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Paddling Eastern North Carolina, Part 1: Greenville’s Tar River

This is the first of six guides to paddling in Eastern North Carolina. The series will run through the summer. 

by Brad Beggs
Guardian columnist

A sunset stand-up paddle boarding expedition on the Tar River in Greenville. Photo source: Brad Beggs.

A sunset stand-up paddle boarding expedition on the Tar River in Greenville. Brad Beggs.

From late spring through fall, Greenville’s Tar River welcomes paddlers and tubers looking to cool off. In the winter months, it is the perfect place to embrace the occasional warm day and escape the indoors. Throughout the year, a variety of wildlife thrives on the river. Winter paddling is on cold, brown water surrounded by leafless coastal trees. When heavy rains fall (winter rains and during hurricane season) the Tar swells to a raging torrent, unsuitable but for the most expert paddler.

A lack of development along the Tar’s 200-mile length makes it a beautiful paddle. The 4-mile section in Greenville is no exception. You’ll find birds, fish and picturesque trees, exchanging the city’s noise for the chirps, squawks and splashes of the wild — all just moments from the heart of Greenville’s Uptown District. 

Stories of the River

On a late spring evening, Kathryn and I slid into the Tar for a stand-up paddle expedition. Even though she is from Greenville, this late afternoon paddle marked her first time on the river. We didn’t paddle far, just down to the dog park, coming across two beavers who whacked their tails and dove under the water. She commented that though she’s paddled around the Atlantic Beach area and even Thailand, she was impressed that the Tar held her attention.

Now she’s a summertime regular, owns her own stand-up paddle board and introduces her friends to the Tar. Her experience is common. Families with kids love floating and playing in the warm water, watching for the not-uncommon blue herons and king fishers. Fisherman get better fish since their spots are only available by kayak. Couples find the solitude romantic.

The Main Paddle Trail Details: 4 miles one way | 2-3 hour paddle

Who Should Paddle This Trail

✢ This trail is for you if you: want a casual paddle with friends; are a new paddler looking for a scenic and easy paddle; are short on time and don’t want to drive far; are looking for an active date option.

✢ Shorter options exist, as well as options that don’t involve needing two cars. Check out the additional launch points and optional routes on the map.

The Trail Details

✢ You’ll start at the Town Common Park on 1st Street, a park and boat ramp owned and maintained by the City of Greenville. Parking at the ramp is easy with many available spots: this lot is rarely filled. You can launch from the concrete ramp or just to the right of the ramp on a muddy/grassy flat, depending on water level.

A summer stand-up paddle boarding expedition, passing Greenville's Town Commons Park. Photo source: Brad Beggs.

A summer stand-up paddle boarding expedition, passing Greenville’s Town Common Park. Brad Beggs.

✢ With the ramp in front of you, you’ll paddle downstream (your right, aka east). If the water level is low, you’ll be hard pressed to tell which way the water is flowing.

✢ As you head downstream, the first landmark you’ll notice–on your left, the north bank, about a half mile from the launch site–is a canal cut, with a sign on a metal post reading, “River Camping.” This canal cut leads to River Park North’s boat landing and tent camping sites. Across from the canal cut is the off-leash dog park on North Elm St.

✢ As you continue to paddle, you’ll see people on the South Tar River Greenway, which runs beside the river from the Town Common “put-in” (launch site) to the Green Mill Run Creek. Green Mill Run Creek is the first and only creek on your right, appearing about 2.2 miles from the launch site.

✢ You’ll know you’ve reached the halfway point when the river widens noticeably but then narrows again and you can see the Hwy 264 bridge.

✢ Past the Hwy 264 Bridge are no unique landmarks, just wildland and water. When you reach the “take-out” point, you’ll see buoys reading “Slow–No Wake Zone.” At these buoys, take a right (head south) up the small bay of historic Port Terminal. This ramp sees a lot of motorboat traffic since it can launch larger boats but paddling up and getting on to land is not a problem. The boaters are friendly and make room–please do the same!

✢ You can paddle this section at any water level; see the Local Knowledge section for details, as some high water levels require expert skills.

What You’ll See

✢ Overall, you’ll only see forest and wetlands, and their animal residents. As you start, you’ll see some houses hiding beyond loblolly pine and cypress trees on your right, but not for long.

Large, old growth cypress trees near Falkland. Photo source: Brad Beggs.

Large, old growth cypress trees near Falkland. Brad Beggs.

✢ If you want to see the most wildlife, paddle within 2 hours of sunrise or set. Which birds you see depends on the time of year; as the seasons change, so will the birds. A short list of birds you might see are bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, turkey vultures, wood ducks, pileated and redheaded woodpeckers.

✢ You might get to see a nutria or a beaver, but these are tougher to spot.

The Local Knowledge To Make it Great

✢ There are several options if you don’t want to paddle from the Town Common to Port Terminal. but these options require paddling upstream, against the current, at some point in your paddle. See the map for options. To paddle upstream for any route, you’ll want the water level on the online Tar River Greenville Gauge at 5 feet or less (water will be below the pier). The paddling against the current is generally easy at this level, most likely you won’t even know there is current. When the water level is between 5 and 8 feet, expect a challenge paddling against the current. If the water level is above 8 feet, I do not recommend going out unless you are trained in “swiftwater”–the current is fast over the bank and in the trees.  At 13 feet, the Tar River is officially at flood stage.

✢ There are no bathroom or drinking facilities at the put-in or take-out.

✢ This is nice paddle year-round but mid spring through mid-fall are the most scenic. Other times of year, everything looks brown.

✢ If you have time, paddle up the canal cut to River Park North, store your boat(s) on their boat storage rack and enjoy the short trail system there.

Twisted cypress trees on the Tar River, near Greenville. Photo source: Brad Beggs.

Twisted cypress trees on the Tar River, near Greenville. Brad Beggs.

✢ Check out the twisted helix cypress tree on the north bank. To find it: do a U-turn to your left 2 miles downstream from the put-in. You’re looking for where the Tar widens noticeably (it narrows down again at the Hwy 264 bridge). Paddle up the small creek (the only creek on the north bank so far) and paddle 500 feet west up the creek. This spot is spooky and amazing. Several large cypress trees with spanish moss hanging hanging from their branches make their home here, including the twisted helix, which has grown so you can see right through it.

✢ Just past the Hwy 264 bridge, about 125 yards on your left, is a large sand bar. This is the only spot to get on land. A nice spot, if you ignore the noise of the bridge.

✢ There is a canal right next this sandbar. It leads to a large old sand-mine pit filled with water. The fishing is good here.

✢ Starting in late April, the water is comfortably cool. By August through October, it is warm. The Tar is perfect for swimming and sandy-bottom wading.

✢ People fish from small jon boats on this section, but rarely will you see larger boats here since it is typically too shallow.

✢ If you need a drink of water, there is a water fountain next to of the off-leash dog park. Land your boat opposite the canal at River Park North. This area is fairly open, so look for the dog park and you’ll find the fountain.

Park Info

✢ Town Common Park boat ramp: 1st St. and North Side Street, Greenville

✢ Port Terminal boat ramp: Port Terminal Rd., Greenville

Cost

✢ No cost to paddle. All public boat ramps are free to use in North Carolina.

Where to Stay

✢ Greenville has numerous hotels, motels and B&Bs. A highly-rated local place, close to Uptown Greenville and walking distance to the river is the 5th Street Manor.

✢ If you want to camp, River Park North, run by the City of Greenville, has a small campground.

Detailed Google Map

✢ Use this map to see the exact route to paddle, find the twisted helix tree, sandbar, photos of landmarks and other paddle route options.

Brad Beggs is developing a web-based guidebook to the beautiful paddles of ENC while directing ECU’s Adventure Program full-time.

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