While Wilmington visitors will arguably enjoy the best views of the Cape Fear River, this distinctive river actually spreads out throughout most of the coastal and piedmont regions of North Carolina, originating in the town of Haywood, just north of Greensboro, NC, and flowing all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The river and the region itself was first "discovered"by European explorers, and was thoroughly documented in 1662, when an English explorer named William Hilton, Jr. embarked on a brief reconnaissance mission exploring the lower Cape Fear regions. Upon discovering the wealth of fish, waterfowl, wildlife, and a handful of more or less friendly natives which Hilton described as "very poor and silly Creatures," the captain stayed for several months, eventually purchasing a large chunk of the river's borders to create a permanent home.
Centuries of migration continued, and still today thousands of visitors and new residents float into Wilmington on a daily basis to get close and admire the sprawling Cape Fear River. At 202 miles long, the Cape Fear River Basin is the largest in the state, flowing through 27 counties, and acting as the primary contributor to Wilmington's centuries' old reputation and development as a busy port community.
Visitors will find ample opportunities to catch a glimpse of the river, both from the highways and bridges sprinkled throughout the area, (like the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in Wilmington, the highest in North Carolina), and from local historical sites, attractions, and parks that can be found along its borders. The easiest way to get up-close and personal with the Cape Fear Rover is via a stroll along the Riverwalk, a mile long wooden boardwalk in Downtown Wilmington that hugs the river's borders and features outstanding views of the open water, as well as the docked USS North Carolina Battleship.
The Cape Fear River is also an integral and popular portion of the Intracoastal Waterway, the East Coast passageway for recreational and small shipping boats, which extends through the river all the way to the southern North Carolina towns of Southport and Oak Island.
The popularity of the Cape Fear River, as well as its accessibility, has also spawned a number of boat tours and river cruises which are always happy to take newcomers out on the water. Water lovers can opt to climb onboard the Henrietta III, the largest riverboat in North Carolina, for an extensive cruise through Downtown Wilmington. Special tours are available, including sunset tours, romantic dinner tours, and kid-friendly adventures, and the cruise boat can even be booked for special parties and weddings with advanced notice.
Dozens of smaller cruises are also available through a number of local businesses, as well as inshore fishing trips, Wilmington by Water tours, and special nature and wildlife tours that wind through some of the Cape Fear River Basin's more secluded regions.
Several advocacy groups have sprung up over the past few decades to preserve and protect the Cape Fear River and keep it pristine despite the boom in Wilmington's population. The Cape Fear River Watch recruits volunteers and residents from all over the Cape Fear region to help protect the waters, report issues as they occur, and improve the overall water quality of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin through education, advocacy, and action. This group often hosts engaging fundraisers throughout the year, including riverfront membership parties and fun runs or 5Ks, and also provides special educational seminars and classes to teach newcomers about the delicate condition of the Cape Fear River. Interested parties can even sign up for the annual "Paddle Series" which takes tour-goers on guided kayak tours through some of the Cape fear's most scenic and wild regions. Visitors can find more information about the Cape Fear River Watch, including membership information and upcoming special events, at their website.
Of course, the easiest way to admire the river is to simply book a waterfront hotel, motel or vacation rental, or settle in for a feast at one of Wilmington's many waterfront restaurants, and simply unwind and enjoy the view.
Clearly, the Cape Fear River has been inspiring North Carolina visitors for generations, encouraging newcomers as far back as the 1600s to pull in, raise the anchor, and stay a while. Whether a visitor explores the river via a scenic drive, a stroll along the Riverwalk, from the waterfront deck of an upscale cafe, or from the side of a tour boat or kayak, the views are always nothing short of stunning. Discover the miles of Cape Fear waterfront on your next Wilmington vacation, and see why North Carolina's largest river lends itself well to Wilmington's easy-going, scenic charm.