Ted Tipton looks out at Watauga Lake in northeastern Tennessee every day. Nobody has a more poignant view of it because 47 years ago Tipton built a dock along the waterfront and a small restaurant up a staircase from it. Since then, he's seen his Lakeshore Resort and Marina grow to a spread of 450 boat slips, heated swimming pool, motel and a string of furnished cabins that peek down on the emerald water through a bank of trees. A visitor to the Appalachian foothills will stand on the marina dock and stare out over the lake, mesmerized. Tipton will look at the visitor in equal, but different, wonderment.
"Most people who see the lake are amazed," he says. Tipton's voice tells you that he no longer shares the incredulity. He's more interested in the reaction of newcomers.
Tipton admits that getting to Watauga isn't as easy as dropping in on the more popular Tennessee Valley Authority lakes closer to the I-75 corridor. Those lakes -- Douglas, Cherokee and Norris -- are at lower elevations where access roads are straight and wide. Every one of them is downhill from Watauga, which is the highest lake in Tennessee and, at the risk of using an abused term, hidden -- at least in comparison to its TVA siblings.
People who have grown up with the lake, like Tipton, say things are changing.
"They're starting to spill over from Boone and Blowing Rock [North Carolina]," says Tipton, continuing a conversation without pause while helping a man and wife tie up their 18-foot Carolina Skiff near the gas dock. "I don't know that we're a secret anymore."
He speaks matter-of-factly about renting out all 12 pontoon boats and the marina's three runabouts on weekends. If you look at the foothills tightly framing the water you might find his statement, well, just odd considering what seems to be a tucked-away location.
Maybe the area is more active than it used to be, but you cannot deny the rural nature of Watauga Lake. It's in that wedge of Tennessee where Virginia and North Carolina form a doorstop out of the Volunteer State. Highway 321 winds alongside the lake, offering peeks if not full access via boat ramps. Even on a clear day the jutting green hills appear to seep puffs of clouds, a good exhibit to explain the name of the nearby Smoky Mountains. It's an addicting scene. People who pop in overnight want to stay for a week. Boaters who head out for quick picnic runs will milk an entire day dry.
Case in point: Our family joined another visiting family for a pontoon run that was supposed to last maybe two hours, tops. We wound up with the driftwood on a broad sandy beach along Big Island (no fancy names here), swimming in water that, because it turns over from the bottom three or four times a year, is said to be among the cleanest in the country. It was surprisingly warm for a mountain lake, too, the cove surrounded with the lush landscape for which this area is known. Six hours later we reluctantly returned to the marina.
"The lake is gorgeous in summer," said Jack Davis, owner of Dogwood Springs Ranch on the other side of the bridge from Lakeshore Marina. "But take a pontoon ride in the fall and the hills around you are bursting with colors. I know you hear that a lot in other places, but in a boat up here, it's really an amazing ride."
An amazing ride. Even Ted Tipton would have a hard time disputing that.
Log-built homes are part of life here. We found a 1,550-square-foot getaway with wraparound porches and a covered hot tub, all situated amid the lake, Cherokee National Forest and waterfalls. It also looks out at a boat slip that comes with the home. The asking price at press time was $440,000 at wataugalake.com.
First Impression: A winding trough of Bahamian-clear water in the highest foothills, with just enough nautical development to satisfy boaters without infringing on the natural beauty.
Something You Have to Do: Get a different look at the area on horseback, through real Tennessee trails at Dogwood Springs Ranch (dogwoodspringsranch.com).
Trivia: Some say the water has healing powers. This comes from the story of Daniel Boone's horse, which was said to have been so sick that Boone, unable to bring himself to put it down, left him in the hills to die. A year later he came back to find the horse alive and healthy.
Trailering Here: Highway 321 is windy, with mostly no shoulders, so wide-angle mirrors would be helpful.
Launch Advice: Use the launch at the full-service marina adjacent to Watauga Lakeshore Resort.
Local Flavor: Tie up at the lighted dock down a flight of steps from the Captain's Table, where the trout almondine is as good as you'll find.
Bedding Down: Rent a cabin (up to three bedrooms) with a fireplace and balcony view of the lake at Watauga Lakeshore Resort (lakeshore-resort.com, 423-725-2201).
Distance from Asheville, North Carolina: 78 miles
Best Contact: netta.com