Looking for an easy kayakpacking escape from the city sometimes takes no more than looking for a treasure that may be in your own backyard. About 750k people live within an hours drive of our put in at Raleigh's Anderson Point but you're not likely to see even a fraction of them after your first day out.
Surprisingly remote considering its population base the rocky upper part of the Neuse River gradually gives way to its sandhills alter ego as it winds its way 215 miles through the isolated farming communities that dot the route east of I-95 to its southern terminus at Croatan Forest on the banks of the Pamlico Sound.
With abundant camping and bail-out options between the current State Capitol and first in New Bern to make the paddle your own and nothing more than a dozen Class 1 and 1+ rapids this is an ideal beginner to novice multi-nighter adventure. If you are new to kayakpacking and have the time paddle the entire length its well worth the effort and the experience alone will hook you. We rank the difficulty level at 6/10 only due to the 6-day length. Any single segment we'd give only a 2 or 3.
The route has three different personalities. The upper part of the Neuse River between Raleigh and Smithfield is shallow and unfortunately at times a little messy due to the environmental impact of the population that surrounds it. We beached 8-9 times the first day a few of which required a full on extract and drag. Stay closer to the banks when possible for the deepest water.
The middle from around Golsboro to Cowpens Landing is incredibly remote as the river meanders through farming communities. Days 3-4 you are not likely to see more than a few humans if any. Abundant wildlife – Bald Eagles, Osprey, Kingfishers, Hawks, turtles and frogs – are at every turn and distances are measured by frequent twists to the north and west.
Once you pass under Hwy 55 in the middle of day 5 prepare yourself for deeper water, wider navigational lanes and more coastal flora and fauna. Bald Cypress forests, Spanish moss and sandpipers gradually take over the landscape as the water becomes brackish and the banks become swampy. If you are fortunate enough (or plan well) to tackle this part of the escape during a full moon then take advantage of the easier navigation and paddle a few magical hours after the sun goes down. You won't regret it.
Stop in New Bern for a power lunch and push hard across the Pamlico Sound to make the beach at Croatan Forest on the last day and you'll be treated to a soft sandy bed on which to pitch your tent and beautiful coastal sunrise that'll make you forget some of the harder parts of the trip.
While we did this trip in 6 full days there are so many put in and take out opportunities you can really make this expedition as long or short as your time and energy permits. At the time of our paddle the Milburnie Dam was still in existence (it was since removed in November of 2017) so we put in at Anderson Point just a click south. Now that the Neuse flows freely from the dam at Falls Lake you can easily tack on an additions 14 miles (22km) by putting in at the Falls of Neuse Canoe Launch, however plan your first overnight campsite carefully as much first 30 miles on the upper Neuse is privately held. Our first night was on an island just south and east of Hwy 42.
JOHN D'AMELIO calls central North Carolina home and is the Executive Editor of kayakpacking.co. Until he can figure out how to paddle full time he works as a freelance designer + writer.
He and his wife of 28 years have 7 children that keep them busy and outdoors.