Five Underrated Southern Lakes

Spend your next vacation exploring one of these refreshing watering holes

Photo: Leigh Webber



Just enough sunlight streams through the cypresses rising out of Caddo Lake, a swampy ecosystem straddling the Louisiana–Texas line, to render the scene surreal. The area around the South’s largest natural freshwater lake is rich in biodiversity; roughly seventy species of fish, and hundreds of birds, snakes, and alligators, make for prime sporting and sightseeing. The lake’s Louisiana side is wide and deep enough for most boats, but as you approach the Texas half, the cypress forest thickens and the water becomes shallower, forcing explorers into flat-bottom skiffs, pontoons, or canoes. At Caddo Lake State Park, choose from campsites or historic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the thirties that have since been renovated with modern amenities. —C.S.



The main draw on bustling Lake Oconee, just over an hour
east of Atlanta, lies behind the gates of the refined Reynolds Lake Oconee, a 10,000-acre resort community that includes vacation rentals, 117 holes of golf, a five-diamond Ritz-Carlton hotel, and ten restaurants, such as the Linger Longer Steakhouse, which fires up a wood-burning grill to sear the likes of filets and scallops, and Georgia’s, which serves locally sourced comfort food such as bacon-wrapped meat loaf. Practice your shot at the new Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, complete with a twenty-station sporting clays course and an archery field; relax at the spa with treatments that use regional elements like red clay, sweet tea, and magnolia; plunge into the infinity pool; or roast marshmallows at fire pits by the lake as evening sets in. —C.S.



Tucked into the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge just twenty-eight miles south of Asheville, Lake Lure exudes natural beauty. Nearby Chimney Rock dominates the horizon, and the fourteen-mile-long Hickory Nut Gorge provides hikes to waterfalls and sweeping overlooks, including 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls. The Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, a decommissioned roadway, has been reshaped into a walking garden. The locale’s good looks attracted the filmmakers for two now-iconic movies, Dirty Dancing and The Last of the Mohicans. Stay at the 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa, which housed the cast and crew of the former (yes, you can rent Patrick Swayze’s room). If you’re on the water, idle over to Larkin’s on the Lake for a rack of slow-cooked baby-back ribs, and then motor over to the inn for a nap. —C.S.

Smith Mountain


The waters of Smith Mountain Lake are rarely placid in the summer, when visitors and residents take to the Blue Ridge expanse by the thousands on pontoons, water skis, Jet Skis, and sailboats. Thankfully, there’s plenty of room—Smith Mountain is Virginia’s largest lake—and the otherwise sleepy outpost has transformed in recent years to a hot spot thanks to its location between Roanoke and Lynchburg. Home (and boat) rentals come easy, or you can anchor a rented houseboat in one of the still-undeveloped coves. Hiking trails, art galleries, vineyards, and golf courses dot the shore, and social calendars fill with concerts and antique boat shows. Locals end the day with a filet with brandy sauce from a waterfront table at the Landing Restaurant. —C.S.



No one knows for sure what created this shallow eighteen-mile-long coastal-plain destination for duck hunters, the largest natural lake in North Carolina. A meteor strike? A massive primeval fire? No matter how it formed, the 40,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet has long been a sporting destination. Managed as part of a national wildlife refuge, the lake holds tens of thousands of ducks, geese, and swans during spring and fall migrations. Self-guided walks, drives, and observation decks abound around the refuge, making it easy to bird-watch. Anglers fish for bass and panfish, and a local coalition has recently formed to protect the watershed for the future. Don’t miss the Mattamuskeet Lodge. While preservation efforts have stalled in recent years, the famed hunting lodge and its lighthouse-like observation tower loom over the vast canals and swamplands. —T.E.N.

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