Our pristine mountain waters high in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of western North Carolina create endless scenic vistas and possibilities for outdoors recreation. Rivers, including Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee and Tuckasegee, begin as small streams in the highest peaks in the national park and grow as they flow down the slopes into the lush Nantahala National Forest. They feed lakes, including Fontana, Santeetlah, Nantahala and Glenville. All are a one to two drive from Asheville.
This system of waterways create the Smoky Mountain Blueway Trails and the most visited outdoor recreation area in the Southeast with limitless water sports. Find epic fishing spots, Olympic whitewater kayaking, family friendly river rafting, paddleboarding and so much more.
Lake Santeetlah (photo above) is one of the most scenic lakes in the South since much of it is surrounded and protected by the Nantahala National Forest. With 76 miles of shoreline, there are 50 primitive lakeside campsites. At Cheoah Point Recreation Area, find a swimming area, campground, boat ramp and picnic tables for summer sunsets. See our Lake Santeelah Guide for much more info. Adjacent is Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest for hikes beneath towering trees in an old growth forest.
Nantahala River runs through a steep and narrow gorge and is known for its family-friendly whitewater rapids with numerous outfitters with trips down eight miles of rapids. It hosts world kayaking championships and training for Olympians. Also find ziplines, train excursions and a scenic drive down US Highway 19 from Bryson City with picnic areas and overlooks. It's also one of North Carolina's best trout streams. See our guides for Nantahala Outdoor Center and Nantahala Gorge Adventure Center.
Oconaluftee River begins high in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and cascades 10 miles to Cherokee. To wade or picnic in the river, go to the town's Oconaluftee Islands Park. The river is a popular fishing destination for rainbow, brook and brown trout. See our fishing guide for details.
Fontana Lake divides the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, with 90% of its shoreline protected from development. It's the largest lake in western North Carolina with 238 miles of shoreline. The Fontana dam is the highest east of the Rockies, and you can drive or walk across it. The lake has many coves and islands created from former mountain peaks. Find all typical lake activities including boating and fishing. The Appalachian Trail crosses the dam, so hike north or south on this famous trail.
Cheoah River is located in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina near Robbinsville. It's one of the most challenging rivers in the world, a delight for adventurous paddlers. Check with NOC for guided trips on special release days that create Class IV and V rapids. For a scenic drive below the Cheoah Dam (featured in movie), drive NC Highway 28 from Fontana Dam along the river to US Highway 129 to Lake Santeetlah - see our Indian Lakes Scenic Byway Guide. Be sure to stop for a short hike to Yellow Creek Falls. You'll also pass the popular The Dragon motorcycle drive.
Tuckasegee River: Known as the “Tuck,” this river begins near Cashiers and runs through the fun small towns of Sylva, Dillsboro and Bryson City before flowing into Fontana Lake. Find floating and tubing outfitters in each town, with plenty of fishing stops on the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. See our Smoky Mountain Fishing Guide for more.
Deep Creek is one of the most popular spots on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Located just a few miles from downtown Bryson City, find a big campground, picnic area, waterfalls, a network of hiking trails, fishing and river tubing. The Deep Creek Trail follows the creek about 14 miles from the trailhead to Newfound Gap Road, with several backcountry campsites along the way. Read about the loop hike that takes you to three waterfalls. See our Deep Creek guide for more about summer tubing.
Little Tennessee River flows from the town of Franklin with a riverside greenway and empties into Lake Fontana. Drive the very scenic NC Highway 28 between Franklin and US 19 for river views and put-ins for access. Stop in the very historic and charming community of Cowee. For fishing folks, this is the place for smallmouth bass.
Lake Glenville is the highest elevation lake east of the Mississippi, located between Sylva and Cashiers, with 26 miles of shoreline and many islands. Find a free sandy beach for swimming and marinas for pontoon rentals to find multiple waterfalls cascading into the water. It's great for water skiing, canoeing and paddleboarding. See our Lake Glenville feature.
Nantahala Lake is tucked away in the National Forest above the Gorge at 3,000 feet elevation. Much of its 29 miles of shores is undeveloped. Test the waters at two public boat launching areas. The Rocky Branch ramp is on the east shore just off Wayah Road, a very scenic drive that takes you from Franklin to the Nantahala River at US 19/23 in whitewater rafting country. Nantahala Lake Marine rents kayaks, fishing & pontoon boats.
More Great Smoky Mountains Lakes & Rivers Info
Smoky Mountain Host Blueways
Find plenty of watersports and adventures in the most visited outdoor recreation area in the Southeast with five major rivers and four lakes with pristine waters for fishing, boating, whitewater… read more
Great Smoky Mountains NC Travel Guide
Order the free 115-page Great Smoky Mountains North Carolina Travel Guide that includes activities and adventures in 7 counties that surround the national park, published by Smoky Mountain Host.… read more
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Top 30 in NC
Explore the most visited national park in the country! See our top places and things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina side near Asheville. Four entrances to the Park are… read more
Fishing Guide for Great Smoky Mountains NC
See our fishing tips and best creeks, rivers and lakes to fish in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side and nearby towns including Cherokee, Sylva and Bryson City.