As the summer heat and humidity descends on Western North Carolina, outdoor enthusiasts crave a cool watering hole. Whether you love swimming, fishing, kayaking, or just floating along, there are many stunning lakes and rivers to choose from, some easily accessed, and others a little off the beaten path.
]As the summer heat and humidity descends on Western North Carolina, outdoor enthusiasts crave a cool watering hole. Whether you love swimming, fishing, kayaking, or just floating along, there are many stunning lakes and rivers to choose from, some easily accessed, and others a little off the beaten path
Who wouldn’t be curious about a spot called Skinny Dip Falls? Yellowstone Prong stream feeds Skinny Dip’s three interconnected waterfalls, the highest of which is about 20 feet. Getting to the falls takes approximately 20-minutes from the parking area. It’s a moderately difficult hike with some steep steps, rocky terrain, and a gentle incline.
The falls are accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Parking is available at the Looking Glass Rock Overlook, just south of mile marker 417.
From mile marker 417, follow the .8-mile trail, which leads swimmers to a beautiful cascade of three waterfalls and a deep cool swimming pool at the bottom. There are also several small pools along the creek to cool off. If you’re hoping to have the falls to yourself, a weekday would be best, but generally it is a popular spot in the summer, and despite its name, best to plan on wearing a swimsuit.
If it’s too crowded at Skinny Dip, there are two other choice waterfalls nearby.
First is Graveyard Falls, fed from the same stream as Skinny Dip and located off milepost 419 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a parking area on the west side of the road. Signs will lead hikers to the Second Falls, which takes you to the top of the falls for a grand view. To reach the large swimming hole below, continue to Lower Falls where a wooden staircase leads to the bottom.
A little more challenging to access, and therefore more likely to be quieter and less crowded, are Courtyard Falls. The catch pool is not the swimmers paradise of Skinny Dip and Graveyard, but these remote, beautiful falls are worth the trip. Once you get to the parking area, it’s a gorgeous hike in.
From the Blue Ridge Parkway, pass mile marker 423 and turn east on Route 215. In about six and a half miles turn left on FR (Frontage Road) 140, a gravel road. Continue for about three miles on this steep and winding road until you reach the bridge over Courthouse Creek, where you will see a parking area on the other side of the bridge. Park here and hike up the Summey Cove Trail. In about ten minutes you will hear the sound of the falls. Once you do, begin looking for a trail marker on the left that indicates Courthouse Falls. A small path will lead sharply downward to the falls and swimming hole.
Elk River Falls, also known as Big Falls, is located near the town of Elk Park at the Tennessee/North Carolina border and is part of the Pisgah National Forest. The thunderous 75-foot waterfall cascades into a huge deep swimming pool. There is a picnic area with a trail that leads to the falls. The swimming area is dazzling, with a smooth rocky slope ‘beach’ perfect for sunbathing.
This popular spot attracts a good bit of traffic in the summer, but it also attracts a lot of risk-takers. Checking out the view from the top of the falls is tempting, but visitors are warned not to get too close to the edge; unfortunately there have been fatalities. You may see people jumping from the top of the falls, but that doesn’t mean it is safe. The river flowing above the falls has a very strong current. Swimmers are advised only to swim in the catch pool at the bottom.
Old Mill Road is the main road in the town of Elk Park. From Old Mill Road take a right onto Elk River Road. Go about four miles, the last two of which is gravel, to the picnic area at the end of the road. The small parking area fills up quickly in the summer. From there you will see a short path that leads to the falls.
But if the roar of waterfalls is not your idea of a lazy summer swimming hole, one gem close to Asheville is Lake Powatan. Surrounded by the 6000-acre Bent Creek Experimental Forest linking it to miles of mountain biking and hiking trails, this sweet little lake has a sandy beach with a designated swimming area. Because there are no boats allowed on the lake it is a peaceful retreat. The cool, churning waters of Bent Creek feed into the lake. Along the creek there are several places where dogs love to romp in the shallow waters.
Lake Powatan’s campsites are all within walking distance to the lake and have picnic tables, tent pads, and campfire rings with grills. There are restrooms with hot showers, and a few sites have full hookups.
From Asheville, take I-26 to exit 33. Go south approximately two miles on State Route 191 to the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area sign. Turn right and follow signs to the campground.
With such easy access to Asheville, this could be the perfect ‘staycation’ or even gourmet camping trip; just head into town for dinner out and maybe even a show, then return to Lake Powatan to sleep under the stars.
If you like a little adventure on the water, the fast-moving Watauga River is a popular destination for kayakers and rafters. Commercial outfitters from Tennessee and Western North Carolina offer guided trips and boat rentals from multiple locations along the river in the summer months.
The Watauga River flows across Watauga County, North Carolina, and crosses the Tennessee border at Johnson City. The river winds through stunning cliffs, wildlife habitats, and breathtaking scenery. Because the river is dam controlled, there is consistent white water throughout the season, with rapids for every skill level.
High Mountain Expeditions is one service that offers half-day rafting trips with put-in and take-out points in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Rapids range from class I-III (easy to intermediate) in this part of the river.
There are class IV-V (advanced to expert) whitewater rapids on the Watauga River upstream of Watauga Lake. A good bit of rainfall is required to make these areas runnable. Characterized by turbulent waters and long distances between resting pools, these rapids require a high level of fitness and are only navigable by expert paddlers.
But paddling isn’t the only reason to visit. The Watauga River is also a destination for fly fishing and angling, with abundant rainbow trout, brown trout, and striped bass.
If floating down a lazy river on an inner tube is more your style, you might want to check out the North Mills River Recreation Area and Campground, which is part of the Pisgah National Forest. Located just 20 minutes west of Hendersonville, this gentle river is perfect for tubing and rafting. The cool shallow water has small rapids and drops, and there is a natural beach area for serene floating. This is a great spot for smaller kids to splash and play.
There are 39 picnic areas with grills along the river, as well as a ball field and hiking trails.
If you’d like to stay a while, there are 32 primitive campsites, which can accommodate tents or RVs, but there are no hookups.
Take exit 40 off I-26, travel west on US 280 past the airport for six miles to North Mills River Road. Turn right and travel five miles to the North Mills River Recreation Area.
Just getting to Lake Santeetlah is a sports car driver and motorcyclist’s dream. This jewel of a lake is situated along a portion of U.S. 129 called the ‘Tail of the Dragon,’ which is an 11-mile stretch of road winding through Tennessee and North Carolina with a purported 318 curves. The road travels through scenic forested areas, including the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
The Cheoah District of the Nantahala National Forest surrounds Lake Santeetlah itself, offering endless recreational choices. The lake has 76 miles of shoreline with fish varieties, such as smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappie, and lake trout. There is one full service marina, Santeetlah Marina. Boat rentals include pontoons, fishing boats, canoes, and kayaks, and all can be rented in four-hour increments or for the week.
Lake Santeetlah is a real wilderness getaway, connecting to over 200 miles of hiking trails in the Cheoah District alone. From the lake it’s an eight-mile hike to the Appalachian Trail, making it a great place to set up camp and explore. Scattered about the lake are 50 primitive campsites, each with a fire ring and picnic table. Although there are no toilet facilities or water at the campsites, there are also no camping permits or fees required.
If you’re looking for a lake that takes time to explore, consider Lake James. This 6812-acre reservoir has a whopping 150-mile shoreline. Powerboats, sailboats, and smaller craft have ample room to navigate these waters. There are two boat ramps along NC 126, one of which, Canal Bridge, is open 24 hours.
Lake James State Park, a 565-acre recreation area, borders the lake on the southern edge. The park itself rents canoes and kayaks, and there are several privately run marinas nearby to rent larger boats.
Camping is available in the park with 20 rustic sites near the scenic shoreline. Campsites do not have electricity, and access requires a hike from 150 to 300 yards. All camping sites have a fire pit, tent site, and picnic table. There are shared water faucets and a shower facility near the parking lot. Boat-in camping on the Long Arm Peninsula is expected to be available for the first time this year.
With 120-foot depths, quiet coves, and varying water temperatures, sport fishing abounds. Largemouth bass, walleye, and catfish are among the abundant species that inhabit this lake. Summertime is the prime fishing season for crappie and white bass. If you’re looking for a challenge, try beating these two records set at Lake James: The largest white catfish, a 13-pound giant, was caught there in 1990, and the state record tiger muskie was wrestled from these waters in 1988, a 33-pound eight-ounce mammoth.
Swimming is permitted in the designated Paddy Creek Area from May 1 through September 30, 10 am to 6 pm daily. There is a small fee when lifeguards are present.
With so many gorgeous waterfalls, rivers, and lakes to visit in Western North Carolina, it’s definitely going to be a cool summer!
When visiting any of these natural watering holes, it’s smart to be aware of the environment. Branches from trees may be submerged in moving river waters. Wildlife such as snakes and crawfish occupy many of these lakes and rivers. Natural outcroppings of rock can be slippery, and the catch pools below the falls may be too shallow for jumping into from lofty heights. White water rapids are challenging to navigate, even for the experts. When summer fun is the goal, common sense and awareness ensures that everyone has a good time.
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