Resting like a cool, blue jewel amidst the emerald green of the mountains, Watauga Lake is arguably one of the most stunning pieces of nature in all of the High Country. With swimming areas, miles of hiking trails, campsites and boating opportunities galore, the lake is a beloved destination for families seeking summer fun. Yet, in a strange twist of irony, this beautiful lake is decidedly unnatural.
Sitting at the confluence of the Watauga River, Elk River and Roan Creek, Watauga Lake was formed in 1948 when the Tennessee Valley Authority completed the Watauga Dam, which was built in an effort to control flooding in the Tennesee River watershed after the infamous flood of 1940.
In the path of this project was the town of Butler, known today as “The Town that Wouldn’t Drown.” As the project moved forward, the town’s population of 600 people, and even many of the town’s homes and businesses, were relocated to higher ground in what today forms the town of “New” Butler. All told, the relocation project required 55 miles of new road construction and the relocation of more than 1,000 graves.
Today, visitors can explore the area’s history at The Butler Museum, located at 123 Selma Curtis Rd in Butler, Tenn. The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1:30 to 4 p.m. during the summer, and tours can be made by appointment. For more information, click to www.thebutlermuseum.com.
Visitors to Watauga Lake will be pleased to discover a variety of options for dipping their toes in the lake’s cool, clear waters. With five U.S. Forest Service maintained recreation areas in the vicinity, there are many options for a relaxing day of family fun. Sites requiring reservations and fees can be reserved by clicking to www.recreation.gov. For more information about USFS maintained areas in the area, click to www.fs.usda.gov/main/cherokee/home or call the Watauga Ranger District office at (423) 735-1500.
Shook Branch Beach
Located on the southwestern corner of Watauga Lake, adjacent to U.S. Hwy. 321, this 20-acre site is a great location for individuals or families seeking a day trip on the lake. With a large, enclosed swimming area, a beautiful sandy beach, 24 picnic tables on site, and a large grassy field for romping, Shook Branch Beach offers opportunities for swimming, grilling, sunbathing and all the quintessential summertime activities a family can hope to enjoy. The area is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. through October 27 and is a short drive away from the nearby town of Hampton, Tennessee.
Activities and amenities — Beach area, swimming, picnic areas, grills, restrooms
Fees — Fee for vehicle access is $2 per vehicle per day or a $30 per year with a Cherokee National Forest Pass.
Watauga Point Picnic Area
Offering scenic views of the lake, this recreation area is shaded by large trees, but also contains a beautiful grassy area with plenty of room for picnicking and sunbathing. There is also a gravel trail that loops through the nearby forest. A large pavilion and picnic tables are available for rent for family gatherings and other events, and a number of smaller picnic tables are available free of charge. As there is no designated swimming area on site, swimming is at the visitor’s own risk. No overnight camping is allowed at the site, which is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m through.
Activities and amenities — Picnic areas, scenic views, swimming (at patron’s own risk), drinking water, restrooms.
Fees — $30 rental fee per day for pavilion or large picnic tables.
Cardens Bluff Campground
High on a bluff overlooking Watauga Lake, Carden Bluff offers more than 40 tent campsites. Situated a short distance from Shook Branch Beach and the Rat Branch Boat Launch, this site offers easy access to the lake’s day use recreation areas. Gates open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. Campsites are for one group of up to five individuals and two vehicles. The site is open through Sept. 18.
Activities and amenities — Camping, bathrooms, warm showers, potable water.
Fees — Campsites are $12 per night.
Dennis Cove Campground
Situated approximately five miles south of the recreation areas on the western end of the lake, Dennis Cove Recreation Area is a secluded campground and picnic area adjacent to the Laurel Fork Creek, which offers trout fishing opportunities for the intrepid angler.
Of all the sites in the area, Dennis Cove has the most to offer for the serious hiker. With a network of five trails spanning the distance between the lake and the campground, and three more connecting to the Appalachian Trail to south of the site, truly adventurous campers who enjoy moderate to strenuous hikes in and around the rugged and pristine terrain of the Pond Mountain Wilderness Area.
A short drive from the lakeshore recreation areas, along the lake’s shore makes this campground a great place to retreat to after a full day of fun in the sun.
Activities and amenities — Camping, hiking, picnic area, fishing, potable water, restrooms
Fees — Campsites are $10 for a single site and $20 for double sites. The campground can accommodate 80 individuals and groups of less than 75 people may reserve the entire campground.
Pond Mountain Shooting Range
Firearm enthusiasts can enjoy a day of shooting on this USFS maintained shooting range, located on 321 between Watauga Point and Shook Branch Beach. With targets set up at 25, 50 and 100 yards, the range is open from daylight to dusk.
Fees — Fee is $2 per vehicle per day or $30 per year with a Cherokee National Forest Pass.
On the water
With 6,430 acres of lake to explore, individuals wishing to explore Watauga Lake in full are going to need a boat to experience all the area has to offer. Fortunately, three marinas on the lakeshore provide rentals, as well as slips for folks who want to keep their boats on the Watauga year-round. Boaters who bring their own vessels for a day trip on the lake can also put in at three convenient USFS launch ramps.
From rental pontoon and ski boats to slips and boats for sale, Lakeshore Marina offers a wide variety of services for visitors to the area. A shop on site sells snacks, tackle and beverages, and guests can dine at the Captain’s Table restaurant after a long day on the water. Lakeshore also has rental cabins on site, offering gorgeous views of the lake. For more information about rentals and offerings at the marina, click to www.lakeshore-resort.com, or call (423) 725-2223.
Fish Springs Marina
With pontoon boat rentals, jet ski tours and rentals of standup paddle boards, and canoes and kayaks, Fish Springs Marina has a number of options for cruising the lake. The marina also offers slip rentals, boat sales, RV campsites and a store on site. For more information about Fish Springs, click to www.fishspringsmarina.com or call (423) 768-2336.
Mallard Cove Marina
A sizable carp population at this marina makes for a unique attraction, in addition to pontoon boat rentals, a boat launch and a snack bar. For more information, click to www.mallardcovemarina.com or call (423) 768-3440.
Cove Ridge Marina and Yacht Club
This private marina offers covered slips and long-term RV camping, as well as many activities and amenities such as walking trails, horseshoes, volleyball, basketball, a children’s playground, a private beach and swimming lagoon. For more information, click to www.coveridgemarina.com or call (423) 768.3741.
Rat Branch Launch
This paid USFS boat launch is conveniently located between Shook Branch Beach and Carden Bluff of of Highway 321. In addition to the launch, the site also features a fishing pier and restrooms. Located on the eastern end of the lake, this launch is also outfitted with restrooms. Parking is $2 per vehicle per day or $30 per year with a Cherokee National Forest Pass. Open sunrise to sunset, year round. Located off U.S. 321 and Moody Road.
Sink Mountain Launch
Located on the Northeastern shore of the lake, east of Butler, there is no charge to this secluded launch at the end of paved forest road 298 off TN. Highway 167.