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Great Lakes in the South

With paddling, swimming, and nearby hiking, these scenic waters offer relaxing summer getaways

Lakes offer something for all kinds of water lovers—boaters, anglers, kayakers, swimmers, and beachfront chillers can all find their folly. And fortunately, across the Blue Ridge region there is no shortage of big bodies of water for that idyllic summer day. Here’s a small sampler of where to enjoy the South’s great lakes.

Lake Santeetlah – North Carolina

Lake Santeetlah in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Deep in western North Carolina, south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounded by an endless expanse of Nantahala National Forest, lies Lake Santeetlah. This pristine mountain lake with 76 miles of shoreline is a quiet, minimally developed gem that is spectacular to visit during multiple seasons.

I’ve enjoyed swimming in the heat of summer, canoeing among the changing fall leaves, and hiking in the surrounding forests in the spring as the wildflowers emerge. Located about 100 miles west of Asheville, this lake is off the beaten path but well worth the trip to explore.


While you could spend endless time paddling, swimming, fishing, or relaxing on the lake, there are many additional recreational opportunities all within 30 minutes of Santeetlah.

Along the nearby Cherohala Skyway, the lesser-known sibling of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can hop in the car and access multiple hikes with great views along the high-elevation ridges. Also not far away: miles of hiking trails in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which is home to ancient old-growth tulip poplars, some of the oldest trees in the southeast. 


Primitive camping is allowed at designated campsites around the lake year-round. And for kayakers, there are small islands sprinkled across the lake with primitive, paddle-in sites. There are also group sites with basic amenities such as the Cheoah Point campground. For indoor lodging, check out the Hemlock Hideaway or Lake Santeetlah Log Cabin.

Lake Marion – South Carolina

Situated between Columbia and Charleston, Lake Marion is known as South Carolina’s inland sea. The largest lake in the state, Marion has over 500 miles of beautiful shoreline characterized by swampy trees covered in Spanish moss, sandy beaches, and incredible sunsets that hang over the horizon. 

Like many lakes across the Southeast, Marion is technically a reservoir that was dammed to generate hydroelectric power for the surrounding communities. Paddlers can visit the remnants of Ferguson, an old mill town that has buildings popping up out of the water.

A Lake Marion sunset in Eutawville, S.C. photo courtesy of getty images


While the lake is great for any water activity, including water skiing and guided wildlife boat tours, this spot is best known for its supreme fishing. Anglers should bring their gear, as this lake is home to multiple state record fish, including a largemouth bass that weighed in at 16.2 lbs. Birders and other wildlife enthusiasts will also be happy as more than 250 bird species have been spotted at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge on the lake’s north shore, not to mention a plethora of alligators, turtles, frogs, and other critters.


There are a number of group campgrounds around Lake Marion, including Mill Creek Marina & Campground and Lakevue Landing Campground. Additionally, Santee State Park offers top-notch cabins, including some on piers right on the water.

Summersville Lake – West Virginia 

Summersville Lake is located just over an hour east of Charleston, near West Virginia’s stunningly scenic New River Gorge. Known to some as the Bahamas of the East Coast for its crystal-clear waters, the lake’s 60 miles of shoreline offer a remote escape and are surrounded by sheer sandstone cliffs that were carved out over millennia by the New and Gauley Rivers. 


With such clear water, snorkeling and scuba diving are popular Summersville activities. The lake’s cliffs, composed of the same rock formations as the nearby New River Gorge, are a favorite among rock climbers, who can access more than 350 routes and cliffs that rise over 100 feet above the water. Most climbing is only accessible between November and March when the water level is low. While formerly touted as a premier spot for cliff-jumping, local authorities have banned jumping off cliffs taller than six feet high. 

The area in and around Summersville is also popular with paddlers. Flat water boats can slowly hug the lake’s pristine shoreline. While those who prefer whitewater can kayak the world-class rapids of the New and Gauley Rivers. Multiple nearby outfitters, including Adventures on the Gorge and River Expeditions, offer guided rafting trips.


Mountain Lake Campground and Cabins offers tent camping, RV camping, and cozy cabins. Perfect for families, the campground has mini-golf, beach access, boat launch, and a general store. 

Cover photo: A stand-up paddleboarder on summersville lake in west virginia. Photo by Jay Young / courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge.

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