The 10 Best Lakes in the North Carolina Mountains to Visit

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[Updated August 15, 2021] As anyone who has ever visited will tell you, Western North Carolina is truly a haven for nature lovers.

The region is home to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest, nearly a dozen beloved NC State Parks, 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.

Over the last century, the lakes in the North Carolina mountains have developed into a beloved part of the rustic recreational lore the Appalachian region 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.

While there are certainly many other lovely North Carolina lakes, here we’ve highlighted 10 of our favorite Blue Ridge Mountain lakes for visitors and locals alike to explore.

READ MORE: The Appalachian Culture & History of the Blue Ridge Mountains


Love North Carolina Waterfalls? Check out these guides!

The 20 Best Western North Carolina Waterfalls for Hiking

The 21 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls in North Carolina

The 27 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC

The Top 10 Waterfalls Near Brevard NC (Transylvania County)

How to Get to Otter Falls Near Banner Elk NC

How to Get to Hooker Falls NC (in DuPont State Forest)

How to Get to Crabtree Falls Near Little Switzerland NC 

Fontana Lake in Western North Carolina
Fontana Lake, photo via Canva

Fontana Lake

(10,000+ acres near Bryson City NC)

Located near Bryson City NC, Fontana Lake is the largest in Western North Carolina and forms the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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 houseboats (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. The Appalachian Trail actually crosses over the Fontana Dam, and there’s a 35-mile Lakeshore Trail that leads to The Road to Nowhere.

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.

READ MORE: The Cataloochee Valley Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

kayaking on lake surrounded by mountains
Kayaking on a North Carolina Lake, photo via Canva

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 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.

READ MORE:  The 10 Best Things to Do in Hendersonville NC

Lake Glenville
Lake Glenville, photo via Canva

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).

During the flooding of the verdant valley in 1941, an entire town— including schools, businesses, farms, and all— was completely consumed by the water.

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.

READ MORE: The 27 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville, NC

Best Lakes Western North Carolina - Hiwassee Lake
Hiwassee Lake photo by Jgperry1776 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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 15 Best Lakes in the North Georgia Mountains

Lake James State Park
Lake James, Photo by Dawson Tozier

Lake James

(6,812 acres near Linville NC)

Great for hiking, mountain biking, and camping, Lake James State Park is a well-rounded vacation spot located between Asheville and Greensboro, North Carolina.

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.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls in North Carolina

Best Lakes Western North Carolina - Lake Junaluska
Photo via Pixabay

Lake Junaluska

(200 acres near Maggie Valley NC)

In addition to being a 200-acre freshwater lake, Lake Junaluska is also a mountain retreat located near Maggie Valley, roughly a half-hour west of Asheville.

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 town of Lake Junaluska offers kayak, canoe, and paddleboard rentals, the Corneille Bryan Native Garden, golf, and lots of other recreational opportunities.

If you’re looking for places to stay, the Lambuth Inn was built in 1921 on a hill overlooking the lake, and appears on the US National Register of Historic Places.

READ MORE: The Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants

Best Lake in Western North Carolina - Lake Lure
Lake Lure, photo by Emma Gallagher

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.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Western NC Small Towns to Visit (& Live In)

Best Lake Western North Carolina - Lake Santeetlah
Lake Santeetlah, photo by Anoldent is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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 15 Best Western North Carolina Mountains For Hiking

Lake Nantahala NC
Lake Nantahala, photo via Canva

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 camping facilities, miles of hiking trails, and over half a million acres to explore!

READ MORE: The Best Pisgah National Forest Hiking Trails to Explore 

Lake Price in Julian Price Memorial Park, North Carolina
Lake Price in Julian Price Memorial Park, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

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. —by Jonathon Engels, featured image of Lake Lure via Canva


Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting the Western North Carolina for the first time, Jonathon Engels and his wife Emma spent two years looking for a few acres of property there to establish a permaculture homestead. During that search, he explored the Blue Ridge Parkway, surrounding towns, and parks. He has taught at both Blue Ridge Community College and Surry Community College, is a member of a long-established land conservation community near the town of Dobson, volunteers at the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, and continues to explore the Blue Ridge, a place he now lovingly calls home.