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11 Stunning Recreational Lakes near Johnson City, TN

Johnson City and the wider Tri-City area have an excellent selection of lakes. Visitors have a choice of large versatile reservoirs, quiet national forest lakes, and busy city parks.
ItIsWild.com: Best Lakes near Johnson City, TN

The Tri-Cities area is surrounded by fantastic outdoor destinations. Johnson City, in particular, is an excellent base for exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Watauga River gorge, and gorgeous mountain reservoirs.

The selection of lakes here is varied. Visitors have a choice of large TVA impoundments, Cherokee National Forest lakes, and city-run ponds.

The surrounding lakes are known for trout fishing, clear waters, and excellent picking of campgrounds and recreational areas.

Anglers, boaters, and families feel at home here. Check out what the Tri-City area has to offer!

Lakes near Johnson City:

  1. Boone Lake
  2. Wilbur Lake
  3. Watauga Lake
  4. Fort Patrick Henry Lake
  5. Kingsport Reservoir
  6. Steele Creek Park Lake
  7. South Holston Lake
  8. Cherokee Lake
  9. Douglas Lake
  10. Wildcat Lake
  11. Lake James
Lakes near Johnson City Tennessee Comparison Table
Comparison Table

1. Boone Lake

Boone Lake Tennessee
Source: flickr/CC BY 2.0
  • Website: Boone Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 7 miles (15 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

A short drive north of Johnson City, Boone Lake was formed after the Watauga River and South Fork Holston River were impounded by the Boone Dam in 1952. 

Named for Daniel Boone, this 4,400-acre reservoir is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce electricity, prevent flood damage, provide drinking water, and promote recreation. 

The dam’s value became evident after it restrained floodwaters during heavy rains in Eastern Tennessee in early 1957.

Boone Lake may fluctuate by upwards of 20 feet between wet seasons and periods of drawdown. 

Fishing, boating, and water skiing are popular along the lake, with the Boone Lake Association, established in 1983, serving as an environmental watchdog that monitors water quality across the watershed’s many jurisdictions. 

An October 2014 dam inspection noted the presence of a sinkhole near Boone Dam’s embankment. Remediation efforts have been put in place to assure the dam’s integrity. 

The TVA Boat Ramp near the dam on Minga Road is a popular place for anglers to gather. Known as one of the state’s best trout destinations, other fish found in Boone Lake include crappie, catfish, and many different varieties of bass.

2. Wilbur Lake

Wilbur Lake Tennessee
Source: unsplash
  • Website: Wilbur Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 17 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

A 17-mile drive east of Johnson City takes visitors to Wilbur Lake, a 55-acre impoundment surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains in the Cherokee National Forest. 

Created after the Wilbur Dam raised the waters in this Watauga River gorge in 1912, this reservoir is limited to smaller watercraft. 

One of the region’s first hydroelectric projects, the dam served Watauga Power during its early years. The TVA assumed ownership of this concrete gravity overflow dam in 1945. 

Those who fish in Wilbur Lake enjoy the scenic surroundings and a reservoir known as a trout paradise. The primary fish caught at this location are lake, brown, and rainbow trout. Other fish found here are rock bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and black crappie.

3. Watauga Lake

Watauga Lake Tennessee
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Watauga Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 20 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Water Skiing, Wakeboarding, Picnics, Camping, Hiking, Biking

Watauga Lake is a 6,430-acre reservoir on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest, just 20 miles east of the city.

Watauga is one of the most versatile lakes in the area. It offers a wide selection of activities with hardly any restrictions. You can swim, fish, paddle, and boat to all your heart’s desire here.

The reservoir has over a hundred miles of shoreline, half of which lies in the pristine and undeveloped Cherokee National Forest. The lake is also known for its clean water, making it the top swimming destination in summer.

This reservoir has a wide selection of recreation areas and marinas with beaches, boat rental shops, and campgrounds. The best way to find a spot for your needs is to check out the Cherokee NP page or try the Insider’s Vacation Guide.

Watauga Lake is a fantastic destination that will suit every type of adventure. It’s developed enough to stay in comfort and large enough to offer primitive, secluded spots.

4. Fort Patrick Henry Lake

Patrick Henry Reservoir Warriors Path State Park
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Fort Patrick Henry Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 20 miles (25 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Fort Patrick Henry Lake is an impounded section of the South Fork Holston River located downstream (northwest) of Johnson City, on the southern outskirts of Kingsport. 

The TVA put the hydroelectric Fort Patrick Henry Dam into service in 1953, creating a reservoir that averages 895 acres. The lake covers a 10-mile area between this dam and Boone Dam. 

Warriors’ Path State Park offers great lake access. This 950-acre park on the Patrick Henry Reservoir has a golf course, hiking trails, a great mountain bike trail network, and a “boundless playground” for children of all ability levels. 

A year-round marina and public boat ramps support those who wish to bring their own watercraft or rent a canoe, kayak, or pedal boat.

Fish commonly found in this lake include trout, catfish, bluegill, crappie, and bass. Rainbow trout are always a popular catch here. 

5. Kingsport Reservoir

Kingsport Reservoir at Bay Mountain Park
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Kingsport Reservoir
  • Distance from Johnson City: 24 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

Located 24 miles northwest of the city, the 44-acre Kingsport Reservoir at Bays Mountain once nourished Kingsport, another city in the Tennessee Tri-Cities region. 

Also known as the Bays Mountain Lake, this reservoir took shape after workers hired by the Kingsport Waterworks Corporation began building a dam in 1915 to impound a section of Dolan Branch near its waterfall. 

The iconic dam provided water for the growing Kingsport community from 1916 through 1944, when the city outgrew its capacity and sought another source.

The lake and iconic dam are preserved at Bays Mountain Park. In the late 1960s, city leaders began improvements that led to the formal opening of the park and its nature center in 1971. 

Since that time, animal habitats have been added, along with a farmstead museum and improvements to a planetarium on site. 

The lake remains a top spot for outdoor activities. Numerous trails offer views of the lake and places to cast a line for bluegill, rainbow trout, and largemouth bass. 

6. Steele Creek Park Lake

  • Website: Steele Creek Park Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 24 miles (35 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

A little more than 20 miles north-northeast of Johnson City, Steele Creek Park Lake sits within a regional park originally proposed to become a state park in the 1930s. 

Crews with the Civilian Conservation Corps built a dam along Steele Creek beginning in 1939 and made other basic improvements before work ended in 1941. 

Although those plans were abandoned in the mid-1940s, the State of Tennessee later deeded the site to Bristol to open the location as Steele Creek Park in 1964.

The city maintained the original lodge and shelters, adding other amenities that include a disc golf course, Nature Center, and the Steele Creek Express miniature steam engine locomotive replica. 

The Friends of Steele Creek Nature Center and Park helps to maintain the facilities around the lake and park. 

The majority of the parkland remains undeveloped. Today, 150 acres of this 2,200-acre forested park are set aside for recreation, along with the 54-acre lake that can be accessed with canoes and paddle boats. 

Those who fish in the lake will find largemouth bass, sunfish, bluegill, catfish, and common carp. 

7. South Holston Lake

South Holston Lake Tennessee
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: South Holston Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 31 miles (45 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

South Holston Lake is a 7,580-acre TVA reservoir located 30 miles northeast of Johnson City. This earth-and-rockfill dam, built between 1942 and 1950, generates hydroelectric power from water impounded along the South Fork Holston River. 

Depending on rainfall, water levels within this reservoir vary by 40 feet between the wet summer and winter drawdowns.

Those who visit the reservoir will notice a lack of development along the shoreline since a large portion of the reservoir borders the Cherokee National Forest. 

Campers and hikers will enjoy the serene location of federally-managed recreation areas and seasonal campsites, such as Little Oak and Jacobs Creek

Located 35 miles from Johnson City and just across the Virginia state line, Washington County Park offers seasonal trails and camping.

The reservoir extends 24 miles eastward along the former river, with 1,250 acres extending into Virginia. 

Boat and bank anglers casting a line should have the proper state fishing license, depending on their location, or get a South Holston Reservoir license, as they fish for bass, walleye, crappie, trout, and catfish. 

8. Cherokee Lake

Cherokee Lake Tennessee
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Cherokee Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 70 miles (1hr 10min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Camping, Mountain Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

At 28,780 acres, Cherokee Lake is as large as Douglas Lake nearby. 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.

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 rent out boats, kayaks, and paddleboards.

Another option is 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, those who know the lake well 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 the long drive.

9. Douglas Lake

Douglas Lake near Gatlinburg Tennessee
Source: flickr/CC BY 2.0
  • Website: Douglas Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 77 miles (1hr 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Douglas Lake is a large 28,420-acre reservoir west of Newport. The size and versatility of this reservoir make up for the long drive.

With over 25 access points, including parks, marinas, beaches, and resorts, visitors are 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. 

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.

10. Wildcat Lake

Kayaks on a lake in North Carolina in summer
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Wildcat Lake
  • Distance from Johnson City: 40 miles (55 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Swimming

Wildcat Lake is a small 13-acre reservoir surrounded by densely covered hills. It is situated near Banner Elk, a short drive from the North Carolina border.

The lake is the best swimming destination in the area. It features a white sand beach, a swimming dock, and a beach volleyball court and has lifeguards on duty.

In addition to swimming, visitors can go kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding. Although seasoned paddlers may find the lake too small, it is perfect for beginners, especially stand-up paddlers who will enjoy the calm water.

Also, a few times a year, the reservoir is stocked with trout and largemouth bass. You can fish from the two fishing docks or the bank.

Although Wildcat Lake is free to enjoy, it is managed by Edgar Tufts Memorial Association – a non-profit that runs on donations. You can support the association to make sure the area stays open.

Perhaps the only drawback to Wildcat Lake is that dogs aren’t allowed. Apart from that, it’s an ideal family destination for day trips, picnics, and of course, swimming.

11. Lake James

Lake James State Park in NC
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Lake James
  • Distance from Johnson City: 72 miles (1hr 35min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Camping, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing

Although Lake James is over an hour away from the Tri-Cities area, it is a worthy destination with many activities and recreation spots. It sits between Morganton and Marion, just below the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

The reservoir is comparable to Watauga and Boone Lakes in size, use, and amenities. Visitors will find plenty of recreational areas, including the popular Lake James State Park on the northern shore.

The park is free for day users and offers a swimming area, boat ramps, and a few campgrounds, one of which is boat-in. Also, there are kayak and canoe rentals.

Similar to Watauga Lake, Lake James is great for hiking and mountain biking. It is a fantastic base for exploring the trails inside the state park, as well as the Linville Gorge Wilderness which has some of the highest-rated and most challenging routes in the area.

Lake James is hands down the top lake destination for outdoor lovers. And apart from the distance from Johnson City, it’s hard to find any drawbacks here. Best for multi-day trips!

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