Info


–Visit C&K’s TRAVEL MAP for more great paddling destinations.

Roanoke at Weldon. Courtesy Roanoke River Partners

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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