An Insider's Guide to the Catawba River
Ease your boat down the red clay riverbank and let the gentle current nudge you forward. You’ll spot turtles sunning themselves on downed logs and heron gliding silently overhead. Pops of colorful azalea and mountain laurel break the thick forests on either side of the river. As day turns to dusk, owls hoot softly from the lengthening shadows. It’s four seasons of serenity along the Catawba River in Gaston County, North Carolina, one of the top paddling destinations in the region.
Named for the Catawba Indian Nation that farmed these lands long ago, the river flows over 25 miles along Gaston’s eastern edge. In the 1920s, the growing population needed drinking water and power, driving the dam projects that created Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake. Both lakes are now destinations unto themselves, attracting both flatwater paddlers and anglers from across the region.
Explore the Miles of Blueways
You can paddle more than 30 miles on the Catawba River Blueway and its narrower tributary, the South Fork River. Depths are easily navigable by kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard. Put in at the Riverbend Access on Mountain Island Lake to paddle 6.1 miles along mostly undeveloped and protected shoreline. The river is at its narrowest here, keeping most of the motorized boat traffic out. Launch at River Street Park in Mt. Holly to paddle up to 27 miles south into Lake Wylie, or take out at the U.S. National Whitewater Center to grab lunch at the River’s Edge Grill. The Whitewater Center is also the best spot to rent kayaks and SUP boards or take a lesson.
Put in at the Spencer Mountain Access to the South Fork Blueway for a leisurely 8.4-mile paddle through Gaston’s County’s historic mill towns. At mile 5.5, a well-marked portage trail circumvents the McAdenville dam to continue the trip toward Lake Wylie. Take out for a break and bite to eat at South Fork Village in Belmont or Goat Island in downtown Cramerton.
Set up base camp at McDowell Nature Preserve on the eastern banks of the Catawba to hike the park’s riverfront trails. Fifty-six tent and RV sites give you direct access to fishing docks and boat launches off Copperhead Island. The island also has six campsites for groups.
Water View Trails
Almost the entire length of Belmont’s Seven Oaks Preserve Trail hugs the Lake Wylie shoreline for continuous lake views and wildlife sightings. Hike or mountain bike 5.6 miles round-trip through undeveloped, mostly flat bottomland forest. Take the connector trail to hike the trails at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Or head to the northernmost end of the South Fork River to run, hike, or bike the two-mile South Fork Trail through the 95-acre Pharr Yarns Preserve between the historic mill towns of McAdenville and Lowell.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with Gaston County Gov.