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In an unassuming corner of Chatham County, at a spit of land that locals call Mermaid Point, an adventure begins to take shape. There, the Haw River meets the Deep

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In an unassuming corner of Chatham County, at a spit of land that locals call Mermaid Point, an adventure begins to take shape. There, the Haw River meets the Deep

Going with the Flow: 5 Stops Along the Cape Fear River

In an unassuming corner of Chatham County, at a spit of land that locals call Mermaid Point, an adventure begins to take shape.

There, the Haw River meets the Deep River to become the Cape Fear — a river that runs through 29 counties, through the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, before meeting the Intracoastal Waterway near Wilmington, and finally, the Atlantic Ocean, near Bald Head Island.

The river is epic in both history and resources: It’s been a source of nourishment, power, and water for the people of our state (not to mention a handful of ghost stories!). But the Cape Fear River is more than its natural bounty — it’s also just plain fun. “The river’s been a lot and done a lot through the years,” says Ilia Smirnov, owner of Cape Fear River Adventures. “But right now, it’s just ours to play on and enjoy.”

Ready to check out all that the Cape Fear River has to offer? Here are some of the best ways to explore it, from the headwaters to the coast.


Go canoeing with Cape Fear River Adventures in Lillington. Photography courtesy of Cape Fear River Adventures

Race the rapids: Cape Fear River Adventures

Cape Fear River Adventures in Lillington makes 25 miles of water your playground — and a study in the river’s versatility. As you explore, you’ll find calm flatwater, rocky, white-capped rapids, and natural riverbed where you’ll see fish traps from the 1800s.

Whitewater rafting will get your heart pumping, as expert guides help you navigate some of the only Class II and III rapids in eastern North Carolina. Or maybe you’ll opt for a more low-key experience, like paddleboard yoga or a sunset kayak trip.

“There’s something for everyone, from curious beginners on up to the seasoned outdoorsman,” Smirnov says. “The river is for everybody; the river doesn’t judge.”


Explore the paved Cape Fear River Trail on two wheels — or simply take a walk. Photography courtesy of City of Fayetteville

Trek on terra firma: The Cape Fear River Trail

Your next stop is Fayetteville, where the Cape Fear River Trail and Clark Park offer wetlands to explore — plus a touch of the unexpected. “We’re in the flatlands, so we shouldn’t really have waterfalls,” says Clark Park Ranger Michael P. Morales. “But we do, and sometimes it’s like a mini-Niagara!”

Throughout its 72 acres, Clark Park is home to more than 350 species of plants, 150 species of birds, and a Nature Center, where visitors can see live animals and get to know native flora and fauna. The park also has programming for all ages, with topics ranging from archery to medicinal plants.

Clark Park serves as the trailhead for the 7-mile Cape Fear River Trail. This generous, paved path for walkers, joggers, and cyclists includes a covered bridge and 1,000 feet of wetland boardwalk.

Connected to the trail, you’ll find Riverside Dog Park and 11 miles of the Cape Fear Mountain Bike trail. “We’re a city park, so you’ll hear neighbors and helicopters from Fort Bragg,” Morales says. “But you’ll also hear the hawks cry, cicadas sing, and waterfalls splashing. For just a moment, you’ll be in the wilderness.”


Paddle the Black River with Capt. Charles Robbins’ Cape Fear River Adventures to see ancient bald cypress trees. Photography courtesy of Captain Charles Robbins

Savor ancient landscapes: Capt. Charles Robbins’ Kayak Tours

Rivers feel timeless: ever-moving, ever-changing. But an encounter with a bald cypress that was around during the fall of the Roman Empire? That’ll remind you just how much history the Cape Fear River has seen.

On a kayak tour with Capt. Charles Robbins, owner of Cape Fear River Adventures (unrelated to the Lillington adventure company), you can see these ancient trees from the water up. Robbins is a wilderness guide, educator, and conservationist — a Wilmington local who appreciates the Cape Fear River for both its environmental and emotional resonance. Working with researchers, he’s combed the Three Sisters Swamp in the Black River (a tributary of the Cape Fear) to “core” bald cypress trees and explore history through their rings — sometimes as many as 2,600 of them.

“The depth of feeling when people visit these bald cypresses, it’s sort of like seeing the Grand Canyon,” Robbins says. “It’s something you know is ancient, but it’s so far beyond your time that awe is your only way to understand it.”

Travel back and experience that awe on one of Robbins’ Cape Fear Adventure tours, where you’ll match adventure with education. First, you’ll learn how dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) is helping us understand climate change. Then Robbins will guide you deep into the Three Sisters Swamp, through shallow waters and canopies of Spanish moss to the bald cypress trees, their behemoth “knees” recalling history long since forgotten.


Catch a feast: Feel Good Fishing Charter & Adventures

Ready for some seafood fresh from the Atlantic? Wilmington’s Feel Good Fishing Charter and Adventures will help you bring it to the table yourself with their Seafood Smorgasbord tour. Catch your own fish and clams (or oysters in the cooler months) at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, an experience that Capt. Andre Nel describes as “deeply soul satisfying … and delicious, too.”

At low tide, Nel guides adventurers deep into the marsh, where they take off their shoes and do the “clam shuffle — just wiggling their toes” until they feel something like a pebble underfoot. “It’s the same way people caught clams here hundreds of years ago,” he explains. “I love seeing how that captures people’s imaginations, kids, especially.”

To close out the adventure, Nel filets and ices the fish and passes along his favorite clam recipe: “Wrap ’em in bacon and put ’em on the grill. What could be better?”


Relax with Southern hospitality: Cape Fear Seafood Company

If you’d rather leave the catching — and the cooking — to the professionals, head to Cape Fear Seafood Company for a meal straight from the coast. In their locations from Raleigh to Wilmington, a laidback atmosphere, memorable drinks, and an abundance of fresh seafood are always served with a side of Southern hospitality.

When fall is in the air, lean into the Low Country bounty of Cape Fear Seafood Company’s shrimp and grits: local stone-ground grits topped with crisp bacon, fresh veggies, and plenty of shrimp, cooked to perfection. Low Country Cream sauce brings the dish together. “We build layer upon layer of flavor,” says founder and owner Evans Trawick. “It’s one of my absolute favorites.”

“No matter where I am on the river, it always feels like it’s welcoming me back,” Trawick says. It’s the spirit he wants Cape Fear Seafood Company to embody, too — a place where people can taste the abundance of the river he loves and the place he calls home.

This story was published on Oct 10, 2022

Susanna Klingenberg

Susanna Branyon Klingenberg is a writer and editor based in Raleigh.