Are you ready for an epic journey through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Explore five breathtaking lakes and serene streams that will leave you feeling refreshed.
Whether you're into the vastness of Fontana Lake or the tranquil beauty of Chilhowee Lake, these spots offer something for every nature lover. We've also got all the essential info on permits and fishing regulations, so let's dive into this adventure together!
1. Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake is renowned for its vast expanse and pristine conditions. As the largest lake in Western North Carolina, it boasts over 240 miles of shoreline, much bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest.
The lake offers diverse activities, from boating, fishing, swimming, and paddleboarding. Its waters are a haven for anglers, with a rich population of various fish species.
Kayaking and paddleboarding provide a peaceful way to explore the quiet coves and clear waters, while designated swimming areas offer a refreshing dip in the lake's cool waters. The towering Fontana Dam, the tallest in the Eastern US, provides visitors with stunning views and a fascinating history.
2. Douglas Lake
Douglas Lake is a man-made reservoir surrounded by picturesque landscapes and offers over 550 miles of shoreline, much of it undeveloped and ripe for exploration.
Renowned for fishing, Douglas Lake ranks highly for crappie and largemouth bass, providing ample angler opportunities.
Recreational activities such as boating, swimming, and paddleboarding are popular. If you prefer land-based adventures, the area has scenic trails and picnic spots, ideal for experiencing the tranquil beauty of the Smokies.
Wildlife watching and camping near the water's edge allow you to immerse yourself in the natural environment Douglas Lake offers, especially between July and October when migratory patterns bring an abundance of birdlife to the area.
3. Santeetlah Lake
Santeetlah Lake, a pristine gem in the North Carolina mountains, is celebrated for its unspoiled beauty and tranquil waters. Created in 1928 for hydroelectric power, this lake is enveloped by the Cheoah District of the Nantahala National Forest, boasting a lengthy shoreline of 76 miles.
It's a paradise for anglers, offering a bounty of fish, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, and lake trout. For those seeking a more immersive experience, over fifty primitive campsites dot the lake's edge, providing picnic tables and fire rings without needing permits or fees.
The lake is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with over 200 miles of hiking trails within the Cheoah District, leading adventurers to the Appalachian Trail's access points.
The Cheoah Point Recreation Area, about a mile from Lake Santeetlah, offers swimming, camping, picnicking facilities, and a boat ramp, making it a versatile destination for relaxation and adventure.
4. Chilhowee Lake
Chilhowee Lake, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest, is a tranquil, narrow reservoir known for its unique river-like appearance and cool waters stretching over 10 miles.
This peaceful body of water is ideal for those seeking a serene paddling or fishing experience in a less crowded environment. Its shallow, twisting path perfectly suits float and bank fishing, with trout and bass being the primary catches.
The area is also a haven for wildlife viewing, offering picturesque birding and nature photography spots. The lake provides several boat launches, fishing piers, and picnic areas for outdoor enthusiasts, making it a perfect spot for a day trip or a quiet weekend getaway.
Surrounded by forests and the eastern Tennessee wilderness, Chilhowee Lake's remote location, about 40 miles south of Knoxville, ensures a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life.
5. Waterville Lake
Waterville Lake is a 301-acre lake, surrounded by the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests, offering a serene backdrop for various outdoor activities.
Anglers find it a paradise, teeming with largemouth bass and white crappie, making it an ideal spot for fishing. You can embark on a peaceful kayak or canoe journey from the Waterville Lake Boat Ramp, exploring the lake's natural beauty.
The lake's proximity to hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park adds to its allure, providing ample opportunities for adventurers to explore the surrounding wilderness.
While you're walking around lakes, you may want to come across some of the park's waterfalls: 10 Must-See Waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains That Even You Can Hike To
Permits and Fishing Regulations
Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fee-free, but beginning March 1, 2023, a new parking tag requirement applies for vehicles parked longer than 15 minutes.
These tags can be purchased at reasonable rates, with options including daily ($5), weekly ($15), and annual ($40) tags. While you can acquire these tags online and on-site, digital representations are not accepted. Additionally, interagency passes do not serve as substitutes for a parking tag. Read more about it here.
Meanwhile, fishing is permitted year-round in all park streams, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset. You'll need a valid fishing license or Tennessee or North Carolina permit to cast your line here.
Fortunately, there's no requirement for a trout stamp. These licenses can be obtained in nearby towns or online, as they are unavailable within the park. Special permits are necessary if you plan to fish in Gatlinburg or Cherokee.
Park personnel may inspect fishing equipment, so adhering to these rules is crucial. In case of violations, promptly report them to the nearest ranger. Read more about the park's fishing requirements here.
For more Great Smoky Mountain experiences to try out, check out our guide: 23 Great Smoky Mountains Experiences To Add To Your Itinerary
Don't Forget Your Safety
Standing or wading in streams can lead to hypothermia, and sudden mountain storms may cause water levels to rise unexpectedly. Always be cautious of the swift, deceiving water currents, and watch your step on wet and moss-covered rocks.
As a responsible angler, clean up after yourself and your fellow anglers. Disposing of fish remains on land or within 200 feet of a campsite is unlawful. Instead, consider placing fish entrails in a deep pool downstream from the campsite.
Lastly, the park strongly emphasizes the conservation of natural resources. Moving rocks in streams is strictly prohibited, as it is detrimental to fish and aquatic insects that rely on them for shelter and habitat.
Accessibility in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a range of accessible experiences for all visitors. Whether you're exploring by vehicle or enjoying the park's facilities, accessibility is a priority.
1. Vehicle Accessibility
Most of the park's scenic beauty can be enjoyed right from your vehicle, and visitors with valid disabled placards or license plates are exempt from parking tag requirements.
2. Visitor Centers
Key visitor centers like Sugarlands and Oconaluftee are fully accessible year-round. They feature designated accessible parking, accessible restrooms, and exhibits, all conveniently located on one level.
3. Nature Trails
The Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail and paths around historic structures are designed for accessibility. The Sugarlands Nature Trail offers a peaceful woodland experience, and the hard-packed gravel paths near historic buildings are wheelchair-accessible with assistance.
4. Cades Cove
This popular area offers designated accessible parking, accessible restrooms, and accessible facilities at the campground/picnic area parking lot and visitor center. The Cades Cove Auto Tour booklet describes this historic area.
5. John Oliver Cabin
A newly paved, barrier-free path is available for visitors, making it accessible for everyone.
6. Historic Buildings
While some historic buildings along the 11-mile Cades Cove loop road may not be accessible due to steps and walkway surfaces, many exteriors can still be viewed from your vehicle. The Becky Cable House is accessible via a ramp, and seasonal guided tours are generally accessible.
7. Parkwide Facilities
Amphitheaters, auto tours, and campgrounds offer accessible options. Cades Cove has the most accessible amphitheater, while backroads allow the exploration of remote areas with road guides and self-guided auto tour booklets available at visitor centers.
Accessible campsites with specialized amenities are available at Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont campgrounds. Reservations can be made for these units, generally located near accessible restrooms.
9. Horse Camps and Stables
Big Creek Horse Camp has an accessible campsite and restrooms, and accessible restrooms can be found at Smokemont and Sugarlands riding stables. Reservations are required for these facilities.
Find Your Own Smoky Mountain Adventure
As you plan your Smoky Mountain getaway, consider what matters most — connecting with nature, quality time with loved ones, or rest.
Stay safe by checking weather and trail conditions, packing proper gear, and being bear-aware. But most importantly, wander off the beaten path, put away devices, open your senses, and let the majestic Smokies work their magic.
Immerse yourself, create moments that will last a lifetime, and discover your special corner of these ancient mountains.