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Summertime Is Lake Time

Posted by Leif Palmer in Things to Do

The Great Smoky Mountains region is best known for its-well, its mountains. Nearly 12 million people from all over the world travel here each year to experience the beauty and the wonder of some of the tallest peaks east of the Mississippi River, not to mention the natural playground that is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For most visitors, it's all about mountains, forests, streams and pasturelands-a natural setting where they can ground themselves in a peaceful place and reconnect with their inner selves or enjoy recreational activities like camping, fishing, hiking and picnicking.

But the mountains aren't the only natural resources here in East Tennessee. Thanks to a network of dams and reservoirs, the Smokies region is blessed with an abundance of recreational lakes. So if you're talking about summertime travel to the mountains, you need to also consider visiting some of those bodies of water. They're beautiful in their own right, a wonderful way to experience nature and full of opportunities for outdoor fun. In fact, it's an often-overlooked way for Smoky Mountain travelers to stay cool on those hot summer days.

Read on to learn about just a few of the many area lakes, particularly the ones that are closest to the national park.

Douglas Lake

This TVA reservoir and the dam that created it are both situated in the foothills of the Smokies, near Sevierville, Tennessee. Covering approximately 30,000 acres, Douglas Lake is formed by the damming of the French Broad River. It has a maximum depth of 140 feet and extends 43 miles upstream from Douglas Dam. Only 17 percent of the shoreline is developed. The Tennessee Valley Authority controls the rest.

More than 1.75 million people visit the lake each year to enjoy beautifully framed views of the Great Smoky Mountains as well as recreational activities like boating, jet skiing, fishing, swimming, picnicking, bird watching, hiking and more. Fishing is one of the most popular things to do on Douglas Lake, which is rated in the top 10 in the United States for its largemouth bass and crappie. Other species include catfish, sunfish and bluegill.

Amenities provided by TVA include two campgrounds with lake access, restrooms, showers, picnic areas, boat ramps and swimming beaches. Both campgrounds offer tent and RV camping. Other private campgrounds and marinas serve lake visitors as well.

The TVA built the dam in 1942 and 1943. It was named for Douglas Bluff, a natural feature that overlooked the dam site before construction began. The structure is 1,705 feet long and 201 feet high and not only helps fulfill the area's power needs but it also helps control flooding in the Tennessee River Valley.

Fontana Lake

If you're accessing Great Smoky Mountains National Park via North Carolina, consider dropping anchor at this reservoir impounded by Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. It's located in Graham and Swain Counties and forms part of the southern border of the national park as well as the northern border of part of the Nantahala National Forest. Depending on water levels, the lake is about 29 miles long, covers 1,700 acres and has more than 240 miles of shoreline. The average depth is 135 feet, with a maximum depth of 440 feet. The lake was named after a logging town once situated at the mouth of Eagle Creek.

As with Douglas Lake, private development along the shoreline has been kept to a minimum. More than 90 percent of the land around the lake is owned by either the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service. It also offers unobstructed views of the national park, including sites like Clingmans Dome.

Sometimes hailed as one of the best-kept secrets in the Smokies, Fontana Lake provides the only access to some of the most remote areas of the national park. At typical summer water levels, a boat can be used to reach trailheads like Hazel Creek. Both Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek are two locations on the north shore where visitors can fish, hike, explore and camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Much of the shore is considered too steep for beach use, but visitors to the Finger Lakes Day Use Area will find a small park with picnic tables, public restrooms and a swimming area.

Fontana Dam is considered an engineering marvel. It was completed in 1945 to help produce electricity for WWII industries. Standing at 480 feet tall, it became the highest dam in the eastern United States at the time and the fourth highest in the nation.

Other area lakes of note include:

Chilhowee Lake

This lake forms part of the boundary between the national park and Cherokee National Forest. It's a shallow, 10-mile long, cool-water reservoir that flows and looks more like a river, but it provides a peaceful setting for both fishermen and paddlers. It covers 1,747 acres and was formed by damming the Tennessee River in 1957. From the lake, you can access the mouth of Abrams Creek, a popular destination within the national park. The primary game fish are large- and smallmouth bass as well as trout, walleye, crappie and rock bass. Paddlers will find several boat ramps along U.S. 129. One great destination is the Chota Memorial Site, which features a monument.

Calderwood Lake

This lake is an impoundment of the Little Tennessee River, on the state line of Tennessee and North Carolina. It forms part of the border between Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It also borders the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Creek Wilderness area. Calderwood Lake is stocked with fish by both the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which makes it popular with anglers in search of many different varieties of trout. This waterway is also handy to the stretch of U.S. Highway 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon, which is popular with motorcyclists. The lake was formed by one of four dams built by the Alcoa corporation in the last century to provide electricity to its aluminum-smelting operation in Blount County.

Leif Palmer - Smokies blogger

About Leif Palmer

Leif Palmer loves residing in the Smoky Mountains. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.


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