Hidden Gem

The Tar-Pamlico Water Trail

by Robyn Goss-Bennai // April - May - June 2020

“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself,” wrote Laura Gilpin. Everyone needs a little magic in their lives. Nature is brimming with magical moments – a quiet winding and crooked trail can lead to discovery and renewal – a quest to escape from the mundane of our monotonous everyday lives.

Such is this issue’s hidden gem – the Tar-Pamlico Water Trail. This water trail allows you to experience the serenity of the water while providing glimpses of wildlife. You don’t have to be an experienced kayaker or have spent many hours in a canoe to navigate or enjoy this magical treasure. The Tar-Pamlico Water Trail flows gently downstream towards the Pamlico Sound, running at a a pace that makes it ideal to bring children along for the ride. Depending on the depth and section of the river, the strongest rapids you may encounter are class 2 rapids. These are far from the wild rapids you may see on a whitewater rafting trip. In the lower sections of the river where the water flows even slower, you can even paddleboard.

The Tar-Pamlico River is one of only four river basins contained entirely within North Carolina. It’s a beautiful scenic river and much of it runs through forests. In fact, it can feel like you’re floating through the forest as trees grow straight out of the water. The Tar River becomes the tidal Pamlico River once it underpasses the U.S. Highway 17 Bridge in Washington, North Carolina. It is here that the river changes from freshwater to brackish water. The seclusion and untouched nature of much of the Upper Tar, which is the closest section to Wake County, continues to make it a serene and desired destination in areas such as Medoc Mountain State Park and Wilton Slopes.

Wilton Slopes Park – just north of Wake County in Oxford, off of Highway 96 – is a nearby access point to the Tar River. Unlike a typical boat launching area where you can drive your vehicle right up to the water, here you will need to carry your watercraft to the river on a pathway going down a slight hill. If you are using a lighter weight kayak, this shouldn’t be too difficult. For heavier watercraft, you will need to plan on putting in a little more effort. It’s helpful to note that the platform at the river has been weathered by the elements, and there is also a significant drop to the water if the river is running low.

There are other access points along the river. Sound Rivers is a non-profit that manages the trail. On their website (soundrivers.org), you can find many resources to help plan your trip. There are maps of access points along the route, as well as a map of the 14 platforms, which can sleep between 8-10 people, depending on the platform, that the more adventurous traveler can reserve for overnight trips on the river. You will also find the distance in miles for different sections of the river. Sound Rivers currently manages the 14 platforms from the top of the Tar River to the lower section of the Pamlico River. They are also constantly working to make improvements and maintain existing features along the entire Water Trail.

Some considerations before heading out:

– Check the current water data on the USGS.gov site for current conditions.
– Allow two hours per mile for canoeing and three miles per hour for kayaking.
– Always bring flotation gear with you.
– While you don’t want to overload your watercraft, consider bringing plenty of fresh water, food, and an extra paddle.
– Let someone know your plans and when you expect to return.
– Reserve platform preferably two weeks in advance to ensure it can be checked by management for any issues.
– Do not enter the river during times of flooding.
– Check the Sound River website for additional information to plan your trip.

The proximity of such a wonderful natural resource makes this hidden gem a great escape for the day, or you can make a weekend of it. So on a beautiful, warm day this spring, grab your lifejacket, paddle, and thirst for adventure and head to the Tar-Pamlico River Water Trail. The magic awaits!

Photo courtesy of Tar River volunteer Craig Stancil.

Robyn Goss-Bennai

A local writer and lover of adventure and all things fun.