Alpine Lakes of the Smokies

Paddling the Finger Lakes of the South
By T. Edward Nickens

Like a sapphire necklace sparkling amid the Southern Appalachians, five alpine lakes bejewel the high country just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Santeetlah, Cheoh, Fontana, Nantahala and Calderwood—these are the "Finger Lakes of the South," manmade reservoirs that stipple a million acres of mountainous forests between Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Dammed for flood control and hydroelectric power by the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power companies in the decade between the Depression and World War II, the lakes helped fuel the nation's war machine—"Work or Fight!" read one banner strung up near the construction site of Fontana Lake in the early Forties. Today, however, they offer more peaceful pastimes.

Snuggled against the southern border of the Great Smokies National Park or shimmering in the remotest stretches of western North Carolina, these lakes boast undeveloped shorelines shrouded in forest, trout streams dotted with the ruins of 100 year old timber camps, and thousands of acres of lapis-like water surrounded by the Smoky and Nantahala mountains. Each year millions throng to the storied national park, but relatively few find these secluded mountain lakes.

I've headed to these hills for 20 years, attracted by magnificent fishing, world-class hiking, and affordable, family-oriented accommodations. But on my most recent trip I discovered a high-octane aspect to the placid mountain lakes. I purged my schedule of any porch-swing time to plot three full days on or near the water, by sea kayak and motorboat, by my boot soles and with a guide well versed in Cherokee Indian and early pioneer ways. I paddled through the ancestral home of the Cherokee, hiked to secluded movie locations, and threaded a motorboat along narrow fingers of azure water that led me to ghost towns deep in the Great Smokies wilderness. I discovered that the best inn in the Finger Lakes region—the Snowbird Mountain Lodge—has gotten even better with new, enthusiastic owners, while the lakes' most famous resort—Fontana Village—is undergoing a facelift that should introduce new generations to the quieter side of the Smokies.

Let the hordes crowd bumper-to-bumper on the lone highway that crosses the heavily traveled national park. When I need a Great Smokies fix, I head for the place where the mountains meet the water.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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