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Asheville has become a popular place to move to, a friendly North Carolina town that’s long attracted artists, writers, and all sorts of creative types. While it’s no longer a well-kept secret, it’s well-worth visiting with everything from outstanding craft breweries and delicious eateries to a thriving local arts scene, and a wealth of outdoor adventures nearby. There are scenic trails for hiking in the mountains and many sparkling lakes for spending the day, a weekend, or longer. These are some of the top lakes whether you’re looking for something in town or within a couple of hours’ drive away.
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Lake Lure is well-known as the filming location for “Dirty Dancing” and “The Last of the Mohicans” among many other movies. It’s especially picturesque with a sandy beach, surrounded by lush greenery, mountain tops and the cliffs of Hickory Nut Gorge. It’s tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains less than 30 miles from Asheville. If you look up you’ll see the famous Chimney Rock where from the top you can take in a magnificent view of both the lake and the gorge. Many enjoy coming on a hot summer’s day for swimming – there’s even a waterslide where you can whiz down into the lake and a water park along with other facilities like a snack bar and picnic tables. In Chimney Rock State Park along its shores, the 1.5-mile loop Rumbling Bald Trail is popular for hiking, bouldering, and climbing. Guided boat tours and boat rentals are available too.
The largest lake in the western part of the state with 238 miles of shoreline, Fontana Lake is nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains, offering gorgeous views and all the usual lake activities like swimming, fishing, and boating. It’s also home to the 480-foot high Fontana Dam, the highest east of the Rockies. By walking or driving across the dam you can learn about its construction at the Tennessee Valley Authority Visitor Center or take a hike on the Appalachian Trail which crosses the dam. Views of the lake can be enjoyed from multiple overlooks along the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway or by hopping on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train from Bryson City.
Less than a 2-hour drive about 100 miles west of Asheville, Lake Santeetlah is surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest with 80 percent of it along its 76-mile shoreline. One of the most pristine you’ll find in the North Carolina mountains as it’s further from the city it doesn’t have much in the way of development making it ideal for those seeking tranquility and opportunities for fun on the water, including swimming from a beach, paddling out in a kayaking or exploring in a pontoon boat, the latter of which can be rented from Santeetlah Marina in Robbinsville, about eight miles away. It’s also close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park making it easy to combine a trip that visits both.
Lake Jocassee is a 7,500-acre lake that was named by National Geographic as one of 50 of the World’s Last Great Places — Destinations of a Lifetime. Located 80 miles from Asheville on the border of South Carolina, it sits within the Devils Fork State Park and is fed by the clean waters from the Appalachian Mountains. That means the water is cool all year-round, making it a hot spot for fishing; in fact, it holds state records for five fish species, three of which are types of bass. It’s also a paradise for swimming and even diving, or just to relax and enjoy the scenery. It’s so picturesque, films have been shot here, including 1972’s “The Deliverance” and 2012’s “The Hunger Games.” The closest town of size is Salem in South Carolina which is considered the gateway to both the lake and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Located near Cashiers less than 70 miles from Asheville, Lake Glenville is a reservoir that sits at the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi at nearly 3,500 feet above sea level. Here you can enjoy paddle boarding, swimming, tubing, water-skiing, and fishing for smallmouth bass, walleye, yellow perch. crappie, rainbow, and brown trout. At Signal Ridge Marina you’ll find pontoons and other vessels to rent if you don’t have your own, ideal for exploring the waterfalls, including Norton, Hurricane, and Mill Creek Falls. Or, take a hike on the High Falls trailhead – just 1.4 miles round-trip, it passes both the 60-foot-tall First Falls and the 150-foot-tall High Falls which spills down a series of rocks into a pool.
Less than an hour from Asheville, Lake James is a 6,510-acre lake with access provided from Lake James State Park near the town of Nebo. It’s served as a setting for multiple blockbuster films, including “The Hunt for Red October” – and, in “The Last of the Mohicans” it was featured as Lake George in New York. It’s popular for fishing, jet-skiing, and camping, with three campgrounds along its shores, including a remote option that’s boat-in only. There are also 25 miles of scenic trails that surround the lake, offering fantastic views of the Appalachian Mountains.
If you don’t want to drive far, Lake Powhatan is just a 20-minute drive from the center of town in the Pisgah National Forest, just outside the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s where the locals go to get away from the city and enjoy nature. The beauty is astounding and there are plenty of shady pine trees, a sandy stretch for relaxing in the sun, and tables for picnicking. Along the shores is Bent Creek, the oldest federal experimental forest, established in 1925 to promote sustainable forestry. It’s become somewhat of a mecca for mountain biking with around 30 miles of single and double tracks. The trails are ideal for hiking too.
Just an hour southwest of Asheville between Cashiers and Brevard, Lake Toxaway is the state’s largest private lake, with 14 miles of shoreline located in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests at 3,010 feet above sea level. It’s stream-fed from the waters that flow from high in the forests, making it one of the cleanest around. While it was once only available to those who owned homes along its banks, there are accommodation options that provide access to guests. Popular activities include paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, and evening cruises. A three-mile hike from Gorges State Park will bring you to a magnificent 150-foot-high waterfall in the forest.
Just minutes from downtown Asheville in the mountains, Beaver Lake is a 65-acre man-made reservoir that’s maintained by the community around it, but public access is available for a fee. It’s a birdwatchers’ haven with the 10-acre wetland on its east side home to a bird sanctuary where you can spot all types of waterfowl and hawks as well as butterflies. You’ll also find kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats available to rent. It’s also fun to watch the Asheville Yacht Club members sailing their remote-controlled sailboats in an area designated specifically for that purpose.
Located just under a two-hour drive from Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeastern Georgia, Lake Rabun is a beautiful spot covering 835 acres with 25 miles of shoreline. Along the banks, there are restaurants that offer waterfront dining, marinas with boat rentals, and a variety of lodging options. It’s especially popular for water-skiing, fly fishing, tubing, and boating of all types. There are opportunities for horseback riding, ziplining, and hiking too, including the short half-mile trek to 100-foot-high Minnehaha Falls, a favorite in this area of the state.
Only 30 minutes from Asheville, Lake Junaluska is a gorgeous 200-acre lake that offers fishing, swimming, and non-motorized boating along with a paved walking trail that surrounds it. Canoes, paddleboards, and kayaks are available for rent and visitors can also join boat cruises and dine at one of the multiple restaurants along the shore. Fishing opportunities include bass, perch, crappie, brim, bluegill and trout. Bird watching is popular too with waterfowl and swans, and there’s even a mini-golf course and a garden to enjoy. Located at the Bethea Welcome Center, the Lake Junaluska Biblical Garden was created as a place of beauty for quiet contemplation.