Your first thought upon arriving at Robertson Millpond Preserve will be, “are you sure there aren’t any alligators in here?” It has the swampy vibes of the bayous down South. Just like Lake Raleigh, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into the wetlands of Florida.
Nope. This is Raleigh. Well, Wake County at least, and just a 25-minute drive from downtown Raleigh. And I can confirm that there are no alligators here!
This 85-acre preserve near Wendell and Knightdale in East Wake County is a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts looking to escape the hustle and bustle and immerse themselves into a rare pocket of natural beauty.
Y’all, this is Raleigh Unique. Blackwater cypress-gum swamps aren’t typically this far north or west with many species from the coastal plain present.
The bases of the cypress trees provide habitat for plants, shrubs and vines, including coastal fetterbush and swamp titi, plus many wildlife species which I’ll share below.
At the first sign of summer warmth, we took out our stand-up paddle boards into the dense closed canopy of the lush swamp on a stunning adventure. We could not believe we were in Raleigh!
I know I’ve piqued your curiosity by now and you want to know more about this tiny pocket of adventure heaven in Raleigh that came to be here.
Where is Robertson Millpond Preserve?
Robertson Millpond Preserve is located in East Raleigh near Wendell. (6333 Robertson Pond Rd., Wendell, NC 27591).
The millpond is on Buffalo Creek, which is thought to be named for the herds of buffalo in the area long ago. (Isn’t that so cool?)
The blackwater Buffalo Creek flows southeast from Rolesville until it dumps into the Little River near Kenly and then the Neuse River near Goldsboro.
The history of Robertson Millpond Preserve
The preserve has a rich history dating back to the early 19th Century with the mill, but before that with evidence showing that Native Americans lived and hunted along the creek.
It is thought that the dam was built in the 1820s by the Avera family, who operated a 600-acre farm and a gristmill, which was used to grind corn and wheat.
The Robertson family, for which the pond is named, ended up purchasing the land and operated the mill until the 1940s. Eventually the gristmill was removed because of hurricane damage by the Fowler family who took over everything in the 60s.
Thankfully in 1983, the site was identified by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program as a significant natural area, and in 2014, it was designated a Wake County Historic Landmark and we can now enjoy it.
The dam, mill foundation, and an original millstone can still be seen at the preserve along with displays with more information.
For a small preserve in Raleigh, there is quite a lot to do, from paddling to strolls on the paved paths and boardwalks and fishing. But, you’ll want to come prepared so keep reading.
Paddling the 1.5-mile Blackwater Swamp Route
One of the main draws of Robertson Millpond Preserve is its 1.5-mile paddling route through the cypress swamp, which will take about one hour to complete.
The pond is oriented north-south with a maximum depth of approximately 15 feet, so plenty of space to dig into the water with your paddles.
You launch your kayak, canoe, paddle board or small trolling boat at the grassy launch site or from the ADA-accessible boat dock close to the parking lot.
The trail is marked by about 70 buoys (which are sometimes hidden between the cypress trees so pay attention. I don’t think you could get lost here, but I guess it would make the adventure more fun!
The park recommends standup paddleboarders following the trail from buoy 1- 26 on the western side of the pond. The trail is wider with open areas and the creek channel.
The eastern side is shallower and narrower. We did not know this until now! So we paddled the entire way and made it through okay, but there were definitely shallow and narrow parts that we found fun to navigate.
We visited at the beginning of June, so further into the summer the trail may become too shallow for kayaks between buoys 31 and 63.
And we visited just after a wild storm so there was a lot of debris in the water, which made navigating it a little trickier. OR, depending on your perspective, a lot more fun! (My thoughts exactly!)
Don’t be put off by the black water of the swamp. It’s not dirty, it’s caused by tannins from decaying vegetation that leaches into the slow-moving water and stains it to look like tea or coffee.
The swamp does have an eerie feel to it, so if you have younger kids be sure to put them at ease, like we had to with Savannah. No alligators, crocodiles, swamp monsters, or anacondas here!
Savannah rode on the front of my SUP board, which made me feel a little more nervous having to ensure I didn’t tip us off! We nearly did at one stage when we ran into an unseen log and I bumped down to my knees!
It wasn’t too long into the paddle that Savannah started to relax and enjoy the stunning scenery surrounding us. We did not see too many other people on the trail – mostly kayakers and canoers.
Video: Paddling the Robertson Millpond Preserve
Will I see animals in the swamp?
You might not find alligators, but you will find many animals who enjoy this unique habitat as their home. There are plenty of birds, some of which include the wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler, barred owl, great blue heron and more. If you don’t see them, you’ll hear them.
We saw some turtles sunning on a log. You might also see frogs, water snakes and otters. Look for signs of beavers and raccoons, and of course plenty of fish.
Can I rent paddle boards or kayaks?
We get this question a lot and the answer is yes! Obviously, it’s much easier if you have your own. We have inflatable Body Glove stand up paddle boards which we love. Even though we don’t use them as much as I’d like, we still get good enough use to make it a worthy purchase.
Our tip is to get the electric pumps. It is tough pumping them up manually – although a fantastic 10-15 minute workout on the arms. But when you’re already going to be paddling, maybe skip the arm pump up! So, we’re buying the electric pumps this year as the effort can sometimes get in the way of us using them.
Tar River Life offers kayas for rentals on Saturdays only (the website doesn’t have a lot of quality information so maybe phone them with your questions and information on how to get the kayaks). There were plenty of them tied up on a rack when we visited, so I’m guessing they’re waiting for you there!
- Single Kayak is $20/hr, tandem $25/hr. Includes Paddles and life jackets.
What esle is there to do at Robertson Millpond Preserve?
In addition to paddling, there is a small 0.25 mile boardwalk with benches, views over the swamp, and a platform for fishing. Fishing is also allowed from the shoreline, kayaking, canoe or boat (no gas-powered allowed). Make sure you have your fishing license as you need one in NC!
You can still see the dam, fill foundation, and an original millstone to the left of the launch site which we somehow missed! And Geocachers will love finding the ones located in this preserve!
The preserve is also home to small picnic areas, making it a great spot for a relaxing afternoon with family and friends.
Important things to know
- Life jackets are required (9 feet deep in many areas)! The swamp does not have a shoreline to pull onto except at the launch.
- There are no restrooms or fresh drinking water.
- You may also want bug spray – it’s a swamp!
- There is a non-potable water station for cleaning your watercraft.
- The preserve is open seven days a week April – Sept, and weekends only Sept – March.
- Go early to beat the crowds.
How to get there and where to park?
Getting to Robertson Millpond Preserve is easy. The preserve is located just a short 25-minute drive (19.1 miles) from downtown Raleigh, and 45-minutes from Durham. It is easily accessible by car. There is free parking available at the preserve.
Is Robertson Millpond free?
When it comes to cost, there is no fee to enter or enjoy the preserve. However, visitors are encouraged to make a donation to help support the preserve’s upkeep and maintenance.
With its peaceful waters, lush greenery, cypress trees, abundant wildlife, and paddling circuit, Robertson Millpond Preserve is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to experience the beauty of North Carolina’s natural landscape.
Today, the Robertson Millpond Preserve stands as a testament to the power of conservation efforts and serves as a valuable reminder of our responsibility to protect and preserve our planet’s precious natural resources for future generations.
You may also like paddling on some of these other lakes in Raleigh. And here are some of our favorite Raleigh trails if you want to enjoy the warmer weather on a hike or bike ride. (and we chat about them here on our podcast)