North Carolina's Crystal Coast is a playground for paddlers. Thanks to a string of barrier islands, it divvies up crashing waves on the Atlantic side for kayak and SUP surfing, still water on the sound side for peaceful paddling, and, farther inland, marshes and rivers for endless exploring. In the sound between the barrier islands and the shore, the clarity of the shallow water lets you realize you’re not the only one coasting. Sea turtles and dolphins glide beneath you. In the marshlands, birds abound. Paddle-up campsites are scattered throughout the area. In this horn of paddling plenty only three hours east of Raleigh, there are ample opportunities for adventure and solitude.
Not to be missed is Shackleford Banks, an island that’s part of the Crystal Coast's Cape Lookout National Seashore. Centuries ago, Spanish ships wrecked and their horse cargo swam ashore. The wild horses there today are the descendants of those plucky ponies. There are 25 harems, each led by an alpha male, and 7 bachelor bands, groups of dudes pining for their own harems, all living the good life on Spartina marsh and island grass and sea oats. If you see them digging, they might be prospecting for brackish water, which their bodies have adapted to drink.
Chris Miller, owner of Down East Kayaks, said, “My absolute favorite place to paddle is Shackleford Banks. The horses are so beautiful. You can beach your boat, but the Park Service wants you to stay at least 50 feet away from the horses. They are 100 percent wild, so admire their beauty from a distance.”
The water also teems with life.
Miller said, “You’ll see sea turtles and dolphins. Closer inshore to the marshlands and grass flats, you’ll see conches, oysters, mussels, clams, blue crabs, and horseshoe crabs.”
Those with a fishing license can cast a line for red drum (redfish), flounder, speckled trout and other species. According to Miller, fishing from a kayak or SUP gives you an edge over those encumbered with deep drafting motors. “I kayak fish and you can reach places the other boats can’t because it’s very shallow and that’s where the fish are. Kayak fishing is a unique experience because a good-sized fish will pull you along.”
SUP fishing has also hooked some anglers. “There is a small group of people doing this, but it’s growing. You can also get places the bigger boats can’t reach. You can stand and cast, which many people prefer, and the sight fishing is great because you can cast to particular fish.”
If you want the thrills of crashing surf, that’s available at Atlantic Beach or Emerald Isle on the Atlantic side of Bogue Banks. But come with a solid skill set. “The ocean side is made for advanced paddlers," Miller said. "It’s not for first-time paddlers. There can be big waves and big currents. It’s popular with kayak and SUP surfers as well as long distance paddlers, who will go beyond the breakers to paddle.”
If you don’t know where to begin paddling, you can take a water trail.
“We have many different levels of water trails," Miller said. "Some can be done in an hour or two and others take days and camping. All the camping is on the Cape Lookout National Seashore. No pass is needed. The Forest Service wants you to go to them for basic information and to fill out a floatplan, so they have an idea of where you’ll be.”
Or you can go your own way, far from any trail.
“The paddling is great around here because there are so many areas to explore, so many secluded marshlands that let you plunge into natural ecosystems. You can kayak and not see a person all day long.”
What’s the best boat for seeing this unique beauty?
Rod Hoell, owner of Beaufort Paddle said, “We use all sit-on-top kayaks, but if you want to do some serious touring, a nice ocean kayak with some length will let you handle the chop. If you want to reach some more out of way places like Shackleford and Cape Lookout, you’ll want a solid kayak. The wind might create some spray and there might be chop too.”
Want less chop for quiet SUP cruising? Hoell said, “Early mornings are best. There’s less wind, less boat traffic, and more wildlife.”
If you want more solitude, Hoell recommends paddling the Crystal Coast in the fall. “The summer is great but it's going to be hot. The weather is just perfect in the fall and most of the tourists have gone home. It stays warm here some years right through Christmas and there are no bugs.”
Whenever you go, there are some must-have items. “Take a hat, water, and sunblock," Hoell said. "Binoculars are real nice and a handheld GPS is great. Always, always take a phone and always have local responders, like police and Coast Guard, in your contacts.”
Hoell urges visitors to stop at the Cape Lookout lighthouse, especially in the fall. “The lighthouse and Cape Lookout are some of the most beautiful places on the planet. In the fall, it’s spectacular out there. It’s wild and the skies and sea are more colorful. That’s when huge schools of fish arrive and you might even see whales.”
Whether you're a first-time paddler, an experienced overnight kayaker, or a SUP surfer looking for a new break, take a trip to eastern North Carolina and see what the Crystal Coast has to offer.