Outdoor enthusiasts headed east might be used to making a beeline for the Outer Banks, but tucked away on the banks of the Pasquotank River is charming Elizabeth City — an ideal stop and a stellar weekend destination in its own right. From state parks to harbor tours — and with plenty of opportunities for kayaking, cycling, birding, fishing, and camping in between — this town is the perfect place to explore on water and land. Plus, in the evenings, the downtown district blends historic charm with trendy restaurants and bars to provide some welcome post-adventure relaxation.
Nicknamed the Harbor of Hospitality, Elizabeth City is a beautiful waterfront town full of local flavor and fascinating history. A three-hour drive from Raleigh and an hour inland from Nags Head and Duck, Elizabeth City should certainly be on your radar for outdoor fun. Time to head for the harbor.
Tour the river — and try your hand at fishing
Located on a bend of the Pasquotank River and right off Albemarle Sound, Elizabeth City was once a hotbed of commerce, with thriving lumbering, shipbuilding, and fish and oyster processing industries. Now, many of the boats on the river are for fishing and tourism — and sometimes both at once. Captain Jeff Onley, who’s been fishing in Elizabeth City since he was 5 years old, will take you out on a boat with Albemarle Fishing Charters for a couple of hours up to a full day. Experienced anglers will feel right at home catching flounder, striped bass, and crappie, while newbies will get a chance to familiarize themselves with fishing equipment, receive instruction, and cast their reels under Captain Jeff’s watchful eye.
“It’s a beautiful river and excellent fishing for several different species, including both salt- and freshwater fish,” Onley says. “We’ve got a pretty unique fishery here, and some people come just to target the species.”
Fish in stunning surroundings on the Albemarle Sound. photograph by hmarvinaverett/Getty Images
And whether or not you choose to fish, Onley’s tours let you experience the picturesque river, view the historic town from a unique vantage point, and learn about the area’s past. As a bonus, sailboats come into town every year from April to June and September to November, and the harbor becomes even more beautiful and dotted with their vibrant sails.
Visitors to Elizabeth City are lucky to be in the vicinity of three North Carolina state parks: Dismal Swamp, Merchants Millpond, and Pettigrew. If you only have time for one, Dismal Swamp is a must-see. Despite its somewhat morose name, Dismal Swamp is a beautiful pocket of forest wetland. It’s one of the largest remaining swamps in the East, and recreational activities abound here. Rent a kayak or canoe from the visitors’ center (or, for ambitious kayakers, paddle your way up from Elizabeth City) and while away the day exploring picture-perfect landscapes.
Landlubbers can traverse the 16 miles of flat trails on foot or on wheels. Stroll along the wooden boardwalk that crosses the swamp, and don’t be surprised if you see wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, raccoons, wild turkeys, and rare Hessel’s Hairstreak butterflies. At Merchants Millpond, a peaceful swamp surrounded by cypress trees, you’ll find camping, canoeing, and hiking; and Lake Phelps at Pettigrew State Park offers incredible fishing. Pick up a free North Carolina State Parks Passport at any of the state park visitors’ centers and get a new stamp at each state park you visit.
Tip: In the summer months, bring bug spray to Dismal Swamp State Park to fully enjoy the experience!
Go for a leisurely bike ride
Starting at the Visit Elizabeth City office, right at the center of town, explore three separate bike routes, to help you get acquainted with the area. Try the 2.75-mile Historic Route, which loops through well-preserved neighborhoods showcasing gorgeous Craftsman- and Colonial Revival-style homes, as well as other architectural styles from the late 19th and 20th centuries. The route also takes you through Main Street’s historic commercial district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and now features cute boutiques and restaurants housed inside the stunning buildings. For views of the Pasquotank River on your ride, try the 2.4-mile Knobbs Creek Route or the longer seven-mile River View Route. On your way down the River View Route, keep an eye out for the Cropsey Home, famously haunted by the ghost of Nell Cropsey, whose death in 1901 occurred under mysterious circumstances.
Mark Powell, program and management consultant for the Albemarle Resource Conservation and Development Council, which develops and cares for paddle trails in the area, recommends kayaking as an activity for visitors who want to slow down, enjoy nature, see wildlife, and get in some great fishing.
Rent a kayak at The Pelican Marina and head for one of the many paddling trails. A leisurely trip will take you down the river, into serene offshoots, and beneath tree canopies. Some of the trails are officially part of the NC Birding Trail, but you’re almost guaranteed to spot birds and other wildlife on any path you choose. “We have a lot of slow-moving creeks and rivers that are good paddling, especially in the spring and fall,” Powell says. “Paddlers will see bald eagles, lots of osprey, otters, and cypress and gum swamp forests with Spanish moss.”
You’ll spot a variety of birds while paddling along Elizabeth City’s waterways. Bring binoculars for a closer look! photograph by Jeff Byrd
Spend a couple of hours floating down tributaries and marveling at the pristine natural beauty, or plan a multiday excursion and camp along the way. Powell recommends camping at the platforms on Goat Island on the Pasquotank River; other favorite paddle trails include the scenic Sawyer’s Creek Trail and the longer, more intimate Newbegun Creek Trail. Maps and information about the trails can be found here.
After so much paddling, cycling, and hiking, you deserve a break! Elizabeth City’s downtown is in the midst of a revival, with long-needed modern bars and restaurants filling a void. One of the nightlife highlights expertly blending old with new is Ghost Harbor Brewing Company, opened in 2017 but housed in an early 1900s horse stable. Try a craft beer flight (make sure to try the interesting Blair’s Fall pale wheat ale and the Gypsy Tears IPA), then sit and sip with a pint of your favorite against a backdrop of bricks in Pailin’s Alley, an historic alley connecting the brewery and adjacent restaurants. Patio lights are strung throughout the newly restored alley, which hosts weekly live music, providing a lovely way to spend the evening.
One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.