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7 captivating lakes in North Carolina

No matter why you want to visit them, lakes in North Carolina tick every box. Enjoy a summer day of sun and surf with the kids or your significant other, or an autumn afternoon of colorful leaf viewing.

Likewise, North Carolina’s abundant freshwater havens are scattered throughout the state. From cobalt Lake Normal just outside Charlotte to mirror-like Lake Mattamuskeet near the famous Outer Banks, you’re never far from your next lake vacation. Continue reading, regardless of who you’re traveling with, when you plan to take your trip, or where in the Tar Heel State you want to go.

We know that travel is especially difficult right now. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you’ll be ready.

7 amazing lakes in North Carolina for any traveler

  1. Lake Norman
  2. Lake Lure
  3. Lake Mattamuskeet
  4. Falls Lake
  5. Price Lake
  6. Lake James
  7. Randleman Lake

1. Lake Norman

One of the most popular day trips from Charlotte, Lake Norman is less than 30 minutes from most hotels in the Queen City. It’s not just convenient, either, but also versatile. Hike or jog along its more than 500 miles of shoreline, or take a dip in its waters, which are a perfect antidote to a North Carolina summer day. Or simply enjoy an outdoor meal at one of Lake Norman’s more than 30 eateries. This is an appealing option, whether or not social distancing is still a thing!

2. Lake Lure

Panorama of Lake Lure in North Carolina
There’s nothing like sunset at Lake Lure

If you’re on the hunt for autumn colors in North Carolina, there are few better places to visit than Lake Lure. With a long season that lasts throughout most of October (and can even stretch into September and November, depending on the year), Lake Lure is a popular stopping off point along the Blue Ridge Parkway road trips. Moreover, you can not only enjoy the reflection of brilliant reds and oranges at water level, but you can also take in a fall color panorama from the nearby Chimney Rock viewpoint.

3. Lake Mattamuskeet

When you think of North Carolina lake vacations, you probably imagine bodies of water nestled in picturesque mountains and hills. This is fair and accurate. Have you read the rest of this list? On the other hand, it’s also part of what makes Lake Mattamuskeet so special. Located just inland from the state’s famous Outer Banks (including iconic Cape Hatteras), this is actually North Carolina’s largest natural lake. Moreover, the flat surrounding topography results in a smooth, mirror-like surface. As a result, this one of the state’s most beautiful lakes, especially at sunrise and sunset.

4. Falls Lake

Fall Lake in NC, USA
In places, Falls Lake literally lives up to its name

Officially known as Falls Lake State Recreation Area, this 12,000-acre water wonderland is one of the most enticing day trips from Raleigh—and not just because of its 200+ miles of shoreline. Take a trip back in time by touring a former plantation at Stagville State Historic Site. Or, rough it by camping amid the towering trees of Rolling View. Falls Lake is also popular as a boating destination, though you should not that gasoline-powered vessels are forbidden.

5. Price Lake

Like Lake Lure, Price Lake is a perfect stopping off point on Blue Ridge Parkway road trips, located not far from Grandfather Mountain State Park. It’s also a premier autumn foliage destination, though that’s not all you can do here. Stop during your Blue Ridge drive and simply stretch your legs on a long walk. Another option would be to rent a canoe or kayak to explore the entire 47 acres of this manmade (but still naturally beautiful) body of water.

6. Lake James

Sunest at Lake James in North Carolina
Sunrise is the perfect time to appreciate Lake James

Covering nearly 7,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains near the border with Tennessee, Lake James is a true treasure among lakes in North Carolina. Marvel at the majestic surrounding scenery as you swim in its clear waters. Alternatively, raise your heart rate with a walk or run along more than 25 miles of trails. Lake James is also a premier destination for boating, whether you choose to hit the water with a wound-up fishing rod or loaded-up picnic basket.

7. Randleman Lake

Don’t be dismayed by the fact that Randleman Lake is technically a manmade reservoir, which was completed in 2004. Located a short drive from Greensboro, it’s become a top destination for fishing in North Carolina during its decade-and-a-half of existence. You say you don’t like fishing? Randleman’s 3,000 acres are also popular among boaters and kayakers, to say nothing of how great the sparkling water will look in your Instagram feed.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Many of the best North Carolina lakes are accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The best time to visit North Carolina lakes

If you’ve ever been to North Carolina in summer, then we don’t need to tell you how inviting one of its ice-cold lakes can be on a sunny, 100º day. On the other hand, while warmer months are best for swimming and water sports, the state’s lakes are beautiful all year round.

In particular, the North Carolina fall colors that occur in September and October are gorgeous when reflected in the waters of a lake. Spring’s flowers and the frosts (or even occasional snows) of winter can also be beautiful, too. With this being said, summer and autumn are definitely the times of the year when North Carolina’s lakes stand out.

How to put your North Carolina trip together

There are a few ways to approach a North Carolina itinerary, depending on whether you’re coming from outside the state or you’re local. If you live in, say, Charlotte or Raleigh, you might approach a trip to one of these lakes as a day excursion or a weekend away. Or, if you plan to visit multiple lakes, you could take a week off work and string them together in a clockwise or counterclockwise circle.

On the other hand, if you’re coming from out of state, you might take a more comprehensive approach. After disembarking your flight to Charlotte,  spend a few days in the Queen City. Then, make your way to Lake Norman (or any of the other lakes to swim in North Carolina) and head to Raleigh and Falls Lake. Eventually, you’ll loop back around, optionally taking the scenic route (i.e., escaping to the Outer Banks) before your return.

FAQ about lakes in North Carolina

What is the prettiest lake in North Carolina?

All of North Carolina’s lakes are beautiful! However, Lake Lure is especially appealing from a visual perspective, since you can enjoy it both at ground level, as well as from the Chimney Rock viewpoint.

What is the cleanest lake in North Carolina?

Falls Lake, since it bans gasoline-powered boats, is probably the cleanest North Carolina lake on this list. On the other hand, most of the state’s lakes are very clean in general.

Can you swim in North Carolina lakes?

Yes, unless a sign at the North Carolina lake you’re visiting explicitly forbids it.

long exposure of Charleston, North Carolina
Explore South Carolina, including charming Charleston

Other amazing destinations in the US Southeast

America’s Southeast is one of the country’s most underrated regions, whether you stay within North Carolina’s state lines or explore outside them. You could devote weeks on end, for example, to all the things to do in Georgia. (Or, more manageably, you could make an excursion to Atlanta before or after your North Carolina lake adventure.)

Then, of course, there are the eternal North Carolina vs. South Carolina debates. Lakes notwithstanding, North Carolina’s southern neighbor is a world-class travel destination. Traipse amid the historic homes of Charleston, or enjoy South Carolina spring break on Hilton Head Island. To say nothing of the veritable travel paradise that is Florida!

Conclusion

There are as many amazing lakes in North Carolina are there are types of travelers and reasons to travel. Stop in for a dip at an Appalachian lake during a family road trip along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Or avoid the crowds on your romantic beach weekend, and escape to a lake near the Carolina coast for sunset. Tick these lakes off your bucket list one at a time, or string them together into a whirlwind road trip around the state. Either way, your North Carolina bucket list just got a bit longer.

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