Mariners of all varieties will find that the Intracoastal Waterway in this corner of coastal North Carolina has a lot to offer visitors and locals alike. Following the Cape Fear coastline, and bypassing a myriad of cool towns and attractions along the way, mariners taking a cruise along this famed stretch of water may want to settle in for a day to discover what the Cape Fear region is all about.
With ample marinas and waterfront restaurants for pit stops, stunning beaches, and a host of famed destinations (like Downtown Wilmington) found just barely off the beaten path, the Intracoastal Waterway truly serves as a gateway for endless fun in the Cape Fear area.
About the Intracoastal Waterway
The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a federally protected and maintained route that serves commercial and recreational vessels from Norfolk, VA, to the Jacksonville, FL area, and in more broad terms, from Boston all the way to Key West, FL.
In North Carolina, the route extends for roughly 300 miles of sounds, rivers, creeks, marshes, and manmade cuts, which includes a stretch that veers through the heart of the coastal Cape Fear region.
The North Carolina portion of the waterway was first constructed in the 1800s as a way for mariners to avoid the dangerous Diamond Shoals off of Cape Hatteras. During this first wave of development, several projects were undertaken to make “passageways” through the rivers and Dismal Swamp to provide access, and the project simply grew from there as these routes were linked and expanded.
The last portion of the Intracoastal Waterway in North Carolina was in fact the Cape Fear region’s portion, which was completed in 1934 with the creation of a 12’ ft. channel at then Federal Point. Today, the Intracoastal Waterway follows the borders of rural Wilmington to the west and Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach to the east as it bypasses restaurants, marinas, and a slew of attractions.
Accessing the Intracoastal Waterway
There are a number of boat ramps in the Cape Fear region that provides easy access to the Intracoastal Waterway and surrounding areas. Visitors with their own vessel along who want to explore the waters for themselves can start by heading to these destinations that are dotted throughout the coastal landscape.
Snows Cut Boat Ramp
220 Annie Drive, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
34° 03'25.09" N 77° 53'30.06" W
This site borders the Intracoastal Waterway and features five launching lanes, as well as a separate hand launching site for kayaks and canoes, and a courtesy dock for visitors. Parking for approximately 100 vehicles is available, which includes more than 80 spaces for vehicles with trailers.
Wrightsville Beach Boat Ramp
Channel Walk Drive, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480
34° 13'06.41" N 77° 48'40.80" W
This site borders the Intracoastal Waterway as well as the Wrightsville Beach Causeway, which makes it nicely easy to reach for Wilmington and coastal visitors. The site features five launching lanes, and 68 parking spaces for vehicles with boat trailers.
River Road Park boat ramp
River Road Park, Wilmington, NC 28412
34° 06'49.57" N 77° 55'32.22" W
Located on the edge of the Cape Fear River just a couple miles north of Snow’s Cut, this site that’s found in Wilmington’s River Road Park features a single lane ramp, an on-site fishing pier, and restrooms.
Trails End Boat Ramp
621 Trails End Road, Wilmington, NC 28409
34° 09'21.50" N 77° 51'24.97" W
This site is located on the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway in the town of Wilmington within Trails End Park. The park and ensuing boat launch features a single launching lane, a courtesy dock, a fishing pier, and parking for 40 vehicles with boat trailers.
Carolina Beach State Park Boat Ramp
B Road, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
34° 02'59.05" N 77° 55'08.71" W
Located on the edge of the Cape Fear River, this site is located within the Carolina Beach State Park, and features two launching lanes, a marina, on-site courtesy docks, and approximately 40 parking spaces for vehicles with trailers.
Federal Point / Buzzard Bay
2515 South Fort Fisher Blvd., Kure Beach, NC
33° 57' 34'' N 77° 56' 30'' W
This launch site is found on the southern tip of Federal Point / Pleasure Island, and features launching lanes(s) and parking for 36 vehicles with boat trailers.
Castle Street Boat Ramp
Dram Tree Park (Castle Street and Surrey Street), Wilmington, NC 28401
34° 13'38.95" N 77° 57'01.12" W
This boat ramp is located about 10 miles away from the ICW, and is situated in the downtown Wilmington area along the Cape Fear River. The launch site features two launching lanes, a separate launching area for kayaks and canoes, and parking for 36 vehicles with trailers.
Castle Hayne, Northeast Cape Fear River
6418 Orange St., Castle Hayne, NC
34° 21' 49'' N 77° 53' 47'' W
Located in the northern section of the Cape Fear area and the Cape Fear River, this extensive launching site features launching lanes(s) as well as 76 parking spaces for boats with trailers.
Where to Stop Along the Intracoastal Waterway
There are a number of marinas that are directly on or remarkably close to the Intracoastal Waterway. Mariners cruising through can often stop within minutes in the towns of Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach, or can take a gentle ride up the Cape Fear River to enjoy a detour that includes a historic Downtown Wilmington exploration.
No matter where a visitor lands, they will be treated to an array of amenities at the local marinas that accommodate transient mariners, which can include on-site fuel and maintenance services, on-site restaurants or accommodations, and ships’ stores, bathhouses, and laundry facilities which are all found just steps away from the docks.
In addition, many of the area attractions are within walking distance of stunning beaches, historic sites or museums, and other “close by” vacation destinations, which makes these communities easy to explore without a rental car.
Start your day trip or overnight excursion while cruising the Intracoastal Waterway by scoping out these marinas that are easy to reach, and which are close to all the Cape Fear area sites.
Wrightsville Beach Marina
6 Marina St, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480
Phone: (910) 256-6666
Seapath Yacht Club
330 Causeway Dr, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480
Phone: (910) 256-3747
Sea Gate Boating
2 Marina St, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480
Phone: (910) 256-0638
Federal Point Yacht Club
910 Basin Rd, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Phone: (910) 458-4201
Carolina Beach Boatyard and Marina
923 Basin Rd, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Phone: (910) 707-1007
401 Marina St, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Phone: (910) 458-5053
Waterfronte Villas and Yacht Club
100 Spencer-Farlow Dr, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Phone: (910) 458-1620
Harbour Point Marina
Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Phone: (910) 458-8415
Port City Marina
10 Harnett St, Wilmington, NC 28401
Phone: (910) 251-6151
Cape Fear Marina
1701 Jel Wade Dr, Wilmington, NC 28401
Phone: (910) 762-1256
Wilmington Marine Center
3410 River Rd # 201, Wilmington, NC 28412
Phone: (910) 395-5055
Masonboro Yacht Club & Marina
609 Trails End Rd, Wilmington, NC 28409
Phone: (910) 791-1893
4114 River Rd, Wilmington, NC 28412
Phone: (910) 794-5259
Bradley Creek Marina
6338 Oleander Dr, Wilmington, NC 28403
Phone: (910) 392-2584
Bridge Tender Marina
1418 Airlie Rd, Wilmington, NC 28403
Phone: (910) 256-6550
Bennett Brothers Yachts
1701 Jel Wade Dr, Wilmington, NC 28401
Phone: (910) 772-9277
Middle Sound Marina
2107 Middle Sound Loop Rd, Wilmington, NC 28411
Phone: (910) 262-5566
Creekside Yacht Club
6334 Oleander Dr, Wilmington, NC 28403
Phone: (910) 350-0023
Scotts Hill Marina
2570 Scotts Hill Loop Rd, Wilmington, NC 28411
Phone: (910) 686-0896
7421 Mt Pleasant Dr, Wilmington, NC 28411
Phone: (910) 686-7661
Carolina Marina & Yacht Club
1512 Burnett Rd, Wilmington, NC 28409
Phone: (910) 790-0172
South Harbour Marina
1437 Military Cutoff Rd, Wilmington, NC 28403
Phone: (910) 509-9833
302 Willard St, Wilmington, NC 28401
Phone: (910) 520-6875
Cape Fear Destinations along the Intracoastal Waterway
Not sure where to stop when making a slow cruise through the Cape Fear portion of the Intracoastal Waterway? Then consider planning a detour to these coastal towns and communities that are renowned for their shops, restaurants, attractions, and effortless natural beauty.
Head north from the ICW up through the mouth of the Cape Fear River to connect with this historic waterfront region that’s renowned for its myriad of attractions, cool shops, culture and arts scene, and dozens of acclaimed restaurants. Town Docks are located in the area for day-trippers, and several marinas are also found close by for visitors who want to enjoy a full day or two of exploration. Virtually all of the downtown region can be accessed on foot, which makes it a central and seamless destination to explore.
Dock at one of the many marinas found on the edge of Wrightsville Beach to discover a cool coastal town that is known for its restaurants, beaches, and unique attractions like the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History. Many eateries and shops can be found in the heart of town close to the Banks Channel, and there are ample public beach access points for visitors who want a shoreside adventure.
Located just south of Wrightsville Beach along the ICW, Carolina Beach is a fun coastal town that’s known for its great shorelines as well as its hopping shopping, dining, and nightlife scenes. Dock in the central yacht basin for easy access to area beaches, shops, and attractions like the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier. A marina is also found along the edge of the Carolina Beach State Park, which features 761 acres of hiking trails, riverfront beaches, camping accommodations, a visitors center, and much more.
Famed as a popular vacation destination, Bald Head Island is an isolated barrier island destination where no cars are allowed, (but where golf carts and bikes are readily available to rent.) Anchor in the center of the island which is close to a modest collection of restaurants and shops, and rent a ride for the day (or week) to discover the island’s unique beaches, the Bald Head Island Reserve, and the famed “Old Baldy” lighthouse - one of the oldest lighthouses on the East Coast.
Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Intracoastal Waterway
- Mariners who are planning to anchor for a night or two may want to call in advance, especially during the summer and during famed festivals, (like the annual Azalea Festival), when the region can be packed with visitors of all varieties.
- A number of area marinas have on-site accommodations and motel rooms, as well as restaurants, to make a night off a vessel a breeze. Call ahead for motel / hotel availability and rates, as well as transient docking options.
- Want to bring your vessel along on vacation? Wrightsville Beach and other coastal communities have a number of vacation rental homes that may also offer on-site or community boat docks. Call your favorite property management company for options in your desired vacation destination.
- The Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach areas are great spots to buy a new or used vessel, as well. Dozens of boat dealerships can be found in the area, which are nicely close to the Intracoastal Waterway.
- Use caution when exploring. The ICW can be used by vessels of all sizes – both commercial and recreational – so a little attention is key to navigate through the traditionally calm waters safely.
The Intracoastal Waterway is a star attraction in the Cape Fear area, and for good reason. Veering past some of the area’s most picturesque beach towns and pretty on-the-water landscapes, a ride along this popular waterway is an introduction to all the beauty that the Cape Fear region has to offer.
Plan an afternoon cruise, an overnight stay, or a full week uncovering this section of North Carolina’s most popular watery route. With miles of terrain to explore, every trip down the ICW is a true adventure for Cape Fear visitors and locals alike.