It’s here—the summer solstice is upon us. And during these warm days we count ourselves particularly fortunate that our offices are located so close to Fontana Lake. At closing time it’s not uncommon for us to jump in the car for the two-minute drive to the water, dive in, and swim out for a cooling close to the day. In the depths of a steamy July, it can be heaven.
We’re not the only ones. Outdoor lovers flock to our region to take advantage of rafting on the Nantahala River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Deep Creek and Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the attractions of Cherokee, the campground and mountain bike trails at Tsali in Nantahala National Forest, or a train ride on Great Smoky Mountains Railway. But regardless of why they come, most end up, at some point, at Lake Fontana. Since the mid-1940s this beautiful body of water has been attracting visitors and providing recreational activities from pontoon boating to stand-up paddle-boarding, not to mention hiking and biking the forest trails along its shores.
Fontana Lake was begun in 1942, when the Tennessee Valley Authority created it to generate hydroelectric power for the war effort—the construction of airplanes in particular. It was completed in 1944 with impressive statistics: it’s 440 feet deep (the deepest in North Carolina) with a flood-storage capacity of 513,965 acre-feet. It has 238 miles of shoreline and a water surface of 10, 230 acres. Its elevation varies by 57 feet annually. Holding back this body of water is the highest concrete dam east of the Rockies, with a height of 480 feet and a span of 2,365 feet. The Appalachian Trail crosses right over it.
Did the building of a body of water this size displace people who lived there? It did, and that’s the sad part of the story. Many families had no choice but to sell their land to the government and move elsewhere—either into the next county or as far away as Oregon, where they could find work in another region where their logging skills were of value.
During the winter Fontana’s level drops dramatically, revealing the valleys and hollows that became the lakebottom when it was created. This spring, all the rain in the month of May filled it to the brim. In fact, water was spilled from the dam to make more room, a dramatic event that happens infrequently.
If you want to get away from it all, Lake Fontana can be your ticket. The north shore is home to remote and historic Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek and sites like Proctor and Bone Valley, reachable by boat or on foot from the Lake Shore Trail at the dam itself (it’s a long walk, but anglers won’t be disappointed). Canoeists can find a quiet camping spot on one of Fontana’s many wooded islands. Quiet green coves for communing with nature abound.
There are many ways to approach the pleasures of Fontana. It is truly one of this region’s treasures, full of human history and biological diversity, and a reminder of the most basic reason why this region attracts visitors: the natural beauty of the Smokies. We’re just lucky to live here. Many more visitors will come to Lake Fontana this summer. Will you be one of them?
Several Milestone Press guidebooks include trail information for access to Fontana Lake and its surrounding area. Check out Jim Parham’s Backpacking Overnights: NC & SC and Mountain Bike Trails: NC & SC, and Danny Bernstein’s Hiking the Carolina Mountains.