The 15 Longest Rivers in North Carolina

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: March 27, 2022
Image Credit Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock.com
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North Carolina has a diverse terrain of mountains, beaches, swamps, and rivers. It is a state located in the southeastern region of the United State of America and is rich in wildlife. What types of rivers flow within the state of North Carolina? Which rivers are the largest? What types of wildlife can be found in and along the rivers’ banks? Let’s take a look at the 15 longest rivers in North Carolina to learn more about what makes these rivers so unique.

Rivers in North Carolina

A river is basically a flowing source of water that drains into a bigger body

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There are approximately 37,853 miles of river in North Carolina. About 144.5 miles are designated as “wild and free”.

A river is a body of water that moves and flows into a larger body of water—usually a lake, ocean, or sea. In a way, you could think of rivers as the “veins” of our planet because rivers pump water and nutrients through and across ecosystems all over the world. The state of North Carolina is home to many of these amazing river systems.

As we look at the 15 longest rivers in North Carolina, we will be measuring their size based on their lengths, rather than depths or discharge amounts. So, what are these 15 longest rivers in the state of North Carolina?

15. Deep River – 125 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Deep River
Deep River is a translation of the Indian name sapponah which means “deep river.”

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The Deep River flows for 125 miles across the state of North Carolina. It then joins the Haw River at Mermaid Point, helping to form the Cape Fear River. The Deep River is home to the Cape Fear Shiner. The Cape Fear Shiner is a critically endangered minnow endemic to the central part of North Carolina. This means this fish can only be found in North Carolina. Activities like kayaking and paddling are quite popular along the Deep River. Visitors also enjoy outings on the Deep River State Trail along its banks.

14. Northeast Cape Fear River – 131 miles

Carnivorous plant, Venus flytrap, in a garden in Sydney, Australia.
The Northeast Cape Fear River is home to many unique species of wildlife, including the carnivorous Venus flytrap.

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The Northeast Cape Fear River is 131 miles long. It begins near the town of Mount Olive and joins the Cape Fear River on the north end of Wilmington, North Carolina. The Northeast Cape Fear is home to many unique species, like alligators, Venus flytraps, bowfins, and pileated woodpeckers.

13. Lumber River – 133 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Lumber River
The Lumber River was originally named “Drowning Creek.” Its name was changed in 1809 to reflect the area’s growing lumber industry.

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The Lumber River flows for 133 miles through south-central North Carolina and into South Carolina. In South Carolina, it joins the Little Pee Dee River and later the Pee Dee River. The Lumber River is a blackwater river. Decaying vegetation leach tannins into the water, which makes it look like it has a dark color to it. It is the only blackwater river in North Carolina that is marked as a “National Wild and Scenic River.” The Lumber River is considered one of North Carolina’s Top Ten Natural Wonders.

12. Hiwassee River – 147 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Hiwassee River
The Hiwassee River flows through a town in Georgia that also shares its name.

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The Hiwassee River begins on the north slope of the Rocky Mountains in the state of Georgia. It flows for 147 miles through North Carolina and Tennessee before it joins with the Tennessee River. A famous Cherokee Indian legend tells the story of a giant leech the size of a house that had power over the river and could command the waters to consume people.

11. Broad River – 150 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Broad River
Although they share a name, the Broad River is a distinctly separate river from the French Broad River.

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The Broad River—not to be confused with the French Broad River—is about 150 miles long. It flows through western North Carolina as well as northern South Carolina. There are several damns scattered across the length of the Broad River, as well as highways that cut across it.

10. Cape Fear River – 202 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Cape Fear River
The Cape Fear River’s water is slow as it moves through wetlands and forested swamps. The river also passes through Wilmington.

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The Cape Fear River is 202 miles long. It begins where the Haw River and the Deep River converge in the town Moncure and flows into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Fear. The Cape Fear River is a blackwater river, with slow-moving water that flows through wetlands and forested swamps.

Historically, the Cape Fear River was an important transportation route for early European settlements and colonial pioneers. Today, the Cape Fear River provides many places that are great for swimming, picnicking, fishing, and boating.

9.      French Broad River – 213 miles

Largest River in North Carolina - French Broad River
The French Broad River is older than the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

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The French Broad River is 213 miles long. It might be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Scientists believe that it existed even before the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Today, the French Broad River is a popular place for outdoor sports like whitewater rafting, canoeing, and fishing. There are several artist studios nearby as well.

For the past several decades the French Broad River has been environmentally threatened. However, recent public and private initiatives have helped in its recovery as an important natural area, as well as a recreational area. 

8.      Dan River – 214 miles

Largest Rivers in North Carolina - Dan River
The Dan River terminates at the Kerr Reservoir, which is the largest reservoir in Virginia.

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The Dan River is 214 miles long, stretching across both states of North Carolina and Virginia. It begins in Patrick County, Virginia, flowing into Stokes County and Rockingham County in North Carolina. It then winds back and forth across Virginia and North Carolina several more times until it empties into the Kerr Reservoir on the Roanoke River.  

7.      Yadkin River – 215 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Yadkin River
The Yadkin River is a popular recreation destination.

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The Yadkin River is 215 miles long. Many areas of the river are dammed for flood control, creating various lakes and reservoirs along its course. The Yadkin River is a popular spot for recreation like rafting, tubing, kayaking, and canoeing. Visitors also enjoy fishing for sunfish, catfish, white bass, and largemouth bass. The Yadkin River flows through two state parks (Morrow Mountain State Park and Pilot Mountain State Park), as well as the Uwharrie National Forest.

6.      Tar River – 215 miles

Longest Rivers in North Carolina - Tar River
The Tar River is a migration channel for many species of fish.

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The Tar River in northeast North Carolina is 215 miles long, flowing southeast to an estuary of Pamlico Sound. North Carolina was once the site of a naval stores site. The British Navy would use the longleaf pines from the area for their ship masts and pine pitch to make tar for caulking their vessels. The tar made from pine pitch is where “Tar” River gets its name.

The Tar River hosts migrations of striped bass, American shad, and hickory shad. Throughout the year bowfin, panfish, gar, and largemouth bass reside in the river. It also is home to many other types of wildlife, like eastern turkeys, bald eagles, river otters, and beavers.

5.      Catawba River – 220 miles

The Longest Rivers in the United States - Catawba River
The Catawba River is named for the Catawba tribe of American Indians. The Catawba tribe lives along the banks of the Catawba River and call themselves “yeh is-WAH h/reh,” which means “people of the river.

John C Davis III/Shutterstock.com

The Catawba River is 220 miles long, beginning in the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina. It passes through two waterfalls (Upper Catawba Falls and Catawba Falls), and flows into South Carolina, where it becomes the Wateree River.

Hydroelectric dams were built along the Catawba River but planning was not adequate. Because of this poor planning, along with climate change and severe droughts, the Catawba River was named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.

There is a 30-mile stretch of the Catawba River that remains undammed. There are many forested areas here and havens for wildlife like belted kingfishes, river otters, and bald eagles.

4.      Pee Dee River – 232 miles

Largest Rivers in North Carolina - Pee Dee River
The Pee Dee River is home to both freshwater fish and saltwater fish.

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The Pee Dee River begins in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and flows for 232 miles until it empties into Winyah Bay and the Atlantic Ocean near Georgetown. Pee Dee River is named after the Pee Dee American Indians because it flows through where they originally had lived.

Most of the river is wild, containing forests of gum, oak, and tupelo. The lower segment of the Pee Dee River is a State Scenic River. This section is home to a variety of wildlife, including both freshwater and saltwater fish.

3.      Neuse River – 275 miles

Longest River in North Carolina - Neuse River
The name of the Neuse River comes from the Neusiok, an American Indian tribe.

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The Neuse River is 275 miles long and is entirely contained within the state of North Carolina. It begins in Western Durham County and drains into the Pamlico Sound. The Neuse River is a habitat for many endangered species like the Carolina madtom (a freshwater catfish), the piping plover, and the loggerhead turtle. Many animals that travel between freshwater and the salty ocean are also found in the Neuse River, like the American eel, herring, shad, blue crab, and oysters.

2.      New River – 360 miles

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River otters live in and near the New River, along with minks, beavers, and muskrats.

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The New River is about 360 miles long, flowing across North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The New River is landscaped with fast-moving water and big rocks, as well as slower stretches. This makes the New River an excellent place for fishing. It is also a great location for whitewater rafting, kayaking, and even base-jumping. Many visitors enjoy the scenic views along Hawks Nest State Park and New River Gorge National Park and Reserve.

The New River provides habitats and ecosystems to several species of wildlife, including:

The forests that grow along the banks of the New River are filled with a variety of trees, including:

  • Mixed oak
  • Oak-hickory
  • Oak-yellow pine
  • Oak-maple
  • Hemlock-hardwoods
  • Cove hardwoods
  • Northern hardwoods
  • Bottomland hardwoods
  • Floodplain hardwoods
  • Sedges, pines, and cedars

1.      Roanoke River – 410 miles

Longest River in North Carolina - The Roanoke River

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The Roanoke River is the longest river in North Carolina, measuring 410 miles long. It begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia. It then flows southeast into Warren County, North Carolina before ending in the Albemarle Sound. The Roanoke River has been known to have dangerous spring floods. Because of this, it is sometimes nick-named “The River of Death.”

The Roanoke River contains many rich ecosystems, like bottomland hardwood forests, alluvial forests, large backswamps, bald cypress, and water tupelo swamp forests. These diverse habitats provide homes for a multitude of wildlife, including more than 200 different bird species.

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About the Author

I have been a professional writer for 8 years with a particular focus on nature, wildlife, anthrozoology, and human-animal relationships. My areas of interest include human-animal studies, ecocriticism, vulnerable species, pets, and animal behavior. I graduated from Brigham Young University with a master’s degree in Comparative Studies, focusing on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. In my spare time, I enjoy exploring the outdoors, watching movies, reading, creating art, and caring for my pets. Nothing brings me greater joy than a day spent in the company of animals.

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