Source to Sound on North Carolina’s River of Death

Roanoke River - Source to Sound

Only the ripples showed where the steel blue water starts. The glassy surface reflects in perfect composition the land also hued in the steel blue of the sun’s last light. Escaping the 18 foot wide Cut Cypress creek, the 4 of us enter into the large bay of Three Sisters. In the sun’s darkening light, a lone barred owl sits sentinel at the entrance. In the dark we reach our platform. Headlights on, gear is pulled to the night’s home deep in the bottomland forest.

The Roanoke River, known locally as the River of Death for carrying away the unprepared on its swift currents, runs 130+ miles through North Carolina. Along its reach are 11 camping platforms and hundreds of species of migratory birds plus black bears, otters, eagles, osprey, herons, rockfish, and towering cypress trees covered in spanish moss. And precious little human development.

The Roanoke offers year around paddling, even in the dead of winter or heat of summer, and multiple variations for a unique trip each time. This variation is my favorite for first time Source to Sound paddlers.

paddling the Roanoke RiverWho Should Paddle This Trail 130 mile trail?

  • This trail is for you if you need somewhere warm to paddle during the colder northern months
  • Seeking a remote paddle adventure but easily accessible, beautiful, and filled with surprises
  • Of the mind to paddle 15+ miles each day

The Route

Getting Started

To camp, you’ll need advance reservations through the Roanoke River Partners.

Typically during late summer (late July through September 1) there isn’t much current; you’ll paddle, rather than float, each mile. Fall and winter has more flow depending upon hurricanes and winter rain. For ideal flow go March 1 through June 15; see Local Knowledge below for further information.

There is no shuttle service for the Roanoke. You’ll need two vehicles. The shuttle is about 1.5 hours (one way).

The Details

The Roanoke as a Source to Sound paddle offers at least 4 distinct variations. This is my favorite.

Each day your mileage ranges from 15 to 23 miles, with one day reaching 33 miles (with hot showers at the end).

  • Day 1, The Warmup – Weldon put-in to Tillery Platform. 15.5 miles.
  • Day 2, Push It Some – Tillery Platform to Broadneck Gamelands tent site. 24 miles.
  • Day 3, Cabin over the River – Broadneck to Bluff Platform. 15.6 miles.
  • Day 4, The Big Day – Bluff to Williamston Platform 33.9 miles.
    • Split day 4 into two shorter days with an intermediate campsite. See map for details.
  • Day 5, The Great Bend – Williamston to Cypress Cathedral Platform. 14.5 miles.
  • Day 6, Ironclad Day – Cypress to Royal Fern Platform. 16.2 miles.
  • Day 7, Openwater Day – Royal to Spruill’s Farm Landing and take out. 11.1 miles.

What You’ll See

camping on the Roanoke RiverYou’ll start paddling next to 30 foot high bluffs and hardwood trees. As you venture past the Town of Williamston, the bluffs shrink, the riverbanks turn into flat wetlands of Tupelo and Cypress trees. Keep track of the terrain and you can see it change.

On Day 4 The Great Bend, watch for the old logging train on the southbank. A nice spot to eat, relax, and check out an abandoned machine from the the early 1900s. Years of rust, flooding, and trees turned the train into a garden decoration.

On Day 6 Ironclad, paddle right past a 1/8th scale working model of the Civil War era CSS Ironclad Albemarle. Dock on the paddle launch just 20 yards downstream to check it out.

Year around barred owls, bald eagles, osprey, blue herons, and vultures are common. It is normal to hear the owls but takes keen eyes to spot them.

Now and again you’ll catch old reliques of fishing villages, boats, and modern bridges. But there is little modern development; only old trees and tannin water.

The Local Knowledge To Make it Great

kayak the roanoke riverThe best time to go is September through mid January or March through early June. The temperatures are ideal and you’re most like to spy migratory birds that winter over in the eastern North Carolina wetlands.

From March 1st through June 15th the fishing is excellent as the Rockfish (aka striped bass) spawn. Fisherman come from around the world during this time; however, you won’t find the river crowded since the fisherman tend to get to their spots and hang out before heading back. As the fish move upstream, so do the fisherman, so at most you’ll share a day or two, a chance to experience the cultural heritage of the river.

Halfway through your trip you’ll find hot showers and easy resupply of groceries and fresh water in Williamston.


One person/ $20 per night; 2-6 people/ $10 per person per night. More than 6 isn’t recommended on most platforms. Six people is cozy.

Lightweight Gear You’ll Want

  • Bring a lightweight tarp and small diameter cord. Once past Williamston, the platforms don’t have roofs and if it rains, gives you somewhere besides your tent.
  • For sea kayaks, the Outdoor Research Durable Dry Sack (25L) [Amazon link] packs small and easier to pack into your kayak than traditional dry bag.
  • On those cool days, Stohlquist Toasters 2mm pogies [Amazon link] keep your hands warm, and roll up on itself once the temperature rises. No need to remove them from the paddle.

For additional information and to make reservations, visit

To discover other stunning trails in eastern North Carolina, from casual floats, single day trips, beach camping, historic lighthouses, and wildlife, visit


Note: This is part of PaddlingLight’s new Routes category. If you have a canoe or kayak route that you’d like to share, contact us.

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