Bald cypress along the Black RIver.
The Black River Bald cypress line the banks of the Black River in North Carolina. © Andrew Kornylak

Places We Protect

Black River Preserve

North Carolina

The Black River is home to the eastern bald cypress, the fifth oldest tree species in the world.

Conservation Highlights

Bald cypress, gracefully draped with Spanish moss, are the classic embodiment of our southern swamps. The oldest bald cypress, the fifth oldest tree species in the world, can only be found alongside Black River’s meandering black waters in southeastern North Carolina. These ancient trees are easily recognized by their huge buttresses and gnarly flat tops sculpted by countless storms.

Formed by the confluence of Coharie and Six Runs Creeks, the Black River snakes its way over 60 miles through portions of Sampson, Bladen, and Pender counties before emptying into the Cape Fear River 14 miles above Wilmington. Upstream the waters flow more swiftly past large forests of oaks and other bottomland hardwoods and cypress and tupelo gums in the wetter swales. Occasional high banks rise above the river, the highest being a 60-foot bluff with mountain laurel and galax. Further downstream the river slows and spreads out into expansive bald cypress dominated swamps. In a few places, sandy upland sites along the river support longleaf pines and turkey oaks.

In recognition of the high-quality waters, the State of North Carolina designated the Black River an Outstanding Resource Water in 1994. The river is home to rare fish species such as the Santee chub and broadtail madtom and numerous rare mussels like the Cape Fear spike. Many wildlife species inhabit the river’s floodplain, including bobcat, river otter, black bear, and neotropical songbirds like the prothonotary warbler and yellow-throated vireo.

The river is a treat to paddle throughout the seasons. You will relish drifting down the tea-colored stream flanked by stately bald cypress draped with Spanish moss. Swamp roses bloom in the spring and spider lilies grace the water in the summer. Spring is a great time to see migratory songbirds nesting, while the foliage is outstanding in the fall.

The Bald Cypress

These ancient trees were discovered almost by accident in the 1980s when University of Arkansas professor Dr. David Stahle was exploring the relationship between tree growth rings and climate. The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program led him to the Black River in southeast North Carolina. His oldest tree then dated to 372 A.D. which, along with data from many other tree cores, verified that two of the most severe historic droughts in the mid-Atlantic region had coincided with the Lost Colony and Jamestown settlements.

Dr. Stahle thought there may be trees much older along the river. His suspicions were right: in the spring of 2019, Dr. Stahle announced that he had identified one cypress to at least 605 B.C.E., the time of the Babylonian empire, making bald cypress the fifth oldest tree species in the world. He has found many other ancient cypress along the river dating well over a thousand years. These are the oldest trees in North America east of the Great Basin.

History of the Preserve

Protecting the bald cypress is made possible through contributions from supporters and the work of TNC staff and partners.

TNC is the primary conservation group actively working to protect the ancient bald cypress of the Black River and their surrounding lands and waters. Since 1989, working with State partners and another land trust, we’ve protected over 17,000 acres as the Black River Preserve, protecting the forests of the floodplains and restoring longleaf pine in the uplands.

Three Sisters, the tract home to some of the oldest bald cypress trees, is safe at last due to TNC’s efforts to conserve the river.

Plan Your Visit

The river makes for an incredible paddle trip. Keep in mind that water levels fluctuate significantly during the year. You may have to maneuver and/or portage around fallen logs and trees during dry periods. Following the Pender County/Bladen County line, the Black River is easy to see on a map. Some of the old-growth bald cypress can be seen from the NC 53 bridge 4 miles south of Atkinson.

Several put-ins and boat landings provide access to scenic parts of the river:

  • The NC Wildlife Resources Commission has two public boat landings on the river: one is located approximately 5 miles north of Beatty's Bridge on Ivanhoe Road (SR 1550 in Bladen County and SR 1201 in Pender County) and the other is located 1.2 miles east of the 11/53 bridge off Long View Road (SR 1547).
  • You can access the river fairly easily from either side of Beatty's Bridge. There is a sandy bank under the bridge that provides good canoe access.
  • You can access the river by canoe from the NC 11/53 Bridge located just outside Atkinson.

Here are a few options for a daylong boat trip on the Black River:

  • Put in at the Wildlife Resources Commission public landing approximately 5 miles north of Beatty's Bridge on Ivanhoe Road and take out at Beatty's Bridge. This stretch is about 9 river miles and passes through some bottomland hardwood areas as well as cypress swamp. You can park a car on the side of the road at Beatty's Bridge.
  • If you are ambitious, you could put in early in the morning at Beatty's Bridge and canoe about 14 miles to another Wildlife Commission public board landing that is about 1.5 miles south of the 11/53 bridge just outside of Atkinson off NC 3. This stretch of the river contains Larkin's Cove and Three Sisters, sites where the oldest known stands of bald cypress have been found.
  • Another option is to park and put in at the second Wildlife Resources Commission landings and canoe upstream toward Three Sisters. This is a nice area because it contains several coves with ancient cypress.

Questions?

You can reach our Southeast Coastal Plains Office at 910-395-5000.