Want to make a dent in your state park bucket list? Visit two in one trip: kayak beneath Spanish moss and pitch your tent at a paddle-in campsite along a blackwater river, then watch sailboats glide across the water from the peaceful, sandy shoreline of a Carolina bay.
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In the late 1700s, enormous logs were floated down North Carolina’s Lumber River from the logging camps where they were harvested to the sawmills where they were turned into timber — an extensive practice that gave the river its name. Today, paddlers navigate colorful fiberglass kayaks down the Lumber, gliding across the water as they pass beneath ancient cypress trees.
The Lumber River is a blackwater river, meaning that tannins leeching from the soil have given the water a warm golden-brown color that park superintendent Brett Godwin compares to sweet tea. It’s also the state’s only blackwater river to earn the National Wild and Scenic designation — and is one of two incredible state parks where you can explore the outdoors in Columbus County.
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Columbus County is one of the Southeast’s premier locales for outdoor recreation. Here, outdoor enthusiasts can discover a veritable smorgasbord of activities designed to invigorate and energize one’s sense of adventure.
Located along a free-flowing, 115-mile stretch of the Lumber, this pristine wilderness area offers plentiful opportunities for outdoor recreation and spectacular scenery.
Hiking: Miles of hiking trails crisscross the park. For novice hikers, Godwin suggests the Lumber River Track Trail; the half-mile trail follows Griffin’s Bluff and leads to an observation deck that overlooks a “whirl” where the river flows in reverse.
The three-mile loop that makes up the Chalk Banks Trail will challenge experienced hikers. It follows the contours of the Lumber River, passing through picturesque forests with towering tree canopies with areas of the trail carved into the sides of the hills.
Kayaking down the Lumber River is a good way to cool off on a humid North Carolina day. Photography courtesy of Columbus Chamber of Commerce & Tourism
Paddling: One of the longest unobstructed rivers in the state, paddling is naturally a favorite pastime in the park. Use the Chalk Banks access in Wagram to access the river and paddle downstream, watching for the turtles, herons, and spotted sandpipers along the route. Just be sure to bring your own kayak or canoe; rentals are not available in the park.
Camping: In addition to primitive campsites and a few spots at the Chalk Banks access that can accommodate pop-up campers, Lumber River State Park has five canoe-in campsites. The sites, located along the riverbank, are only accessible by water. After a long day paddling and exploring, pitch your tent right on the banks of the river.
“It’s total seclusion,” Godwin says. “There’s nothing around but wooded parkland and river.”
The campground also hosts Flotilla Weekends on select dates in the summer, which include a three-mile tubing trip down the river along with outdoor concerts and food trucks.
“In the summer, people want to be near the water,” says campground co-owner Dianne Williamson. “They tell us the flotilla is the best thing that they did all summer.”
Horseback riding: Equine-inclined? Horse trailers are welcome at Lumber River Campground and Trail Rides, which also leads horseback riding tours through the state park for riders with their own mounts.
Fishing: Catfish, black crappie, and largemouth bass are abundant in the Lumber. Godwin says it’s a favorite spot for fishers eager to cast a line. Use the boat ramp at the Princess Ann access to get out on the water and bring home a fresh catch.
Beautiful Lake Waccamaw is North Carolina’s largest Carolina bay lake. Photography courtesy of Columbus Chamber of Commerce & Tourism
At first glance, Lake Waccamaw looks no different than other bodies of water in the Coastal Plain, but an aerial view shows that the lake is a Carolina bay, one of the thousands that dot the southeastern corner of North Carolina. While it’s believed that the perfectly circular depressions rimmed with sand were formed as icy glaciers expanded and contracted, the true origin of Carolina bays remains a mystery.
What is less mysterious are the reasons Lake Waccamaw State Park is a popular spot for outdoor recreation: While most bays are now boggy or dry, having been crowded with vegetation or drained for farmland, a few are home to beloved bodies of water. At nearly 9,000 acres, North Carolina’s largest bay lake is the crown jewel of the Columbus County town that shares its name. People have always been drawn to Lake Waccamaw’s peaceful waters and the longleaf pine forest along its shores.
Explore the Lake Waccamaw Depot Museum to learn more about the state park and Carolina bays. Photography courtesy of Columbus Chamber of Commerce & Tourism
Learn about the lake: Explore the exhibit hall in the visitors center to learn more about the history and ecology of the 2,176-acre park — like how Carolina bays are named for the trees that love their peaty soil: red bay, loblolly bay, and sweet bay. Park rangers also lead interpretive programs.
From the visitor’s center, follow the 700-foot boardwalk that extends into the water and watch sailboats and waterfowl taking advantage of the calm waters.
Hiking: An extensive trail network includes five different trails. To get off the beaten path, follow the blue blazes that mark the Lakeshore Trail. The four-mile route passes a stand of ancient cypress trees and runs alongside the lake. Take a pit stop on one of the sandy beaches for an afternoon picnic.
The park boasts several species of flora and fauna that are on the North Carolina rare plant list. Be on the lookout for the green-fly orchid, seven-angle pipewort, and water arrowhead. The carnivorous Venus flytrap can also be spotted along the Loblolly Trail, a .65-mile trail that starts at the visitor’s center.
Boating: The Waccamaw Sailing Club is located on Lake Waccamaw, so sailboats are a common sight. Watch sailors navigating across the smooth waters, their colorful sails billowing in the breeze.
To get out on the nearly-9,000-acre lake yourself, access one of the public boat launches to explore in kayaks, canoes, jet skis, or fishing boats.
Cast a line for rare fish species in Lake Waccamaw. Photography courtesy of Columbus Chamber of Commerce & Tourism
Fishing: Unlike most Carolina bays, which have high levels of acid in the water, making them inhospitable to aquatic life, the limestone bluffs dotting the shores of Lake Waccamaw neutralize the acids, and fish species are abundant.
The lake is even home to several fish species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, including Waccamaw darter, Waccamaw silverside, and Waccamaw killifish, as well as mussels, clams, and snails.
Family fun: After exploring the trails and waters of Columbus County, take to the skies. The aerial adventure courses at Cape Fearless Extreme in nearby Riegelwood were designed to offer a different perspective on the local area.
In the fall, get lost at Galloway Farm in Hallsboro. The farm operates one of the largest corn mazes in the state. After navigating the 13-acre maze, visit with the sheep, goats, and donkeys, or take a hayride and enjoy the fresh air and family fun.
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