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North Carolina has many rivers which are used by canoeists, some more than others. The degree of whitewater ranges from class IV or higher on some streams in the western part of the state, to coastal blackwater streams in the eastern part. However, the number of rivers which are suitable for a multi-day camping trip is more limited.
Finding campsites will be a major consideration for overnight trips. Few rivers in North Carolina have public camping available, and camping on private land may not be acceptable to landowners. Sometimes canoe campers make a personal decision to use sand bars, islands, or other private land to set up camp. When doing so, it is best to: request permission where possible; respect no trespassing signs; be aware of changing water levels when using sand bars or islands; and practice low impact camping with respect to trash, fire, waste disposal, etc.
Only two rivers, the Yadkin and the New, have more than one formal public camping area along their length. Many other rivers are long enough for several days of paddling, but you might have to load your canoe, run shuttle, and drive to a campground away from the river each night. Some rivers are listed below which offer opportunities for overnight trips.
Cape Fear River - Located south and slightly west of Raleigh, this river has one public campground at Raven Rock State Park near Lillington (sites for canoes only). It has a few areas of class II rapids, but the rest is class I. It would be a good two day trip. You could continue downstream all the way to the ocean at Wilmington, but it would be mostly calm water with no public camping. The Cape Fear averages about 250 to 300 feet in width.
Congaree River - There's much to explore along the Congaree River. Starting near Columbia, SC the Congree Blue River Trail offers paddlers an urban adventure with opportunities to learn about the area's history. Continuing downstream, paddlers enter the Coastal Plain known for its countless sandbars, high bluffs, and extensive floodplains. The highlight of the trail is the section along Congaree National Park, a protected wilderness that’s home to the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S. Paddlers and hikers can enjoy a 20-mile network of hiking trails within the park as well as camping, bird watching, and nature study. For more information, go to http://congareeriverbluetrail.blogspot.com.
Dan River - Located north of Winston-Salem, the river is long enough for several days of paddling and you could also drive and camp at nearby Hanging Rock State Park. This is also a state water trail and has several nice access sites. It is not as wide as the Yadkin or Cape Fear (about 100 feet). Rhododendron and mountain laurel would be blooming in June. The Dan has one class III rapid near the state line with Virginia, but is class II or less from that point downstream. The gradient diminishes as you proceed from Stokes county downstream into Rockingham county, and the width increases. It is unfortunate that you might have to leave the river to camp for a multiple day trip. Hanging Rock State Park is on a scenic high ridge and has good facilities, including hot showers. The park would not be more than an hour from any access to the upper half of the Dan. Moores Springs Family Campground, at Moore Springs near Danbury, is operated by the state 4H (336/593-8057). You can only "put in" at the campground if you camp there or rent a canoe from Hanging Rock Outdoor Center or the Dan River Company. The Dan River Company has a new location on the Dan River about 500 yards downstream from the Hanging Rock State Park's Dan River Access on Flinchum Rd. They have private camping by appointment only on the 100 plus yards of riverfront at the shop.
Another section of the Dan River is in Rockingham County. The river here has more water and is much different than the area mentioned above. Dan River Adventures does canoe, kayak and tubing trips as well as a shuttle service. Dan River Campground is on the river with primitive camping (bathrooms a short hike) available on the river for groups and paddle in campers.
French Broad River - This river flows from Brevard through Asheville into Tennessee, and is a state water trail. Headwaters Outfitters offers river trips along the French Broad River in Transylvania County. They also have a primitive canoe-in campground at Hannah Ford. Accessible by river, each campsite includes a picnic table, grill, campfire ring and tent pads. Fresh drinking water and porta-john facilities are also available. Paddlers canoe or kayak along the first eight miles, approximately three hours on the river, before arriving at Hannah Ford Campground. On the second day, guests may choose to conclude their paddle trip with either a two- or a twelve-mile paddle. Reservations are required. Headwaters Outfitters offers canoe and kayak sales and rentals, tube runs and guided trips along the French Broad River. Gift certificates, topo maps, guide books and information are available at their River Shop located at the intersection of the North and West Forks of the French Broad River on Hwy. 64 at the intersection of Hwy. 215 in Rosman, North Carolina. You can also contact them at 828-877-3106 or on line at www.headwatersoutfitters.com.
A stretch of the French Broad River downstream of Asheville includes some class III to IV rapids, but the rest of it is mostly class I and II. A private campground is located on the river in Hot Springs, at the take-out for a section with significant whitewater. You could contact the Land of the Sky Regional Council of Governments, 25 Heritage Drive, Asheville, NC 28806 to see if recreational maps of the river are available.
Lumber River - This is a blackwater coastal stream located in the Lumberton area in southeastern North Carolina. Over 100 miles of the river have been designated part of the State Natural and Scenic Rivers system. Canoe camping is available at Lumber River State Park. The river corridor experienced damage from hurricane Fran in 1996, and you should consult the state park staff for up to date information on trees blocking sections of the river.
Merchants Millpond - This is a large cypress swamp in northeastern North Carolina. Facilities at Merchants Millpond State Park include canoe rental and primitive canoe camping on an island.
Neuse River - You could paddle all the way from Raleigh to the Atlantic Ocean at New Bern, with fairly flat water most of the way. This river has more coastal flatwoods scenery than the others I've listed. It is intermediate between the Dan and Cape Fear in width. There are two campgrounds on the river open to the public. One is in Wayne County on NC Route 111 South at Broadhurst Bridge. It's privately owned and offers primative camping. The other one is in Kinston at Neuse Way Park on the River just off NC 11/55 by the Neuse Way Nature Center at the King Street Bridge. It offers RV and Tent camping, flush toilets, hot showers, picnic tables and a fire ring/grill. It is owned and run by the Kinston Lenoir/County Recreation Department.
New River - Located near Jefferson in northwestern North Carolina, the New is part of the state and national Wild and Scenic Rivers systems. Canoe camping is available at New River State Park at three locations. In North Carolina this river is class I and II and flows through a pastoral setting.
Roanoke River - The Roanoke River Paddle Trail has 11 camping platforms in remote locations along the lower Roanoke River. See www.roanokeriverpartners.org/RiverCamping.htm for more information.
Uwharrie River - Located south of Asheboro, portions of this river flow through the Uwharrie national forest. It is often used for weekend canoe/camping because of the camping possibilities in the national forest. The river joins the Yadkin River at Lake Tillery. If you ended your trip here, you could camp at Morrow Mountain State Park, located on the lake. The Uwharrie is similar in width to the Dan, with somewhat less gradient (mostly class I, occasional class II).
Yadkin River - This is a state water trail in the area between Wilkesboro and Winston-Salem. This river is mostly class I with possibly a few class II spots. It is about 150 feet wide on average. The water can be somewhat muddy, but the corridor is mostly undeveloped and you sometimes see bald eagles in this area. It does have more than one public camping area for canoeists, including one at Pilot Mountain State Park.
These brief descriptions are just to offer some ideas, but you will need more information to decide what river is appropriate for your interests and paddling ability. Any river can be dangerous at high water levels, during cold weather, or if its difficulty exceeds any trip participant's skill level. Remember that any river you select may be unfamiliar, and that you must take responsibility for planning a safe trip. If you are paddling with only one canoe in your party, this also increases the risks in the event of a mishap. Two or three boats is a preferred minimum.
Lastly, the flow conditions you will encounter will vary according to the time of year. Flows can get quite low during July through October (especially the latter two months of this period). The Neuse, Cape Fear, and Yadkin all have U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs above the paddling sections which can reduce flooding and also maintain a minimum flow during dry periods. This minimum flow is canoeable, but not a fast trip. You might consider one of these three rivers as a back-up plan if your first choice is not dam controlled - especially if you plan your trip for later in the summer or early fall. Both river levels and temperatures during May and June are more likely to be moderate - neither too high, nor too low.
Enjoy your experience on North Carolina's rivers and have a safe trip.