Watauga Lake, Tennessee, USA
Also known as: Lake Watauga
Watauga Lake exudes independence, solitude, and nature’s bounty. If these traditional American values appeal to you, then you need to visit pristine Watauga Lake. Hidden among the Appalachian Mountains of northeastern Tennessee, the reservoir – covering 6,430 acres – is little-known and lightly visited. Nestled as it is within the Cherokee National Forest, accessible by winding mountain roads and a distance from larger cities, Watauga Lake escapes the notice of those not inclined to take the path less traveled. Their loss is the Watauga visitor’s gain.
The Watauga Lake area is historic: the first democratically elected government outside of the original 13 colonies was formed in what is now the small town of Elizabethton, a few miles away. Daniel Boone traversed the forests and valleys in his travels to find a pathway north to the Ohio River Valley. Roan Creek was named for the valley where he left his lame horse, only to find him hale and healthy two years later on his way back home to Yadkin, NC. The Over-Mountain Boys militia formed here and crossed the mountains into North Carolina to fight in key battles in the War for Independence. And strong, independent-minded European settlers moved here from the coastal states to wrest small clearings from the forest, raising crops and livestock among the native Cherokee. Pioneers following Daniel Boone’s trail north fell in love with these mountains and stayed to raise future generations.
Generations of settlers lived along the rushing creeks and rivers in the area. Unfortunately, the same flood waters that deposited the fertile bottom land soil often brought destruction upon the small villages along its banks. A dam built a few miles downstream, Horseshoe Dam (now Wilbur Dam) on the Watauga River didn’t improve the situation. Finally, under the New Deal, the federal Government stepped in, with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) commanded to build dams necessary for flood control, electrical power generation and fishery opportunities. The small town of Butler saw its first dam-building activity in 1942 to impound the Watauga River, Elk River, and Roan Creek and, of necessity, moved the town uphill to a new location, including the graves from three cemeteries. Although reluctant to lose their fertile fields, Butler made the best of the inevitable and has developed the Butler Museum to document Old Butler now under acres of water, in artifact and photograph.
Begun in 1942, the Watauga Dam construction was delayed by World War II and finally, on December 31st, 1948, the dam gates were closed and the reservoir began to fill. The 331-foot high dam is 925 ft long and can hold 360 million cubic yards of water for flood control. Watauga Lake has 105 miles of shoreline and, at 1959 feet above sea level, has the highest elevation of all TVA reservoirs. Fifty-eight miles of the shoreline are public lands, primarily part of the Cherokee National Forest. TVA parkland and recreational facilities also claim a part of the shoreline. The 47 private miles of lakeshore are mostly either very steep terrain or below the 100-year floodplain and considered unsuitable for permanent structures. This has limited development along the shoreline, leaving a vast expanse of scenic, forested lake shore in unspoiled wilderness condition. Truly, there could be no location more ideally suited to a wilderness vacation in the lap of luxury.
The limited development that exists is amply supplied with vacation and seasonal rentals. Other lodgings are available in the immediate vicinity in all price ranges, making a Watauga Lake vacation accessible to any visitor willing to follow the winding mountain roads to this glorious destination. Once visitors arrive, however, they are not abandoned without all the amenities a vacationer or year-round resident would want. Three water-accessible restaurants and six marinas make Watauga Lake a house boater’s dream. The small town of Butler, the only town on Watauga Lake, and the nearby towns of Mountain City and Elizabethton provide the necessary stores and amenities to provide for the visitor’s every need. A public beach is located at one of the National Recreation Areas on the western arm of the lake. Public boat launch facilities are located at Rat Branch Recreational Area, with another off Lakeview Road. A detailed waterproof Watauga Lake map, available at most locations, will help you navigate the many arms and coves of the lake.
Watauga Lake is excellent for water sports such as swimming, power boating, fishing, parasailing, canoeing, kayaking, jet skiing, water skiing and wakeboarding. Most marinas and public launch sites will allow a visitor access to the water for a nominal fee. House boating is a favored vacation activity on Lake Watauga: the many coves and secluded scenic areas make this a wonderful place for honeymoon or vacation exploring. Most watercraft can be rented at local marinas, and fishing gear and licenses are also available.
Fishing is always a popular activity at Watauga Lake. Black Crappie, White Crappie, Bluegill, Brown Trout, Lake Trout, Rainbow Trout, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, and Walleye all await the patient dedicated angler. Local bait shops and marinas will be more than helpful in steering the visitor to fishing hotspots and recommend baits and lures for local conditions.
Off the water, the Watauga lake area can provide many other types of outdoor recreation. Hiking trails abound. In fact, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Watauga Dam. It can be accessed via several locations in the Recreational Areas. The Cherokee National Forest is teeming with wildlife in their natural habitat. The inexperienced wilderness traveler would be well-advised to stick to marked trails and to remember that bears are a part of the wildlife calling these forests home. For the strenuously-inclined, the Watauga Lake Triathlon occurs annually, drawing athletes from around the country and getting more popular every year. Of course, if you simply yearn for a peaceful cycling experience, the many back roads and trails will satisfy your every desire. Stables are nearby for those who wish to view nature from horseback. And, a white water rafting or kayaking experience awaits visitors on the nearby Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers. Outfitters in the area are ready to equip and guide the novice. In winter, snow skiing and snow boarding are nearby.
Prospective Watauga Lake visitors needn’t fear they will be isolated with no outside activities: plenty of day trip opportunities exist, such as the Doe River Covered Bridge, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, Roan Mountain State Park, Appalachian Summer Festival, or Tweetsie Railroad & Theme Park. Avid golfers will find a suitable outlet for their addiction nearby in Mountain City.
Watauga Lake is located only 10 miles from the North Carolina border, where art galleries and craft exhibitions can entertain the most artistic of visitors. There are photography galleries, native crafts, Americana and Appalachian-inspired historic crafts available for demonstrations and sales in the many small mountain towns on both sides of the state line. In these high hills, residents still create the artistic and functional arts they learned from previous generations; basket-weaving and pottery can be had from the source. And, authentic bluegrass music is a tradition that is happily passed from generation to generation. Check the websites of the various Chambers of Commerce for schedules and locations.
One of the prime artifacts of early Americana has nearly disappeared from these mountains: the art of liquor-making, or moon-shining, has officially been stamped out by representatives of the federal government. Its passing, epitomized in the March, 2009 death of famed Tennessee moon-shine artist Popcorn Sutton, has been mourned by native mountain residents and university mountain anthropologists alike. Renegade ‘shiner to the end, old Popcorn took his own life rather than return to Federal prison for plying his trade. Memorialized in documentaries and books, Popcorn refused to give up a source of income made illegal after Prohibition. Stills he built for others decorate many a mountain restaurant. A documentary is available on-line at YouTube: search Popcorn Sutton-he was a larger-than-life character and a symbol of the mountains straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
NASCAR, the sport originated by moonshine runners, is alive and well at the Bristol, Tennessee Speedway only 36 miles north of Lake Watauga. A week’s rental at the lake can be scheduled around a NASCAR event, making everyone in the family happy with your choice.
This wonderful and wild scenic treasure isn’t really that far from major southern cities: Johnson City, Tennessee: 26 miles, Asheville, North Carolina: 78 miles, Charlotte, North Carolina: 131 miles, Atlanta, Georgia: 284 miles, Chattanooga, Tennessee: 241 miles, Columbia, South Carolina: 217 miles, Knoxville, Tennessee: 130 miles, Roanoke, Virginia: 166 miles, Lexington, Kentucky: 260 miles, Raleigh, North Carolina: 223 miles and Winston-Salem, North Carolina: 117 miles. Travel takes a bit more time once you leave the freeways but the breathtaking scenery is worth slowing down for. The visitor can reach Watauga Lake from these cities in less than half a day and still have time to fire up the grill or cruise the coves before sundown. Locate a destination address from the many vacation rentals available and come to Watauga Lake. You’ll be feeling mountain roots you never knew you had.
Things to do at Watauga Lake
- Vacation Rentals
- Whitewater Rafting
- Jet Skiing
- Water Skiing
- Downhill Skiing
- Horseback Riding
- Wildlife Viewing
- State Park
- National Forest
Fish species found at Watauga Lake
- Black Bass
- Black Crappie
- Brown Trout
- Lake Trout
- Largemouth Bass
- Rainbow Trout
- Smallmouth Bass
- Spotted Bass
- White Crappie
Watauga Lake Photo Gallery
Watauga Lake Statistics & Helpful Links
Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed
Water Level Control: TVA
Surface Area: 6,430 acres
Shoreline Length: 105 miles
Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 1,959 feet
Minimum Elevation (Min Pond): 1,932 feet
Maximum Elevation (Max Pond): 1,975 feet
Average Depth: 52 feet
Maximum Depth: 305 feet
Water Volume: 324,000 acre-feet
Completion Year: 1948
Drainage Area: 468 sq. miles
Trophic State: Mesotrophic
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