Low-Key Southern Lake Escapes

These laid-back lakes make for the perfect weekend getaway

Scorching summer temps call for one thing: Liquid refreshment, preferably both the immersible and imbibable kinds. A good cocktail is easy to come by, but not everyone can drive to the beach over a weekend and be back in time for work Monday morning. Most Southerners can, however, get to a lake, like one of these—all within a short drive from major Southern metros.

Lewis Smith Lake, Alabama

Fed by rivers and streams from nearby Bankhead National Forest, Smith Lake—a quick jaunt from Birmingham, Huntsville, and Nashville—is one of the cleanest lakes in the country. It’s cooler than most, too, thanks to depths of nearly three hundred feet in places. Anglers won’t find a better spot to cast a line; nearby Cullman is the future home of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame for good reason. Sandstone cliffs that ring its 642 miles of shoreline make excellent jumping off points. And there are boat rentals aplenty.

Spend the night: If you want someone else to do the cooking and cleaning, check out Smith Lake Bed & Breakfast. You’ll also find dozens of home rentals listed on VRBO and other home-share websites.

Lake Ouachita, Arkansas

Covering more than 40,000 acres, Lake Ouachita, nestled in the arboreal solitude of the surrounding Ouachita National Forest, is popular with sailboat enthusiasts because of its vast ocean-like stretches of open water. The pristine lake also consistently ranks among the country’s top ten largemouth bass fishing destinations. And on summer evenings, park rangers lead guided kayak tours at sunset.

Spend the night: Houseboats are a favorite way for folks from nearby Little Rock and Hot Springs to spend the weekend on Ouachita; rentals are available from companies like Wake Zone. But if you’re up for something a little (okay, a lot) more rustic, pitch your tent on one of the lake’s uninhabited islands. There are more than a hundred of them.

Lake Rabun, Georgia

There’s only one marina (Hall’s Boathouse), which just recently began renting boats (still: be sure to check availability before you go), and the closest grocery store is thirty minutes away. The quiet rural appeal makes it hard to believe that Atlanta is only a two-hour drive from this North Georgia hideout set amid the Chattahoochee National Forest. And it’s considerably more low-key than its neighbor to the north, Lake Burton. If you make it to Rabun for the holiday weekend, check out the Fourth of July Wooden Boat Parade—the area is home to one of the country’s largest inland concentrations of classic wooden boats.

Spend the night: VRBO rentals are available, but you really can’t do better than the twenties-era Lake Rabun Hotel. Its locust-log decks and balconies offer views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lake Summit, North Carolina

A forty-five minute drive from Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, this small semi-private mountain lake—just 290 acres—is big on charm. Old-school wooden boathouses dot the lake’s ten miles of shoreline and there are rope swings for summertime thrill seekers. A particularly wet season means the lake is nearly at full pond. If you need a day off the water, nearby Hendersonville and Saluda maintain quaint downtowns worth exploring.

Spend the night: You’ll find multiple B&Bs in Hendersonville and Saluda. To stay on the water, check VRBO and local listings.

Lake Buchanan, Texas

After years of extremely dry conditions, Lake Buchanan (pronounced BUCK-han-an by locals)—the largest but least populated of the Highland Lakes in the Texas Hill Country northwest of Austin—is just inches from being completely full once again. Tall granite cliffs line the eastern shore, but if you head west you’ll find pebbled beaches perfect for lounging and swimming.

Spend the night: In the heart of a 940-acre preserve, lies Canyon of the Eagles eco-resort and nature park, named for the bald eagles that winter here. Designed by San Antonio’s prestigious Lake/Flato architecture firm and owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority, the pet-friendly property includes sixty-four guest rooms, miles of walking trials, boat and kayak rentals, and an on-site restaurant serving three meals a day.

Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky/Tennessee

This 170,000-acre inland peninsula just and hour and a half northwest of Nashville is sandwiched between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which were formed when the Tennessee Valley Authority impounded the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers to help control flooding in the early 1960s. Fishing is the big draw, but recreational boats are also available for rent—and you’ll have access to twenty different boat landings on LBL if you want to trailer your own. Off the water, LBL offers hiking, biking, horseback riding, hunting, and picnicking (all for free). Visit the Elk and Bison Prairie at sunset for a glimpse of wildlife.

Spend the night: There are a multitude of cabins and campsites in the park. Don’t want to rough it? Not a problem. You’ll find are more than a dozen resorts on the lake and plenty of home rentals, too.

Tell us: What’s your favorite Southern lake?