10 Incredible Recreational Lakes near Gatlinburg, TN

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Gatlinburg is a nation-famous destination and a getaway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. But not many know it has plenty of fantastic recreational lakes for every taste and wallet.

There are huge reservoirs like Douglas Lake nearby or Fontana Lake on the other side of the range, as well as cozy options like Lake Santeetlah or Lake Junaluska. 

And if you’re into fishing, you can skip the lakes and head down to the Cooper Creek Trout Farm, where the catch is guaranteed.

Whether you’re looking for a swimming beach, a lakeside cabin, or a wakeboarding hub, it’s here. Check out what Gatlinburg has to offer!

Lakes near Gatlinburg Tennessee Comparison Table
Comparison Table

1. Douglas Lake

Douglas Lake near Gatlinburg Tennessee
Source: flickr/CC BY 2.0
  • Official Page: Douglas Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 23 miles (40 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Swimming, Camping, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Douglas Lake is a large 28,420-acre reservoir north of Gatlinburg. It’s the nearest recreational lake, and it has everything you may need on a lake trip.

With over 25 access points, including parks, marinas, beaches, and resorts, you’re spoiled for choice. The great thing about this reservoir is that you can visit busy tourist towns with restaurants and marinas, or keep it quiet and stay at secluded nature spots. 

The nearest spot to Gatlinburg is Douglas Headwater Campground near the dam; it’s neither busy nor wild. It has RV campgrounds, a swimming area, a boat ramp, and picnic tables. 

The water by the dam is usually clearer and deeper than on the opposite side, and you’re just a stone’s throw away from the dam’s tailwater, so there is the French Broad River to explore, too.

What’s more, Mountain Cove Marina nearby will fit you out with a boat if you want to spend the day on the water pulling tubes.

Needless to say, Douglas Lake is a hugely versatile reservoir. From swimming to kayaking and wakeboarding, there is no shortage of activities here.

However, fishing is particularly excellent. The lake is known for incredible crappie action, but most people target largemouth bass, striped bass, and walleye. It only has one state fishing record (goldfish), but this is because Tennessee has many incredible lakes. 

Renting a lakeside cabin for a family getaway, hitting a beach on a day trip, or soaking tired feet after hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains it’s all possible at Douglas Lake, and it’s just 40 minutes from Gatlinburg.

Related: 11 Fun Recreational Lakes near Chattanooga, TN

2. Cherokee Lake

Lake and Clouds in Tennessee
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Cherokee Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 57 miles (1h 10min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Swimming, Camping, Mountain Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

At 28,780 acres, Cherokee Lake is as large as Douglas Lake. And with over 30 access areas, it offers just as much recreation as its sister reservoir.

The lake has dozens of gorgeous islands that expose their sandy shores when water drops. It’s a stunning sight and an opportunity to do some exploration.

Although Cherokee Lake is a little further from Gatlinburg, it’s an excellent alternative to its neighbor. If visiting for the first time, Panther Creek State Park is a great option. It has campgrounds, picnic areas, and miles of hiking and biking trails. And marinas nearby can fit you out with boats, kayaks, and paddleboards, too.

Alternatively, you can try Lakeside Marina on Route 25E. It’s a boating hub with rentals, slips, guide services, and restaurants – the best place for wakeboarding and skiing.

In addition to stunning views and fun activities, Cherokee Lake is an excellent fishery. It’s known for smallmouth bass and holds a recent state record for paddlefish – a whopping 109-pound monster was caught in 2021. It takes time to figure out this lake and its patterns, but once it’s done, you will have an amazing time.

Whether you’re planning a romantic getaway or a boating adventure, this reservoir is an excellent option. It’s well worth checking out.

3. Meads Quarry Lake

  • Official Page: Meads Quarry Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 36 miles (1h)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Swimming, Mountain Biking

Meads Quarry Lake is a unique 25-acre lake near Knoxville. Typically, the water here is crystal clear, making it an inviting swimming destination. So, if swimming in a flooded quarry is on your bucket list, you’d love it here.

However, as all quarries go, the banks are shire drop-offs, and with 80 feet of water under, you won’t find your footing. The best way to enjoy the lake is to bring tubes and float about. It may not be great for kids, but it’s an excellent diving spot.

Alternatively, the lake offers paddleboard and kayak rentals which are a fun way to explore the quarry and marvel at steep surrounding cliffs.

What’s more, the quarry is part of a park with playgrounds, climbing, and miles of hiking and biking trails, so it’s not just swimming here. 

Another unique thing to do at the park is exercise at the Primal Playground. You can climb trees, scramble, throw boulders and navigate various obstacles at this natural gym. It’s an opportunity to connect with the body through movement and train instincts and agility that we’re slowly losing.

Overall, Meads Quarry Lake is a unique destination that is a rare find. It’s definitely worth checking out, even as a road trip pit stop.

Related: 15 Best Beaches near Nashville, TN

4. Fontana Lake

Fontana Lake in North Carolina
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Fontana Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 59 miles (1h 30min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Hiking, Camping, Swimming, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Fontana Lake is a vast 10,230-acre reservoir on the other side of the Great Smoky Range. It’s a fantastic and crowd-free lake with tons of adventure opportunities.

The northern shore of Fontana Lake is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has several primitive campsites excellent for boat-in camping, but you need a backpacking permit for that.

The southern shore is a mix of marinas, resorts, boat ramps, and recreation areas. One option is Fontana Village – an all-in-one destination with lodging, dining, and boating.

Alternatively, you can try areas like Tsali that are managed by the National Forest Service and offer a remote experience with campgrounds, boat ramps, and dozens of miles of hiking.

When it comes to activities, Fontana Lake has no limits. Tubing, skiing, and wakeboarding are fantastic here. Plus, there are plenty of spots for swimming and putting a kayak in. And due to the lake’s size and remoteness, it rarely feels crowded.

The only concern for boaters is that TVA drops water levels in winter, making launching difficult.

Also, fishing is challenging at Fontana Lake. Although it has a diverse range of species, the bite is relatively poor. Learning the lake will take time, so hiring a fishing guide could be the fastest way to catch something.

Compared to other large lakes around Gatlinburg, this reservoir is less developed in terms of cabins, lodges, and resorts. There are some options, but generally, it’s a playground for boaters and adventure lovers.

Related: 11 Fun Recreational Lakes near Chattanooga, TN

5. Cooper Creek Trout Farm

Rainbow Trout
Source: unsplash

Cooper Creek Trout Farm has a fantastic fishing pond teeming with gorgeous trout. This isn’t a spot for kayaking or swimming, but the fisherman in you would love it.

The farm is a private business that will outfit you with rods and bait and advice on the best strategies for landing trout. Most visitors catch half a dozen within the first hour; it’s so much fun! And you don’t need a license or equipment to enjoy it.

It’s an amazing spot for teaching kids, practicing fly fishing casts, or just lifting the mood after fruitless trips to bigger lakes.

They have a fish station and charge per pound caught, so bring ice and a cooler to take the dinner home.

It may not be worth crossing the park just for that, but if you’re on the Cherokee side, you should definitely stop by. 

6. Lake Santeetlah

 Lake Santeetlah in North Carolina
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Lake Santeetlah
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 75 miles (1h 50min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Hiking, Camping, Swimming, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Lake Santeetlah is a 2,800-acre reservoir nestled by Nantahala National Forest. It’s the perfect mix of untouched wilderness and a few developed areas.

The reservoir is an outdoor haven. It offers numerous boat ramps, campgrounds, and swimming areas, yet it feels remote and wild.

The only marina on the lake is part of the Lake Santeetlah peninsula. It offers boat rentals and services. Apart from it, there are a few lodges and cabins for rent, but beyond that, the reservoir is entirely wild.

Swimming is allowed at Santeetlah Lake, and the national forest maintains a designated beach at Cheoah Point. Also, kayak or canoe campers would love the lake; it has several boat-in campsites. 

Also, water sports like wakeboarding and skiing are allowed, and there are several launching ramps to take advantage of. 

The only drawback to this lake is the long drive from Gatlinburg. It may not be worth it for some, but if you’re looking for a medium-sized lake, it’s the best option and the best alternative to vast reservoirs nearby.

Related: 15 Best Beaches near Nashville, TN

7. Lake Junaluska

Lake Junaluska in North Carolina
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Lake Junaluska
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 57 miles (1h 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping, Boat Tours

Lake Junaluska is a 200-acre reservoir 57 miles from Gatlinburg. It’s a well-developed mountain retreat centered around the Methodist Church community.

Lake Junaluska is open to the public year-round. It offers miles of hiking trails, a wide range of accommodation, and various lake activities. It’s a mix of urban and natural.

Fishing, kayaking, and canoeing are popular ways to enjoy the water. Also, you can take a boat tour to get the best views. However, public motorized boating is prohibited, meaning that jet skiing and wakeboarding are out of the question.

Swimming is also prohibited at Lake Junaluska. However, there is an open-air swimming pool at the lakeside open to the public during the warm season.

Another excellent way to enjoy the views is to take the highly-rated hiking trail that loops the lake. It’s 3.7 miles long and takes under two hours to complete.

Naturally, Lake Junaluska is great for multi-day trips. Apart from a range of hotels and lodges, it offers a campground with cabins and RV hookups, open between April and October.

Overall, the lake is an intriguing mix of wild and developed. It’s best suited for events, weddings, and romantic retreats. But as recreational lakes go, it’s not that versatile.

Related: 11 Fun Recreational Lakes near Chattanooga, TN

8. Waterville Lake

  • Official Page: Waterville Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 49 miles (1h 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Swimming

Waterville Lake is an entirely undeveloped reservoir free from crowds or any amenities. It sits on the Pigeon River, stretching along the I-40. 

Access to this lake is hard to find. There are no official pages or directions. The only boat ramp is unpaved and requires 4×4 to launch. The video above provides the best explanation and directions.

There are no restrictions on activities, and you can go boating, paddling, and swimming, although there are no designated swimming areas, and the lake is prone to algae bloom in late summer. 

Putting in a kayak or a canoe is probably the easiest way to enjoy this lake, although some people managed to launch pontoon boats.

Still, the main reason to visit is fishing. Because of little pressure, Waterville Lake is a fantastic fishery with jumbo bass and monster cats, not to mention various panfish.

Needless to say, this destination is best suited for seasoned adventurers and anglers; it’s not your typical recreational lake.

Related: 15 Best Beaches near Nashville, TN

9. Fort Loudoun Lake

Tennessee River near Knoxville
Source: unsplash
  • Official Page: Fort Loudoun Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 40 miles (1h 10min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Hiking, Camping, Swimming, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Fort Loudoun Lake is a 14,600-acre reservoir that stretches from Lenoir City to Knoxville. It’s a versatile destination with a wide selection of accommodation and activities.

Over 50 parks, campgrounds, and boat ramps pepper the reservoir’s shoreline, and it’s often hard to choose the perfect spot, especially if it’s your first visit.

Louisville Point Park is an excellent day-use area with picnic tables, grills, a boat ramp, and a swimming area. It’s an ideal choice for the first visit.

However, if you’re planning on camping, Yarberry Campground near Lenoir City is probably the best spot. It’s a hugely popular place for multi-day trips that offers a beach, grills, boat and kayak rentals, and a launching ramp – an excellent all-in-one option.

No matter what location you visit, Fort Loudoun Lake offers tons of fun. From swimming and fishing to water sports like wakeboarding and skiing, there are no limits, and the multiple coves that cut the shoreline are always a joy to explore.

What’s more, the reservoir scores excellent reviews for fishing. It’s known for jumbo striped bass and giant catfish, but the species selection here is much broader than that. You can target largemouth bass, walleye, and shad. And some lucky anglers get to handle rarities like sturgeon and paddlefish.

Overall, it’s another fantastic option near Gatlinburg. You can hire a cabin for a romantic getaway, take kids to the beach, or camp with friends – it’s all possible.

10. Tellico Lake

Fort Loudoun State Park on Tellico Lake in Tennessee
Source: depositphotos
  • Official Page: Tellico Lake
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 58 miles (1h 30min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Hiking, Camping, Swimming, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Tellico Lake is a 15,560-acre reservoir west of Gatlinburg. It’s another vast reservoir with a wide selection of activities and access areas.

If visiting for the first time, Fort Loudoun State Park is an exciting option, especially for history buffs. It’s not just a place for water and land recreation but also an important historical landmark offering a 1756 British fort to explore. 

The park has a few miles of hiking trails, a fishing pier, and kayak and canoe rentals. However, there are no boat ramps, campgrounds, or designated swimming areas.

Tellico Marina on the opposite shore is an excellent choice for boaters, though. It’s the perfect launching spot and a fun place with restaurants and the end-of-season boat parade.

Of all the large reservoirs around Gatlinburg, Tellico Lake is the least developed, although there are still plenty of access spots, including beaches and campgrounds. If you like to avoid crowds and have water to yourself, it’s a good choice.

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