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10 Ways to Spend a Day at Lake James

These serene waters in the foothills are a great weekend destination

Nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Morganton and Marion, fed by three rivers, Lake James is the up-and-coming lake destination in North Carolina for good reason.

Created when Duke Energy dammed the Catawba River, Linville River and Paddy Creek from 1916-1923, the lake takes up 6,510 acres with 150 miles of shoreline separating it from the 3,743-acre state park that surrounds it.

The humongous lake is split into two areas: the Catawba River area and the Paddy Creek area. If you’re looking to launch a boat, you’ll want to enter at one of the below ramps into the Catawba Creek area.

So first off, how do you get there? For all four accesses, your answer is NC 126 in Nebo. Here’s where to look exactly:

  • Catawba River Access: 2785 N.C. 126
  • Paddy Creek Access (Beach): 7321 N.C. 126
  • Hidden Cove Boat Ramp: 3381 N.C. 126
  • Canal Bridge Boat Ramp: 9182 N.C. 126

The lake and park boast countless amenities and activities for locals and visitors alike to enjoy. Here are a few activities to help plan your day at Lake James:

Hiking Lake James State Park

Dedicated hikers can explore the 22-mile Paddy’s Creek trail or hike the kid-friendly .75-mile loop Holly Discovery Trail. Other trails include the 4.5-mile Catawba River trail, the historic 2-mile one-way Overmountain Victory Trail, and the 7-mile one-way Fonta Flora State Trail.

Biking Lake James State Park

Paddy’s Creek offers 14 miles of mountain biking trails along with the 11-mile West Wimba Loop and East Wimba Loop, plus the 2.8-mile Upper and Lower Tindo Loop bike trails.

Swim Beach at Lake James

Paddy’s Creek swim beach offers visitors a sandy beach experience with mountain views and a designated swimming area. Paddy’s Creek reopens to the public on May 1 this year.

A view of the waters on Lake James in Burke County
A view of the waters on Lake James in Burke County (Courtesy of Burke County Tourism)

Camping in Lake James State Park

Tent Camping (Drive-in campsites)
The Paddy’s Creek access has 33 drive-in sites for tent camping at $26 per night. Each campsite has space for two vehicles, a fire pit, picnic table and 12-by-12-foot tent pad. Potable faucets are located throughout the camping area and a community bath house stands in the center of the campsite with toilets and hot showers. Two campsites are available for people with limited mobility or disabilities.

Backpack Camping (walk-in campsites)
The Catawba River access requires campers to park at the centrally located lot and walk 150 to 300 yards to one of their 20 walk-in campsites for $26 per night. Each campsite has a fire pit, picnic table and a 17-by-16-foot tent pad. Potable faucets are located throughout the camping area and a bath house with toilets and hot showers is located near the parking area. Two of the campsites are available for people with limited mobility or disabilities and can be driven to if needed.

Paddle-in Camping (primitive tent campsites)
Thirty campsites on the Long Arm Peninsula are accessible only by boat for $15 per night. Each campsite has a fire pit, picnic table and a 24-by-16 foot tent pad. There is no running water available at the paddle-in campsites so campers must bring their own drinking water, along with water for dishes and other uses if needed. Toilet facilities are placed throughout the camping area.

Boating on Lake James

Lake James has two boat ramps for powerboats, sailboats and smaller vessels at Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge. Boat rentals are also available for campers only on weekends starting April 6 through Memorial Day, when rentals will start seven days a week.

Two people on jet skis travelling across the water on Lake James
Jet Skiers enjoy a clear day out on Lake James (Courtesy of Blue Ridge Traveler)

Picnicking around Lake James

Picnic sites are available along the Catawba River and Paddy’s Creek areas, equipped with picnic tables, outdoor grills and trash bins. Restrooms are located within walking distance of all picnic sites.

Fishing the waters

Here’s why you’re really here. Lake James State Park is renowned for its array of fish, specifically its largemouth bass population. Fishermen can also look out for cold-water fish like walleye and smallmouth bass from April to October. May through July will feature crappie, while bluegill, robin and catfish can be caught all year long.

Birdwatching at Lake James State Park

A variety of birds flock to Lake James in the winter, offering the perfect pastime for visitors in the cold months. Different types of gulls such as ring-billed, Bonaparte’s gulls and a small number of herring gulls are known to fly over the lake looking for small fish. Other bird species include double-crested cormorants, common loons and a variety of ducks like waterfowl buffleheads, mallards, ring-necked ducks, gadwalls, redheads and wigeon all stop over Lake James during the migration season, according to Friends of Lake James State Park.

Canoeing and Kayaking on Lake James

Water activity rentals like canoeing and kayaking are available for a small fee at the Paddy’s Creek concession stand, which is open seasonally.

Kayaks, canoes and paddle boards at the Lake James Beach in the Asheville area
Lake James Beach with paddle boards, kayaks and canoes (Courtesy of Romantic Asheville)

Where to Eat:

Bear Creek Marina
608 Marina Drive, Nebo 28761

Billed as the only premier live music venue and restaurant on Lake James, Bear Creek offers up a diverse menu, friendly attentive staff and an unmatched view. Beginning on May 4 with Tonya & the Road Runnerz, you can expect live music every Saturday and Sunday all the way through Sept. 28. A new oyster bar also opened in March.

The lakefront patio offers dock-and-dine options, with a general store, boat slips and fuel service if you’re low on … anything. Bear Creek is handicap-accessible and offers RV parking if you’re not coming in off the lake.

aerial view of Bear Creek Marina
Bear Creek Marina (Bear Creek marina Facebook)

Read More: It’s Easy to Get Stuck at SandBar Marina & Grill

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