Cradled among the rugged Appalachians and reachable only by winding mountain roads, Watauga Lake is a true paradise for anyone seeking quality time in the outdoors. This remote lake lies in two of Northeast Tennessee’s most rural counties—Johnson and Carter—making it a place where outdoor enthusiasts can escape city life and enjoy a host of recreational opportunities.
Over half of Watauga Lake’s 105 miles of shoreline are contained within Cherokee National Forest, which has allowed its banks to remain largely undeveloped and heavily forested. The national forest has also created several designated recreation areas around the lake, providing adventurers protected areas to fish, swim, and camp.
The Appalachian Trail, the famed 2,185-mile footpath that travels from Georgia to Maine, crosses the western tip of Watauga Lake and skirts its northern bank before climbing back into the mountains toward Virginia. Nearby, Hampton, TN embraces this proximity to the AT, and the trail’s symbol can be seen painted and carved all over town.
Whether you venture to Watauga Lake for a serious adventure or for a relaxing getaway, its clear waters, abundant wildlife, and diverse recreation are sure to leave you wanting more.
History of the Lake
Though you wouldn’t know by looking at it, Watauga Lake is actually a man-made reservoir with an interesting backstory. The dam that created the reservoir was begun in 1942, shortly after the US entered World War II. The dam’s construction was soon put on hold in order to direct resources toward the war effort, and building resumed in 1946. Construction ended on New Year’s Eve of 1948, and the completed Watauga Dam impounded the Watauga and Elk Rivers to generate hydropower downstream on the Tennessee River.
In addition to forming what we now know as Watauga Lake, the dam flooded “Old” Butler, a town that now sits at the bottom of the lake. Old Butler, which was settled in 1786, is known as a town where white pioneers and Native Americans interacted and farmed together for decades. When the dam was built, the town moved to higher ground and formed “New” Butler, which is now home to the Butler Museum. There, visitors can learn about Old Butler’s history and residents through photographs, artifacts, exhibits, and other memorabilia.
The name “Watauga” is from the Native American word Wata’gi. Though the word’s original meaning has been lost over the centuries, it’s thought to translate to “beautiful waters,” or “clear waters.”
Top 10 Things to Do
Now that you know the area’s fascinating backstory, it’s time to start planning activities for your visit. Here are 10 ways to get outside in and around Watauga Lake.
1. Camp in Cherokee National Forest
As is noted above, the surrounding national forest offers several recreation areas for visitors to enjoy, including primitive campgrounds. Some great nearby options for an overnight trip are Cardens Bluff Campground and Dennis Cove Recreation Area.
2. Picnic at Clifford Island
This wooded island on the western half of the lake is only reachable by boat. Load up your canoe with a portable lunch and paddle out to enjoy a picnic with a fabulous view.
3. Go Swimming
For a casual, family-friendly day on the lakeshore, check out some of the beautiful swimming areas such as Shook Branch Beach on the lake’s western tip and Watauga Point Picnic Area on the southern shore.
4. Do Some Flatwater Paddling
For canoeing, kayaking, and SUPing, the Wilbur Lake section of Watauga is an ideal spot. No motorized boats are allowed on Wilbur Lake, so its calm waters are perfect for paddling small watercraft. There are also picnic tables near the put-in that you can make use of before or after your paddling adventure.
5. Cast a Line
With more than a dozen species of game fish including bass, trout, catfish, and bluegill, Watauga Lake is a destination for anglers. Fish from your own boat, a rented boat, or one of the many access points surrounding the lake.
6. Enjoy a Hike
Watauga Lake is surrounded by trail systems that cater to hikers of all skill levels. Venture onto the Appalachian Trail to the north or south from the Shook Branch area, explore the rugged trails within Pond Mountain Wilderness, or visit CR Doodle White Overlook Park.
7. Dine at The Captain’s Table
Located at the Lakeshore Marina, The Captain’s Table looks right out over the water so you can dine with a spectacular view. The restaurant specializes in fish and seafood, and also serves steaks, kids’ meals, and daily specials.
8. Relax on a Pontoon Boat
There’s nothing quite like spending a warm summer day bobbing around on a pontoon boat with family or friends. Daily boat rentals are available at the Lakeshore Marina, so you can enjoy a wonderful day on the water even if you don’t own a boat.
9. Go on a Guided Adventure
Northeast Tennessee is home to an excellent local guide service called White Blaze Outdoors, which offers an array of hiking and biking trips around the region. When you book one of their outdoor trips for yourself or a group, you’ll be paired with an experienced guide who will lead you through your adventure.
10. Visit the Butler Museum
“New” Butler is home to a fascinating museum that chronicles the town that now lies at the bottom of Watauga Lake. Visit the museum to discover what life was like in Old Butler from its settlement in the 18th century to its flooding in 1948.
Where to Stay
The last step in planning your Watauga Lake getaway is choosing your lodging, and you have two very different choices.
The Carnegie Hotel is located about an hour’s drive from Watauga Lake in Johnson City and offers guests a thoroughly luxurious overnight experience. After your day outside on the lake, the Carnegie is a grand and beautiful place to unwind and pamper yourself. Enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, or treat yourself at its full-service spa.
For those who want to keep the outdoor vibes going, your lake adventure can continue when you stay at the Watauga Lakeshore Resort and Marina. Each of the motel units and cabins offers a view of the water and come equipped with all the necessary amenities like television and air conditioning.
Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with NETTA.
Featured image provided by David Hamm