Wilderness and Waterways: A Guide to Paddling in Gaston County

Sunset paddle sessions on Lake Norman
Sunset paddle sessions on Lake Norman Christine Schmidt
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Whether it’s a lazy afternoon float or a long distance exploration of flora and fauna, Gaston County offers a range of activities for all sorts of flat water paddlers. Wide rivers and narrow blue-ways carry kayaks and canoes on wilderness adventures, and calm waters bring stand-up paddleboarders out for early morning workouts. Elite rowers hone their skills from a purpose-designed rowing center. And young paddlers get their first on-water experiences at local parks. Here are some of the best places to pick up paddling in Gaston County.

The Catawba River

For more than 200 miles the Catawba River flows through the Carolinas, from its headwaters in the mountains to Great Falls, SC, where it changes names to the Wateree. The wide stretch of the Catawba which forms the eastern border of Gaston County is an incredible resource for outdoor recreation. Whether you’re already geared up or have never paddled before, there are several ways to experience this amazing amenity.

The Paddle Club at Tailrace Marina, Mt. Holly

Located at Tuckaseegee Ford, a historic river crossing for hundreds of years, the paddle club at Tailrace Marina is ideally situated to explore one of the most diverse sections of the river. Several nearby islands harbor a growing community of great blue herons. Small feeder creeks and little coves are easy to explore from the cockpit of a kayak. And smooth water near the marina is a perfect spot for paddleboarders to hone their skills.

The Paddle club is home to a large fleet of canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Their American Canoe Association certified instructor offers lessons in several paddling disciplines. And throughout warm weather seasons, they organize themed, group paddle trips. A sunset or moonlight cruise on the Catawba is a must-do for every paddler.

U.S National Whitewater Center

There is no other place in the Southeast quite like the U.S. National Whitewater Center . Located just across the Catawba, Gaston County serves as a convenient home base when exploring this ever expanding outdoor adventure park.

Whether you prefer the comfort of a kayak or the core workout that comes from paddleboarding, the USNWC offers a quick way to get outfitted and hit the river. Watch out for their frequent dinner cruises which pair a paddle, dinner, and either a craft beer or wine tasting.

Kevin B Lofton Park, Belmont

The newly constructed riverfront park in Belmont not only holds one of the coolest playgrounds in the area, it is also home to one of best boat launches. Easily accessible from Highway 74, the put in at Lofton is wide and smooth with plenty of parking.

From Lofton Park, head upriver towards the USNWC and keep your eyes on the skies. Cliff swallows build mud nests in the trestles of the overpass. These super-swift birds are often seen chasing much larger raptors, keeping their nests safe from the birds-of-prey. As you travel north, you’ll see the man-made osprey nest platforms along the eastern side of the river. It’s common to spot these fierce hunters dive-bombing fish that swim too close to the surface or feeding their young in their high-rise nests.

Belmont Rowing Center

Using the Catawba as their training ground, the Belmont Rowing Center is home base for several levels of recreational and competitive rowing teams. The center offers both on and off water training, learn-to-row programs, and training for the sport’s local elites. Groups from the center often compete in regattas around the region.

South Fork River

Much narrower than the wide open Catawba, the South Fork River offers a more intimate paddling excursion. Towering poplar and hardwoods line the banks of the South Fork (much of the land along the river remains undeveloped), lending a sense of seclusion not easily found on rivers near urban areas.

The Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail have designated an 8.4 miles section of the South Fork as an official blueway—or water trail. There are several places to put in along this stretch of river.

The northernmost launch on Spencer Mountain Road was built by the conservancy and requires a permit to access the river. Further downstream, the kayak launch at River Front Park in Gastonia requires toting your boat a significant distance along a well-maintained path. The park has a great set of trails along the water and through surrounding woods, making this a good stop to stretch out your legs.

In McAdenville, a dam will require boaters to use a portage on river left to continue. Paddling the smoother flow south of the dam leads paddlers to the launch at Goat Island and the food options of downtown Cramerton. To finish the full blue-way, paddlers will head down the take-out at Riverside Park, a short distance downstream from Goat Island.

Rankin Lake Park

For a more relaxed day on the water, the tree-lined, 80-acre lake at Rankin Lake Park is a staple of the Gastonia outdoor community. The park office rents kayaks and jon boats so you don’t have to worry about bringing your own. Just after dawn and before sunset, bass pop up all over the lake, looking to snag an unfortunate insect at the surface. Walkers and joggers frequently use the mile-and-a-half path which surrounds the lake. And tables and shelters offer the perfect place for a post-paddle picnic.

Floating Goat, Cramerton

The convenience of renting a kayak or canoe right on the South Fork River is pretty special. But when that kayak rental is adjacent to great coffee and snacks, well, that’s the makings of a great day. Located in downtown Cramerton, Floating Goat boat rentals is owned and operated by the same great folks who proudly pour great java at Floyd and Blackie’s Coffeehouse and Ice Cream Shop .

Paddlers renting from the Floating Goat can take their boat to the put-in at Spender Mountain and complete the full Thread Trail Blue-way or simply launch out back of the coffee shop. From here, boaters can explore Goat Island or paddle the calm waters of the South Fork up and downstream of Cramerton. Of course, Floyd and Blackie’s can supply a pre-paddle coffee and a post-trip sandwich or pastry. Make sure you call ahead to make rental reservations so the friendly staff can have your gear ready for you.

Crowders Mountain State Park

Crowders Mountain State Park is the place to lay back on canoe and float along the tall grasses of the park’s small lake. Surrounded by trails, mountain peaks, and forests, there are fewer locales more relaxing. The park’s rental canoes and large and sturdy, making this a good place for children to experience their first exploration on the water.

Originally written for Gaston County Gov.

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