Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on July 7, 2023.
While North Carolina is known for its gorgeous mountains and beautiful East Coast beaches, the state is home to dozens of gorgeous lakes and reservoirs. We love visiting lakes in North Carolina from the mountains to the sea.
NC’s lakes are perfect for visiting throughout the year, with tons of space to cool off in the hot summer, hiking trails in surrounding forests, and fishing opportunities from your boat or a pier.
As we continue traveling throughout the state, we created this guide to share the amazing lakes of North Carolina and our favorites.
This guide is organized by region. First, we document the best lakes in NC’s mountains, followed by lakes in North Carolina’s center, ending with Eastern NC. You can skip ahead to your preferred region or keep reading for a list of all lakes included.
List of Lakes in North Carolina
You can visually plan your adventures with our North Carolina Travel Map. Before we head to each region, here’s a list of North Carolina lakes included in this guide:
- Western NC Lakes
- Bear Lake
- Fontana Lake
- Lake Chatuge
- Lake James
- Lake Junaluska
- Lake Lure
- Lake Santeetlah
- Lake Toxaway
- Nantahala Lake
- W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
- Central NC Lakes
- Badin Lake
- Falls Lake
- High Rock Lake
- Hyco Lake
- Jordan Lake
- Kerr Lake
- Jordan Lake
- Lake Crabtree
- Lake Johnson
- Lake Norman
- Shelley Lake
- Eastern NC Lakes
- Jones Lake
- Lake Gaston
- Lake Mattamuskeet
- Lake Waccamaw
- Phelps Lake
- Singletary Lake
- White Lake
Western NC Lakes
These are the best lakes in the NC mountains, starting with a Jackson County beauty and one of our favorites that can be seen from the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Bear Lake Reserve
Bear Lake Reserve is a beautiful lake in North Carolina, near Cashiers and Sylva in Jackson County. About 90 minutes from Asheville, this 2,100-acre gated community is filled with private residences and rentals surrounding the 500-acre Bear Creek Lake.
Start your adventure at the Lake Club and enjoy delicious food, a dip in one of the pools, and shopping. This NC lake is beautiful all year round, but when it comes to activities, the best time to visit is in the summer.
Hit the lake with a boat, slide down the waterslide at one of two pools, and play a round of golf at this wonderful spot in Western NC.
The reservoir was created during World War II to generate electric power for the war, spanning a massive 10,000 acres and a 240-mile shore. The Road to Nowhere is a result of this project and a place we highly recommend you learn about.
The area has since blossomed into Fontana Village Resort, an upscale year-round resort with a lodge, cabins, and camping amenities.
Fontana Lake marks the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. You’ll love the mountain scenery and serene atmosphere, whether you come for just an afternoon or decide to stay a few days.
Lake Chatuge sits on the North Carolina-Georgia border, half in one state and half in the other. It stretches 7,200 acres and enjoys less traffic, given its distance from major cities in both states, making it perfect for boating.
There are several nearby marinas where you can easily rent any boat.
The North Carolina side offers three public boat ramps:
- Jackrabbit Mountain Campground off Highway 175
- Gibson Cove Campground off Myers Chapel Road
- Ledford Chapel Wildlife Access Ramp off US Highway 64.
In addition to boating, visitors can fish, swim, and enjoy the unspoiled shoreline at Lake Chatuge.
Duke Power created Lake James between 1916 and 1923 by constructing dams at the Catawba River, the Linville River, and Paddy Creek. The newly built reservoir covered 6,510 acres with 150 miles of beachy shore.
It was named for James B. Duke, a tobacco tycoon and benefactor of Duke University and Duke Power.
The lake is part of Lake James State Park, established in 1987. The state park encompasses 3,743 acres surrounding the lake and offers miles of hiking and biking trails.
Lake Junaluska in Haywood County is a lake and mountain retreat open to all. In addition to hosting conferences, weddings, and other events, the resort also offers hotels and inns for a lakeside vacation.
However, if you’re just interested in relaxing for an afternoon, there’s still lots to do here.
The lake is open to public fishing and birding and offers kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards for rent during the summer. From spring to fall, we recommend the 45-minute lake cruise that travels the lake and shares its history.
For some land fun, check out the 3.8-mile scenic trail that wraps around the lake, the 18-hole golf course, and the playground.
Lake Lure is both a town and a lake, nestled in the Hickory Nut Gorge. It’s about 27 miles east of Asheville and a popular tourist spot, especially for families. The 720-acre lake is encased within the town, making it the local community and culture center.
Lake Lure is at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and within eye distance of Chimney Rock.
Dr. Lucius B. Morse, the brains behind the creation of Chimney Rock, also proposed building a dam to create a lake and a year-round resort. In 1926, Lake Lure was created, and the town was incorporated the following year.
Visitors to Lake Lure can take in the rolling views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and enjoy a sunny afternoon on the beach. Don’t miss out on the Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, a one-of-a-kind attraction that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Did you know that one of, if not the, most beautiful lakes in the country is right here in North Carolina?
Lake Santeetlah in Graham County is a manmade lake with 76 miles of shoreline surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. At the lake’s peninsula sits the town of Lake Santeetlah, but its permanent population is just 50.
The distance from any large development areas makes for a peaceful environment.
Soak up the breathtaking mountain views with a visit to this hidden North Carolina gem.
A small 640-acre private lake in Transylvania County (near Brevard and Cashiers), Lake Toxaway has an interesting history. It was first created when the Toxaway River was dammed in 1903, but a series of floods and storms broke the dam a decade later.
The lake disappeared for the next half century when a group of investors rebuilt the dam in 1960.
Today, Lake Toxaway is an elegant resort and recreational lake. Visitors can stay at one of the vacation rentals surrounding the lake to enjoy the lake and all its amenities.
Guests can access private boating, fishing, hiking, an upscale golf course, tennis courts, and fine dining.
The Nantahala National Forest is a well-known destination for nature lovers and adventurists and encompasses the pristine Nantahala Lake. The lake has 30 miles of shoreline and is elevated 3,000 feet above the Nantahala River Gorge.
Fishing is one of the most popular things at Nantahala Lake, given the impressive variety of species here. You’ll have your pick of walleye, sunfish, trout, bass, and the elusive freshwater kokanee salmon.
Nantahala Lake also has two public boat launches, one on the east shore off Wayah Road and one on the west shore.
W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
The Army Corps of Engineers run the place, which features an impressive 6 boat launches and 3 campgrounds with over 200 campsites. The park’s 1,000-seat amphitheater often sees theatrical performances by Bleu Moon Productions of Tom Dooley and Junior Johnson plays.
As mentioned, you can drop your boat in the water or hit the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (OVT), which runs through the area. Foothills Outdoor Adventures can provide boats at a reasonable cost if you’re seeking a rental.
Before you head out to explore, stop by the Environmental Education Center. Interactive kid-friendly (and all ages-friendly) exhibits await to educate you on the area’s ecology.
Central North Carolina Lakes
Badin Lake was created in 1917, followed shortly by the associated community of Badin, both named for the founder Adrien Badin.
Since the Uwharrie Lake sits in a valley, it’s relatively deep at 190 feet. It’s surrounded by the Badin Lake Recreation Area, with ample opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and more.
There are 17 miles of trails for biking and 40 miles of varying terrain for hikers. Badin Lake is a great Central NC lake for boaters and hikers alike.
Falls Lake is a 12,000-acre reservoir shared by the cities of Raleigh and Durham, with its main office in Wake Forest. It was constructed in 1981 after the Neuse River flooded the area the decade before, causing substantial property damage.
The lake now supplies water to the nearby cities while keeping the area healthy.
Today, Falls Lake is part of the Falls Lake State Recreational Area. Beyond the lake, the recreational area also comprises 26,000 acres of surrounding forests with access to the famed Mountains-to-Sea Trail, biking trails, and camping.
Visitors can enter from one of the seven accesses scattered across the lake.
High Rock Lake
High Rock Lake (near Lexington and Salisbury) is the second largest manmade lake after Lake Norman. It is one of the Uwharrie Lakes created by damming the Yadkin River and Pee Dee River.
The lake sits in the Uwharrie Mountains and is named after High Rock Mountain, the tallest peak in the range.
The 15,180-acre lake marks the border of Davidson and Rowan Counties and generates hydroelectric power for the area. It’s known for its healthy fishing populations of bass, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, and catfish.
Locals and travelers alike will enjoy the peaceful environment of this enormous lake.
Hyco Lake is an hour north of Chapel Hill and Durham in Person and Caswell Counties. Duke Energy Progress constructed the reservoir in the early 1960s to cool down its power plant, but it still has a vibrant history despite its short lifespan.
The name “Hyco” comes from the Native American word “hicotaminy,” which refers to the turkey vultures that inhabit the area. The area the lake sits on was once home to fields of tobacco.
The 3,750-acre lake is the area’s main destination for water-related recreational activities. Numerous cottage and camping sites dot the lake, as well as six boat ramps and boardwalks.
Entry to the park, which includes picnic and fishing areas, costs $10 per vehicle, but the disc golf course and nature trails are free.
Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Durham
While parts of Jordan Lake are accessible from Apex in Wake County, you can also access it via the Chatham County town of Pittsboro. Some of the most popular things to do here include fishing, boating, and marveling at the beautiful water.
You should also visit Jordan Lake for a look at our national bird, the bald eagle. The largest concentration of them in the Eastern US is supported by the lake.
You can hike the New Hope Trail at Jordan Lake, one of the most fun and challenging paths. Incredible views of Jordan Lake lie along this path that runs through a shady hardwood forest.
On the northern border between North Carolina and Virginia sits Kerr Lake, not to be confused with W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Western NC. This is one of the largest reservoirs in the Southeast, covering 50,000 acres and stretching 850 miles of shoreline.
The lake was impounded by the Kerr Dam in 1952, both of which are named after North Carolina Congressman John H. Kerr who supported the lake’s creation.
Kerr Lake has eight different access points scattered across its shore. Each access has a boat ramp, so bring your boats to enjoy the water or fish in one of the best fishing lakes in the Eastern US.
Based on its size alone, Kerr Lake has so much to see and do that it’ll be a great time for everyone!
In the heart of NC’s most populated county is Lake Crabtree, a wonderful outdoor getaway in Cary. The 520-acre reservoir was created in 1989 by damming Crabtree Creek to minimize the risk of flooding.
Today, Lake Crabtree welcomes visitors from around Wake County who picnic on the grassy shore, sit on the piers, and enjoy the views. Nature trails also loop around the lake, and kids can enjoy playgrounds.
One of the highlights of Lake Crabtree is the especially beautiful sunsets, as the sun dips behind the water across from the parking lot.
Central Raleigh is home to Lake Johnson, a 150-acre lake with over 300 acres of woodlands. Lake Johnson has been a center for boating, hiking, and outdoor activities for Raleigh residents since 1952.
Enjoy amenities such as seasonal boat rentals, fishing rod loaners, hammock posts, and more. Winding around the east side of the lake is a 2.8-mile paved greenway, while the west side features a 1.5-mile unpaved trail.
Lake Johnson is a beautiful escape from the bustle of city life.
As locals know, Lake Norman is the largest manmade lake in the state. It earned that title as its surface area is 32,510 acres or 50.8 square miles.
The lake is just north of Charlotte and was built for various reasons, most notably to provide electricity to Central NC and South Carolina and supply water to four NC counties.
It was named after Norman Atwater Cocke, former president of Duke Power.
Lake Norman is so large that many towns and cities claim part of the shoreline and lake within its borders. Part of it is also managed by Lake Norman State Park, which we think is one of the state’s most interesting parks.
Visitors can learn about the rich history of Lake Norman at the visitor center and then enjoy an afternoon of swimming, boating, or fishing. Lakeshore Trail is a 6.2-mile loop for hikers that offers great views throughout the year; the trail is one of our favorites!
Another great getaway from North Carolina’s capital city is Shelley Lake, just 7 miles north of downtown. The 53-acre lake provides a beautiful background for enjoying the natural beauty of our state.
Personal boats are not allowed on the lake, but visitors can still enjoy an afternoon of fishing or exploring the surrounding forest.
The Shelley Lake trail looping around the lake is popular with runners and those looking for a leisurely stroll. You can connect to the 100-mile Capital Area Greenway Trail System from the trail.
The Sertoma Arts Center in the main parking lot also makes Shelley Lake unique. The center hosts painting, jewelry-making, photography, and pottery classes. It’s a great place to tap into your creative side.
Lakes in Eastern NC
Finally, it’s time to discuss the amazing lakes in North Carolina’s easternmost reaches.
These are mostly a collection of famed meteor lakes, also known as bay lakes or Carolina Bays. Carolina Bays are oval depressions in the earth’s surface, many of which are found in Bladen County.
This final section of our guide begins with one of the most beautiful bay lakes in NC.
Jones Lake in Bladen County has a long history. The lake has had different names but received its current name from Isaac Jones, a landowner who donated some land upon which Elizabethtown was founded in 1773.
The shores of the lake were then farmed by private owners and given to the NC government in 1939. That year, Jones Lake State Park opened as the first park for the Black population until all parks became integrated in the coming decades.
The 224-acre lake is surrounded by the 2,000-acre state park and is a community site for hiking, picnicking, and swimming. Stay the night at one of the 20 family campsites and enjoy the 6 miles of hiking trails and swimming beaches.
Fishing isn’t as common here due to the water’s acidity, but some species like yellow perch and catfish, call the area home. Boating is also available for motors under ten horsepower, and canoes can be rented during summer.
Lake Gaston is a huge lake stretching across the North Carolina-Virginia border. The 20,000-acre reservoir is bounded by the Kerr and Gaston Dams, creating one of the best destinations in Eastern NC.
Lake Gaston is well-stocked with game fish like striped bass, rockfish, largemouth bass, sunfish, and catfish. In addition, there are public boat ramps and marinas scattered across the lake for you to spend an afternoon on the water.
Boating, sailing, tubing, water skiing, wakeboarding, and jet skiing are popular here. Enjoy a meal or go shopping at one of the numerous small towns lining the lake.
Towns like Warrenton are also within a short drive from the lake, and perfect for a day trip opportunity!
The largest natural lake in North Carolina is Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County, which is part of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. These public lands also encompass a variety of marshes, swamps, and forests.
It’s a relatively shallow lake, 2-3 feet deep, but spans 40,000 acres.
The lake and surrounding wildlife refuge are a nature lover’s paradise. It has beautiful scenery and an abundant population of unique animals and plants.
One of the most popular things to do here is to observe the wildlife, which includes over 240 species of birds, mammals such as black bears and bobcats, and so much more.
Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County is the largest of the Carolina Bay lakes. Reaching 20 feet deep, it is an ecological wonder.
The lake has a unique geography and is home to many rare species of flora and fauna.
Visitors to the lake can enjoy two public boat launches from where they can launch powerboats and sailboats, as well as a healthy fish population stocked by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
In addition, a pedestrian bridge over Waccamaw Dam allows you to explore the 14-mile shoreline.
Lake Phelps is the second largest natural lake in NC behind Lake Mattamuskeet. Its surface area covers 16,600 acres, most in Washington County and part in Tyrell County.
The lake’s round shape classifies it as another of the interesting Carolina Bays.
Lake Phelps’ large size is a haven for boaters, kayakers, and fishermen; you’ll rarely encounter much traffic or crowds.
The lake is protected as part of Pettigrew State Park, which contains campgrounds if you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, picnic tables, and hiking and biking trails.
Somerset Place, a former plantation, is also here and free to enter.
Also in Bladen County is Singletary Lake State Park, which forms one of the largest Carolina Bays.
The park covers 649 acres of land and a 572-acre lake. It has primarily been used for organized group camping but has expanded to include traditional outdoor activities. Singletary Lake State Park also belongs to the 35,000-acre Bladen Lakes State Forest, encompassing Jones Lake.
Singletary Lakes State Park has two organized group campsites open to nonprofit organizations to use. Individual campers can stay at Camp Ipecac and Camp Loblolly Bay, which can house 140 people combined.
The camps are dormitory-style, complete with a mess hall and a 500-foot pier for swimming.
White Lake is a small 1,200-acre body of water surrounded by the resort town of the same name. White Lake was founded in 1951 and has a permanent population of 857, but they welcome over 200,000 tourists each summer.
The locals call the lake their “own little slice of paradise.”
As the name suggests, White Lake is crystal clear with a view of the sandy white bottom. The lake has no currents or tides, making it one of the safest lakes in the state, if not the country.
It’s a beautiful resort destination for swimming, boating, jet-skiing, and more. Surrounding the lake are amusement parks, golf courses, cottages, and more. White Lake is more than just a lake; it’s an entire experience.
The Best Lakes in North Carolina (Our Top 5)
With so many lakes in NC to choose from, this was an extremely tough decision. However, we must persist and share our top 5 picks for the best lakes in North Carolina with you:
- Lake James
- Lake Santeetlah
- Lake Lure
- Phelps Lake
- Falls Lake
Ready to Explore these Lakes in NC?
This guide proves that you won’t have difficulty finding a lake nearby, as long as you’re in North Carolina! We’ve enjoyed so many memories at these NC lakes and can’t wait to make more.
Have you ever visited any lakes in North Carolina? Do you have any favorites to share?
NC Lakes Travel Guides
We’ve written many more NC travel guides that feature the best lakes in North Carolina. Here are a few of them.