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11 Stunning Recreational Lakes near Athens, GA

Georgia is a superb state for water recreation so finding lakes near Athens isn't a problem. The selection here is varied; you can find small peaceful lakes as well as the nation-famous hotspots.
ItIsWild.com: Lakes near Athens

Athens is a fantastic gateway to some of Georgia’s best lakes and reservoirs. You can find a wide selection of stunning lakeside spots just within an hour’s drive.

And the best thing is, the options here are varied, with each lake offering a unique atmosphere. There are quiet fishing lakes with hardly any visitors, as well as the busy lake resorts that are crowded year-round.

Together, local lakes cover every hobby and activity imaginable. So, finding the right option should be easy.

Lakes near Athens:

  1. Lake Chapman
  2. Bear Creek Reservoir
  3. Fort Yargo Lake
  4. Lake Rutledge and Lake Brantley
  5. Lake Varner
  6. Lake Oconee
  7. Clarks Hill Lake
  8. Lake Hartwell 
  9. Lake Lanier 
  10. Ozora Lake
  11. Watson Mill Bridge State Park
Lakes near Athens Georgia Comparison Table

1. Lake Chapman

Lake Chapman
  • Official Page: Lake Chapman
  • Distance from Athens: 7 miles (15 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming

Lake Chapman is a 260-acre reservoir just 7 miles north of Athens. It’s a highly-rated lake and one of the most popular swimming spots near the city.

The primary way to explore the lake is to visit Sandy Creek Park, which hugs the southern part of the reservoir.

As the name suggests, the park offers an excellent sandy beach that is fun for all ages. But there is a lot more to the place than just swimming. 

For example, you can rent canoes or kayaks and go on an adventure, or bring your own boat and make use of the boat ramp near the beach. Motorized boating is prohibited, but electric motors are welcome here.

Another great thing about the lake is the selection of hiking trails. One of the highest-rated options is the 8-mile loop around the lake that offers stunning views over the water.

The park is super family-friendly. In addition to playgrounds and picnic shelters, there are a disk golf course and a dog area, making this fun destination even more versatile.

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Murphy, NC

2. Bear Creek Reservoir

Bear Creek Reservoir
  • Official Page: Bear Creek Reservoir
  • Distance from Athens: 15 miles (20 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing

Bear Creek Reservoir is a 505-acre lake some 20 minutes from Athens. It’s a peaceful place, perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.

Although it’s double the size of Lake Chapman, Bear Creek isn’t as developed. In fact, it only has one access point – a boat ramp on the northern shore. And apart from the restroom, it is the only facility at the lake.

There are restrictions on swimming, gasoline motors, and boats over 20ft, which leaves just fishing and paddling for activities. See the complete list of rules here.

However, because of the limited access, the lake isn’t overfished, unlike many others. This means there is a good chance of a large catch, and there are rumors of 10 lbs bass.

Despite all the restrictions and limited activities, Bear Creek Reservoir is a fantastic place that offers a natural serenity that busy lakes rarely provide.

3. Fort Yargo Lake

  • Official Page: Fort Yargo State Park
  • Distance from Athens: 24 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, Lodging

Fort Yargo Lake is a 260-acre reservoir in the aptly-named state park which can be reached in just 30 minutes when traveling from Athens. It’s a well-developed and versatile recreational spot.

When it comes to exploring the outdoors, state parks rarely disappoint. And Fort Yargo is a prime example of an excellent park with various facilities and amenities.

It offers a wide sandy beach for splashing about, boat ramps for all your boating needs, and a selection of campsites and cozy lodging options for multi-day stays. Also, you can make use of their rentals and hire kayaks, canoes, johnboats, and even bicycles.

One thing that makes the park unique is the historical background and a 200-year-old fort; you can explore the grounds by taking endless trails, on foot, or by bike.

The only drawback to the park is that its versatility often attracts crowds, and it can get pretty rowdy during summer weekends. Other than that, it’s a fantastic family gateway!

Related: 10 Best Lakes near Augusta, GA

4. Lake Rutledge and Lake Brantley

  • Official Page: Hard Labor Creek State Park
  • Distance from Athens: 26 miles (35 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, Lodging, Horseriding

Lake Rutledge and Lake Brantley are two reservoirs in Hard Labor Creek State Park – a prime example of a well-developed and highly-rated park with tons of lake activities.

Like Fort Yargo and Lake Chapman, the park offers a fantastic sandy beach that is very popular in summer. Also, you can rent kayaks or canoes and explore the lake or go fishing from the bank or a boat.

However, where the park stands out is the trails. It has hiking options, MTB options, and also 24-miles of dedicated equestrian trails where bikes aren’t allowed. Plus, there are stables and other equestrian facilities, making the park a fantastic option for horseriding, too.

And when it comes to drawbacks, it is difficult to find any, apart from maybe not being able to wakeboard or jet ski, but the lakes are too small for that anyway.

It’s a fantastic lakeside spot; definitely worth the 35-minute drive!

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Murphy, NC

5. Lake Varner

  • Official Page: Lake Varner
  • Distance from Athens: 43 miles (55 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking

Lake Varner is a large, 850-acre reservoir on the way to Covington. It’s a peaceful place, best suited for paddling and fishing.

Because the reservoir is used for water supply, there are a few restrictions in place. For example, wading and swimming are prohibited, and so are gasoline motors. 

Also, there are no campgrounds by the lake, and the hiking trails are just a couple of miles long.

All these factors limit the selection of activities. However, the lake has a different vibe going for it. Instead of being a busy, full-on place, it’s a quiet reservoir with just a few visitors at a time. 

It will suit paddling enthusiasts who can explore the multiple coves and anglers who remain undisturbed. 

Lake Varner may not be for everyone, but if you value the pristine environment and peaceful setting, you will love it here.

6. Lake Oconee

  • Official Page: Lake Oconee
  • Distance from Athens: 35 miles (40 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, RVs, Wakeboarding, Jetskiing

Lake Oconee is a massive 19,000-acre reservoir 35 miles south of Athens. It has a mix of private and public areas with multiple access points.

The lake’s northern shore sits within Oconee National Forest, which offers a dozen recreation areas, including boat ramps and campgrounds. And if you continue going south, the banks become dotted with private RV parks, marinas, and lake homes.

When it comes to activities, there are hardly any restrictions. From fishing and swimming to blasting on jet skis, everything is possible here. And this is one of a few reservoirs near Athens where you can wakeboard and waterski.

Lodging options are plentiful, too. You can camp at primitive sites without any amenities or stay at the famous The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds and everything in between.

With so many recreational spots, Lake Oconee deserves its own website. Still, this makes it the most versatile lake around. It has something for everyone.

Related: 10 Best Lakes near Augusta, GA

7. Clarks Hill Lake

Clarks Hill Lake
Photo: Joe Sepielli / CC BY 2.0
  • Official Page: Clarks Hill Lake
  • Distance from Athens: 67 miles (1h 20min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, RVs, Wakeboarding, Jetskiing

Clarks Hill Lake is a huge 71,000-acre reservoir on the Savannah River, part of the Georgia and South Carolina border. It’s another fantastic example of a well-developed reservoir with a large selection of amenities.

The lake is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which operates dozens of recreational areas and access points. Also, there are three state parks on the Georgian side: Richard B. Russell, Elijah Clark, and Mistletoe State Park, both are fantastic and highly-rated options.

Needless to say, the facilities around the lake are plentiful and varied, the choice only depends on your level of comfort and your hobbies. For example, state parks are particularly good for families as they have designated beach areas and developed facilities.

And when it comes to activities, Clarks Hill Lake offers it all, from swimming to scuba diving and everything in between. Thanks to its size, it’s especially great for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and jetting about.

No matter what your hobby is, Clarks Hill Lake has it. It’s probably one of the best lakes in the state.

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Murphy, NC

8. Lake Hartwell

Lake Hartwell near Clemson South Carolina
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Lake Hartwell
  • Distance from Athens: 49 miles (1h 5min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, RVs, Wakeboarding, Jetskiing

Lake Hartwell is a 55,590-acre reservoir an hour’s drive from Athens. It is similar to Clarks Hill Lake and offers identical facilities and activities.

The lake is also managed by the US Corps of Engineers, which operates various recreation areas with a dozen of boat ramps and nearly 500 campsites across seven campgrounds.

Yet, one of the best ways to access the lake is Tugaloo State Park. It provides modern facilities and various lodging options, from primitive camping to yurts and cottages. Plus, there are tennis and volleyball courts, miniature golf, and kayak rentals; everything you need for a fun family weekend!

Like Clarks Hill Lake, Hartwell offers unlimited water opportunities, anything you can wish for! But it is not just the top spot for wakeboarding and tubing; it also has excellent fishing with frequent reports of 20lbs catches.

9. Lake Lanier

Lake Lanier
  • Official Page: Lake Lanier
  • Distance from Athens: 49 miles (1h 5min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, SUPs, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking, Camping, RVs, Wakeboarding, Jetskiing

Lake Lanier is one of the most recognized lakes in the country that welcomes 12 million visitors annually, and it’s just an hour away from Athens.

The reservoir boasts 37,000 acres of water and 690 miles of magnificent shoreline dotted with recreational areas and resorts.

Also, there are ten marinas around the lake that offer boat rentals and services. Wakeboarding, waterskiing, and jet skis are popular activities here, but the reservoir also hosts rowing and canoe sprint races and other sporting events.

Thanks to the lake’s size, you can easily find secluded spots and peaceful campsites on its shores. Yet, the most popular way to enjoy the lake is to visit Lanier Islands Resort. It has a fun waterpark, and in winter, it turns into a wonderland with one of the best Christmas lights displays in the country.

You can make what you want of Lake Lanier. It can be a luxury holiday spot, as well as a peaceful and inexpensive fishing lake.

Related: 10 Best Lakes near Augusta, GA

10. Ozora Lake

  • Official Page: Tribble Mill Park
  • Distance from Athens: 39 miles (45 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Mountain Biking, Horseriding

Ozora Lake is the centerpiece of a beautiful Tribble Mill Park located between Athens and Atlanta. It’s a highly-rated day-use area, perfect for family gateways.

Compared to the bigger lakes, Ozora is less versatile. For example, swimming and wading are prohibited here, so are the gasoline motors. Instead, it’s excellent for fishing and paddling.

However, what makes the area unique is the serene atmosphere and pristine environment teeming with wildlife. 

The best way to explore the area is by taking the trails that surround the lake. There is even a 3-mile paved route that travels through the woods, offering cyclists, wheelchair users, and families with strollers an easy way to enjoy the park.

Granted, Ozora Lake isn’t as versatile as some others around Athens. But if you want to escape the metro area and dissolve in nature, it is a good bet.

11. Watson Mill Bridge State Park

Watson Mill Bridge State Park
Photo: Robert LzCC BY 2.0
  • Official Page: Watson Mill Bridge
  • Distance from Athens: 19 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, BBQs, Hiking, Mountain Biking, Horseriding, Camping, RVs

Watson Mill Bridge State Park is located on the South Fork Broad River, just 20 miles from Athens. It’s a hidden gem, with tons of outdoor activities and a stunning setting.

Although it’s not a lakeside destination, the park offers a lot of water recreation. It’s a place to cool down in the river shoals in summer, play in a kayak or canoe, or fish for bass and catfish.

But like many state parks, the fun doesn’t stop here. The park offers dozens of miles of trails for horseriding, mountain biking, and hiking. And the selection of accommodation is excellent too; you can enjoy anything from primitive campsites to log cabins.

As the name suggests, the biggest attraction in the park is the 229-foot Watson Mill Bridge – the longest covered bridge that remains in Georgia. And it’s still in use today, so you can drive it and take some photos.

The park is fun, versatile, and gorgeous, and considering the proximity to Athens, it is definitely worth the visit!

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