4 Aug 2021
Summertime in the mountains is arguably the most popular time of year to visit Asheville and its neighboring small towns, and we have to concede that the hype is totally justified. Whether you’re making a last minute weekend trip or counting down to a week-long vacation, Asheville's summer scene is ripe with activity. Take in lush mountain views, bask in warm breezes, and enjoy the bustling beer, food, art, and music scenes to your heart’s content. With numerous festivals, concerts, and other open air events happening all summer long, there’s no shortage of summer activities to enjoy.
While the average temperatures typically don’t exceed the mid-80s with the nights typically cooling down into the mid-60s through most of the summer, the hotter and more sultry days of late July and August prove there's nothing better to beat the heat than spending time in a refreshing body of water. Luckily, the Asheville area provides some truly incredible spots to swim in sparkling lakes, stand beneath cascading waterfalls, and float atop a clear pool of water surrounded by lush rhododendron, vibrant lilies, and fragrant bee balm. Below you'll find our ultimate guide to the lakes, waterfalls, and rivers in and around the Asheville area and what activities we recommend trying at each one.
The Great Lakes of WNC:
Located just 26 miles Southeast of Asheville, Lake Lure is nestled within the “gorge”ous Hickory Nut Gorge area that neighbors Chimney Rock State Park. Well known as the filming location for legendary film Dirty Dancing and host to the annual corresponding festival, Lake Lure features a sandy lakefront beach, a kids’ waterpark, a scenic greenway with several walking trails, and boat tours. Spend the entire day soaking up the sun, wading in the water, building sand castles, zooming down the water slide, and getting soaked under the colorful splash buckets. While in the area, don’t forget to stroll across the vibrant Flowering Bridge—a garden “Gateway to Somewhere Beautiful” blooming atop the historic 1925 Rocky Broad River bridge. Filled with quirky installations and native flowers, it’s the perfect spot to snap a family photo to remember your time in Lake Lure.
Located just 47 miles east of Asheville, the upscale Lake James State Park totals over 6,000 acres and offers 150+ miles of pristine shoreline set against the backdrop of the breathtaking Linville Gorge Wilderness. Similar to Lake Lure, you’ll find a sandy mountaintop beach within the park at Paddy's Creek, complete with a designated swimming area, pavilion, concession stand, and ample parking. In addition to the beach, you’ll have access to a number of hiking and biking trails, fishing spots, and boat landings. There are two boat ramps, Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge, that offer access to Lake James for power boats, sailboats, and other smaller vessels. Located along NC 126, just two miles east of the park entrance, Hidden Cove operates during park hours while Canal Bridge is open 24 hours. Bring your own boat to the ramps or rent a boat slip at nearby marinas (Lake James Marina, Mimosa Boat Landing, and Benfield’s Landing), or rent a canoe, paddleboard, jet ski, or kayak while in the park at the beach to enjoy a day or two on the lake. With stunning vistas and easy access from Asheville, Black Mountain, and other nearby small mountain towns, it's easy to see why Lake James is such a highly sought after destination.
Located in Bryson City, approximately 75 miles west of Asheville, you’ll find the largest lake in Western North Carolina, Lake Fontana. Boasting close to 230 miles of shoreline, this lake is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains and is home to the 480 ft. tall Fontana Dam—also known as the highest dam east of the Rockies and one of the spots featured in the 2015 comedy adventure film A Walk in the Woods starring Robert Redford. The AT, which extends along the east coast from Georgia to Maine, crosses Fontana Dam, which you have the opportunity to drive or walk across. After visiting the dam, spend the day swimming in the cool water, or pack a picnic to enjoy on a pontoon boat while fishing. Fontana Lake is a unique fishery because the cold water is home to several species of fish typically associated with colder northern lakes (including walleye, white bass, and steelhead). While these runs typically start in early March and last until the end of May, there is great fishing to be had all year long for smallmouth and largemouth bass. Catfish can also be found from spring into fall, and there have been several catfish caught each year on Lake Fontana that weigh in at over 50 lbs! Before heading home, stop to enjoy views from the overlooks along the highway or from a window in the Great Smoky Mountain Scenic Train in Bryson City. This hour and a half trip is well worth it.
Located near Maggie Valley and Waynesville just 28 miles west of Asheville, Lake Junaluska has functioned as a Methodist conference and retreat center since it was founded in 1913. While ringing in on the smaller side at 200 acres, this lake more than makes up for its size with the beauty and activities it offers. Purchase a daily activity pass to make the most of your time here and to enjoy admission to the lake, grounds, swimming pool, mini golf course, and game courts (Tennis, Pickleball, and Shuffleboard). With its reputation as a conference and retreat center, many do not realize that this lake town is open for all to enjoy, and since the retreat's mission is to "renew the soul, mind, and body," this landlocked jewel offers the perfect tranquil setting to get away from the hectic bustle of everyday life. While visiting the lake, take time to stroll along the scenic 3.8-mile mostly flat paved path (wheelchair and scooter friendly) that winds around the lake with several places to sit, relax, and soak up views of the majestic Great Smoky Mountains. There are numerous gardens and meditation grounds to walk through, but some of our favorites include the Rose Walk (along the main walking trail), Inspiration Point, Corneille Bryan Native Garden (a haven for birdlife), and the Butterfly Garden. After exploring the gorgeous grounds, enjoy time on the lake by renting a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard at Lake Junaluska Outfitters through Labor Day, or cruise the lake on the Cherokee IV from Thursday-Sunday during the summer weather permitting. Recreation and retreat await you at Lake Junaluska!
Blue Ridge Beaches
While many engage in the age-old debate of beach vs. mountain, Asheville conveniently offers a solution so you don’t have to choose or compromise. Lakefront mountain beaches combine sweeping summit views with sparkling lakes and sandy shores so you can enjoy the best of both worlds. In addition to Lake James and Lake Lure mentioned above, there are a handful of other lakefront beaches in and around the Asheville area.
Located just 10 minutes from downtown in South Asheville, adjacent to the North Carolina Arboretum and Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Powhatan Recreation Area is nestled within the Pisgah National Forest and borders the 6,000-acre Bent Creek Experimental Forest. A local favorite, the forest is an outdoor haven for mountain bikers, as the collection of singletrack and doubletrack biking trails are well-suited for beginners and experts alike. For those interested in the lake, you can purchase an inexpensive day pass to enjoy floating, swimming, and fishing in the trout-stocked lake from the pier. Centrally located, this swimming lake and beach is ideal for those who want to be out-and-about exploring all that the city has to offer but want a quick and convenient way to cool off from the summer heat when needed.
Located approximately 75 miles southwest of Asheville, the beach at Lake Glenville near Cashiers boasts 26 miles of shoreline and is the highest elevation of any lake east of the Mississippi. One of the more unique features of this lake is the 3 stunning waterfalls you’ll find there (Norton Falls, Hurricane Falls and Mill Creek Falls). One of the best ways to enjoy the falls is to rent a boat from Signal Ridge Marina and anchor nearby to swim beneath the cascades. In addition to boating, you can also enjoy tubing, water skiing, paddleboarding, kneeboarding, swimming, and fishing. Recently upgraded several years ago, the Pines Recreation Area includes a protected swimming area, sandy beach, fishing pier, and picnic tables among other enhancements. While there are no concessions and pets and alcoholic beverages are prohibited, this lake is handicap accessible and completely free to enjoy. If you’re interested in enjoying unique water sports and waterfalls during your mountain beach excursion and don’t mind a scenic drive, Lake Glenville is the perfect hidden gem for you.
Located approximately 75 miles north of Asheville in Banner Elk, Wildcat Lake is an idyllic 13 acre lake dotted with fragrant and evergreen Fraser fir Christmas trees that boasts a white sand beach, swimming pier, and fishing dock. Reminiscent of an old-timey swimming hole, this public access facility draws thousands of visitors each summer who enjoy sunbathing, swimming, fishing, and boating (limited to non-motorized boats along with canoes and kayaks) along the emerald water and ivory shores. After spending the first part of the day at the beach, journey into downtown Banner Elk just a couple miles away to explore the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on Lees-McRae’s campus. This learning lab for wildlife biology students cares for 1,500 injured birds, raptors, waterfowl, reptiles, and small mammals from western North Carolina each year. While you can stop by any day of the week year round to visit ambassador birds in the outside cages, on Saturdays (Thursdays and Fridays during the summer) at 1 PM, you can swing by to get a close up look at some of their permanent residents. In addition to its location in a quaint and quiet mountain town, Wildcat Lake’s elevation of 3,700 ft makes its refreshing and chilly water the perfect place to visit on a hot summer day.
The Great Scenic Lakes of WNC:
Located in north Asheville, just 5 minutes from downtown, Beaver Lake is a serene spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and go for a scenic walk. In addition to the lake itself, it’s best known as a bird sanctuary managed by the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society. For a guided bird walk, you can stop by at 8 AM on the first Saturday of each month. Visiting during late August through October is ideal for the best birdwatching. While no pets or swimming is permitted, boating and fishing are allowed at this picturesque lake tucked away in the middle of the city.
Located in the Town of Black Mountain, Lake Tomahawk is a nine-acre lake and community gathering place that includes a pavilion, an elliptic walking trail, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, a public swimming pool, and multiple meeting areas. While swimming in the lake is not permitted, non-motorized boats are allowed on the water and visitors are able to fish at this tranquil spot. Visit just before sunset to enjoy an unobstructed view of the Seven Sisters Mountain range and catch the local ducks taking a leisurely evening bath.
Located in the lush mountain cove of Montreat, Lake Susan is nestled at the heart of Montreat College’s campus surrounded by historic,hand strewn stone buildings. While no swimming is permitted, fishing on Lake Susan is available year-round in designated areas marked by signage around the lake and requires a permit. During the summer season, you can take their canoes and paddle boats out on the lake and float alongside the resident geese. After spending time on the water, be sure to check out the fair trade shop across the lake by the gazebo, Ten Thousand Villages, which offers stunning handmade gifts from around the world.
Located 15 minutes north of Asheville in the Town of Weaverville, Lake Louise is a small 5.5 acre lake known for its holiday celebrations and includes playground facilities, outdoor exercise equipment, picnic shelters, a walking track, and grills. While no boating or swimming is permitted at Lake Louise, some fishing is allowed. One of the more secret features of the lake is the small waterfall and antique red water wheel from the old Biffle gristmill built in the early 1790s tucked near the back end of the lake off a side walking trail. Pack a picnic to enjoy at the foot of the shimmering falls while you listen to the gentle racing of water into the pool below. It’s a postcard worthy spot that is guaranteed to calm and charm you.
Located in Arden, just 10 minutes from downtown Asheville, Lake Julian is a public park that offers fishing (filled with an abundant amount of bass, catfish, brim, crappie, and imported Tilapia), picnic areas, disc golf, outdoor games, a playground, paddleboats, canoes, and water access along a sparkling 300-acre lake. Best known for its annual Festival of Lights that takes place each December, Lake Julian’s drive-through Christmas light show typically includes 50 animated and stationary light displays and is a local favorite. During the summer, arrive at Lake Julian earlier in the day to secure a grill so you can BBQ and spend the day coasting along the lake—allowing the fresh water breeze to keep you cool.
Rolling on a River
One of the most fun and effective ways to keep cool during the tropical summer months is to roll along the river on a raft or tube. Perhaps the most famous and frequented river in the Asheville area is the French Broad River. Boasting the title of one of oldest rivers in the world, this iconic river runs through the River Arts District and right alongside the historic Biltmore Estate. During the summer, you are almost guaranteed to spot a huge procession of people floating down the river on various vessels that include everything from tubes to kayaks to paddleboards. Activities on the river are so popular that you can even find bars (Bywater Bar and Salvage Station) situated along the river that serve as stations to start and end your journey with a cold beer or cocktail in hand. The best part about spending time on the river is that you can choose whether to embark on a high action adventure or a calm drift, and Greybeard’s partnership with French Broad Rafting and Ziplines offers guests exclusive discounts for their next rafting trip if they choose to schedule it through our Guest Services.
While French Broad is certainly the most well known, other rivers that run through the Asheville area include the Green River Gorge, located about 38 miles southeast of Asheville in Saluda, and the Swannanoa River, located in the east Asheville area, which runs by the pastoral campus of Warren Wilson College. At Green River, you’ll find old-growth forests blanketed in moss and exciting whitewater adventure as the river drops rapidly down the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This river is definitely a top spot for tubing and kayaking. The three main sections include the upper Green, the "narrows,” and the lower Green. Most visitors and beginners head for tamer fun on the Lower Green, but for those thrillseekers, you can take a guided kayak trip on the Upper Green for an exciting four-mile ride of class II-IV rapids. Only expert kayakers should brave the Narrows, as it boasts powerful and challenging class V rapids.
Located 66 miles from Bryson City in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Deep Creek (and the corresponding Tube Center) is another popular spot for river tubing. Similar to the Green River, it is separated into an upper and lower section. The upper section is more narrow and offers a wild, bouncy ride that has been known to separate the rider from the tube, especially after a heavy rain, while the lower section is wider and a bit calmer. The lower section is the perfect route for young families and adults seeking a chill float. After tubing, be sure to explore the hiking trails and waterfalls within Deep Creek (Juneywhank Falls and Indian Creek Falls are two of our favorites), or pan for sapphires and rubies at the only gem mine in Bryson City at the center.
There's something truly awe-inspiring about standing atop a mountain or at the foot of a waterfall surveying what you've accomplished after a heart pounding trek, but we’re convinced that waterfall hikes offer the best reward at the conclusion. Not only can you relax at your destination, you can also enjoy a delicious picnic in the shade and cool down by swimming in the natural pools that form at the bottom. That said, we’re asking you to disregard TLC’s message and spend some time chasing waterfalls this summer. Here are our top picks:
Rainbow Falls is a spectacular 150-ft. tall waterfall that is located on Horsepasture River adjacent to Gorges State Park approximately 55 miles from Asheville. This magical waterfall earned its name because the sun reflects on the mist and creates colorful rainbows. While you'll see a rainbow in the mist on many sunny days, especially when the water is high, the rainbow is often brightest with the lower angle of the morning sun.
High Falls is a gorgeous 150-ft.tall waterfall in DuPont State Forest, located between Brevard and Hendersonville approximately 40 miles from Asheville. During the summer, we recommend rock hopping along the river bank to get a close-up view and enjoy the cool mist from the falls. Dupont State Forest is also home to Triple Falls, Hooker Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls which are all located off the access road.
Looking Glass Falls is a spectacular 60 ft. tall roadside waterfall located along the U.S. 276 Forest Heritage Scenic Byway near Brevard. One of the most popular and easiest to view, Looking Glass Falls earned its name because when the water freezes on its sides in the winter and glistens in the sun it looks like a mirror or looking glass. After wading beneath the falling water, continue driving on a couple of miles to Sliding Rock, a natural 60-foot water slide located directly off the road. This is unsurprisingly a hotspot during the summer that’s open Memorial Day through Labor Day and welcomes visitors for $3 per person.
Schoolhouse Falls is a small 20 ft. tall waterfall located approximately 55 miles from Asheville in Panthertown Valley, a part of the Nantahala National Forest known as the "Yosemite of the East." Though it’s on the shorter side, Schoolhouse Falls more than makes up for in striking beauty and ample swimming area. We recommend walking behind the falls for a unique view of the sienna rock formations and shimmering cascade. Whether you swim in the pools or walk beneath the falls, you will certainly cool down from the summer heat.
Catawba Falls is a 100 ft. tall waterfall located just 26 miles east of Asheville in Old Fort (15 minutes from Black Mountain). A long-time favorite of locals and tourists alike, this waterfall hike is kid and pet-friendly, which means that you’re welcome to bring your furry companion along to wade alongside you. The beauty of this waterfall comes from its series of cascades that spill over in various directions along the rock face covered in vivid green moss year round. We recommend taking time to rest with your feet in the water on one of the rocks as you look up at the falls with inevitable awe and fascination before heading back.
Lakefront & Water Access Vacation Rentals
If visiting the local rivers and lakes doesn’t quench your craving for waterside wonder, we have plenty of mountain retreats on and near the water. These homes will allow you to wake up and sip your morning coffee while looking out at a sparkling blue lake, read your favorite book by a babbling brook in the afternoon, and spend the evening fishing knee deep in a rushing river.
Whether you're longing for a waterfront view while you enjoy the interior comforts of your home away from home or craving lakeside adventure by canoeing, boating, swimming, and fishing until the sun sets, our lakefront and water access homes will provide a tranquil setting where you can achieve true relaxation and embark on plenty of mountain adventures.