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Lake James State Park (10 Great Things to Do!)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on July 6, 2024.

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Lake James State Park in Western North Carolina encompasses the impressive Lake James and the surrounding woodlands, making it the best of both worlds.

The 3,743-acre state park offers miles of hiking and biking trails, in addition to all the water-related activities on the 6,510-acre Lake James.

Lake James State Park is one of our favorite NC state parks, and we want to share some of the best things to do here. Here’s how we’ve organized this guide so that you can enjoy all this park has to offer:

  • Where is Lake James State Park?
  • The History of Lake James
  • Things to Do
    • On the Lake (Water Activities)
    • Land Activities
    • Where to Stay
  • Things to Do Nearby
  • More NC Travel Guides

You can skip ahead to any section or continue reading about the interesting history of Lake James State Park.

Read More: 75+ Fun Day Trips from Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Where is Lake James State Park?

Catawba River Access: 2785 N.C. 126, Nebo, NC
Paddys Creek Access (Beach): 7321 N.C. 126, Nebo, NC
Hidden Cove Boat Ramp: 3381 N.C. 126, Nebo, NC
Canal Bridge Boat Ramp: 9182 N.C. 126, Nebo, NC

Lake James State Park sits in both Burke and McDowell counties. It’s located near the town of Nebo and about 50 miles northeast of Asheville. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon while in Western North Carolina.

To reach Lake James State Park, you can take I-40’s exit 90.

The park has two main sections: the Paddy’s Creek Access and the Catawba River Access. The two are only separated by a few miles, but each has its own selection of activities and things to do.

This map details where each area is and how it’s laid out. Paddy’s Creek is larger and has three parking lots, two inland and one near the lake. Catawba River has two parking designations, both relatively near lake access.

You can also plan your trip to Lake James and nearby places with our Western North Carolina Map and our bigger North Carolina Travel Map.

Read More: 15 of the Best Day Trips in North Carolina

The History of Lake James State Park

Lake James State Park NC

Lake James was created by Duke Power between 1916 and 1923. They did so by creating dams at the Catawba River, the Linville River, and Paddy Creek. The newly built reservoir was named for James B. Duke, a tobacco tycoon and benefactor of Duke University and Duke Power.

Through the early 20th century, a community named Fonta Flora thrived in parts of the area now occupied by the lake. The people who lived here were forced to leave as news of the lake and dams were being constructed.

In recent years, Lake James has become a popular destination for people seeking outdoor recreation. Lake James State Park was established in 1987 and is one of the most popular lakes in Western NC.

The lake also featured in the blockbuster Last of the Mohicans and served as Fort McHenry in the film.

Read More: 10 Movies Filmed In North Carolina (and Set Here, Too!)

Leave No Trace Reminder

Whether you’re exploring the park by land or by sea, we ask you to PLEASE leave no trace. This is one of the most important things to remember and doing so will help us all continue to enjoy Lake James State Park in the future.

Make sure to pick up picnic items, trash, and gear, and park only in designated spaces. Yes, leaving no trace also means being mindful of times when the park is at full capacity.

If you’ve arrived and there are no designated spaces available, please pick another time to visit.

Things to Do on The Lake (Water Activities)

The lake covers a massive 6,510 acres with 150 miles of beach-like shoreline. The surrounding land was acquired in the mid-2000s, and much of the recent development has occurred in the last decade.

Perhaps the park’s greatest selling point is the massive Lake James. The sheer size of the lake makes it so that there are tons to things to do and see.

Read More: 125+ Important Facts About North Carolina You Should Know (History, Geography, and More!)

Boating

Lake James State Park Boating

Boating is one of the most popular things to do at Lake James. Visitors can rent stand-up paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks from the concession stand on Paddy’s Creek beach.

Personal boats can also be brought and launched from the two boat ramps at Catawba River Area—Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge.

The Hidden Cove boat ramp is open seasonally while Canal Bridge is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. Enjoy the cool mountain air while sailing on the clear waters of Lake James.

Read More: 13 Wonderful Things to Do in Old Fort (an Awesome Western NC Town!)

Swimming at the Beach

Lake James State Park Beach

You don’t need to travel all the way to the coast for a beautiful beach—there’s one right here in the mountains! The Lake James beach spans 700 feet along the lake’s shore in the Paddy’s Creek Area.

The beach is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm from May to September. Lifeguards are on duty in the summer months, requiring a swimming fee of $6 per adult during this time. The rest of the park is still free for visitors. While pets are allowed on a leash in other areas of the park, they are not allowed on the beach.

While visiting the beach, enjoy amenities like the bathhouse, concession stands selling popsicles, ice cream, drinks, and more to keep you cool, and a pavilion area.

The Lake James beach is the perfect summer excursion!

Read More: 20+ of the Best Beaches in North Carolina (+ Our Personal Tips)

Fishing

Lake James North Carolina

There are fishing locations in both Paddy’s Creek and Catawba River. Cast your rod into the flowing mountain rivers to catch species like white bass, bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and more. The park requires that all fishers have a fishing license and abide by N.C. Wildlife regulations.

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do In North Carolina (Your NC Bucket List)

Things to Do on Land

While there are a lot of ways to enjoy the waters of Lake James, you also have plenty of land activities to explore here.

Visitor Centers

There are a few visitor centers scattered around Lake James State Park at both the Paddys Creek and Catawba River accesses. There are also wheelchair-accessible facilities near the beach (Paddys Creek) and at the Catawba River Visitor Center and the General Access Dock.

Hiking Trails

Lake James State Park NC Hiking Trails

Lake James State Park features a relatively new trail system that crisscrosses a total of 26.5 miles across the state. Paddy’s Creek has more hiking options with 22 miles, but Catawba River is just as fulfilling with 4.5 miles of beautiful terrain.

Hikes at Paddy’s Creek include:

  • Holly Discovery Trail (0.75 miles, easy)
  • Overmountain Victory Trail (2.0 miles, easy)
  • Paddy’s Creek Trail (1.0 mile, moderate)
  • Homestead Trail (0.7 miles, easy)
  • Mill’s Creek Trail (3.6 miles, moderate)

Hikes at Catawba River include:

  • Fishing Pier (0.3 miles, easy)
  • Fox Den Loop (2.25 miles, moderate)
  • Lake Channel Overlook (1.5 miles, moderate)
  • Sandy Cli Overlook (0.5 miles, moderate)

Lake James is one of our favorite places to go hiking throughout the year, but especially in the fall.

Read More: 75+ Great Hikes Near Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Overmountain Victory Trail

Overmountain Victory Trail Lake James State Park NC

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail is a significant reminder of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina. The National Parks-managed route runs north to south (or south to north) for about 330 miles through four states, including North Carolina and Lake James.

The trail follows the paths of the patriot militiamen who eventually fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. This pivotal battle was a decisive victory for the Patriots and turned things around after many losses in the Carolinas.

Read More: 25+ Beautiful North Carolina Road Trips (Scenic Byways and Highways)

Biking Trails

Mountain bikers will find 14 miles of biking trails at Paddy’s Creek Area. Trail lengths vary from 7 miles to an easy 1 mile, offering many options for bikers.

  • Upper Tindo Loop (1.4 miles, easy)
  • Lower Tindo Loop (1.4 miles, easy)
  • West Wimba Loop (6.0 miles, moderate)
  • East Wimba Loop (4.4 miles, moderate)
  • South Wimba Trail (1.4 miles, easy)
  • Fonta Flora State Trail (7.0 miles, moderate)

Read More: The Catawba River Greenway in Morganton

Camping

Lake James has three main campsites that offer dozens of tents to meet any of your needs. There are 20 walk-in campsites along the Catawba River shore with beautiful lake views. This area comes equipped with fire pits, picnic tables, a washhouse, and 6-person tents.

Paddy’s Creek has 33 drive-in campsites deep within the park. Drive right up to your camp, with space for two vehicles, fire pits, and a washhouse. Book reservations for these sites here.

Finally, Lake James offers a true outdoor camping experience at its boat-in campsites. You can paddle to Long Arm peninsula, only about a mile from the beach, to stay at one of the 30 campsites here.

These come with picnic tables, fire pits, and tent pads. Be sure to reserve your site here before arriving.

Read More: Ridiculously Unique Rentals and Airbnbs in Asheville (and Nearby)

Picnicking

Lake James State Park NC Picnic Table

Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the many picnic sites for the perfect addition to a restful afternoon outdoors. In addition to picnic tables, there are also outdoor grills, covered areas, and more throughout the park.

Read More: 25+ Amazing Restaurants in Morganton and Nearby! (Map Included!)

Keep Coming Back!

From all the water-related activities on the gorgeous Lake James to hiking and biking trails, there are lots of things to do at Lake James State Park. It’s one of our favorite places to visit in Western North Carolina.

Whether you sun yourself on the beach, sail around the lake, or enjoy the scenes on the hiking trails, you’re bound to have a great time at this wonderful state park!

That’s why we think after you spend some time here, you’ll want to make regular return visits to Lake James. If you’re familiar with the area, do you agree with us?

Let us know in the comments or by email. Don’t forget to share your Lake James State Park adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!

Things to Do Nearby

Here are a few places near Lake James that you should check out.

Marion

Things to do in Marion NC downtown

Lake James is located near some charming mountain towns that we think you’ll enjoy visiting. Marion in McDowell County has some of the best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is known as the town where “Main Street meets the mountains.”

Read More: How to See Tom’s Creek Falls in Marion (and Why We Love It!)

Morganton

Downtown Morganton North Carolina

Morganton in Burke County is one of our favorite mountain towns and is a perfect gateway to Lake James. The awesome and rugged South Mountains State Park is also nearby and features the awesome High Shoals Falls.

Read More: 80+ Great Small Towns in North Carolina (+ Our Top 10 Picks)

Linville Gorge Wilderness Area

Hikes near Asheville Hawksbill Mountain Trail Linville Gorge

Commonly referred to as “the Gorge,” Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is part of Pisgah National Forest and is one of our favorite places to explore. Its difficult-to-navigate terrain and protection from industrial logging has helped the area’s old-growth forests remain in tact.

Some of our favorite places to visit in the Gorge include:

Read More: 45+ Stunning Blue Ridge Parkway Stops in North Carolina

More NC Travel Guides Including Lake James (and Beyond!)

We’ve included Lake James State Park and surrounding places in many of our NC travel guides. Here are a few of them.

1 thought on “Lake James State Park (10 Great Things to Do!)”

  1. I live 20 minutes from Lake James. We are so blessed to have this natural resource to enjoy. Love paddling with my dragon boat teammates on the Lake. Come join us!

    Reply

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