Written by Emily Glaser (July 2017)
The small mountain lakes of Western North Carolina definitely make a splash.
In some places it’s a gurgle, others the crash and hush of waves; but here, in our mountains, it’s the quiet lapping of the lake. The call of the lake isn’t a single note or voice, but a harmonious and polyphonic melody. The thumping bass notes of pontoons and trawlers, the reedy growls of Jon boats and speedsters. The creak of a rope swing and the sequential percussionist cannonball crash. The steady, shushed cadence of oars. The plunk of hungry bass and harried snapping turtles as they delve up and under that steady surface. The frenzied, joyous cries of kids—in floaties, on tubes, strapped to skis, and slick with sweat and sunscreen and pure joy.
It’s a mellifluous refrain we mountain folk know and love well. For many of us, it might be the soundtrack to summer camp season; for others, the song we hum on family vacation or weekend getaways. With dozens of lakes tucked into the reaching folds of our mountains, these are lyrics we know by heart, and with summertime in full swing, it’s time we sing them. (Photo at top: Fontana Lake, courtesy Bryson City/Swain County Chamber of Commerce)
What Makes a Lake?
“The definition of a lake is not hard and fast and depends on context,” says Dr. Tamlin Pavelsky, associate professor of geological sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “One definition is that lakes are deep enough that light doesn’t penetrate to the bottom, but this isn’t always useful because, (a) the clarity or cloudiness of the water can vary in time; and (b) there are some very large bodies of water that are also very shallow and that no one would call a pond.”
Science aside, we personally like to think of lakes as bodies of water big enough to breed fun. Somewhere a boat can sit, a hook won’t snag, and a butt can flop into a tube without hitting bottom. Our favorites, however, are the smaller lakes, the ones you can navigate without maps and catch the curves of in the snap of a picture. If you define lakes this way, our mountains are riddled with them, small oases of sunshine and good times—though not necessarily naturally-formed bodies of water.
As much as we love the idyllic imagery of mountain springs bursting forth and drenching the ground, filling natural gullies and grooves in the mountainsides in some prehistoric conception, it’s a model we have to debunk. As resources such as NCpedia.com and Ashevilleguidebook.com point out, the lakes in our mountains, those buried in dense old-growth forests and lined with young manicured trees alike, were carved and shaped by human hands. Or more accurately, by human tools, which makes them reservoirs. “A reservoir is simply a lake that has been constructed by humans,” explains Dr. Pavelsky.
We may berate those pesky beavers, but it’s the muddy footprints of the rodents we follow when we create reservoirs. With cement and thick earth serving as our sticks and twigs, we dam the flow of rivers and springs, flooding valleys and forming lakes. The reasons for reservoirs are as varied as their shapes: Water is held back to prevent flooding or released to assuage drought; many are used to generate electricity; and some—like many of our own mountain lakes—serve as playgrounds for water sports, boating, and fishing.
There are a lot of boxes to check when it comes to defining the consummate small mountain lake.
Though reservoirs have been dug and filled by humans for thousands of years (the earliest would be the Jawa Dam in Jordan, which was built in 3000 BCE to hold water for irrigation), our reservoirs are fairly young. Our largest reservoirs, like Chatuge in Clay County, Cherokee County’s Apalachia, and Fontana, which serves Graham and Swain Counties, were funded through through ‘40s-era New Deal programs like the WPA, CWA, and TVA, simultaneously alleviating the effects of the Depression and bringing resources like electricity to laggard Appalachian communities. Even some of our smallest recreational lakes, like Black Mountain’s Lake Tomahawk, are the product of such beautification programs.
As times change and science advances, scientists are caught in debates of the ramifications of such bodies of water. “As for the ecological impact of reservoirs, that’s complicated,” notes Dr. Pavelsky. “They definitely do disrupt natural ecosystems, but they can also provide habitat for some native species and other species that are introduced.” It’s this balancing act of pros and cons that define our lakes on a scientific level as they affect our ecologies and environments. Dr. Pavelsky points out that although there are some questionable repercussions of reservoirs, there are some unquestionable benefits as well, like greener power. “These reservoirs are used to generate hydropower, which does not produce greenhouse gasses in the same way that [the] burning of fossil fuels does, which is good from a climate change perspective,” he explains. But even that is contested when it comes to relative costs and benefits.
While scientists debate the consequences of our reservoirs, we get to enjoy them. They may not be all-natural, but they’re all ours.
The Lure of the Lake
There are a lot of boxes to check when it comes to defining the consummate small mountain lake. There must be deep, cool water dotted with boats small and large, trailing shrieking tubers, agile skiers, or fishing lines. It should be outlined in hiking trails with lush, grasshopper-green canopies. Amenities like boat rentals, campgrounds, and watery cruises and tours should be easily accessible, and the lake itself simply navigable. The surrounding hills should harbor plenty of places to throw back a cold one or fill a hungry hankering and to rest your head for the night (whether that’s on a freshly laundered pillow or a warm tent floor is entirely at the discretion of the visitor). The shores should play host to a festival or two. And the best small mountain lake will have a warm, sandy beach, a lifeguard, and, if you’re really lucky, a waterslide or two.
What we’re trying to say is, Lake Lure is the examplar. Slung in the deep valleys between Chimney Rock and Rumbling Bald, its 720 acres glitter from the steep trails and winding roads that surround it.
Like many of our regional destinations, the lake and the town with which it shares its name were the product of ill-health. It’s a common tale: Wealthy tourists like Biltmore’s George Vanderbilt and Grove Park Inn’s Edwin Grove were sent with their families to the cool mountains for healthful respite, only to fall in love—and capitalize on—the beauty of our region. Such was the case with Dr. Lucius B. Morse, who, standing atop Chimney Rock, envisioned a sprawling resort and lake in the valley below. Over the next two decades, Morse purchased 8,000 acres and commissioned the dam that would create the bucolic lake, which was completed and the town founded in 1927.
It was in that same year that the Lake Lure Inn & Spa (lakelure.com) first opened its doors to guests. The grand Inn, decked in red shingles and emerald shutters, still holds the appeal today as it did nearly a century ago. With a spa, signature restaurant (The Veranda), and bar (Moose & Goose Lounge), the hotel—which is just a stone’s throw from the lake’s beach park—remains a popular destination.
The community may be drenched in historic charm, but there are plenty of modern luxuries, too. Over the past 70 years, Rumbling Bald Resort (rumblingbald.com) has grown from a humble boathouse into a 3,600-acre resort community.
“Rumbling Bald is situated at the north end of the lake,” says Adam Shirah, director of food and beverage at the resort, who has spent the past six months revitalizing the resort’s menus. “There are two 18-hole golf courses, three restaurants on the property including options for golfers, full spa facilities, workout facilities, an indoor pool, and two outdoor pools for families to enjoy.” Shirah pauses, then smiles. “Family is the important word.”
Folks who rent or buy one of the resort’s mountain homes will find plenty to do with their family on or around the lake. From the Beach Cabana you can rent pedal boats, kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards. The grounds are home to a series of celebrations, too, from an Independence Day Celebration to the annual Vintage Tin Car Show in October.
The festivals and celebrations of Lake Lure certainly aren’t relegated to private lands. The Lake Lure Olympiad Sports Festival takes place every summer (this year’s shindig is August 11-13), and is a weekend of sporty celebrations that includes four races: the 10K Dam Run, Lake Lure Triathalon, Race to the Rock 5K, and Race to the Rock 25-mile bike race. The weekend also includes a golf tournament, pickle ball tournament, junior Olympiad, and lots of events to foster friendly competition in little ones.
Earlier in the summer, the lake is home to the Lure of the Dragons Race & Festival (lureofthedragons.org). The thump of drums beats out a cadence for paddlers in 30-foot long dragon boats decked in thick scales and fiery heads.
Dancing more your style? There’s a festival for that, too. Dirty Dancing, that is. The iconic flick was filmed in these very waters, and the town plays testament to the movie with an annual Dirty Dancing Festival (August 18 and 19). It’s a weekend of live music, dancing, watermelon races, and, of course, a screening of the film.
The picturesque shores of Lake Lure have inspired more than one filmmaker. Vigilant eyes will make out the lake in scenes from Thunder Road, A Breed Apart, Forrest Gump, The Last of the Mohicans, and Firestarter.
And it’s no surprise, given the stunning beauty that’s risen from Dr. Morse’s mind. The lake itself is a paradisiacal example of nature. Anglers will find a trove of fish in its burnished waters, including rainbow trout, brown trout, large and small mouth bass, crappie, white bass, catfish, bluegill, and sun-perch. There are plenty of guide services to help out you novices, including Lewis No Clark Expeditions (lewisnoclark.com). Michael Lewis has been a guide on Lake Lure for 18 years and can attest to the allure of Lake Lure’s fishing. “Number one is the scenery. This is one of the prettiest lakes in Western North Carolina, if not the United States,” he drawls, painting a picture of a crisp morning out on the lake. “You might see a bald eagle fly by and pick up a fish. Chimney’s Rock’s in the background; there are beautiful views; the climate’s usually pretty good; and you can fish all year. It’s kind of a quiet, private lake, so getting a guide’s probably the best way to get to know the area.”
Lewis hosts half-day excursions on the lake, the only guide in the region to offer both regular fishing and fly fishing. (He even teaches fly fishing and tying at local community colleges.) According to the expert, the fishing is only getting better. “Since four to five years ago, the fishing is better because they used to stock the lake with trout but they stopped, which allowed the bass population to really grow.” And business is booming; whereas Lewis’ was always busiest in summertime, he says that spring and fall visits have boomed in recent years to match that of the hottest season.
If fishing’s not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the lake. Lake Lure Tours (lakeluretours.com) offers guided boat tours with a narrative of the lake’s history. Thrill seekers can make reservations with Lake Lure Adventure Company (lakelureadventurecompany.org) for lessons in water skiing and wakeboarding, or to rent a pontoon, kayak, or stand-up paddle board. And then there’s the beach: Hot white sand, a water park and slide for raucous little ones, snack bar, changing rooms, and picnic table make for a charming day of fun in the sun.
Lake Lure may have it all, but that also means it has all the crowds. Many lake goers are looking to escape the barrage of society; they seek a quiet refuge, somewhere to slip away with their family or closest friends to listen to the quiet lap of the lake’s waves. For these vacationers, Western North Carolina holds a store of private lakes, rife with sumptuous and simple amenities alike, and absent of those pulsing crowds. These aren’t just bodies of water carved from the Carolina dirt; they’re often communities of friends, cultivated and curated for the refined lake-goer.
Take, for example, Canton’s Lake Logan (lakelogan.org). “In the 1930s the land on which the lake now sits was a logging town called Sunburst,” explains Lake Logan volunteer Vinton Murray. “The mill town lost its value and its residents when the surrounding mountains had been clear cut and the paper company was relocating the mill.” The president of the company, Reuben Robertson, convinced his board of directors to dam up the Pigeon River and create the lake as a back-up source of water for Champion Paper. The idyllic scene the new reservoir created was too sweet to ignore. “In the 1940s Robertson built Sit ‘n Whittle, a collection of historic cabins to be used as a corporate retreat for Champion’s executives and their clients,” says Murray. “It has been said that if the walls of the main lodge could talk, some fascinating tales would be heard.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage to private lakes—besides the privacy, of course—is the level of amenities.
Today, the lake is the centerpiece of the 300-acre Lake Logan Conference Center, with 15 cabins (including those of Robertson’s making) that house anywhere from two to 17. The ranging property is perfect for larger groups looking for an escape, like family reunions or wedding parties (total occupancy is 85), but you can also rent a cabin for a weekend getaway for two—or one. The serenity of the lake is available for the day, too; a one-day guest pass is $25, or $35 including lunch.
The little lake hosts wholesome fun, like swimming, canoeing, fishing, and quiet relaxing. The Conference Center is also beginning to incorporate more public programming and events into its lineup. June held the inaugural Cold Mountain Music Festival and featured the Grammy-winning band Steep Canyon Rangers, and a new lecture series started this year as well, with a focus on spirituality (the Center is Episcopalian and opens it arms to folks of all faiths). “The lecture series includes a stimulating talk on a subject related to spirituality and other topics our regular patrons are interested in hearing. The next one is Divinity Professor Lauren Winner, on September 21,” says Murray.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to private lakes—besides the privacy, of course—is the level of amenities. Cashiers’ 35-acre Hampton Lake is under the care of High Hampton Inn and Country Club (highhamptoninn.com), which was recently acquired by Alabama-based property operators Daniel Communities. (See last month’s regional news briefs for details.)
While the sprawling, 1,400-acre property is ideal for gatherings, it’s also uniquely appointed for small-scale getaways. With roots that stretch back into the 19th century and a 95-year history as a resort, the property is renowned for welcoming generations of families year after year to its rustic inn and charming cottages. In this whirlwind digital age, the campus offers a welcome respite from technology—no phones, no television, no problems.
Though the resort offers a bounty of activities—tennis, llama hikes, a spa, and a falconry program, among many others—the star of the show is, as always, the lake. Here the theme of stepping back in time continues: No motorboats allowed. The tranquility is broken only by the trickle of laughter and the swish of oars, as guests sail, canoe, row, and pedal boat on the Inn’s small fleet. A wading pool and swimming area are great for a dunk or dip after sunbathing on the sandy beach, and two docks and swim platforms make for excellent cannonball launches.
Haywood County’s Lake Junaluska (lakejunaluska.com) is at the heart of the Conference and Retreat Center that shares its name. The sprawling, 100-year-old property, which is partnered with the United Methodist Church, is large enough to house mega-conferences, performances, and lecture series, but small enough to feel homey for family vacations. “We hear every day about people who visit the lake and are transformed by their experience here,” says Executive Director Jack Ewing. “From staying in one of our lakeside hotels to walking our gardens or paddle boarding across the lake, we welcome everyone to visit and experience Lake Junaluska.”
The summer season brings guests in droves to the center for events and concerts. “The most prominent is our Independence Day Celebration, which consists of three concerts (Balsam Range, Laura Story, and the Lake Junaluska Singers), a BBQ picnic, hometown-style parade, and a spectacular fireworks show. That is taking place from July 2-5,” notes Liz Boyd, the Center’s marketing assistant manager.
When it comes to the lake, there’s plenty to get visitors on the water. Paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes stand in neat rows, awaiting their turn to skim easily across the lake’s calm surface. In the summer season, the Center fires up the resident pontoon, the Cherokee IV, for tours of the lake. The boat embarks on a sunset cruise every day at 8PM, or you can schedule a private group tour for a more personal chug.
Not all private lakes come with conference centers and multi-story inns; some, like Lake Summit in Tuxedo, are private enough for private residences. Personal cottages dot the ten miles of shoreline, providing quaint shelter for permanent residents and summertime wayfarers alike. The waters of the lake form a placid arena for power boating, sailing, skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking, swimming, and leisurely pontoon cruises. The lake’s several camps, including Camp Greystone and Camp Green Cove for girls, and Camp Mondamin for boys, have offered young ones a taste of the lake life (and a rope swing) for decades.
Though Lake Summit is certainly a community, Lake Toxaway (laketoxaway.com) is in a different league when it comes to private lake communities. Lake Toxaway—located in western Transylvania County, and the largest privately-held lake in North Carolina—is available exclusively to the residents of Toxaway Estates or those renting the community’s vacation homes. Residents of the Estates can ascend to the next level of private exclusivity if they’re inducted into the Lake Toxaway Country Club, which is dependent on application and approval of the membership committee. But once you’re in, you’re in, with access to the newly renovated clubhouse (the doors just opened in June), the Kris Spence-designed 18-hole championship golf course, the 20-acre Tom Fazio Golf Learning Center, fine dining, and a state-of-the-art fitness center, plus exclusive social events.
These aren’t the crowded lakes of country songs, but exclusive destinations that offer up a manicured taste of the lake life.
A tackle box holds the same glittering appeal as a jewelry collection. Open the plastic lid, speckled with mud, and a scintillating trove of bait and tackle is revealed: Flies that trail feathers fluffed and fluorescent or slim and muted; plastic molds in the shape of bugs and worms and amorphous nothings; tiny lead weights as wee as kernels that catch the sun; bobbers covered in a web of old moss. But all this, this cachet of color and captivation, is useless without a good lake to lay it on.
Now, there’s something to be said for fishing on those larger lakes we’ve mentioned. Good boats, deep water, hot sun—unquestionably a recipe for a good time. But there’s something about a really small lake, one with a name most folks won’t recognize, that appeals to the true fishermen.
These are the lakes where locals have been coming for decades, using their helms as rovers to map out the sweet spots. They know where to drop their lines to find the gaping mouth of a bass or the whiskered bite of a catfish. They’re a little secret and a little tricky, but with some patience they can be wonderfully rewarding.
Fontana Lake, one of the dam-created reservoirs discussed above, is an overwhelming maze of fingers and inlets, but its sister lake, Cheoah Lake, is the kind of secluded and navigable lake of fishermen’s dreams. Bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the shores are undeveloped, providing a serene backdrop for dropping a line. Because Cheoah is relatively narrow, there’s not room enough for louder, more raucous sports, leaving the water placid and the air free from the shrieks of revving engines and voices. When it comes to amenities, there are none—just a single boat ramp where the tires of dozens of anglers have left their mark. You’ll find rainbow, brown, and brook trout in these quiet waters, as well as small mouth and large mouth bass and a booming muskie population—which, with plenty of trout to feed on, is growing heartily. (Details on both Fontana and Cheoah are at greatsmokies.com/fontana.)
Jackson County’s Cedar Cliff Lake, which is tied to the larger, meandering Bear Creek Lake and is buried in the Nantahala National Forest, offers similar levels of seclusion. You’ll find whitewater rafters and languid tubers on the lake, shot in from the west fork of the Tuckasegee River, but like Cheoah, Cedar Cliff is too narrow for water sports. Instead, it’s an oasis for largemouth bass; unlike other Carolinian lakes, these fish aren’t stocked by the Wildlife Resources Commission, but swim their fins in via the Tuckasegee (much like those tubers). Anglers can also cast their hooks for trout, muskie, smallmouth bass, crappie, rock bass, sunfish, and bream. Fly fishermen have luck on the lake’s sandbars and thin outlying streams.
Another lake with shores in the Nantahala National Forest is Lake Santeetlah. A small town of the same name carves into the northern side of the lake, but the majority of its waters are crowned by pristine forest. The United States Forest Service keeps the lake and lands in tip-top shape, with facilities for camping and picnicking (you’ll find more than 50 camp sites in the vicinity), as well as fishing and boating. There are plenty of fish waiting to be plucked from these quiet waters, like small and large mouth bass, walleye, crappie, bream, and lake trout; in fact, the lake held for some time the state records for both largemouth and walleye. Intimidated by the presence of a town? Don’t be; as of 2010, the permanent residents only numbered 43. Serenity, undisturbed.
Let the beach keeps its salt and sand, the river its rocks, and give us the calm, melodious waters of our lakes. That’s the mountains’ summer siren call.
Lakes for City Slickers
Speak the words “mountain” and “lake” together, and figments of misty, secluded pools drift into focus, scenes of remote havens accessed via muddy treks and four-wheel drive, remote locals where phone service is questionable and poison ivy is guaranteed. Although that’s certainly true of some of our lakes (see above), they can take very different, citified forms. These mountains also cradle manicured pools lined with walking paths, dog parks, and well-behaved shrubs.
These lakes are special not because of their isolation, but their neighborliness and convenience. Sometimes you want to appreciate the great outdoors while still feeling the ping and buzz of your phone’s notifications. Sometimes you can only handle a quick trip into the sun, sealed with the cool promise of afternoon’s air-conditioning. And sometimes, us city folks need a little nature, too.
Arden’s Lake Julian is one such urban oasis. It’s a favorite destination for all types—weekend warriors and picnickers, kayakers, and sunbathers—because it’s so easily accessible. “Lake Julian Park is a real gem in the middle of South Asheville,” says David Blynt, the park manager. “It is the most utilized park within Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Services, and one of the most utilized in Western North Carolina.” Asheville’s outdoorsmen (of which there are so, so many), have easy access to plenty of big-lake amenities in a convenient, little-lake package.
It’s a great destination for city-dwellers because the park offers rentals—like paddle and fishing boats—which means you don’t have to lug around or store big-ticket equipment. It’s the kind of park made for summertime, with picnic tables, a playground, disc golf, volleyball, horse shoe pits, and picnic shelter rentals perfect for a party. And because it’s operated by the county, that means the park can offer cool programming like kids’ fishing tournaments, or pontoon boat rides that are free for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and touring local students. The community makes the most of these convenient waters, with festivals both their own (Fall Festival, typically in October) and others’ (like Diamond Brand’s Paddlefest, which took place this past April).
Asheville-area residents and visitors looking for something a little more rural but still local can visit Lake Powhatan, located slightly southwest of the city near the North Carolina Arboretum. The lake’s bright, sandy beach is a natural playground for wee ones, and the surrounding lands harbor lots of hiking and mountain biking trails for the big kids. If you do decide to stay overnight, camping sites abound. Plus, there are hot showers.
Nearby Lake Tomahawk is the nucleus of Black Mountain and was another project of the CWA. This wee lake is a quick stroll from downtown, plopped in the midst of a quaint, polished park. No motorized boats are allowed, but you’ll likely find a fisherman lazily casting on the shore or in a small craft.
Highlands’ Harris Lake Park is a popular picnic spot. Like Lake Tomahawk, it’s a short jaunt from the charming downtown’s bustling streets. Few amenities make this small mountain lake a good choice for lunchtime escapes from the daily grind.
There may be magic in those secluded, remote lakes, but there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and municipal management of their urban counterparts.
One Last Lullaby
In the Carolinas we have a series of sayings regarding our ability to travel from mountains to coast in the span of a few short hours. Although that makes one heck of a marketing slogan, we’d say the real treasure of our state lies here, in our mountains. They wink eager, sunshiney hellos and wave gentle goodbyes to passing boats; they host parties and vacations; they buoy our little ones and our beers in cool, cradling arms. And when we sing their song, they sing it back: Sometimes a loud, lauding number of whoops and revving engines; sometimes a simple percussionist tap of drumming raindrops and gulping fish; and sometimes a simple, sweet lullaby, a hushed send-off of crickets and tickling leaves and the soft lap of waves.
Let the beach keeps its salt and sand, the river its rocks, and give us the calm, melodious waters of our lakes. That’s the mountains’ summer siren call.
Take a Hike
Many of our lakes are surrounded by winding, ascending trails, perfect for hikers of all levels to enjoy the view of the lake as much as it’s water sports.
PRICE LAKE HIKE
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, between Grandfather Mountain and Blowing Rock, sits Price Lake and Julian Price Memorial Park. Trails loop around the lake (which also offers canoe and kayak rentals), and in winter cross-country skiing draws snowbirds. Begin at Boone Fork Overlook (behind the boat rental building), and follow the path through thickets of rhododendron to a lakeside fishing deck. This one-mile hike is wheelchair accessible and fairly flat, an easy hike for eager kiddos. More serious hikers can continue around the slim, lengthy fingers of the lake, over bridges and the dam, looping back around to the overlook.
CLIFFSIDE LAKE HIKE
At just six acres, Cliffside Lake in Highlands may be small, but its trails are many. A half-dozen quick trails offer variety for hikers. The 1.5 mile Clifftop Vista Trail culminates with striking mountain views from a quaint gazebo, though hardy hikers can continue along the rocky ridge. Outdoorsmen looking for a different kind of watery view can follow Skitty Creek Trail to Dry Falls, which are so-named not because they’re arid but because you can pass behind them without getting wet.
NANTAHALA LAKE HIKE
Deep in Nantahala’s wilderness winds the Bartram Trail. This lengthy, multi-night hike is not for the faint of heart, but it does offer all the spectacular views for which hikers could hope: rolling mountains, dense mountain laurel groves, and plenty of glimpses of the very large Nantahala Lake.
The original article is below. It includes a map of Western North Carolina detailing the locations of the lakes – and others – discussed in the text. Click to open in fullscreen…