There & Back: Paddle the Cape Fear River

Nora Anderson, of Raeford, embarks on a kayak trip with her family from Lillington's Cape Fear River Adventures.

Meandering from Jordan Lake to Wilmington, the Cape Fear River is perfectly placed through the town of Lillington to welcome paddlers to a variety of family-friendly activities.

Drive Time

From Holly Springs: 30 minutes

From Fuquay-Varina: 20 minutes

Angier resident Ilia Smirnov fell in love with the river and the pastimes it enables 10 years ago, after he purchased Cape Fear River Adventures paddle sports company.

“I knew absolutely nothing about anything to do with paddling, until I bought the company,” Smirnov says.

That quickly changed as Smirnov immersed into the world of paddle sports, becoming a Level 3 American Canoe Association kayak instructor and a Class 5 whitewater guide.

During the busiest summer weekends, Cape Fear River Adventures will serve hundreds of paddlers.

“After I paddled for the first time from Lillington to Erwin, I was definitely hooked at that point. … I knew more people would enjoy the same thing and as much as I did,” he says.

Under Smirnov’s leadership, Cape Fear River Adventures has grown more than 3,000% since 2012, serving more than 26,000 people in 2020. Activities offered range from river tubing (the most popular and leisurely) to stand up paddleboarding (with or without yoga), kayaking, canoeing and rafting.

Taco trio at Lost Paddle Tavern

“We have white water rafting and kayaking when the river conditions are right,” he says, which typically happens in the spring when water is high. During the summer months, the river is typically calm and slow.

Cape Fear River Adventures explores a section of river about 25 miles long, offering trips as short as 1-hour or as long as 2-days.

Ice cream nachos from Beans & Cream

“Raven Rock State Park is a part of that river section, and they offer canoe-in campsites. On one of our overnight trips that we offer, you can gear up with tents and coolers, and paddle the first part of the day, set up your camp, then on the second day paddle some more and get out at our shop.”

The company helped 1,100 guests enjoy the river during Fourth of July weekend, one of the busiest times during the March-October season.

A relaxing float trip can take up to 5 hours when water levels are low.

“We have a unique section of the river that allows us to do these fun activities. Right where the Piedmont meets the Coastal Plain, which creates some of the patterns in the river and the natural flow that is fairly unique to see,” says Smirnov.

Cape Fear River Adventures monitors water levels and weather conditions to ensure the safety of all guests.

“If the river comes up too high, we have certain guidelines to what sections and what activities we can operate,” he says.

Beer and hard seltzers are made in-house at Belleau Wood Brewing

One of the popular river packages is the Easy Paddle. Beginning at the riverside cabin, boaters and tubers enter the river then float and paddle about 2 miles, which can take anywhere from 2 to 5 hours, depending on conditions and paddling enthusiasm.

A shuttle waits at the predetermined pick-up point downstream and transports paddlers and gear back to the original location.

Adjacent to the launch point, the Lost Paddle Tavern sits on the banks of the river beckoning visitors to enjoy a refueling meal or libation, and relax in the swings and hammocks on the lawn below.

Sunflower sculpture marks the entrance to The Botanical Trail

Don’t depart without exploring the local businesses in Lillington. First, treat yourself at Beans & Cream ice cream and coffee shop. This charming, open-air walk-up cafe offers refreshing specialty lemonades, gourmet coffee and ice cream.

Celebrate that successful paddle trip with Ice Cream Nachos — two scoops, toppings of your choice, whipped cream and waffle cone “chips.” Definitely shareable, but you might not want to.

Lillington Botanical Trail

Pop into local gift shop, The B Hive, next door, or Belleau Wood Brewing Company around the corner.

Make a Day of It

Beans & Cream
810 S. Main Street, Lillington
(423) 803-8755

Belleau Wood Brewing Company
6 West Ivey Street, Lillington
(984) 289-7011

The B Hive
816 S. Main Street, Lillington, NC .
(910) 984-1354

Botanical Trail
607 S. 13th Street, Lillington

Cape Fear River Adventures
100 S. Main St., Lillington
(910) 984-1411

Lillington River Park
235 E Duncan St, Lillington

Lost Paddle Tavern
100 S. Main St., Lillington
(910) 984-1411

Jenny May, a Willow Springs native, and her husband Kevin own the brewery, which is also home to Bubs & Sparkle Coffee Shop and serves Holly Springs’ Five Star Coffee.

Kevin is the “mad scientist” brewer, says Jenny, always thinking up unique beers. And Jenny’s N.C. roots led the pair to open their dream brewery in a small-town setting.

“We don’t want people to have to leave town to enjoy a brewery,” she says.

Belleau Wood offers river-ready “travel kegs” — 24-pints of beer packed and ready to sail the river with you.

On-site try the house-made hard seltzers, brightly colored and flavored in the glass with all-natural fresh fruit purees in flavors like raspberry and pineapple jalapeno.

If there’s time, check out the Lillington Botanical Trail for a short hike before the return drive to southern Wake. A sunflower sculpture marks the entrance to the mile-long, shaded gravel path. Garden enthusiasts will enjoy the markers identifying the plants along the way.

Or stop by the Lillington River Park, with a pirate-ship themed playground and walking trails.

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