North Carolina Destination Lakes
From the mountains to the coastal plain, North Carolina lakes offer pristine natural beauty and endless opportunities for adventure. Looking for quiet activities? Try reeling in a trout, floating along in a canoe or breaking out the binoculars to spot an osprey or mink. If an adrenaline rush is what you seek, rent a jet ski, hike to a waterfall or bike one of many trails surrounding our state’s lakes.
The three lakes featured below guarantee family togetherness and provide thrills and chills. All offer countless activities and varied accommodations.
Fontana Lake: Bryson City
Nestled on the westernmost edge of North Carolina, Fontana Lake has 240 miles of minimally developed shoreline, giving boaters and kayakers unobstructed views of the Smoky Mountains.
The National Park Service or U.S. Forest Service owns more than 90 percent of the land surrounding Fontana Lake, a naturalist’s paradise. Spots on the water offer a clear view of Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the most unique aspects of the lake is Fontana Dam, completed in 1944 to provide electricity as part of the war effort. At 480 feet high, this working hydroelectric dam is the tallest east of the Rockies and the fourth-largest in the U.S.
Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, recommends visiting in June, July or August, because September marks the beginning of the annual draw-down. Families can learn how the dam was built at the visitor center, open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. May through November.
Fontana Lake is one of the deepest (more than 400 feet) and coldest in the region, with a diverse fish population that includes walleye, muskie and smallmouth bass, so it’s perfect for the amateur reeler.
Wilmot suggests the Deep Creek hike, through the entrance of the Park. “It offers three lovely waterfalls on an easy-to-manage trail. Make a day of it with the kids with a picnic, creek tubing and just splashing around,” she says.
For a bit of history, visit nearby Cherokee and the Oconaluftee Village, an 18th-century “living museum” that features a dugout canoe, pottery and basket making, and a blowgun demonstration.
There are multiple choices for accommodations, including camping, motels/hotels and cabins. “We offer a great deal of lodging for all budgets and family dynamics, so it just depends on what you’re looking for,” Wilmot says.
Lake Lure: Rutherford County
About 100 miles west of Charlotte you’ll find Lake Lure – a spot you may recognize because it was featured in films such as Dirty Dancing, The Last of the Mohicans and My Fellow Americans. With two beaches, a water park, beautiful mountain scenery and dozens of family-friendly activities, Lake Lure is sure to keep you busy.
Start with a guided boat tour. Your skipper will show you landmarks and share mountain legends. Or rent a boat, whether you’re interested in water skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking or canoeing. The lake is filled with small coves ideal for fishing and bird-watching, and you may catch a glimpse of one of the many collegiate rowing teams that practice there. The beaches and water park feature 100 yards of sand and a swimming area, water slides, bumper boats and water games.
About a half-mile away are Chimney Rock State Park and the iconic Chimney Rock, a 315-foot monolith offering spectacular views from its peak. Take the 44 stairs to the top or hop on the elevator for a 30-second ride. Five hiking trails range from easy to strenuous. Or schedule a rock-climbing lesson. Kids love Grady’s Animal Discovery Den, home to woodland creatures such as nonvenomous snakes, turtles and toads. (Photo at left of rock climbing at Chimney Rock State Park, near Lake Lure, is courtesy of Town of Lake Lure.)
Lake Lure is also home to many festivals throughout the year. The International Dragon Boat Festival in June features races, parties and a “Waking of the Dragons” opening ceremony. The annual Lake Lure Olympiad in August accommodates all ages and abilities. The Dirty Dancing Festival, also in August, includes a lakeside screening, family dance festival and after-party dance party.
During late April and May, as well as the early fall months, you’ll have the place to yourself, says Valerie Hoffman, communications coordinator for the Town of Lake Lure. Accommodations are plentiful and vary from log cabins to motels to campsites. “We’ve got it all,” she says. “The mountains, lake and beach. It’s what has drawn families here for so long.” Pictured above, dragon boats race during the International Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Lure. Photo courtesy Town of Lake Lure
Lake Waccamaw: Columbus County
Head to the swampy Coastal Plain on the eastern side of the state to visit Lake Waccamaw. One of North Carolina’s few natural lakes, Waccamaw offers ecology lessons for the entire family.
There’s definitely something in the water of this “one of a kind” lake, says Toby Hall, Lake Waccamaw State Park superintendent.
The extreme biodiversity living in and around it includes seven species native only to the area – three fish, two mussel and two snail species. Known as a bay lake, Lake Waccamaw was named not for a body of water, but for the “bay vegetation” growing nearby. A peaceful paddle is the best way to observe this shallow, oval lake of tea-colored water, because it allows visitors to see various birds and reptiles – maybe even an alligator. Paddlers can also glimpse the limestone bluffs along the north shore, which create the neutral pH in the water necessary for the survival of such unique ecosystems.
The main area of Lake Waccamaw State Park features a visitor center, picnic area, two public piers, four hiking trails and four primitive campsites. The park staff provides a variety of educational programs, including interpretative nature hikes, campfire programs and special events.
Hall says many visitors choose to tent camp at the park. Other accommodations include nearby Lakeshore Bed and Breakfast, RV parks, hotels in Whiteville (about a 15-minute drive) or rental homes on the lake.
“Lake Waccamaw is a very tranquil and peaceful place,” Hall says. Visitors and local residents enjoy the lake and its surrounding area for its serenity and beauty. This place is truly a gem for the state of North Carolina.”
Amy Salvatore Reiss is a freelance writer who lives in Davidson and is the mother of two young girls.