A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_165330" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Each spring, hundreds of paddlers — including, last year, Lolita Bass, her daughter Nikki, and Nikki’s dog Forrest (right) — travel seven and a half miles

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_165330" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Each spring, hundreds of paddlers — including, last year, Lolita Bass, her daughter Nikki, and Nikki’s dog Forrest (right) — travel seven and a half miles

Photo Essay/

Beauty in the Backwaters

Each spring, hundreds of paddlers — including, last year, Lolita Bass, her daughter Nikki, and Nikki’s dog Forrest (right) — travel seven and a half miles on the Dismal Swamp Canal to the Virginia state line. photograph by Chris Rogers

A World Between
Great Dismal Swamp

It seems an oddity, a stick-straight watery path through a wilderness so wreathed in wild grape and trumpet creeper, so canopied with soaring cypress and gum, so swampy and mucky, that simply getting from one side to the other was once considered a nearly impossible feat. Before the canal opened in 1805, it took 12 years of harrowing labor by enslaved workers to muck out 22 miles through the Great Dismal Swamp, effectively stitching together North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound and Virginia’s lower Chesapeake Bay. Now, each spring, hundreds of kayakers and canoeists launch into the Dismal Swamp Canal for the Paddle for the Border event. They dip their paddles into the amber-hued and tannin-stained water and trace the ghosts of travelers past: Runaways fleeing slavery. Loggers floating massive juniper and cypress timbers down remote waterways. Market hunters shipping ducks and geese to Norfolk, Virginia, and beyond. Once a place of gloom and despair, the Great Dismal Swamp today reveals its wonders to those daring — or fun-loving — enough to paddle their way through history.


Bald cypresses — some more than 2,000 years old — preside over a 10,000-acre preserve stewarded by The Nature Conservancy. photograph by Neil Jernigan

Ancient Realms
Black River Preserve

The trees were here when Carolina parakeets, now extinct, thronged the cypress swamps. When the Christ child was born. When the Magna Carta was issued. Deep in the blackwater swamps of the Black River, they still stand — sentinels to history and living proof of the power of conservation. For about 40 years, a famed tree in the remote Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River was heralded as the patriarch of this ancient old-growth forest after BLK69, aka Methuselah, was tree-ring dated to 372 AD in the 1980s. More recently, two trees have been discovered that are hundreds of years older — soaring, weathered old soldiers at least 2,600 and 2,000 years old.


The knobby “knees” at the base of bald cypresses are actually growths on top of the trees’ shallow, horizontal roots, and may protrude several feet out of the water. photograph by Neil Jernigan

Trees with Knees
Black River Preserve

They rise from the primordial gloom like weathered stalagmites, knobs and contorted buttresses that adorn the swamp forest floor. But cypress knees are far more than a gothic ornamentation to the deep swamps of the Black River. Do they help the trees breathe in such a morass? Collect nutrients? Or perhaps they strengthen the bases of old trees in flood-prone basins, helping them cling, as one early traveler wrote, “to the quaking earth with the grasp of Hercules.”


The connected Beaver Tail (pictured) and Beaver Lodge camping platforms — named after the local furry residents — on Upper Deadwater Creek can be reached only by boat. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

Dream Land

It’s as close as you’ll ever get to Middle-earth, the fictional realm of J.R.R. Tolkien’s — and Hollywood’s — impassioned imagination. Nearly a dozen camping platforms are tucked among the trees and over the waters of the Roanoke River bottoms, the largest intact hardwood bottomland forest remaining in the mid-Atlantic. You can only arrive by boat. You will have to bring everything with you: tent and sleeping bag, stove and food and water. You will see cathedrals of forests reflected in mirrors of dark water. You will smell the pungent fragrance of a living wilderness and touch the furrowed bark of your only neighbors. And you will hear something that perhaps you haven’t heard in a very long time: your own heartbeat.


In Dare County, the Sandy Ridge Trail makes the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge — home to barred owls (left) and many other species — accessible to visitors like Tim Faulkner. photograph by Neil Jernigan

A Walk in the Woods
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Take it slow. There aren’t many trails like this one, a half-mile-long footpath tunneling through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge’s sanctum sanctorum. Here an earthen path, there a raised boardwalk, the Sandy Ridge Trail plumbs one of the most remote and untrammeled landscapes in eastern North Carolina. Here are the remains of a long-gone logging town, now a refuge for tiny carnivorous sundews and some of the largest black bears on the planet. Hike the trail with your eyes wide open: In the spring and early summer, prothonotary warblers flit along Milltail Creek. Watch for herons and egrets from the bridge over Sandy Ridge Gut. And in the soft light of dawn or dusk, listen for the howls of endangered red wolves — a rare call of the eastern North Carolina wilds.


American alligators in the swamps of North Carolina are typically smaller than the ones farther south, but males can still grow up to 13 feet and weigh 500 pounds or more. Females rarely surpass nine feet and 200 pounds. photograph by Neil Jernigan

Wild Wetlands
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Perkosan. Percourson. Pocosin. Early Europeans struggled with how to spell the old Algonquian native term that meant “swamp on a hill,” but ultimately “pocosin” won the day. Such a landscape is just as tangled as its etymology. Underlain by peat, boggy and buggy, pocosins compose much of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Here, largely undisturbed, creatures find sanctuary in one of the most inhospitable (or so it seems to humans, at least) habitats in North Carolina.


Some of the largest black bears in the world are found in eastern North Carolina, in places like the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Other predators, like alligators and red wolves, make their homes at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. photograph by Neil Jernigan

Creatures Among Us

Swamps and bogs and fens and wetlands — in eastern North Carolina, these places are more than a home to some of our wildest creatures. They’re living laboratories for research and study. How do black bears coexist with highways in the region? How will a changing climate affect alligators, which are already at the extreme northern end of their range? And, critically: How can people learn to live with apex predators such as the imperiled red wolf? In some of the state’s remotest regions, far from civilization, conservation still requires a willing partnership between humans and wildlife.


Pettigrew State Park is home to one of eastern North Carolina’s last old-growth forests. Photography courtesy of VisitNC.com, Neil Jernigan

Strength in Numbers
Pettigrew State Park

Shrouded in fern, swathed in Spanish moss, rising from still waters, the forests of Pettigrew State Park seem at once time-worn and timeless. There are pawpaw and persimmon and tulip poplar. Atlantic white cedar and Eastern red cedar and black holly and sweet gum. And both of the Taxodiaceae — bald cypress and its short-needled kin, pond cypress. The old-growth trees stand tall and dense, each one a microhabitat that supports migrating warblers and hawks on the hunt and untold ants and beetles and caterpillars. Wet and briary, thick as bristles on a brush, they also seem to beckon to the intrepid. But the only way in may be through your imagination.


Fed mostly by rainfall, Lake Phelps measures just four and a half feet deep on average, making its shores — including the Cypress Point access — the perfect place for cypresses to grow. photograph by Neil Jernigan

Wonders of the Water
Pettigrew State Park

The second-largest natural lake in the state, Lake Phelps holds deep secrets in its shallow, clean waters. There, sequestered through the ages, lie some 30 ancient dugout canoes. They are as long as 37 feet and as old as some 4,400 years. They speak of the centuries-long ties between humans and these waters. And while most people pilgrimage to Lake Phelps today for recreation and renewal, they leave in a state that the region’s original human inhabitants would recognize: nourished in mind, body, and spirit by the melding of eastern North Carolina’s woods and waters.


Related: Paddle along the Black River to Three Sisters Swamp — and meet Methuselah — in the newest installment of our NC Icons video series.

This story was published on Feb 27, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.