7 Great Lakes to Visit--All Less than 4 Hours Away

We’ve scoured the region to come up with seven great lake escapes, featuring the best the South has to offer, from luxurious spas and world-class golf to tranquil swimming holes and pristine waterfalls.

Sara Brennan-Harrell

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The summertime heat is officially here, which means one thing: it’s time to hit the water. But we’re not talking about the same old eastbound exodus to the ocean. We’ve scoured the region to come up with seven great lake escapes, featuring the best the South has to offer, from luxurious spas and world-class golf to tranquil swimming holes and pristine waterfalls—with a whole lot of outdoor adventures thrown in, too. Now all you have to do is turn off your iPhone, pack your gear, and get out on the highway. Your next great summer vacation awaits. Click here for our exclusive Great Lakes Resource Guide including more information and accomodations for travel.


Lake Lure, NC

Price: $$$

Distance from Charlotte: 90 miles, 1 hour 45 minutes

Lake Lure may be famous as the setting for Dirty Dancing, but a weekend here can play more like an action-adventure flick. Make your outpost near Chimney Rock State Park in Hickory Nut Gorge. You’ll have ready access to rock climbing—including routes that will embolden novices and challenge old hands. When you’re tired of hauling yourself up, clip in and take off at tree level on a network of zip lines. Then saddle your horse and swim the river or catch a ride on a tube when the Lake Lure dam releases its daily flow. All the go, go, go makes sundown with a cold one that much sweeter. At the 1927 Lake Lure Inn, you can grab a beer on the veranda and look out over the water in the same spot where Patrick Swayze honed his mambo.

DON’T MISS: Bubba O’Leary’s General Store & Outfitters is an old-time shop with a great selection of outdoor clothing. You can also play a game of checkers and get a ten-cent cup of coffee.

Three fine inns near Lake Lure offer quite different experiences. The Lodge on Lake Lure features lakeside rooms and the ambiance of a mountain house. The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa is a historic hotel with a beach, bars, and restaurants at the center of the action. The Esmeralda Inn combines rustic décor with modern comforts and great views of Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Gorge.

Though best known for barbecue, Lake Lure Smokehouse offers eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy that are a tasty way to fuel up for a busy day. For gourmet fare served casually, try Medina’s Village Bistro in Chimney Rock, across the street from the park. The rib eye sandwich and smoked Gouda and roasted red pepper bisque are local favorites. For dinner, head to Larkin’s on the Lake for pecan encrusted trout, either upstairs, where the vibe is white-tablecloth-but-casual, or lakeside, where bathing suits and flip-flops are welcome.

Rock climbing, of course. Fox Mountain Guides leads outings at Chimney Rock State Park and Rumbling Bald Mountain. A zip-line tour with Canopy Ridge Farm lets you travel six lines at tree level, including the 1,000-foot-long Zip Zilla. Riverside Riding Stables leads adventurous horseback rides, including a two-hour trip that crosses the river, where you’ll swim with your horse to the other side. 


Lake James

Price: $$

Distance from Charlotte: 90 miles, 1 hour 5 minutes

Linville, NC When locals talk about Lake James, they first mention the water, usually using the same two words: crystal clear. Located at the base of Linville Gorge, North Carolina’s “Grand Canyon,” Lake James is filled with the kind of pure mountain H2O you thought you could only find in the bottled-beverage section of your grocery store. After you marvel at the water, drink in the scenery—Linville Falls, Wiseman’s View, Pisgah National Forest—in short, some of the most spectacular landscape in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lake James State Park, on the northwest shore, recently expanded to include more than 3,000 acres reaching up to the southern tip of the Linville Gorge Wilderness area. Wild, open spaces abound, but you’ll find creature comforts too, at lakeside retreats and in the nearby towns of Marion and Morganton.

DON’T MISS: Get out on the lake! Area marinas rent out pontoons, canoes, and kayaks. Or launch your own boat from one of four public access areas. Lake views of Linville Gorge, the crystal clear mountain water, the wildlife, and tranquil coves are must-sees.

Upscale lakeside cabin rentals at Camp Lake James can accommodate up to eight. The property is beautiful and features a host of amenities—including canoes, kayaks, a pool, and a full-time activities director. For something more intimate, consider The Inn at Glen Alpine. Perched on five acres, this B&B boasts the best porch in Burke County.   For those willing to make a short walk to set up camp, Lake James State Park offers affordable tent sites with outstanding views.

For good food and a come-as-you-are atmosphere, you can’t go wrong with Lake James Pub and Grill. Locals opt for the smoked brisket and hand-tossed pizza. Root & Vine in Morganton is a good choice for fine dining, where the seasonal menu features local finds such as North Carolina mountain trout. Jack Frost Dairy Bar in Marion is the place to chill with a cone or shake. They’ve been making their own ice cream since the 1950s.

Soaking up the scenery is high on everyone’s list. Cycling or driving Highway 126, which circles Lake James, is a popular way to take it in. If you’ve got the wheels for dirt-roading it, detour onto Old NC 105 for the best views of Linville Gorge and the falls. Lake James State Park gives you access to a swimming area, plus gentle hiking trails that lead to more amazing views. Or enjoy the vista with a glass of wine in hand; South Creek Vineyards & Winery pours Bordeaux-style wines in a renovated 100-year-old farmhouse with outdoor patios and breathtaking mountain scenery.


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