Asheville visitors and locals alike get to revel in a pretty great combination. We’ve got a downtown full of cultural and foodie destinations, surrounding neighborhoods and towns with all the conveniences of suburban life, and we’ve got a breathtaking backdrop of mountains whenever we want to get out into nature.
However, one thing that isn’t very common in Asheville proper are bodies of water of major size. While there are smaller lakes – including Lake Julian, Lake Louise, and Beaver Lake in Asheville and its nearby towns – many people long for a lake big enough to participate in water sports, have a dock to fish off, and even find a sandy beach for sunbathing and going swimming in the water.
While there are a few lakes that check these boxes in the hour radius around Asheville, we wanted to give you as many options as possible, including many of the best lakes in North Carolina for people who want variety when it comes to their lake vacation options.
Whether you’re trying to figure out beautiful lakes for a day trip from Asheville, or are wanting a whole week away on the other side of the state with lake views every morning, you’ll find good options for your needs here.
Don’t forget to check out our web story: 15 Lakes in North Carolina Perfect for Your Next Getaway
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The 15 Best Lakes for a Vacation in North Carolina
1. Lake Norman Offers Lake Living at its Finest
While you can definitely pick from a huge list of lakes in North Carolina, I personally have a real soft spot for Lake Norman. Just outside of the Charlotte metro area, this lake feels like full-on lake living, and you can find all the amenities: lakefront rentals with great swimming areas and docks from which to launch all kinds of watercraft, and plenty of infrastructure for lakefront camping, boat rentals, and generally getting out on or in the water.
I’ve had some of my favorite and best lake vacations in North Carolina at Lake Norman, partially because there is an established contingent of waterfront camping folks that create a mini community right at the water. It’s an affordable and beautiful type of vacation from daily life!
2. Have Central NC Lake Fun at Jordan Lake
Not far from the state’s capital of Raleigh, Jordan Lake offers the perfect Central NC destination for camping near the water and enjoying many options for water fun. There is both RV and tent camping, and the Jordan Lake State Recreational Area manages water access points as well as beautiful views from the shoreline, which includes a variety of trails.
The marina at Jordan Lake is privately owned, and you can check with them on the availability of kayak, fishing boat, and stand-up paddleboard rentals. With hundreds of spots, this can be a great place for a family reunion or for a camping trip when you love socializing with other campers. You’ll find plenty of hiking trails and may even glimpse one of the bald eagles that live here!
3. Enjoy Mountain Living With Lake Lure
Within an hour’s drive of Asheville is the picturesque small town and man-made lake of Lake Lure. The opportunity to explore the extensive shoreline in a kayak, canoe, or pontoon boat is a top-rated way to enjoy these waters, with amazing mountain views all around and plenty of birds and animals to keep an eye out for as you relax.
There are fishermen who come to fish the stocked trout, bluegill, bass, and catfish. Since you need a license, consider a guided boat and fishing tour since your guide will know where the biting is best for the fish you hope to catch.
There’s also an amazing Lake Lure beach and water park – for littles who want to swim all day in the lake, they’ll enjoy the shoreline, but also those who want to splash in the fountains and slides will have plenty to do. Relaxing on a beach in the middle of the mountains is a wild and lovely experience and well worth a day trip or weekend journey to Lake Lure, one of the most beautiful lakes in North Carolina.
4. Experience Far Western Beauty at Lake Glenville
In some circles, Lake Glenville is called the “Jewel of the Appalachians,” and being so high in elevation, so clear and pristine, it’s not hard to see why. There is a fully stocked marina where you can rent watercraft of all kinds or commission a boat captain to take you on a tour of the lake and nearby water features like the beautiful waterfalls that are common in this region.
There’s a beach area located in the Pines Recreational Area, offering you the chance to enjoy the summer sun while taking in the views around the water. While there’s no competition, and honestly I’d love to visit every single lake in North Carolina, Lake Glenville gets top marks for beauty and is considered one of the best lakes in North Carolina to visit.
5. Discover Incredible Biodiversity at Nantahala Lake
While the Nantahala River is arguably one of the best-known natural attractions in our area, specifically for its whitewater kayaking and rafting potential, Lake Nantahala is a beautiful and unique lake in its own right.
With plenty of boat rentals through companies like Lakes End Marina and rental cabins and properties available for those who want to spend time on the water, you can opt for a Nantahala adventure that involves calmer water, or you can take a trip into the Nantahala Outdoor Center to have a guided raft trip on the river itself.
You don’t have to be restricted to just one speed of water activities when you’re at Nantahala Lake. Like other lakes in the area, Nantahala Lake is dammed, making it a source of hydroelectric power for many nearby communities.
6. Sleep Where You Float in Lake Fontana
Lake Fontana is a beautiful water feature very close to Asheville, formed in the 1940s by damming the Little Tennessee River, resulting in an impressive 10,000 acres of water. It’s the biggest lake in Western NC and boasts the tallest dam, Fontana Dam, east of the Rocky Mountains!
The Appalachian Trail passes by this area, and other trails crisscross the woods around the lake. Boating and swimming are particularly popular, and a variety of people permanently live in houseboats on the lake. For an unforgettable experience, rent one of the houseboats on Lake Fontana and spend a few nights sleeping out on the water yourself!
7. Soak Up the Beautiful Scenery Near Boone at Bass Lake
Boone, NC, has some of the higher elevations in the NC Mountains, and visitors who are using the Blue Ridge Parkway are likely to run across Price Lake and Bass Lake, two beautiful mountain lakes with a lot of great wilderness and picturesque trails near them. Easily located along an incredible stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I recommend checking these spots out as part of a hiking day in Julian Price Park or Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.
Campgrounds along the Blue Ridge Parkway make it possible to explore the ecosystems around the lakes over a few days. This beautiful location holds so many fond memories for me that even though it’s far from one of the biggest lakes or sets of lakes in North Carolina, I just enjoy it too much not to include it as a hidden gem, especially since it’s just a couple hours north of Asheville.
8. Choose From All Kinds of Camping Opportunities Near Lake James
Lake James brings something for every visitor, from plenty of spots for boating, swimming, and fishing to all kinds of hiking. Campsites range from easy access to some that you can only get to by paddling to them, a fun experience for families looking for a true adventure out into the untamed wilderness.
There’s a variety of bike trails popular with mountain bikers and walking trails that are both strenuous and perfect for small children. With picnic shelters and beach access, you’ll find what you need to make any family trip memorable around Lake James and the surrounding Lake James State Park.
As with the other lakes on the list, make sure to learn the rules of the state parks, since these aren’t private property kinds of spots and are subject to a few regulations that you’ll want to follow.
9. Staying Near Asheville? Lake Junaluska Is Just Down the Way
Only half an hour from Asheville is the small and picturesque lake community of Lake Junaluska. Because it’s long been a renewal retreat space owned primarily by the Methodist church, not everyone knows that it’s possible to rent boats, find lodging, and wander the nearby gardens to enjoy this space without being there for a religious retreat.
Birders, in particular, love this area, with the Corneille Bryan Native Garden as well as the lake itself drawing many different species of birds. In the same area, there is golf, a lakeside swimming pool, and even mini-golf – you’ll find that there’s a lot to do even though, at around 200 acres, Lake Junaluska is small for a major lake destination. Don’t worry – you’ll have just as much fun as on a huge lake!
10. Experience the Unique Landforms at Lake Waccamaw
All along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, there are elliptical or oval-shaped depressions in the ground, similar enough and concentrated enough to prompt theories that they were scars from a meteorite shower in the past. One of these “Carolina Bays” is filled with water and is now known as Lake Waccamaw.
While many lakes offer diverse ecosystems, this one is even more of a fauna-lovers paradise than most: species of fish, birds, mollusks, and alligators all live in these waters. Being about as far south and east as you can get, Lake Waccamaw is a hike from Asheville, but for the fascinating birds and other animals you’ll get to see during your visit, Lake Waccamaw stands out as an excellent wildlife-centric destination.
You’ll definitely come back with stories of your trip to one of the best lakes in North Carolina!
11. Head Northeast to Roanoke Rapids Lake
A variety of lakes in North Carolina were created by damming rivers, creating reservoirs for hydroelectric dams. As a result, there are new lake coastlines to explore and more places to go boating than ever before, all while allowing for a renewable source of energy.
While many of the main access points to Roanoke Rapids Lake are day use only, there are campgrounds in the Roanoke Rapids area, so even if you can’t get a waterfront spot, camping is a possibility nearby. The day-use area offers a playground and walking trails as well as a disc golf course, space for horseshoes, and even sand volleyball. It’s a great option if you’ve got a sporty family that will take full advantage of the options for some games.
The public swimming area is well maintained as well, and it’s nice that use is free. If you plan to use a picnic shelter, consider reserving ahead because they are popular and may book up before your gathering.
12. When Near Raleigh, Enjoy Falls Lake
The research triangle, which includes both the Raleigh and Durham metro area, has a real treasure in the form of the Falls Lake State Recreational Area. Falls Lake has a lot of shoreline, and partially because of the plentiful shoreline, there are five beaches available.
There are access points throughout the Falls Lake area to put in boats and a wide variety of bike trails, 14 miles worth. The Mountains-to-Sea statewide trail runs through the park, so if you’re doing any long-form hiking, you might want to plan to stop by and see Falls Lake or stay a while for a little fishing or to photograph the beautiful vistas.
13. Enjoy the Bounty at High Rock Lake
The second-largest lake in NC, High Rock Lake exists at the connection between the Yadkin River and the South Yadkin River and is right next to its namesake, High Rock Mountain. The impressive 15,180 acres of this large lake are all a reservoir for a nearby hydroelectric dam, and the huge lake is a great spot for bass, crappie, bream, catfish, and striper, if you’re a boating sort.
Located near the town of Lexington, NC, you can find rental companies to rent a boat and explore the 300+ miles of coastline. During the summer, groups convene on Goat Island and other spots around the lake for convivial parties and general lakeside fun. While there are plenty of boats available, many people comment that this lake feels uncrowded, which offers some welcome serenity during a lake trip.
14. Enjoy the Carolinas’ Border at Lake Wylie
Covering portions of both North and South Carolina, this lake directly south of Charlotte, NC, offers a large space for lake activities and five public boat access areas. With sport fish like largemouth bass, this lake has a big draw for fishermen who want to land impressive specimens, but casual fishing is also a popular pastime.
While the scenery is flatter than the mountain lakes I’ve included in this list, the big sky above Lake Wylie is impeccable on a cloudless day. There are paddleboards and kayaks available for exploring the lake, and with nearby parks and nature centers, you’ll be able to find plenty of land-loving adventure during a visit to one of the most beautiful lakes in North Carolina!
15. Discover a Natural Body of Water Near the Ocean at Lake Mattamuskeet
While many lakes are manmade in North Carolina, the largest natural body of freshwater in our state, ironically, is located just a few miles from the coast, in Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Preserve. While a huge portion of this park is marshes, swamp forests, and upland forests, there is still enough shallow water available for small boats, generally non-motorized.
Walking and birding are great options for exploring this refuge and enjoying the lake, and if you’re looking for a more traditional beachfront experience, you’re close to the Pamlico Sound and a variety of other access points to much larger saltwater.
Fishing is a popular experience, but you’ll want to follow the guidelines for where fishing is currently allowed, with boat fishing typically only being available in spring through fall. While not a deep-reservoir-lake experience at all, the inner biologist in everyone will find the swampy marshes of this natural body of water to be a source of endless fascination.
Tips for Enjoying North Carolina Lakes to the Fullest
- If you have your heart set on a particular activity, consider booking ahead of time: from guided fishing excursions to whitewater rafting on nearby creeks and rivers, it’s worth it to set a few main items in stone for your trip since these lakes can get very busy during popular seasons.
- In particular with fishing, consider any permits you’ll need to be able to fish or hunt legally when you’re out by the lake.
- Many campgrounds will allow you to book ahead of time and will, in fact, book up, so finding your best spot is a great idea before you head for the lake.
- Teach small children about lake swimming safety and keep an eye on them throughout the experience. Some of the lakefront beaches can have a lot going on, with a water park or nearby swimming pool that kids may visit between dips in the lake, so it’s just wise to have a few eyes on the kiddos at all times.
- On many lakes, one of the best ways to get a secluded but fun lakefront experience is to rent a vacation rental with its own private dock. While pricier than a general campground, if your goal is a secluded getaway, consider shopping around for rentals on sites that rent out homes rather than campgrounds.
- While far from a requirement, there’s something really lovely about unplugging during a lake vacation. When visiting these North Carolina lakes, seriously consider taking a break from screen time to spend time with the wildlife, build a campfire, and chat with each other! You’ll be surprised how good it feels to disconnect a bit, even if you still have to check in occasionally.