Photo by Alex Grichenko, courtesy publicdomainpictures.net
There are few things as quintessentially summery as packing a picnic and sunscreen, donning your swimmies, and driving out to the nearest (or sometimes more remote) body of water. Around Western North Carolina, that often means finding a lake to jump in.
WNC is positively peppered with lakes, but did you know that none of them are natural? Every lake—big and small, deep and shallow, murky brown and crystal teal—is man made, and we love them no less because of it.
Plan your trip to one of these natural—err, kind of—wonders with our guide to lakes around Asheville.
Lake Lure, Rutherford County
We know, we know, this one’s already at the top of every lake list—but that’s with good reason. We love this lake, in part, because of the road to get there. Take the winding asphalt through Hickory Nut Gap and up the mountain through Bat Cave, and those first peeks of the lake’s waters through the trees will feel well-deserved.
Lake Lure has something for everyone: Laid-back boat tours with Lake Lure Tours; guided fishing tours with companies like Lake Lure Fishing Excursions; and the Lake Lure Beach (including its water slide) recently reopened for the summer. For the adventure hounds, there are activities like wakeboarding and waterskiing with Lake Lure Adventure Company. The Lake Lure Olympiad is back this summer (Aug. 13 & 14), as is the annual Dirty Dancing Festival (Sept. 24 & 25).
If you’re looking for quiet solitude, you probably won’t find it at Lake Lure. But you will find plenty of family friendly activities to keep everyone happy.
Nebo, Burke and McDowell Counties
Lake James offers the same “nature’s playground” feel of Lake Lure, but with ample solitude and honest-to-goodness nature. Located between Marion and Morganton (about 45 minutes from Asheville), Lake James and the surrounding state park are perfect for you outdoorsy folk.
Of course, the pièce de résistance is the lake itself. With 150 miles of shoreline tucked into the Linville Gorge, there’s plenty of magnificent nature to explore. The 700-foot beach is the epicenter of all lake activities, especially swimming, sunbathing, and, thanks to on-duty lifeguards, free reign for little ones. There’s even a bathhouse with changing rooms and a concession stand. Can’t sit still? Rent a paddleboard, kayak, or canoe for just $5 an hour.
If you just want to look at the lake while exploring the surrounding state park, there are plenty of ways to do so. 25 miles of trails loop through the woods, including 15 miles of mountain bike trails. There are two boat docks for power and sail boats, if that’s your thing. And then there’s camping, including a site you can only reach by boat.
Bent Creek, Buncombe County
For convenience’s sake, there’s nothing better than Lake Powhatan. South Asheville’s Bent Creek and Lake Powhatan are shimmied into the Pisgah National Forest, just outside the NC Arboretum and Blue Ridge Parkway. This is where city folks looking for a little nature break escape, and you should, too.
Bent Creek is the oldest federal experimental forest, established in 1925 to research how to rehab our forests and promote sustainable forestry. Of course, today the forest is known as a mini-mecca for mountain bikers. There are some 30 miles of double track and single track for all kinds of riders, and locals love to tackle the trails after a day at the office.
But there’s a lot more the forest has to offer. Trails are walkable, too, of course, but the lake’s actually a showstopper. Pack up the kids for a day on the water; there’s a sandy stretch for laying out, and plenty of shady pines and picnic tables for lunchtime.
Graham and Swain Counties
Fontana Lake is the region’s crown jewel—in terms of size, at least. Its 238 miles of shoreline are largely undeveloped, offering dozens of coves and curved inlets perfect for parking your boat.
Bryson City Outdoors (read our 2020 profile on the biz) recently opened a rental location, the Sup Shack, right on Fontana Lake. Stop by for paddle board and kayak rentals seven days a week. There are plenty of places to launch bigger boats around the lake. Fishermen in particular are big fans of this big body of water for its smallmouth bass. The resources are a bit more sparse on this remote lake, but there is the Finger Lakes Day Use Area. With a small park, picnic tables, public restrooms, and a swimming area, there’s enough here to get comfortable for a while.
It’s quite the hike from Asheville (about an hour and a half west of the city), so you might want to consider making it an overnight adventure. There are plenty of camping options, but wouldn’t you rather stay in a houseboat? There are more than 400 houseboats on Fontana Lake, and many of them are available to rent.
Glenville, Jackson County
Lake Glenville is simply a stunner. It’s pristine waters are deep—up to 80 feet—and they turn crystalline and teal when the sun strikes just right. At 3,494 feet, this lake is at the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi, which makes for a fun fact to include when sharing stories about your awesome day on Lake Glenville.
There’s the usual fare for outdoor activities: tubing, paddleboarding, kayaking, kneeboarding, skiing, swimming, and fishing. You can rent a boat from Signal Ridge Marina and chug around the lake. If you’re looking for somewhere to relax on land, check out the Pines Recreation Area. Here you’ll find a wee beach, swimming area, fishing pier, picnic tables, toilets, and plenty of parking.
The best part about Lake Glenville is undoubtedly its waterfalls. Three waterfalls cascade right into the lake itself, including Norton Falls, Hurricane Falls, and Mill Creek Falls. Renting one of those boats from Signal Ridge—or bringing your own—is the perfect way to check out these unique features.
Looking for even more lakes to explore? Our 2017 story, Song of the Summer, offers a comprehensive guide to small mountain lakes around the region.