By Sound Rivers and Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
An alternative way to complete the MST through North Carolina’s coastal plain is to paddle the Neuse River for 170 miles from Smithfield to the northern end of the Neusiok Trail in the Croatan National Forest near Havelock.
The Neuse River runs 227 miles from Falls Lake to Pamlico Sound. Marking the Falls Lake dam as River Mile 0, the MST portion runs from River Mile 45.8 to 216.8. These river miles correspond to EB Mile 52.2/WB Mile 13.5 in Segment 11 and EB Mile 45.1/WB Mile 23.9 in Segment 16 of the MST hiking route.
Beginning as a fast-moving, narrow river, the Neuse gradually widens and slows, occasionally splitting into multiple channels. By the time it reaches Pine Cliff Recreation Area, where the MST paddle route ends, it has formed a 2.5-mile-wide estuary. The river flows on another eleven miles to empty into Pamlico Sound, where it spreads to five miles wide.
Throughout your paddle the shores are heavily forested, often with a wilderness feel. In places, the banks fall away at water level; in other places—notably Cliffs of the Neuse State Park—they can range as high as 90 feet above the river. Around every bend you will find new wonders: cypress swamps; sand banks and bars for camping; birds of every description (heron, kingfisher, osprey, warblers); and wildlife coming down to drink from the river.
The few towns along the river present welcome opportunities to get a meal, explore eastern North Carolina’s history, camp, or just take a break. In Goldsboro, Kinston, and New Bern (as well as in Cliffs of the Neuse State Park), you will find walking trails that State Parks has accepted for inclusion in a planned continuous MST hiking route paralleling the Neuse.
The lower portion of the Neuse River Paddle Trail changed significantly in September 2018 when Hurricane Florence devastated eastern North Carolina. Several recreation areas in the Croatan National Forest experienced such significant damage that they remain closed to this day, including Pine Cliff Recreation Area, the former end of this segment. Although we hope the recreation area will reopen soon, at this writing it is illegal to take out at Pine Cliff, and there is no access to the area for boat shuttles. Therefore, the ending point described in this guide is 1.0 mile down river, at a beach at the end of Cherry Branch Dr. In addition, the current land-based route of the MST is no longer directly accessible from the ending point. Therefore, in this edition of the guide we have included hiking directions to the trailhead for paddlers wishing to continue their eastbound journey.
For an advance look at the route, take a virtual trip down the river using Google Earth or Apple Maps. In addition, we highly recommend using a good GPS device for navigation on the river. This guide provides coordinates to help locate nearly every feature on the river, many of which can be difficult to find from a boat. People interested in paddling the entire river should contact Sound Rivers for further information.