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's bald cypress are the oldest trees in eastern North America.

Conservation Highlights

The oldest trees east of the Rocky Mountains can be found on this meandering blackwater stream in the southeastern part of the state: a stand of 1,700-year-old bald cypress. These ancient trees are easily recognized by their huge buttresses and flat tops that have been blown out by countless storms.

The river flows 66 miles through portions of Sampson, Pender, and Bladen counties before emptying into the Cape Fear River 14 miles above Wilmington. Water ash and cat-briar form a subcanopy of dense thickets along the banks of the river. Elsewhere along the river, slight variations in elevation allow for changes in the forest from black gum and tupelo gum in lower areas, to water hickory, American elm, and some oak species on the ridges. In a few places, dry upland bluffs along the river support longleaf pines and turkey oaks.

In recognition of the fact that the Black River is one of the cleanest, high-quality waterways in North Carolina, the state designated the 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 Black River is a treat to canoe throughout the seasons. You will relish drifting down the slow-moving 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

The ancient trees were discovered by accident in the 1980s. University of Arkansas professor David Stahle was exploring the relationship between tree growth rings and climate. His work led him to the Black River in southeast North Carolina.

Using an increment borer, essentially a hollow tube that takes a small cross section of a tree without harming it, he counted growth rings of Black River bald cypress. Many of the trees are more than 500 years old. The oldest identified tree, scientifically labeled BLK69 and locally known as Methuselah, dates back to 364 AD. Stahle suspects other trees in the area are older, though core rot prevents his team from determining their exact age.

The Nature Conservancy protected and manages the Three Sisters swamp where these ancient giants grow.

History of the Preserve

The Nature Conservancy is the sole conservation group actively working to protect the ancient bald cypress and their surrounding lands and waters. Since the 1990s, we’ve protected over 16,000 acres of land in the Black River basin.

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.