[Updated January 25, 2023]
As anyone who has ever visited will tell you, the state of North Carolina is truly a haven for nature lovers.
The state is home to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest, dozens of beloved NC State Parks, the beaches of the Outer Banks, and famous scenic routes such as the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway and Blue Ridge Parkway.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, waterfalls abound, and trout-filled streams flow down the mountainsides into dazzling lakes that glitter like jewels in the sunlight.
North Carolina’s coastline is littered with lovely little beach towns, the massive dunes where the Wright Brothers took their first flight, and wild horses that have been there for hundreds of years.
Over the last century, the beautiful lakes in North Carolina have developed into a beloved part of the rustic recreational lore the South tends to celebrate.
Whether you’re interested in camping, a lakeside stroll, a refreshing swim, a canoe/kayak paddle, or a few days of fishing, these NC lakes offer an array of outdoor activities.
Read on for our in-depth guide to 20 of our favorite North Carolina lakes to visit, including info on fun activities, some local history, and the closest NC towns.
Lakes in North Carolina Guide
- Bass Lake
- Fontana Lake
- Hanging Rock State Park Lake
- High Rock Lake
- Jordan Lake
- Lake Adger
- Lake Glenville
- Lake Hiwassee
- Lake James
- Lake Junaluska
- Lake Lure
- Lake Mattamuskeet
- Lake Norman
- Lake Santeetlah
- Lake Toxaway
- Lake Waccamaw
- Lake Wylie
- Nantahala Lake
- Price Lake
- W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
1. Bass Lake
(1,470 acres near Blowing Rock NC)
Bass Lake is located in Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s one of two lakes in the park, and it has a popular loop hiking trail around it.
Moses Cone Park is famed for being a phenomenal spot for equestrian enthusiasts.
The park has over 25 miles of carriage trails running through it, all of which are open to hikers and horseback riders alike.
Set in the hollow below Flat Top Manor (the former estate of Moses H. Cone), Bass Lake can be accessed by hiking down from the Parkway or via a lower parking lot just a few miles from Blowing Rock.
This lake is open to fishing, is popular for hiking and jogging, and is one heck of a gorgeous place to spread a blanket out for an afternoon picnic.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Blowing Rock NC
2. Fontana Lake
(10,000+ acres near Bryson City NC)
Established in the 1940s, the 10,000-acre lake is a reservoir that was formed by the damming of the Little Tennessee River.
At 480 feet tall, the Fontana Dam is the highest east of the Rocky Mountains.
Fontana Lake has a reputation because it’s home to around 400 house boats (some of which are available for rent), and there’s also the remote Fontana Village Resort on this lake.
Boats are an important commodity here, as there are many areas of the lake that are inaccessible without them.
Swimming is another popular pastime on Fontana Lake, and the trails are great, too.
Of course, the lake also provides access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest, both of which have great hiking trails, camping, and so on.
3. Hanging Rock State Park Lake
One of the most popular of the NC State Parks, Hanging Rock State Park began as a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s. A concrete and earthen dam was completed in 1938 to create a 12-acre lake forvisitors to enjoy.
Boating and fishing are possible all year round (with proper NC licensing), and rowboats and canoes are available to rent in spring, summer, and fall.
There’s also a swimming beach on the lake, as well as numerous NC hiking trails spurring from it (as well as providing views of it).
Hanging Rock State Park is located in the Sauratown Mountains, a lovely little mountain range just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
4. High Rock Lake
(15,180 acres near Salisbury NC)
At the time, it was the largest reservoir in North Carolina, and among the largest in the country.
These days High Rock Lake is recognized as a premier fishing location, and it’s also known as a top spot for inland sailing and power boating.
Much of the coastline of High Rock Lake is owned by private residents, but there are several public boats ramps that are free to use.
If you want to spend the weekend, nearby campgrounds include High Rock Lake Marina & Campground in Lexington, Cross Winds Family Campground in Linwood, and Carolina Rose Campground in Salisbury.
5. Jordan Lake
(13,940 acres near Apex NC)
With 180 miles of shoreline and nearly 14,000 acres of surface area, Jordan Lake is a massive flood control project that has become a recreational wonderland.
The lake was originally authorized as the New Hope Lake Project in 1964, but it was later renamed in honor US Senator B. Everett Jordan.
Located 24 miles west of Raleigh NC, the Jordan Lake State Recreation Area features over 1,000 different campsites on the shores of the lake.
The lake is a popular spot for fishing, paddling, swimming, camping and hiking, with around 15 miles of hiking trails to explore. This is a summertime home for bald eagles, and they are spotted frequently in the area.
READ MORE: The 15 Best NC Swimming Holes For Summer
6. Lake Adger
(438 acres near Tyron NC)
Formed in 1925 when the Green River was dammed, Lake Adger is located in Polk County near the charming Blue Ridge NC mountain town of Tyron.
Located about 20 miles southeast of Hendersonville, the town is famed for its equestrian facilities and activities.
Lake Adger Dam was built by Blue Ridge Power and named after its owner, John Adger Law. For a short time the lake was called Turner Shoals, but it was later changed.
The dam is still officially called Turner Shoals Dam, and is now operated by Northbrook Hydroelectric.
Boating (up to 80 horsepower for pontoons, or 60 hp for other watercraft), kayaking, and canoeing are all allowed on the lake, which has over 14 miles of private shoreline.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources fish stocking program periodically introduces Muskies into the lake for fishing.
7. Lake Glenville
(1450 acres near Cashiers NC)
Formerly known as Thorpe Reservoir (which was named after Nantahala Power’s first president, J. E. S. Thorpe), Lake Glenville has over 26 miles of shoreline and encompasses around 1450 acres.
The lake was formed by damming the Tuckasegee River, which was done to provide more electricity to the Aluminum Company of America for its manufacturing efforts during World War II.
Lake Glenville occupies the valley north of Cashiers NC, and it is the highest lake east of the Mississippi River (at 3,494 feet in elevation).
Four different Western North Carolina waterfalls– Hidden Falls, Hurricane Falls, Mill Creek Falls, and Norton Falls– flow into the lake, but all are only accessible by boat.
There’s also a public boat ramp, picnic grounds, beach for swimming, and a fishing pier where anglers can cast lines to catch bass, trout, catfish, perch, walleye, and other species.
8. Lake Hiwassee
(6,090 acres near Murphy NC)
Lake Hiwassee has over 175 miles of shoreline and a surface area of more than 6,000 acres. It stretches some 22 miles at its longest and measures over 200 feet at its deepest.
This massive lake near Murphy NC is fed by three rivers: the Hiwassee, the Nottley, and the Valley.
It is held back by the highest overspill dam in the world (at 307 feet), whose wall was constructed to provide more electric power and mitigate flooding.
Surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, the lake is fed by the Hiwassee River, which is designated as a Trophy Trout Stream.
It also feeds into Appalachia Lake and Lake Chatuge, creating the “Chain of Lakes” along the Tusquittee River.
All three of these lakes are relatively remote and respected as great fishing holes.
In fact, the National Fishing Hall of Fame records a 54-pound striped bass being pulled from Lake Hiwassee.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Winston Salem NC
9. Lake James
(6,812 acres near Linville NC)
Lake James is named after James B. Duke, the founder of Duke Power, and has been a hydroelectric power unit since the early 20th century.
The big lake was created when the Catawba River, Linville River, and Paddy Creek were all dammed between 1916 and 1923. But the park wasn’t established until 1987.
Since becoming a state park, Lake James has become a haven for outdoor recreation, with three separate campgrounds and 25 miles of hiking trails (60% of which are open to cyclists as well).
Kayaking, canoeing, and boating are all favorite diversions on the lake, and there are even paddle-in campsites that are inaccessible over land.
The lake also features two public boat ramps—Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge— as well as a designated swimming space in the Paddy Creek Area.
10. Lake Junaluska
(200 acres in Waynesville NC)
Lake Junaluska is man-made, built by slowing the flow of Richland Creek and then feeding right back into the creek’s existing route.
It’s near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s a worthy destination all its own.
Aside from wheelchair-accessible paths around the lake, boat tours, and first-class birdwatching, the mountain town of Lake Junaluska offers kayak and paddleboard rentals, the Corneille Bryan Native Garden, golf, and lots of other recreational opportunities.
READ MORE: The Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
11. Lake Lure
(720 acres in Lake Lure NC)
Lake Lure is most famous for playing host to famous people, such as Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.
There’s even an annual festival there held in celebration of the classic ’80s movie.
Several other films were filmed in the area as well, including The Last of the Mohicans, My Fellow Americans, and Careful What You Wish For.
But the lake was created back in the 1920s by the Morse family (the founders of the Carolina Mountain Power Company), and the town of Lake Lure followed shortly thereafter.
The Rocky Broad Bridge, later called Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, is a wildlife habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
It’s home to native North Carolina wildflowers, and serves as a way-station for monarch butterflies.
There’s also a small water park on the lake, ziplining nearby, boat tours, horseback riding, fishing, and a toy train museum in town.
Chimney Rock State Park is located right next door to the lake as well.
12. Lake Mattamuskeet
(40,000 acres near Fairfield NC)
The largest natural lake in North Carolina, Lake Mattamuskeet only averages a couple of feet deep. But because it’s less than 20 miles from the NC coast, this is a very important site for migrating birds.
Located near Fairfield NC, the lake was drained by private companies in the early 1900s to create land for farms. But when the cost of pumping water out proved too costly, they sold the land to the US government.
Mattamuskeet Lake is open to small motorized boats and non-motorized boats, and there is a 3-mile auto tour that circles the refuge’s largest wetland impoundment.
Nearby attractions include the Outer Banks, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
READ MORE: 20 Beautiful Birds of North Carolina
13. Lake Norman
(32,510 acres near Charlotte)
Lake Norman is the largest lake in North Carolina, and second only to the 40,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet for the largest natural lake all-around.
The huge reservoir was a Duke Energy project, as was the energy-generating Cowans Ford Dam. It was constructed between 1959 and 1964, and it still provides power for much of the NC Piedmont.
The Catawba River feeds Lake Norman, which empties into Mountain Island Lake after that.
At the northern reaches of the lake, near Statesville, Lake Norman State Park has fishing banks, and there are eight public boat ramps for access to the lake.
Lake Norman has a huge variety of fish for anglers, including catfish, crappie, bluegill, yellow perch, striped bass, largemouth bass, and white bass.
Lake Norman State Park is also very popular for mountain biking (with 30.5 miles of single-track trail), has a swimming beach, and offers family-friendly campgrounds.
14. Lake Santeetlah
(3,000 acres in Nantahala National Forest NC)
Located in the Nantahala National Forest just south of Fontana Lake, Lake Santeetlah has 76 miles of shoreline and 3,000 acres of surface area.
This Western NC lake was formed in 1928, when the Cheoah River was dammed by ALCOA (the Aluminum Company of America) to create hydroelectric power.
The lake is home to a great variety of freshwater fish, including bass, trout, crappie, walleye, sunfish, and catfish.
There are several access points to the lake, including the Lake Santeetlah Marina, Massy Branch Boat Launch, and Massy Branch Fishing Pier.
The Cheoah District has over 200 miles of hiking trails, and 50-plus primitive campsites are dotted around the lake.
The Cheoah Point Recreation Area has campsites, picnic tables, swimming facilities, and a boat ramp.
READ MORE: The Best Places to Celebrate Christmas in NC
15. Lake Toxaway
(640 acres near Brevard)
At 640 acres, with over 14 miles of shoreline, Lake Toxaway is the largest private lake in the state of North Carolina.
Located near Brevard NC, this lake is fed primarily by the Toxaway River and additionally by several mountain streams, with Toxaway Falls being where the lake flows out.
Built in the 1960s, this is actually the second rendition of Lake Toxaway, and it’s surrounded by golf courses and country clubs.
The first was constructed in the 1890s, but the earthen dam collapsed in 1916 due to severe flooding (receiving 24 inches of rain in 24 hours).
The well-to-do can visit Lake Toxaway by staying at the Greystone Inn (est. 1915), a historic Blue Ridge hotel with 30 rooms, a spa, fine dining, and gorgeous vistas of the lake.
16. Lake Waccamaw
(8,983 acres near Bolton NC)
Located in southeastern NC, Lake Waccamaw is the largest of the Carolina Bay Lakes, encompassing nearly 10,000 acres and fed largely by swamplands.
Despite the swamp water being highly acidic, this North Carolina lake is rich with unique aquatic species that benefit from the limestone bluffs on the north end of the lake (which level up the water’s pH balance).
The lake is part of Lake Waccamaw State Park, which is famed for approximately 500,000 mysterious craters within its boundaries. There’s some interesting folklore surrounding the creation of the crater the lake sits in.
Lake Waccamaw State Park offers recreational paddling and fishing, plus 10 miles of hiking trails. Birdwatching and picnicking are also popular here.
There are 14 miles of shoreline, two boat ramps, and several endemic species of fish, including the Waccamaw darter, silverside, and killifish.
17. Lake Wylie
(13,400 acres near Charlotte NC)
Straddling the boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina, Lake Wylie was formed in the early 1900s by the Catawba Power Company for the creation of hydroelectric power.
It was originally only 668 acres, and was called Lake Catawba. But in the 1920s, the South Power Company raised the level of the dam and increased the size to over 13,000 acres.
In 1960, Lake Catawba was renamed Lake Wylie in honor of W. Gill Wylie, one of the founders of the Catawba Power Company.
Lake Wylie (along with 10 other lakes) was formed by damming the Catawba River, and these are now used in a chain system to create electricity for Duke Power.
The lake has over 300 miles of coastline, six boat access areas, campgrounds, and plenty of places to eat, relax, paddle, shop, float, and more.
18. Nantahala Lake
(1,600 acres in Nantahala National Forest)
Another part of America’s WWII effort and hydroelectric power source, Nantahala Lake was created in 1942 in the Nantahala National Forest.
The lake is still a major source of electricity for the area (now controlled by Duke Power), but it has also become a beautifully scenic spot for recreation.
Located about 30 miles east of Murphy at an elevation of 3,000 feet, the lake offers 42 miles of shoreline and extraordinarily clear water due to its steep sides.
Fishing, boating, swimming, and skiing are all permitted on Nantahala Lake, and there is a public access area for entering the lake.
The lake empties into the Nantahala River, which is normally calm. However, when the dam is releasing water, it creates world-class rapids perfect for whitewater rafting.
Part of Nantahala Lake’s shoreline is owned by the Nantahala National Forest, which has several campgrounds, miles of hiking trails, and over half a million acres to explore!
19. Price Lake
(47 acres near Boone NC)
Located right along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone NC at Milepost 297, Price Lake is the centerpiece of Julian Price Memorial Park.
Julian Price, an insurance kingpin, bought the 4,200-acre parcel of land as a mountain getaway for his employees.
Upon his death in 1946, the land was donated to the US National Park Service.
The park offers a campground, picnic area, several top-flight Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails, and of course the gorgeous lake itself.
Price Lake is open to rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards, with local rental services able to provide them all. Fishing is also permitted here with either a North Carolina or Virginia fishing license.
Price Lake is located near Grandfather Mountain State Park and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, both of which warrant a visit whilst in the area.
20. W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
(1,475 acres near Wilkesboro NC)
The W. Kerr Scott Reservoir was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding of the upper Yadkin River, as well as provide water and recreation.
Congress approved the construction of the Wilkesboro Dam in 1960, and construction of the reservoir was completed in 1962. The next year it was named the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir, in honor of the former NC governor and US senator.
The reservoir is a popular spot for all sorts of recreation, including hiking, mountain biking, boating, swimming, fishing, and even hunting.
There are great mountain biking trails found at Dark Mountain near the dam wall, and more cyclists tracks are available at Warrior Creek and along the Overmountain Victory Trail.
It’s possible to camp at the reservoir as well, with the Bandit’s Roost Campground, Fort Hamby Park & Campground, and Warrior Creek Campground all great options. –by Jonathon Engels, featured image of Lake Fontana by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett