Paddle the Cape Fear River

Nora Anderson and family, of Raeford, embark on a kayak trip with 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.

Lillington 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,” he said.

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

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

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

Under Smirnov’s leadership, Cape Fear River Adventures has grown 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.

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

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

“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.”

Cape Fear River Adventures explores a section of river about 25 miles long, offering trips as short as an hour or as long as two days during the March-October season.

Taco trio at Lost Paddle Tavern.

“Raven Rock State Park is a part of that river section, and they offer canoe-in campsites,” Smirnov said. “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.”

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 said.

Ice Cream Nachos from Beans & Cream.

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.

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

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.” It’s definitely shareable, but you might not want to.

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

Sunflower sculpture marks the entrance to the botanical trail

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

Make a Day of It

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

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

Botanical Trail
607 S. 13th St., Lillington

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

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

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

Her husband is the “mad scientist” brewer, May says, always thinking up unique beers. Her 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 said.

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

Onsite try the house made hard seltzers, brightly colored and flavored in the glass with 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 drive home. 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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