With easy proximity to Masonboro Island and the outlying beaches, the Cape Fear River, and miles of creeks and bodies of water in between, kayaking is a dream in the Port City. Wilmington is home to a wide range of kayaking clubs, equipment providers, and miles and miles of trails, which means that any outing can turn into a kayaking adventure in no time.
Explore the various guided tours and clubs available, or find a boat ramp and / or launching site and embark on your own adventure. No matter what kind of excursion you crave, Wilmington always sets the stage for an exceptional paddling adventure.
Paddling Trails in Wilmington
Get your toes wet into the local kayaking scene by checking out these distinctive trails where accessing and enjoying the local waters is a breeze.
Bear in mind the following is just a sample list – there are literally dozens of different routes to explore in the Cape Fear area. For more inspiration, check out the local boat ramps and water access points to plot out a new kayaking adventure.
Put in: 5006 River Rd, Wilmington, NC 28412-7502
Trail length / distance: 3 miles
Terrain: Somewhat residential area that borders marshes and scattered trees.
Difficulty: Moderate, only because of the rocky easement
Potential Hazards: Possible downed trees, low hanging branches, and barely-visible submerged stumps
Put in: 167 Riverbend Ln, Ivanhoe, NC 28447
Trail length / distance: About 2-4 hours depending on speed
Terrain: Lightly populated region that borders a somewhat swift-moving but narrow section of the Black River
Difficulty: Moderate, due to the need for two vehicles and / or a shuttle to return to the starting point.
Potential Hazards: Potential for heavy traffic near various take-out areas.
Put in: 580 River Rd SE, Leland, NC
Trail length / distance: The 'river' is 6 miles from northern Eagle Island to the southern end
Terrain: A scattering of houses on the west bank, but mostly isolated with a few isolated trees
Potential Hazards: Be careful during Duck Hunting season, and use caution on very windy days.
Put in: Castle Hayne Road Boat Launch on Orange Street, Castle Hayne
Trail length / distance: Roughly 2.5 miles
Terrain: Serene, with patches of development which includes a pass under Market Street
Difficulty: Difficult, due to two carry-around sections and steep embankments
Potential Hazards: Potential for underwater debris, and some partially submerged tree stumps.
River Road Park
Put in: River Road Park, Wilmington, NC
Trail length / distance: Open ended – lots of terrain and dredge spoils to explore in this big section of the Cape Fear
Terrain: Coastal terrain with marshlands that’s affected by local tides.
Difficulty: Easy to Difficult, all depending on the tide, wind, and distance
Potential Hazards: Maritime traffic which can include large vessels in the main Cape Fear shipping channel.
Put in: Dram Tree Park, W Castle St, Wilmington, NC 28401
Trail length / distance: Open ended depending on how much of the downtown waterfront a visitor wants to explore.
Terrain: Scenic with prime views of Wilmington landmarks including the Henrietta III and the USS North Carolina
Difficulty: Moderate, depending on the maritime traffic and currents
Potential Hazards: Strong Cape Fear River currents and other vessels
Carolina Beach Canal
Put in: Annie Dr. Boat Ramp, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Trail length / distance: 1-2 hours, depending on the direction
Terrain: Definitely varies – from this site, paddlers can explore Snow’s Cut to the west, the southern tip of Masonboro Island to the north, or the Intracoastal Waterway
Difficulty: Easy to Difficult, all depending on the route, winds, and current
Potential Hazards: Maritime traffic, rough waters in local inlets, and potential large swells, depending on the weather.
Put in: 10534 Royster Rd NE, Leland, NC 28451-7575
Trail length / distance: 2 miles of creek paddling before connecting with the Cape Fear River
Terrain: Narrow creek with plenty of natural scenery, which includes marshes, forests, and a cypress swamp
Potential Hazards: Watch for snakes, and mosquitos
Put in: Amphitheatre Dr, Wilmington, NC 28401
Trail length / distance: Roughly 1 hour to circle the entire lake
Terrain: Local manmade lake that features cypress trees, great birdwatching, various flowers, and a pristine park setting
Difficulty: Easy – great for kids and beginners
Potential Hazards: A little poison ivy and a few mosquitos – and that’s about it.
Put in: Pine Grove Drive Bridge, (near Efird Drive)
Trail length / distance: Creek itself is 5 miles long with multiple connecting channels
Terrain: Bordered by a few homes, with plenty of marshes, docks, and outlying forests (like the setting of “Dawson’s Creek”
Potential Hazards: Watch for oyster beds, which are exposed a couple hours before and after a low tide.
Put in: Gordon Lewis Road, Winnabow, NC 28479
Trail length / distance: About 1-2 hours, depending how far you go
Terrain: Nicely isolated with a fisherman or two. Pretty flora and fauna all year-round.
Difficulty: Easy – great for beginners and kids!
Potential Hazards: Power boats and snakes / insects, especially in the summer months.
Put in: Sutton Lake Rd, Wilmington, NC 2840
Trail length / distance: 3-4 hours to explore the entire lake
Terrain: Massive manmade lake with clean water and lots of wildlife. Plenty of narrow islands and peninsulas to explore.
Difficulty: Easy, but high winds can make the exploration difficult
Potential Hazards: High winds, a couple fishing boats, and a few submerged tree stumps.
Paddling Clubs and Guided Tours
Kayaking is a big activity in Wilmington, and as a result, the city features a wide range of organizations and businesses that can cater to brand new paddlers, or experienced kayakers who are nevertheless unfamiliar with the area.
Local clubs and organizations like the Cape Fear Paddlers Association and the Wilmington Trail Club are great resources for paddlers who want to dive into the local community and explore the terrain. In addition, area clubs like the Wrightsville Beach Paddle Club can allow Wilmington residents and visitors to explore even more areas via the coastal communities that are found just outside the city’s borders.
For a more casual kayaking community, Wilmington paddlers can also search online for “Kayaking Meetups” which are gaining popularity throughout the region. In these informal gatherings, paddlers from all around the town meet up at a designated time and location to explore a new corner of the Cape Fear or the many bodies of water that are scattered throughout the area.
There are also a number of local tour providers that can take visitors out on guided explorations of the local waterways. Based in the downtown region as well as the neighboring communities of Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, these companies are great options for visitors who are unfamiliar with the local terrain and / or who want to embark on an adventure that’s guided by a local expert. Eco-tours, sunset tours, and / or family-friendly tours are all available through the local tour companies, with most kayak tours and adventures launching in the prime spring, summer and fall months.
Kayaking Equipment for Sale and Rent
When it comes to kayaking, one of the best allures for Wilmington paddlers is the sheer number and variety of local watersports stores and kayak suppliers in the region. Visitors to the coastal towns of Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach will find a nice selection of kayak rental businesses in the form of local surf shops that can offer all sorts of equipment on an hourly, daily, or even weekly basis. Pick up a one or two-seater kayak, as well as the paddle, life jacket, and even a fishing pole – or try something new by renting a Stand-up Paddle Board, which is the kayak’s newest and trendiest cousin.
The best place to find kayak rentals is along the waterfront in the local beach towns, where there’s plenty of local waterways and ocean waters to explore.
Paddlers who are in the market for a new or used kayak will also find plenty of options, which can include big-name sporting goods stores in local Wilmington shopping plazas, or smaller watersports shops that are dedicated to the local paddling environment. Both new and used boards are often available for sale, (especially at the smaller, locally-owned shops), and paddlers will also find a wide array of equipment at the local watersports shops, including paddles, accessories, life jackets, fishing rigs, and much more.
Tips and Tricks for Wilmington Kayaking
- Watch out for local reptiles. The local creeks and rivers are home to several varieties of poisonous snakes, and even the occasional alligator, so caution is key.
- Bring bug spray, especially in the summer! Mosquitos can be thick in the seldom-explored wild creeks and rivers that are scattered throughout the New Hanover County area.
- Keep an eye on the winds and tides, especially in the local inlets, tidal creeks, and the Cape Fear River. A low tide can make small tidal creeks unnavigable, while high winds can cause treacherous currents that make paddling difficult.
- Watch out for Intracoastal Waterway traffic. Sections of the Cape Fear River connect with the Intracoastal Waterway, which means that vessels of all sizes share the same waters.
- Plan an extended exploration by visiting one of the area’s isolated islands. Masonboro Island is a prime kayaking destination simply because of its isolation and inherently wild and undeveloped nature.
- Want to explore even more? Join the club. Local paddling clubs serve as a great way for Wilmington newcomers to explore the area while making a few friends in the process.
From almost hidden creeks to wide swaths of the Cape Fear River that border the bustling downtown, there’s no shortage of adventures waiting when it comes to Wilmington Kayaking. Plan an expedition that explores some of the coolest corners of southeastern North Carolina, and discover why kayaking is a sport that’s taking the Port City by storm.