BYOB: bring your own boat! If you have a boat, especially one you can sleep on, you have access to some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. But few places offer such variety of boating access in as small an area as the Carolina Loop, where you can travel in several rivers, 3 canals, with one through a swamp, traverse 3 locks, go under several bridges and through drawbridges, cross parts of 2 sounds and a bay, including portions of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW), all in less than 120 miles and 2 to 4 days.
This is a perfect outing, even for boaters with little or no experience. The quick, simple, yet beautiful and fascinating mini-tour covers the northeast corner of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The boat needs a shallow draft, 5 feet or less. The route is easy to follow, with opportunities to refuel. You should have no problem if you pay attention to the weather and allow for flexibility of your schedule, staying put for a day if bad weather threatens. Much of the route is like wilderness, making you feel like a great adventurer.
Several launch sites are available, as well as many marinas in the area. Because this is a loop, you can launch your boat at any location convenient for you, or you may come in from any of the adjoining waterways. The AICW includes two north-and-south routes in this area. By using one to go north and the other to go south, you can make a loop, returning back where you started. And you can do it clockwise or counterclockwise.
One favorite launch site is at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in the far northeast corner of the state. Several convenient parking areas are provided for your tow vehicle and boat trailer. And the city provides free dockage for 48 hours for visitors, in the center of the waterfront at Mariners’ Wharf. Head to the northwest corner of the harbor, through the drawbridge and up the winding Pasquotank River to 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal, a man-made waterway through the swamp. Canal depth is 6 feet. It’s a no-wake zone, so you’ll be going only about 5 to 6 mph, pleasant for touring, watching for wild animals such as bobcats and black bears or meeting other vessels. You’ll traverse a lock near the community of South Mills. The lockmaster can assist you in passage.
From Elizabeth City, NC, to Dismal Swamp State Park and the Welcome Center provided by the travel office, near South Mills, NC, will require about 4 hours, a nice trip, especially with a free overnight tied up to the wall at the Welcome Center. Free restrooms and showers are available 24 hours per day. The only state visitor’s center in North America that is accessible by both land and water also provides hiking and biking trails near the canal, through the forest of red maples, white cedars and blackberry brambles, with the possible sighting of black bears, or at least their poop, along with subtropical birds, butterflies, raccoons and white-tailed deer.
A sign marks the border with Virginia, and at the northern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal, the view opens up to I-64, Hampton Roads Beltway, in the suburbs of Norfolk. The canal turns east, joining Deep Creek and its lock, after which the canal widens. City parks, homes and businesses appear alongside the waterway, which then joins the Elizabeth River coming in from the north. You’ll head south, away from auto traffic into a more-marine environment, with boat yards, yacht basins and marinas, as well as industrial sites. Then the area becomes more rural, with marsh grass, large pines, great egrets and geese. You’ll pass through Great Bridge Lock. The next stretch is the man-made Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, eastward through a natural area with towering trees growing along the edges in the water.
In this area are several walls and marinas offering overnight space, as well as proximity to short walks for dinner or supplies. The canal then becomes a river and gradually turns to the southeast, then the south, getting wider as it’s joined along the way by creeks. With little sign of development, one segment traverses a wildlife management area. Tall, willowy cypress trees and marsh grass dominate the landscape. You’ll cross back into North Carolina, and later the river empties into the northwestern fork of Currituck Sound.
The Sound is wide and shallow. As you travel south, there are fewer cypresses and more low underbrush and marsh grass along the waterway, until it spreads out to open water, with wind and waves a consideration. Follow the daymarks, to stay on course and because they often have platforms on them that encourage large birds like gulls, ospreys and cormorants to nest there.
Southbound, along the west side of Currituck Sound, enter a mile-wide opening into Coinjock Bay. Farther in is the entrance to the man-made North Carolina Cut toward Coinjock. You’ll arrive at that little community with marinas, a nice restaurant and the opportunity to tie up to a dock overnight. At its southwest end, the canal leads into the North River. If you spend the night in Coinjock, get an early start next morning because you’ll soon be in a large expanse of open water, which is more likely to be calm early, with the wind usually rising and pushing the waves as the day progresses.
Head down North River, with mostly forested shorelines and occasional large homes lining the shore to the west and some commercial sportfishing boats carrying passengers. Come around North River Point to Albemarle Sound and continue south a mile or so, avoiding shallows near the point. Albemarle Sound is about 50 miles wide and more than 15 miles north to south, providing the true sights, sounds and smells of the sea. Looking to the west, you’ll feel you’re in open ocean, with no land in sight. As you head west-northwest, you may see speedboats and sailboats of many sizes and configurations.
After 8 miles or so in open water, turn toward the north-northwest, into the Pasquotank River. Along the river, beautiful homes with boat docks are interspersed with forest, farming and small businesses. Soon you’ll see Elizabeth City ahead, where you’ll be welcomed by Mariners’ Wharf, near where you started. Your loop, a tour that included much of the boating experience that the East Coast has to offer, took only 3 or 4 days. What a great trip!