Best paddling trails in the Southeast
The Southeast holds some of the oldest and most biodiverse rivers on the planet. Home to everything from marshy coastal creeks to rapid-rippled mountain streams to slow-rolling blackwater rivers, the region is also especially rich in aquatic life, holding more than half the freshwater fish species found in the United States, and more amphibians than any other corner of the country. This means plentiful options for on-the-water adventures. For paddlers keen to embark on a multi-day float, here’s a sampling of some of the Southeast’s wildest water trails.
Roanoke River Paddle Trail,
A 200-mile route along the lower portion of the brown water Roanoke River and its tributaries, the Roanoke River Paddle Trail showcases an ecologically and historically rich corner of eastern North Carolina. An Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site since 2008, the Roanoke River was a vital link in North Carolina’s maritime Underground Railroad, and today, the paddling trail still connects colonial towns like Edenton, Williamston, and Plymouth.
The lower portion of Roanoke River also snakes through the largest intact expanse of flooded bottomland forest remaining in the Mid-Atlantic, a swath of habitat recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area frequented by more than 200 species, including migratory birds seasonally commuting between North American and warmer tropical climes. For paddlers and visiting bird nerds, the nonprofit Roanoke River Partners manages 18 different camping spots scattered along the paddling trail, from remote tent pads to vehicle-accessible campsites, fully screened to protect against irksome insects. For beginners, the raised camping platforms at John’s Island overlooking Pembroke Creek are only a 30-minute paddle from downtown Edenton.
Patuxent Water Trail,
The longest river flowing entirely within the state of Maryland, the Patuxent River meanders through wildlife sanctuaries, natural areas, waterside parks, and a handful of historic sites, including the Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park, preserving more than 8,000 years of regional history, dating back to the Archaic Period. Declared one of Maryland’s Scenic Rivers in 1968, today the waterway is also traversed by the Patuxent Water Trail, a 100-mile blueway snaking through seven counties in southern Maryland, from the lushly forested Triadelphia Reservoir to Solomon’s Island. In Prince George’s County, the water trail also meanders through the Jug Bay Natural Area, a hotspot for regional birdlife with more than 300 species recorded, including bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons. With eight different paddle-up camping areas, the route is ideal for weekend getaways or extended expeditions.
Edisto Canoe & Kayak Trail,
The longest free-flowing blackwater river in the United States, the tannin-tinted Edisto River is a birder’s paradise. Situated along the Atlantic Flyway, the waterway provides vital habitat for threatened species like bald eagles, wood storks, and red-cockaded woodpeckers, along with more than 200 species of freshwater and saltwater fish. For paddlers, the Edisto River Canoe & Kayak Trail traverses a 62-mile stretch of the river’s main steam, connecting two state parks and weaving through birding hotspots like the National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest, home to the largest cypress-tupelo swamp on the planet. For multi-day paddles, there are 10 different camping areas dotting the water trail, along with cypress-shaded treehouses complete with hammocks and gas grills available from Carolina Heritage Outfitters. Camper cabins are available at Colleton State Park and Givhans Ferry State Park.
Youghiogheny River Water Trail,
The Youghiogheny River is legendary for churning whitewater. But the rapid-riddled waterway is also ideal for more extended float trips, courtesy of the Youghiogheny River Water Trail. Extending nearly 75 miles from Confluence to McKeesport, the blueway is a wild tour of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, sluicing through state game lands and nature reserves, in the shadow of Pennsylvania’s highest peaks.
Divided into four sections, the paddling route offers access to more than a half dozen riverside campgrounds and a handful of waterside inns and guesthouses in towns like Confluence and West Newton. While the Lower Yough is swirled with class III and IV stretches of whitewater, the calmer Middle Yough only requires navigating class I and II rapids – and features 11 miles of trophy trout waters, with a reputation for harboring burly rainbow and brown trout. For multi-sport adventures, the paddling route also parallels the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile rail-trail stretching from urban Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. In Confluence, where the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek spill into the Yough, Ohiopyle State Park offers tent sites, yurts, and cabins, as well as 75 miles of hiking trails.
French Broad River Paddle Trail,
Extending from the headwaters of the French Broad River near the town of Rosman, N.C., to Douglas Lake in Tennessee, the French Broad River Paddle Trail offers an intimate tour of one of the planet’s oldest waterways. Totaling more than 115 miles, the recreational blueway threads swaths of the Cherokee National Forest, stringing together outdoorsy towns like Asheville, Brevard, and Hot Springs. Overseen by nonprofits MountainTrue and RiverLink, the water trail is designed for overnight expeditions, including 19 riverside campgrounds (all spaced less than 15 miles apart).
In Asheville, the paddling trail meanders through the city’s River Arts District and the Biltmore Estate, the opulent mountain getaway constructed for the Vanderbilt family in the late 1800s. For an overnight getaway, the paddle-up campsite on Firefighter Island is situated adjacent to the massive estate, a seven-mile paddle from Westfeldt Park. And, for a little pampering farther along the blueway in Hot Springs, near the Tennessee border, the Hot Springs Campground is a short walk from the town’s namesake natural springs.
Upper James River Water Trail,
Treating paddlers to portions of two Virginia Scenic Rivers, the Upper James River Water Trail combines stretches of the James and Maury Rivers, rolling by the pastoral Virginia countryside and tracing the edges of the George Washington National Forest. The blueway includes nearly 62 miles on the Upper James River, along with 12 miles on the Maury River just outside Lexington, dishing up experiences for a range of skill levels. For beginners, there are family-friendly stretches of flatwater near Natural Bridge, including the five-mile section between Springwood and Buchanan in Botetourt County. There’s also plenty of technical whitewater, including a rock studded stretch between Glasgow and Snowden. The blueway is also dotted with camping spots, including a half-dozen riverside campgrounds operated by Twin River Outfitters and Wilderness Canoe Company.
Philpott Lake Blueway,
If moving water is a little too much, the Philpott Lake Blueway is a family-friendly option for flatwater paddlers, 30 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Rocky Knob Visitor Center. Ringing Philpott Lake, a 3,000-acre reservoir fringed by nearly 7,000 acres of lushly forested federal and state lands, the blueway is actually a conglomeration of bite-sized paddling trails connecting nine points of interest, including historic sites, recreation areas, and natural wonders. Highlights include 200-foot Calico Rock and Fairy Stone Lake Falls, a cascade constructed almost a century ago when Goblintown Creek was dammed to create Fairy Stone Lake, flooding the tiny town of Fayerdale.
For overnight getaways, the Philpott Lake Blueway connects four recreation areas with waterside campsites, and there’s also an offshore campground on the lake’s largest atoll, Deer Island. For a basecamp with a few more amenities, Fairy Stone State Park offers cabins and yurts situated near the southwestern edge of Philpott Lake.
Cover Photo: The wide and scenic James River. Photo by Malee Oot