Flatwater Paddling in Charlotte: Pro Tips for Getting on the Water This Spring

Longer days are perfect for sunset paddles.
Longer days are perfect for sunset paddles. Pixabay
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Spring has sprung in Carolina, and the thermostat certainly agrees. As temperatures continue to heat up around the Piedmont, it's prime time for a paddle on the rivers and lakes that surround the Queen City. Fortunately for local enthusiasts, opportunities for flatwater paddling in Charlotte are abundant, as the area is overflowing with waterways that beckon to be explored. But if you're just getting your feet wet with the sport, where (and how) to put a paddle in the water?

For some insider tips, we turned to kayaking guru Isaac Jones. For the last decade, Jones has been gathering beta from his boat on some of the best places to kayak in this part of the Carolinas. As an organizer for the Charlotte Kayak Club, Jones has introduced new boaters to the water and guided experienced paddlers to those tucked-away coves that make kayaking so special. We caught Jones between adventures for the rundown on the club, tips on getting started, and his favorite launch sites for the perfect paddle around Charlotte and beyond.

Getting Started

Two easy to access launches make Latta Plantation are ideal for exploring Mountain Island Lake. 
Two easy to access launches make Latta Plantation are ideal for exploring Mountain Island Lake.  Peter K, Charlotte Kayak Club

Your first boat shouldn’t be a new one, says Jones. He picked up his first ‘yak at a garage sale. However, you'll need a few essentials beyond the boat, starting with a paddle (unless you’ve developed some really cool Aquaman-like finger webbing, that is). By law, you need a whistle and, when paddling at night, a light (a headlamp works really well for this).

Want to give paddling a go before committing to a boat? Several places rent kayaks right on the water—eliminating the hassle of transport. The USNWC and Tailrace Marina are located across from each other on the Catawba River. My Aloha Paddle and Surf has a waterfront site on Lake Norman and a sizable fleet of both kayaks and paddleboards for rent and sale.

Although more populated than other area lakes, a paddler can still find a bit of solitude at sunset on Lake Norman. 
Although more populated than other area lakes, a paddler can still find a bit of solitude at sunset on Lake Norman.  William Galloway, Charlotte Kayak Club

Getting Connected 

Jones has been a member and organizer of the Charlotte Kayak Club almost since its creation in 2009. Boasting nearly 600 members, it's one of the largest of its kind around, with a core group of about 60 active boaters and increasing membership (it's open to both flat- and whitewater paddlers and all skill levels) over the last year or so. Events are on the rise, too: In 2015, the club hosted 71 events, a number Jones says they expect to increase this year.

During spring and summer months, the schedule offers multiple paddle trips each week. Events can range from a quick post-work paddle at a local launch to overnighters and road trips far beyond Charlotte.

Five Sublime Spring Paddles

Since he began paddling in the Charlotte area about 10 years ago, Jones has scouted many of the trip options in this part of the Carolinas. Here are five of his favorites, specially curated for spring.

Navigating the lily covered rocky shoals at Landsford Canal State Park is a springtime right of passage for Carolina paddlers
Navigating the lily covered rocky shoals at Landsford Canal State Park is a springtime right of passage for Carolina paddlers Rob Glover

1. Landsford Canal: The Spider Lily Trip

Of these options, Landsford Canal State Park is the farthest from central Charlotte. But even with the extra drive time (a little under an hour from Uptown), this trip deserves a spot on the list. Actually, paddling through the rocky shoals that serve as habitat to the largest known stand of spider lilies in the Southeast puts this adventure on the list of the best paddles in the region. The large, water-loving flowers, whose name is derived from their long, skinny petals, cover small rocky islands in this part of the Catawba River during late May and early June. Weaving through the shoals surrounded by these unique blooms is a must-do that time of year.

2. Blythe Landing: Sunset Paddle on Lake Norman

The largest and most populated lake in the Charlotte area isn’t always the most hospitable place for kayaks. So Jones suggests hitting it at sunset, when much of the boat traffic has died down. The Charlotte Kayak Club often uses Blythe Landing as its launch site for evening adventures. An island less than two miles from the put-in is a fantastic place to watch the sun and moon swap places along the horizon.

On Lake Norman and other Charlotte waterways, canoeing counts as paddling too!
On Lake Norman and other Charlotte waterways, canoeing counts as paddling too! Christine Schmidt

3. Lake Davidson: A Peaceful Alternative to Lake Norman

Separated from Lake Norman by a strip of land and Interstate 77, but a secluded world away, the calm waters of Lake Davidson are a haven for all sorts of paddlers. Motorized boat traffic is heavily restricted here, offering plenty of space for kayakers to spread out on the small lake. With assistance from the public and private sector, the Davidson Lands Conservancy built a non-motorized boat launch. You will have to tote-a-boat a little ways from the parking area. Another put-in possibility lies at the end of Transco Road, a convenient, secluded option that's not as developed as the other launch but doesn't require carrying your boat.

4. Mountain Island Lake: A Quick Urban Escape

Of the lakes fed by the Catawba River, Mountain Island Lake is the closest to Uptown Charlotte. Since much of its 62 miles of shoreline is protected from development, it is also among the best for ducking out of city life. The two boat launches that serve the lake at Latta Plantation are easy to use. For a little more adventurous trip, access Mountain Island Lake via Johnson Creek at its northern end. The natural-surface boat put-in on Killian Road will take you right to “a little pocket of nature,” says Jones. He warns that in the summer, low water levels make this one difficult to access, so try it during spring or fall.

The sifter water of the Catawba south of Lake Wylie makes for a different paddling experience
The sifter water of the Catawba south of Lake Wylie makes for a different paddling experience Alberto Toledo

5. Catawba River South of Lake Wylie: A Swifter Ride

Just downriver from the USNWC, the Catawba River is once again controlled by a dam, creating Lake Wylie. The moderate flow just beyond the Lake Wylie Dam offers a unique paddle experience that Jones refers to as "swiftwater": with good flow but lacking anything he considers Class II or higher rapids. The Rock Hill Outdoor Center, which is quickly becoming a focal point for outdoor enthusiasts, offers an easily accessible boat launch just south of the Dam, and River Park, a few miles downstream, is a convenient take-out.

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