Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.
Stand-up paddleboarding has surged in popularity over the last decade, due in large part to the fact that it can be a total body workout and a relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors. From the Appalachians to the Crystal Coast, North Carolina’s waterways offer beginner-friendly flatwater paddling on smaller lakes and reservoirs; more challenging rivers and larger lakes that take you to the next level; and coastal SUP surfing that will test the courage and balance of even the most experienced SUP enthusiasts.
Charlotte’s an easy two-hour drive from the coast and the mountains, with a ring of lakes surrounding the city, making the Queen City a perfect jumping-off point to dive into just about any stand-up paddleboarding adventure. Find out what the SUP boarding buzz is all about with our guide to the top SUP boarding spots in North Carolina, and follow our tips on how to get started in the sport.
Blue Ridge Waterways
Experience the fog-shrouded coves and blue-tinged peaks of western North Carolina on your paddleboard with a half day’s drive west on I-40 to high-elevation Fontana Lake on the remote southern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Lake Glenville near Cashiers. Rent a board at Lakeshore Marina to visit Lake Glenville’s three waterfalls, or paddle across Fontana to a network of lesser-traveled backcountry trails in the Smokies with a rental from Nantahala Outdoor Center.
When you’re ready to tackle a gentle current, rent stand-up paddleboards at Bryson City Outdoors. You can launch right behind the store to paddle the Tuckasegee River through downtown. For more distance, paddle four miles through Asheville’s River Arts District or seven miles through Biltmore Estate with Wai Mauna Asheville.
Dammed rivers running north and west around Charlotte create a paddleboarder’s paradise, with a chain of beginner-friendly reservoirs along the Catawba and Yadkin rivers. Combine those with lakes to the north in the Triad and you have a different day paddle for every month of the year.
Paddle the calm waters of Lake Norman, Lake Wylie, and Mountain Island Lake on the wide and slow-moving Catawba River just minutes from downtown. The best launches for beginners offer protected coves and narrow channels away from motorized boats at Latta Nature Preserve and the U.S. National Whitewater Center on Mountain Island Lake, and Nivens Creek Access on Lake Wylie. Rent boards or take a lesson with Aloha Paddlesports on Lake Norman in Cornelius to paddle the wide and protected cove off the main channel.
Intermediate SUPers can launch at Lake Norman State Park in Troutman, Blythe Landing in Huntersville, or Copperhead Island on Lake Wylie for bigger waves, more chop, and as much distance as you like. For an even greater challenge, paddle the Class I-II riffles of the Catawba, Pee Dee, and Rocky rivers on two Carolina Thread Trail blueways. Check the dam release schedule for water levels and flow rates that match your experience.
Just over an hour east of Charlotte on NC 27, the rolling Uwharrie Mountains offer paddleboarding with a wilderness feel on High Rock Lake, Badin Lake, and Lake Tillery. High Rock is less developed than lakes closer to Charlotte, while Badin and Tillery lie between Morrow Mountain State Park and Uwharrie National Forest and are the most remote of all.
Take a family day trip up I-85 to the City of Greensboro to rent SUP gear on Lake Brandt or Lake Higgins, small reservoirs that are great for beginners. The 1,500-acre Lake Townsend, with more chop and boat traffic, is best suited to experienced paddleboarders.
Dolphins, wild horses, and skies filled with shorebirds are just some of the amazing sights you’ll see paddleboarding off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Intermediate to advanced paddlers should be prepared to deal with the winds, tides, and changeable weather conditions around these barrier island at all times. Launch from the Whalehead Club to explore Currituck Wildlife Refuge or from Bodie Island lighthouse for the trip over to Roanoke Island. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect spot for a sunset paddle.
Take ocean SUP lessons with Cape Fear Paddleboarding in Wrightsville Beach for the ultimate North Carolina SUP challenge. You’ll learn to read and ride the waves and practice techniques to safely navigate the surf zone.
SUP Starter Guide
Make your first SUP boarding trip a success with these beginner tips:
- Bring the right equipment: SUP board (borrow or rent your first time out), paddle (grip should be waist-height when standing blade down in front of you), leash (velcro strap to tether your ankle to the board), PFD, whistle, headlamp, sunscreen, sunglasses, water, and sun-protective clothing.
- Start out on a small lake or pond with no tides, light winds, and little boat traffic.
- Launch from a shallow, sandy shoreline. Place hands close to board edges halfway between the front and back of the board. Slowly push from kneeling to standing position. Keep knees bent and core engaged for balance. Feet should be parallel and hip-distance apart. Expect to lose balance and even fall in as you go from kneeling to standing position.
- Stay close to the shoreline.
- Paddle with at least one buddy.
- Wrap it up after 60 to 90 minutes, even if you feel like paddling longer. Better to come off the water wanting more!