Finger Lakes of the South, North Carolina & Tennessee, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - South - North Carolina - Mountains - Tennessee - East -

Also known as:  Chilhowie Lake, Calderwood Lake, Cheoah Lake. Chilhowie Reservoir, Calderwood Reservoir, Cheoah Reservoir

Three reservoirs on the Little Tennessee River in northwestern North Carolina and Southeastern Tennessee offer some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery in the eastern United States. The Finger Lakes of the South – Cheoah Lake, Calderwood Lake and Chilhowie Lake – provide hydroelectric power to Alcoa, Inc. for operation of its aluminum smelting operations. Ideally situated at the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest, the three ‘stairstep’ reservoirs impound nearly 3000 acres of water along almost 30 miles of river.

Immediately above the Cheoah Reservoir, Fontana Dam and Lake corral another 29 miles of the Little Tennessee River. Fontana Dam was originally planned as a fourth hydroelectric generation unit for Alcoa, but the urgency of World War II resulted in that dam being built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, with power produced going to Alcoa for 20 years. As the Fontana Dam controls water levels on all four reservoirs, the complex has a unique arrangement between the TVA and Tapoco, the hydroelectric generation division of Alcoa. Because the complex resides in two states, reciprocal arrangements for fishing regulations have been worked out for Calderwood Lake.

The Finger Lakes of the South have no development along their shorelines. A number of primitive campsites are located along the shore, many of which are accessible only by water. All three have boat launch sites which are suitable for small fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. The dams serve to slow down the river, widening the waters into pleasant pools of scenic wonder teaming with fish. The wooded and rocky shoreline is overlooked by limestone bluffs in some areas, while others feature gentle slopes under the canopy of trees. Because the lakes are deep, pure and cold, they have become excellent trout fishing destinations.

The two southern lakes, Cheoah Lake and Calderwood Lake, support an excellent coldwater fishery, while Chilhowie Lake is considered a cool-water fishery as it is a bit warmer. Periodic water releases from the underwater penstocks create an environment with high oxygen levels ideal for trout. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency regularly stocks Calderwood and Chilhowie Lakes with rainbow trout and has stocked lake trout in the past. North Carolina stocks Cheoah Lake.

Calderwood Lake, smallest at 541 acres, straddles the state border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Although sandwiched between the two other finger lakes, Calderwood Lake is the deepest with depths of 190 feet on the lower end of the original river channel. One anomaly often commented on by fishermen and river paddlers is how cold the water often is. This is caused by the water releases from deep in Cheoah Lake above the dam, bringing cold water rapidly into Calderwood Lake’s warmer near-surface waters. When the hydroelectric generators are not running, the near-surface waters warm up rapidly from warm overflow top-water coming over the dam. Wise fishermen use the scheduled releases to time their fishing activity for warmer water periods when trout approach the surface to feed.

The Calderwood Lake dam was completed in 1930, creating a reservoir with steep, rocky sides. The primary game fish are rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, lake trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie and rock bass. Because of the reciprocal agreement between the two states, fishing licenses from one state are honored by the other for boat anglers. Those fishing from shore must have the correct state permits. Calderwood Lake is the middle Finger Lake of the South and is difficult to access by road except at the upper end of the lake near the Cheoah Dam. The road itself can be difficult during inclement weather. Those who make the effort are richly rewarded by excellent paddling, several scenic primitive campsites accessed by water, and many small waterfalls that can be reached from the rough trails through the woods. A favorite landing spot is the campsite at Slickrock Creek in the Joyce Kilner Slickrock Wilderness.

Cheoah Lake, uppermost of the Finger Lakes of the South, forms directly below the Fontana Dam. Constructed in 1919, the Cheoah Dam was the fist dam in the series and was featured in the 1993 movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. Although there is no development on Cheoah Lake itself, nearby Fontana Lake features a small village and several campgrounds and resorts. Lodgings may be found in the hills overlooking the lake, and bed-and-breakfasts are popular here. The 644-acre lake offers excellent fishing for trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie and rock bass. A scenic highway runs the length of the reservoir, but only one boat launch ramp is available near the Fontana Dam. Campers take advantage of several rustic campsites along the shore.

Located entirely within North Carolina, Cheoah Lake is a favorite with canoe and kayak paddlers. A canoe portage is provided around the Cheoah Dam onto Calderwood Lake. Both Cheoah Lake and Calderwood Lake are quite remote, with the nearest towns of any size being about 30 miles away over dificult roads. Reaching the Cheoah Dam from the north entails a highly scenic and extremely twisting trip south on US 129 through an area known as the ‘Tail of The Dragon’. A favorite of motorcyclists, this road is the bane of inexperienced truckers who are sometimes sent that way by dispatchers relying on GPS; it is nearly impossible for long tractor-trailers to make the hairpin turns and steep hills along the route but, because it is a US Highway, most maps mark it as a truck route. These are likely the only travelers who don’t enjoy the scenic road in good weather. The few country stores and convenience stops along the way will provide not only cold drinks for visitors but the latest stories of hapless truckers.

Chilhowie Lake is the northernmost of the Finger Lakes of The South. The last built, the dam was completed in 1957. Chilhowie is the most easily accessed and therefore the most popular of the three lakes. Largest at 1734 acres, Chilhowie Lake has two beaches, picnic areas, several boat launches and fishing piers. A canoe portage is marked around the Calderwood Dam upstream. Chilhowie Lake provides part of the boundary between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest. Great fishing for several varieties of trout and bass is also found here. Although trout fishing is excellent, bass are also abundant, and a few walleye are caught.

Chilhowie Lake is relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of only about 50 feet, and an average of 20 feet or less. This ‘finger’ on the finger lakes is a bit wider than the others, reaching almost a mile across. Chilhowie is much closer to towns than the other two reservoirs; Maryville, Lenoir City and Louden are all within 30 miles. This makes Chilhowie Lake the most likely day trip for visitors who can find lodgings in any of the nearby towns. Of course, several rustic campgrounds are also provided as are day use areas.

Maryville is large enough to have several hotels and motels, while local guest rentals can be found nearby. The area around the Finger Lakes of the South is rich with the history of the Cherokee and the unfortunate site of many battles that resulted in the loss of their homeland. The famous Cherokee town of Chilhowie lies buried beneath the waters of Chilhowie Lake, giving the lake and dam its name. The entire area is dotted with reminders of the rich history of the Cherokee people in the area. Other historical remnants include famous moonshiners and backwoods folktales.

A lucky few find real estate available overlooking one of the Finger Lakes of the South, although no one is allowed to build close to the shore. In the summer of 2012, Alcoa Inc. announced its plans to sell the reservoir system with its hydroelectric capacity to a renewable energy provider. It is unlikely that a change in ownership will substantially change access or operations along the three-lake chain. The Finger Lakes of the South will be here for future generations to enjoy.

*Statistical information shown is for Chilhowie Lake. All statistics come from the Alcoa official sites.

Things to do at Finger Lakes of the South

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Waterfall
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • National Park
  • National Forest

Fish species found at Finger Lakes of the South

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Brook Trout
  • Brown Trout
  • Crappie
  • Lake Trout
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Perch
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Sunfish
  • Trout
  • Walleye

Finger Lakes of the South Photo Gallery

Finger Lakes of the South Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Water Level Control: Tennessee Valley Authority

Surface Area: 1,734 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 874 feet

Average Depth: 20 feet

Maximum Depth: 50 feet

Completion Year: 1957

Drainage Area: 1,977 sq. miles

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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