Alpine Lakes of the Smokies
I wasted no time getting into a Finger Lakes mindset, slipping a sea kayak into Santeetlah Lake within moments of arriving lakeside. Their ocean-going heritage aside, sea kayaks are perfect for plying mountain lakes. I felt as if I were sitting in a spear, a hollow javelin of fiberglass that cleaved the lake with almost uncanny effortlessness. By my side was the Nantahala Outdoor Center's Craig Plocica, urging me to keep my paddle strokes horizontal and lean into turns, a valuable skill given the hundreds of tiny coves, bays, and forested fingers that lend these lakes their moniker. Gnarly rhododendron bushes cast weird reflections in the water, while in front of me Santeetlah Lake unfurled like a platter of hammered silver, hemmed in by 5,000-foot mountains that snagged clouds in their treetops.
After paddling out to the wide-open lake we slipped far up Avery Branch until Big Santeetlah Creek tumbled from the steep mountains, cutting off further navigation. We stowed the paddles and drifted, watching smallmouth bass dimple the quiet cove waters with their feeding.
As tempting as it was to drift through the sunset, I knew what awaited me a few hundred feet above Santeetlah's calm waters. Few mountain inns meld rugged charm with a luxurious demeanor and soul-searching views as seamlessly as Snowbird Mountain Lodge. Perched on a narrow ridge, the lodge was built in the early 1940s to house visitors to nearby Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, still the finest virgin forest in eastern America. Logs for the soaring Swiss-style chalet were cut from the property and used to panel guest rooms in warm cherry and silverbell, maple, and chestnut.
After checking in I sank into a leather sofa the size of a tractor-trailer and ogled iron chandeliers and exposed chestnut trusses. Snowbird's extensive library of regional history and nature titles was tempting, but the great room also had 15-foot-tall windows overlooking a stone porch and a 180-degree panorama of the Snowbird Mountains. I took a quick hike down the lodge trail to The Point, a spit of rock and trees looming over the Cheoh River valley, Santeetlah Lake nestled in its floor far below. All was quiet save a lone wood thrush as the sun set on the ancestral home of the Cherokee.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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