Field Excursions: Kayak the coastal black waters of the Waccamaw River in the Carolinas

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

The Waccamaw River of North and South Carolina is considered one of the finest blackwater rivers in the Southeast. The tea-stained color of this slow-moving river results from tannins that leach into the water as leaves and vegetation decay. According to the nonprofit organization American Rivers, most blackwater rivers are found exclusively in the Amazon and the southeastern U.S.

I recently visited North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to experience the Waccamaw River and its cypress swamps from a kayak. I wanted to check out for myself this oft-overlooked waterway that extends 140 miles from North Carolina into South Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Waccamaw River’s headwaters begin near Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina and then flow south to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway at Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina.

Along the way, the river passes through the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve, the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and Sandy Island Preserve, as well as the 9,000-acre Brookgreen Gardens and the historical city of Conway.

I joined Great Escapes Kayak Expeditions in North Myrtle Beach for a tour of the river within the Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve.

We launched out in red kayaks from Chris Anderson Landing at Highway 9 in Longs and paddled downstream. The tannin-stained waters were easy to navigate on a crisp March morning, and I was captivated paddling alongside and between wide-based trees in a cypress grove.

“Our rivers are often overshadowed by our beautiful ocean and beaches, which everyone knows about, but if you turn around, you’re going to find a beautiful backyard river,” said Christine Ellis, deputy director of the Winyah Rivers Foundation and former Waccamaw Riverkeeper.

In 2013, the river was designated a national water trail, the Waccamaw River Blue Trail, by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. The water trail program is part of the National Water Trails System, a network of trails the public can explore and enjoy.

“As a result of the Waccamaw River Blue Trail, opportunities for river recreation have improved [because of] an increase in the number of outfitters operating on the Waccamaw and an increase in interest in kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding on the Waccamaw,” Ellis said. ”The Waccamaw River Blue Trail has also served to focus efforts for land conservation along its length in both North and South Carolina.” 

There are 16 official public access points along the Waccamaw River Blue Trail, offering a variety of trip lengths and challenges.

Additional landings are available along the Waccamaw River as part of the Riverkeeper Adopt-a-Landing Program. One of the most popular, according to Ellis, is Carollwoods RV Campground and Grapefull Sisters Vineyard in North Myrtle Beach.

Outfitters on the Waccamaw River Blue Trail include Black River Outdoors, Gator Bait Adventures, Great Escapes Kayak Expeditions, Surf the Earth, and Waccamaw Canoe and Kayak.

To learn more about paddling the Waccamaw River Blue Trail, visit the website.

Jenni Veal enjoys writing about outdoor adventures in the southeastern United States. Visit her website for outdoor family travel adventures. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.