Fletcher O’Neal, hip deep in the Pamlico Sound, flips an oyster cage buoyed to the surface with floats. Standing among rows of these enclosures bobbing under the wide, clear sky,
Fletcher O’Neal, hip deep in the Pamlico Sound, flips an oyster cage buoyed to the surface with floats. Standing among rows of these enclosures bobbing under the wide, clear sky, he finds respite from the hard work of raising oysters from seed to harvest. “It’s nice and peaceful on the water,” he says.
This vast sound, which extends miles to the mainland, seems so remote from the rest of North Carolina. But threads like the Neuse River, which meanders nearly 250 miles, connect the cities and towns of the Piedmont to the coast.
Like O’Neal, many make a living or find recreation on the waters in and around the Neuse, our state’s longest river. If you’re ready to get your feet wet, join us as we trace the Neuse across the state and share some of our favorite spots and stops along its winding route.
The Neuse River’s headwaters flow from the Flat and Eno rivers, in Orange County, and the Little River that snakes its way south from Person County. The three merge just before Falls Lake, created in 1981 to provide drinking water for Raleigh.
Before this junction, long stretches of land along the Eno create the rambling Eno River State Park. Hiking at any one of the park’s five accesses among hardwood forests, you could stumble upon historic structures like home sites, a mill, and remnants of a pump station.
When summer settles on the river, it’s common to see families wading into the shallow stretches near Fews Ford, a place once traversed by early settlers. Down the trail, balance your way on rocks to the river’s center for an unobstructed view downstream, or take a dip in pools created by the jumble of stones.
NC DNCR takes care of the things that people love about North Carolina, literally from A to Z (the Arts to the Zoo) — parks, aquariums, historic sites, state museums, and so much more! In 2022, NC DNCR celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Around Falls Lake, you’ll find Blue Jay Point County Park, Forest Ridge Park, and Falls Lake State Recreation Area, which has seven accesses. These include four campgrounds, swim beaches, and boat ramps. Miles of trail wind over rolling terrain, through shady forests, and along the water’s edge. You can even hike a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail here.
At the Beaverdam access, zip over mountain bike trails, grill hot dogs, and swim or paddle with friends in this area’s calm waters. A small dam separates this section from Falls Lake proper, and gas-powered boats are prohibited.
Below the dam, where the Neuse River officially begins, float (or paddle) down the river with Paddle Creek NC. Drift about an hour and a half along the tree-lined banks to the outfitter’s private takeout. Paddle Creek’s longer 8-mile trip starts here and ends at Buffaloe Road.
In the small town of Seven Springs, about 15 miles Southeast of Goldsboro, make a stop at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. Atop the cliff that rises 90 feet above the river, you can see for what seems like miles above the woodland on the opposite riverbank. From here, trails lead down to the Neuse’s edge — one direction heads to towering cedars with fringy foliage, and the other to a flat, sandy spot with views of the cliff.
To experience the cliff from a different angle, rent a kayak from Neuse River Trading, a short drive from the park. Helpful staff will point you toward the paddling launch at the 111 Bridge. During the 8-mile trip past the state park, you might spot river otters, bald eagles, and other water birds who live along the waterway.
Just a bit down the river, you’ll find Kinston, a small town with a big history. Although The Chef and the Farmer brought attention to the community when the restaurant and its owner, Vivian Howard, were featured on the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” another resident, the massive CSS Neuse II, is hard to miss.
Snugly situated beside the Lenoir County Farmer’s Market, the replica of a Civil War-ear ironclad opens on Saturdays for self-guided tours. Just a block away, the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center houses the excavated remains of the original ship, with exhibits chronicling its story and community life at the time.
For a lunch break, try the Pig in a Pup — vinegar-based eastern-style ’cue stuffed into an oversized hushpuppy — at King’s Restaurant, or Jason’s BBQ Sandwich, with smoky western pulled pork in a tangy sauce, at Whiskey Pig Craft Butchery and Deli.
The Pearson Park playground, featuring a 14-foot climbing structure created to look like a dragon, is a must-visit for young travelers. Green sails shelter another large play area so children can climb, spin, and slide in the shade.
Cross the Neuse on the King Street bridge to swing and play at the wooded Neuseway Nature Park & Campground. Watch a show at the park’s planetarium, ride the kiddie train with little ones, and peek into the small nature center while you’re there. Or simply bring a kayak and paddle up the wide, gentle river, and float back to the park’s put-in when you’ve had your fill.
The Neuse meets the Trent River and mingles with the sea at New Bern, creating a brackish estuary that extends to Pamlico Sound. New Bern’s Union Point Park, which hosts concerts on summer evenings, faces wide open views of the junction of the rivers. A short walk to historic downtown, you’ll find charming shops like Blue Magnolia, the Birthplace of Pepsi, and cuisine that ranges from casual — like MJ’s Raw Bar and Grille — to the elevated — like Cypress Hall. Walk a bit farther to Tryon Palace, the governor’s mansion that dates to 1770 when New Bern was the state’s first capital city.
To explore New Bern by water, take advantage of the town’s easy river access for kayaks and paddleboards. Kate Lewis, co-owner of Stand Up Outfitters, recommends a paddle along the Trent River for a view of residential areas, or on nearby creeks to cypress groves and other parts of the estuary ecosystem. “It’s a really beautiful corner of the world.”
Lewis’s shop has all the supplies you need for paddling — as well as winging and foiling. These new and exciting ways to experience the water use an inflatable wing to harness the wind and a hydrofoil to lift boards out of the water.
Once the Neuse empties into the southern Pamlico Sound 40 miles from New Bern, continue your journey aboard the Cedar Island Ferry, a 2.5-hour route to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks that’s home to a quaint village and miles of protected, undeveloped beaches.
This area of the sound, like the rest of North Carolina’s coast, has seen a rise in oyster farming in recent years. “We have pristine water,” O’Neal, a former fisherman and Ocracoke native, says. In addition to creating local sources for the growing demand for oysters, oyster farms help improve the environment.
Harvesting these cage-raised shellfish instead of wild oysters allows for the formation of wild oyster reefs — places where clams, blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, and other ocean creatures make their homes. Oysters also filter the water, removing excess sediment, algae, and nutrients, as they feed.
In turn, the water they are located within affects the growth and flavor of the shellfish. Devil Shoal oysters, grown by Ocracoke Mariculture, which is owned by O’Neal and his family, have a sweetness and saltiness to them. O’Neal explains that their distinct flavor “has to do with the water’s salinity.”
To taste Devil Shoal oysters yourself, pick some up at Ocracoke Seafood or Native Seafood fresh seafood markets. Or you can let the folks at Ocracoke Oyster Company do the cooking. You’ll find locally sourced oysters and seafood at this lively and casual island staple.
Before your visit comes to an end, join O’Neal on a tour of his farm. Teaching visitors about his craft is something he enjoys, plus it’s an opportunity to share the beauty of the place that supports his livelihood. On the tour, you’ll see an insider’s view of the sound, and, while you’re out on the water, maybe a pod of dolphins will show you that they’re glad you dropped by.