Lake James is hard to figure out. Anyone can see it right there on the North Carolina map, big as can be, just off I-40 and on the edge of some of the most-popular tourist attractions (Grandfather Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway, Linville Caverns) in this part of the country. It's 40 minutes from Ashville, a city bursting with an outdoor-minded populace. So, why do so few boaters know Lake James exists? A skeptic like myself would have to motor there to find out what gives.
It's an easy drive from the south, a shorter commute from Columbia, South Carolina, than MapQuest's best estimate. The swaths of fresh blacktop lead through the Appalachian foothills, past classic off-water homes with big front yards and onto Lake James' circumference. The clarity of the water and the mountainous humps escalating away from the shoreline on every side beg for attention. So does the sight of two deer feeding at the edge of a field.
A morning boat ride with Joe Hall, a lifelong resident and successful businessman in the local lumber trade, begins to explain the unsung nature of Lake James.
"I didn't realize as a kid fishing here that this might be the prettiest lake in the Carolinas," says Hall, wearing
jean shorts and a T-shirt, and casually palming the wheel of a Bennington 2575 RCW pontoon. "It was just a lake at the end of a dirt road. I think the furniture business was the focal point for so long that the lake was just taken for granted."
That changed when Broyhill, Universal and a number of other furniture manufacturers left the area. Eyes began slowly turning to the most-attractive asset straddling McDowell and Burke counties: Lake James.
The construction of a six-lane boat ramp at Black Bear Access Area was one of the first invitations for boaters to see what they'd been missing on the lake's west side. Alongside it came a gigantic parking lot, with 170 spots for trucks and trailers. On some Saturday mornings, it begins to fill.
"The east side of the lake was always more popular," says Hall, "but the ramp has changed things."
So will the Bear Creek Marina that Hall and four partners conceived shortly after the launch ramp went in. Opened in 2006, the marina has the lake's only on-water restaurant, 100 slips and is framed with available lots, condos and log-sided RVs high above the water. One couple from the Charlotte area has their big Chaparral bowrider trailered to Bear Creek Marina twice a year — this despite the fact they live on Lake Norman. "Less crowded and cleaner" are the words they use to explain why the boat is hauled to Lake James instead of tied down at Lake Norman.
The Chaparral sits in the water with an eclectic roster of cuddies, deck boats, aluminum fishing boats and pontoons. None have visible scum lines, a testament to the clean water. But the fact they are not alone, and that the marina is slated to double its occupancy to 200 slips (and fill them), indicates the word is leaking beyond the forest-painted hills.
During a beginning-to-end ride across Lake James, Hall idles the Bennington around a bend at the lake's midpoint. "I helped get this other ramp in here at Hidden Cove when I was with the wildlife commission in the late '70s," he says, pulling around the corner and looking at a ring of trees. He laughs at himself. "You know what? This is the wrong cove. It must be the next one up."
Even a Lake James native can still have a hard time figuring out the place.
First Impression: Convenient as it is, and with mountain views in every direction, why is it relatively unknown?
Something You Have To Do: Visit Linville Caverns and watch schools of blind trout swimming underground.
Trivia: Visible from the lake on a clear day is Mount Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet elevation is the highest point in the eastern U.S.
Trailering Here/Launch Advice: The four launch ramps are among the best kept we've seen. The biggest is at the Black Bear Access on the lake's west side.
Local Flavor: Bear Creek Marina has the only restaurant on the lake, with a deck overlooking the water. For a dramatic look at the Appalachians, drive up to Mountain View Restaurant near Little Switzerland. Doesn't matter what you order — your eyeballs will be satiated.
Bedding Down: Rent a hillside cabin for $150 per night through marinaatlakejames.com. Slip rentals and trailer parking are available too.
Distance From Ashville: 25 miles