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Majestic Mountain Lakes

Beat the summer heat by getting away to the cool waters of the Blue Ridge

LIZ NANCE WAS ONLY SUPPOSED TO be in the mountains of western North Carolina for the summer. In 2004, she took a seasonal job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center because it seemed like a fun way to spend the warmer months. By the end of her summer gig, Nance had accepted a full-time position and put down permanent roots near Bryson City, N.C. “This area just draws you,” she said. 

Surrounded by trails and waterways, Nance found a new home in the mountains, and she was particularly drawn to Lake Fontana, canoeing the big lake’s many nooks and crannies or camping on its shores. For others in search of tranquil waterfront adventures, we’ve highlighted four of the top lakeside destinations in the Blue Ridge. 

Photo: Photo by Hunter Turner, Little River Creative

Fontana Lake, N.C.

Nance is now a co-owner and beer buyer at Bryson City Outdoors. In addition to two outdoor shops and a taproom, the store offers kayak and paddleboard rentals on Fontana Lake. With nearly 240 miles of shoreline surrounded by Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are plenty of sights to seek out as the lake curves around the landscape. “It’s nice to be able to go out to a lake and find that privacy, even in the busy summer seasons,” Nance said. “There are a lot of access points, so it’s not like everybody who’s visiting the lake is going to the same spot.”

Several backcountry campsites around the lake, accessible by boat or trail, make for a secluded night by the water. You can also make camp on one of Fontana’s islands, if you’re really looking to get off the radar. Backcountry permits are required for these sites. The Fingerlake area is a great spot to paddle without any motorboats around. For mountain biking, the trails at Tsali Recreation Area offer a range of difficulty levels and loop around the lake’s scenic shoreline. 

Photo: Derek Esters fishes Nolin River Lake. Photo by Morgan Esters

Nolin River Lake, Ky. 

Known for the distinguishing color of its water, Nolin River Lake is a sprawling body of water nestled among the hills of central Kentucky. From Nolin Lake State Park, you can access miles of trails with technical rock features and acres to explore by boat. You can also cool off with a dip in the lake from the beach area or pack a picnic to eat by the water. 

Nolin River Lake is also known for its secluded fishing spots. Terry Watts, owner of Nolin Guide Service, has been guiding fishing trips full-time on the lake for 12 years and has fished these waters for more than 25 years. Watts says the lake has one of the best populations of white bass in the state and the “spring spawning run in late March is legendary.” You can also cast for crappie, largemouth bass, and the occasional walleye. Other nearby activities include caving, hiking, and camping at Mammoth Cave National Park, as well as paddling on the Green River. 

Smith Mountain Lake, Va.

After 35 years in healthcare software, Garett Meyer was looking for a lifestyle change. Meyer looked at lakes all over the region, eventually deciding to settle on Smith Mountain Lake with his family where he co-owns Virginia Dare Cruises and Marina. “In comparison to some of the other big lakes like this, this is very laid-back,” he said. The Virginia Dare, a modern boat dressed as a paddle wheeler, has become a staple on the lake over the last 32 years. A variety of sightseeing cruises, including sunset and wildlife tours, are one of the best ways to cover more ground on this mammoth lake.  

On the north shore, Smith Mountain Lake State Park is the perfect home base for all of your activities. Between the 13 miles of trails for hiking and biking, a beach with a swimming area, and a variety of boat rentals during the summer, you’ll fall right asleep when you crawl into your tent or cabin at the end of the day.

Photo: Cheat Lake. Photo courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

Cheat Lake, W.Va.

Just outside of Morgantown, W.Va., Cheat Lake is a family-friendly destination that offers a variety of adventures on the water. Launch your kayak from one of the public access points to explore the “backwaters”—the calm sections of the lake perfect for swimming, paddling, and fishing. The main section of the lake is where you’ll find your motor boaters and water skiers enjoying some high-speed fun. Keep an eye out for an appearance of the Mooey Buoy, an ice cream boat you can paddle right up to and order a sweet treat, or dock at one of the three restaurants on the lake. You can also explore the areas around the lake for swimming holes and hidden waterfalls or head into nearby Coopers Rock State Forest for trails and campgrounds. 

Joelle Cameron started visiting and boating on the lake as a young girl. Now she wakes up every morning on the lake’s shore where she lives with her family and leads standup paddleboard yoga sessions right out her back door. “You can feel the paddleboard moving a little bit,” Cameron said. “You can feel the wind on your skin with the birds chirping.” With this practice, it’s more important to soak up the experience than nail every position. Don’t worry if your balance isn’t the best, Cameron said. “Usually by the time the weather’s nice enough to get out there, falling in actually feels pretty good.”

Cover Photo: The sun sets over West Virginia’s Cheat Lake. Photo by Steven Royce, courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

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