A hidden beach on the south side of the Tar-Pamlico River’s Castle Island is just a short, one-mile paddle from Washington, North Carolina. Away from the prying eyes of a riverfront boardwalk, kayakers and families in-the-know socialize here during summer weekends, enjoying the warm shallow waters and shade of the trees. Add on another mile up Runyon Creek and finish the day with ice cream or drinks in Washington as the sun sets over the water.
If you have more time, visit the river-camping platform built by Sound Rivers. The Washington platform is 16’ x 32’, with half of it enclosed. This is a perfect spot for lunch or an easy last-minute camping location—no tent required.
Washington’s waterfront is lined with colorful buildings dating from the early 1900’s (few buildings pre-date this because of a devastating fire in 1900). Make time to walk downtown so you can check out the largest collection of Victorian-era homes and commercial buildings in North Carolina.
River Story – SUP’ing with a dog
Paddlers don’t get too much notice on the water, but put a dog on a stand-up paddleboard and everyone pays attention. My friend Kelli and I took her dog Koda canoeing once down the Tar in Greenville; Koda loved it. A few weeks later, a history-loving friend of Kelli’s came to visit. The original Washington, Washington NC, was the perfect choice for a paddling trip.
Kelli and Koda do everything together: backpacking, climbing, canoeing. Everything. We couldn’t fit all of us and two canoes on a car, so the paddling was a nice alternative because of easy-to-stack, stand-up paddleboards. We weren’t sure how Koda would take to stand-up paddling since she enjoys resting her big head on the gunwale of the canoe, but with a bit of coaxing at the dock, Koda shyly crawled onto the stand-up paddleboard and promptly laid down. Kelli pushed off the dock, managing to keep herself and Koda out of the drink. As the four of us paddled the waterfront towards Castle Island, sailors peppered Kelli with questions and comments, “How did you train your dog?,” “Would you train mydog?,” and “that’s amazing!” Good paddle dogs seem to be a rare breed.
The Trail Details of Washington, NC: 3 options
Who Should Paddle This Trail
This trail is for you if you
- only want to paddle for a few hours before getting a bite to eat and drink;
- want to hang out on a beach island close to Greenville;
- need a romantic date that can involve paddling, beach, wildlife, cool science museum, drinks, and ice cream;
- want a casual, wind-protected family paddle.
Option 1: Runyon Creek | 1.2 miles one way
Start at Havens Garden public boat ramp. Parking is easy in the early morning, but nice summer days cause the lot to fill with all types of boaters. Only small motor boats use this put-in due to its location next to a bridge. The tide change has a minor influence on water level.
There are two ramps for motor boats separated by a floating platform and a pier for canoe, kayak or stand-up board launching. Unless you have a good strength and flexibility, however, I don’t suggest using the pier since it is 2 feet above the water. Use the concrete boat ramp.
With the ramp in front of you, head upstream (left, or north) towards the old railroad bridge. It can be windy at the ramp, but once you reach the spot where the creek narrows, the wind dissipates.
As you approach the railroad bridge, head for the middle and you’ll easily paddle under it.
Keep on paddling upstream. There are a few small ponds you can explore but there is no possibility of getting lost here. Your journey ends at the intersection of Highway 264 and Runyon Creek where a 12-inch pipe crosses the creek just above the water. Turn around and head back the way you came.
Option 2: Castle Island & the Beach | 1 mile one way
From Havens Garden, paddle right (south, under the Hwy 32/River Rd bridge) towards the open waters of Pamlico River. Follow the land west (continue to the right) towards the railroad bridge—it crosses the entire Pamlico River.
As you approach the railroad bridge, you can easily paddle under the bridge supports at any point. Towards the middle of the railroad bridge is a swing-bridge which allows motor boats to pass through: they’ll watch for you and you should watch for them.
Once you pass the railroad bridge and boat channel, Castle Island is immediately on your left. Head towards the side you can’t see (the south side) and you’ll arrive at the beach. Castle is the only island.
There are two beaches 100 feet apart, but only one of them is always above the tide. The water is shallow (3-4 feet) and warm during the summer.
You can comfortably paddle around the island and Washington’s waterfront since all motor boats move at “no wake” speed.
Option 3: McMullen Platform | 2 miles one way
Follow the directions to reach Castle Island (above). Keep paddling past Castle Island, heading under the Highway 17 Business Bridge.
The bridge is the official dividing line between the Pamlico and Tar Rivers. Once you pass under the bridge, head to the south bank (left, to the opposite side of the Town of Washington).
The platform (screened in and 16′ x 32′) is tucked into a small creek, only visible once you are directly in front of it. It is easy to find. If you reach the Highway 17 Bypass bridge, you went too far.
What You’ll See
Though you are right in the heart of Washington, Runyon Creek is only lightly developed. The few houses along the creek add a touch of history and character.
Runyon Creek has plenty of turtles sunning themselves on logs; winter brings lots of migratory birds.
During spring and summer, the ground vegetation is lush and green, free from vines and brambles. In the early morning or later afternoon, the light filters through the canopy and reflects off the creek. I’ve often just sat there to enjoy the magic.
The Washington waterfront is home-away-from-home to quite a few sail and motor boats, many of which travel the Intercoastal Waterway as they visit the world on boat. It’s not uncommon to see boats from Maine, Florida, and parts of Europe.
The Local Knowledge To Make it Great
Innerbanks Outfiiters rents and sells a variety of boats, so if you need an extra, or want to try out a new one, give them a try. Best part? They are right at the ramp.
If the wind is blowing, causing flags to fly out and the water to chop, the paddle up Runyon Creek will be hard till you reach the first bend where the wind will die down. If the wind is blowing more than 15 mph, I don’t recommend venturing into Pamlico River to visit Castle Island or the camping platform since the chop can make for a miserable experience.
If you have a hungry stomach after a full day of paddling Runyon Creek and Castle Island, up to the platform and back, head over to the paddle access point on Washington’s waterfront. Put your boats on the floating platform, and take the 60-second walk to get ice cream at Scoops Ice Cream Parlor. Once you have your fill of raspberry ice cream, paddle back via the waterfront for dinner at Backwater Jacks.
The creek narrows to about 16 feet across near the end of the trail. Here the trees create a canopy overhead, providing a respite from the sun’s heat.
Castle Island’s small hidden beach has room to land about 20 kayaks. During the summer, the beach is a popular family hangout.
The McMullen platform is well screened. You won’t need a tent, unless you want privacy. Visit http://tarpamlicowatertrail.org to reserve the site for overnight use.
Haven’s Gardens Public Boat Ramp
1053 E Main St. Washington, NC 27889
GPS: 35° 32’ 12” N , 77° 2’ 21” W
1050 East Main Street, Washington, NC 27889
Phone: 252-975-3006, Cell: 252-721-8636
Backwater Jack’s Tiki Bar & Restaurant
1052 E Main St, Washington, NC 27889
Scoops Ice Cream
217 W Main St,Washington, NC 27889
City of Washington River Camping Platform
GPS: 35°32’27.21″ N 77°04’13.90″W
Where to Stay
Several local and major hotel chains exist a short drive from downtown.
The nearest campground is in Goose Creek State Park, 14 minutes east. (http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/gocr/main.php)