Watauga Lake, Tennessee, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - South - Tennessee - East -

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
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Jet Skiing
  • Water Skiing
  • Wakeboarding
  • Parasailing
  • Golf
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Downhill Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Horseback Riding
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • State Park
  • National Forest
  • Museum

Fish species found at Watauga Lake

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Brown Trout
  • Carp
  • Crappie
  • Lake Trout
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Perch
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Spotted Bass
  • Sunfish
  • Trout
  • Walleye
  • White Crappie

Watauga Lake Photo Gallery

  • Seagulls Chillin' at Watauga Lake

  • Public Boat Ramp at Watauga Lake

  • Steps at Watauga Lake

  • Mallard Cove Marina at Watauga Lake

  • Cove Spring Marina at Watauga Lake

  • Fish Springs Marina at Watauga Lake

  • The Harbour at Watauga Lake

  • View of the Dam from Rat Branch Boat Launch

  • Lakelubber on the Applachian Trail at Watauga Lake

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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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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