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

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.

STAY
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.

EAT
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.

DO
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.

STAY
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.

EAT
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.

DO
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.

 

 

Lake Rabun

Price: $$$

Distance from Charlotte: 190 miles, 3 hours

Lakemont, GA Rabun County’s official slogan, “Where spring spends the summer,” should be enticing enough for anyone to hightail it out of Charlotte’s summer heat wave. Add breathtaking mountain scenery with an elegant-yet-rustic feel all within a three-hour drive, and you’ll wonder why you’ve never been here before. Known as an upscale and stylish vacation spot, Lake Rabun offers a wide assortment of typical lake activities, including boating, water skiing, and swimming. But what sets it apart is the eclectic assortment of nearby activities and attractions, including a fabulous farmers market, the Hambidge Center artist retreat, Tiger Mountain Vineyards, and fly-fishing in nearby Batesville.

DON’T MISS: The Wooden Boat ParadeEvery! Fourth of July weekend, rustic wooden boats festively float along the shore of the lake, followed by an evening of fireworks. Fourth of July is the most popular time of year at Lake Rabun; so if you’re thinking about going, don’t think much longer!

STAY
Wine lovers and foodies will fall for Beechwood Inn, known for its chef’s tasting dinners and 3,000-bottle wine cellar. Guests can also indulge in stunning views of Blackrock Mountain. Lake Rabun Hotel and Restaurant sits right on the lake, giving you a front-row seat for all the lake and its surroundings have to offer, including horseback riding, fishing, hiking, and water skiing. Leave the sound machine at home and fall asleep to the lull of a 100-foot waterfall, located right above Sylvan Falls Mill B&B. Wrought iron, brass, and rustic wood come together with 600-thread-count sheets for a past-meets-present escape.

EAT
Executive chef Jamie Allred leads the charge at Lake Rabun Hotel and Restaurant, where he serves up deceptively simple yet elevated fare with a Southern flair. His fried green tomatoes with house-made pimento cheese and bacon-sherry vinaigrette are crowd-pleasers. Sweet tea is to the South what dive-y pizza joints are to small lake towns, and Lake Rabun is no exception. Almost everyone who summers or visits here gets the pizza at Louie’s on the Lake. A local favorite, Clayton Café on Main Street is known for its breakfast. Be sure to try the sweet potato pancakes—or anything on a biscuit!

DO
At Sunburst Stables, choose your own adventure, like the one-hour moonshine still ride. You can also amp things up by adding a zip-line tour to your ride. Boat lovers can take the helm on a pontoon boat from Rabun Boat House just across the street from Lake Rabun Hotel. Enjoy a cruise and pull into the public beach for a swim. Foodies will love perusing the Simply Homegrown Farmers Market, offering locally produced goods of stellar quality, including farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, baked goods, jams and jellies, and milled grains.

 

Lake Oconee

Price: $$$$

Distance from Charlotte: 240 miles, 4 hours

Lake Oconee, GA While history buffs debate the meaning of the word Oconee, most people living near this Georgia lake agree: resorts here are the definition of laidback luxury. Reynolds Plantation—specifically, The Ritz-Carlton Lodge—has made Lake Oconee a top destination for sophisticated relaxation. Along with indulgences such as Frette linens and bath butlers, The Ritz-Carlton spa includes water-themed therapies inspired by the lake. Golf fanatics can choose from five courses, many with lake views. Nearby towns Madison and Greensboro add Southern charm with antebellum homes, art galleries, quaint shops, and restaurants. Then there’s the lake itself, home to eagles and blue herons, with 350 miles of shoreline to explore—at your leisure, of course. 

DON’T MISS: Whether you’re still on the greens, relaxing by the pool, or slow cruising the lake, look west and take in a daily sunset over Lake Oconee.

STAY
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation, with thirty acres of shoreline, golf, and a spa, is the area’s primo destination. For those wanting a lake view with a lower price tag, consider The Lodge On Lake Oconee, a short drive from Reynolds Plantation. Or for luxury away from the waterfront, The James Madison Inn, a boutique hotel in historic downtown Madison, offers all the amenities, plus a spa, with a little less stress on the wallet.

EAT
The Ritz-Carlton’s Linger Longer Steakhouse is ideal for an elegant night out. The food is exceptional, with dessert soufflés as a popular option. For lunch, visit Great Waters Clubhouse at Reynolds Plantation. Enjoy the gorgeous lake views while feasting on the delectable sushi tempura. For casual dining, head to the Silver Moon on Highway 44. Write your name on the chalkboard and wait for a seat. The fish and chips are worth the wait, and the cheese grits might be the best you’ll ever have.

DO
Golf at Reynolds Plantation is world renowned, and there are a total of three resorts with eight courses in the area. Try the Oconee Rain treatment at The Ritz-Carlton spa. It’s a combination of a hot stone massage and a rain shower, with lavender and eucalyptus, inspired by the Creek tribes who once lived on the lake. The most relaxing activity may be a morning light slow cruise on the lake. Pontoon boat rentals are available at all four marinas of Reynolds Plantation.

 

 

Lake Norman

Price: $$$

Distance from Charlotte: 20 miles, 30 minutes

DAVIDSON, NC Although it’s just thirty or so minutes or so from uptown Charlotte, Lake Norman’s massive 32,510 acres of surface area and 520-mile shoreline can make you feel like you’re a world away. In fact, as soon as you hit Exit 25 on Interstate 77, everything seems to slow down a bit and take on a vacation-like vibe. Just don’t be fooled by Lake Norman’s reputation for powerboats and party coves. Activities both on and off the lake provide for a range of less high-octane activities, from vibrant farmers markets and lakeside parks to hiking and biking trails and tranquil fishing holes. And don’t forget the quaint Southern charm of nearby downtown Davidson.

DON’T MISS: McGuire Nuclear Station hosts its annual Charlotte Symphony concert on the lake, when hundreds of boaters anchor in the cove and thousands grab a coveted spot on the lawn. This year’s event takes place June 22.

STAY
If your wallet allows, splurge on a waterfront condo. Lake Norman Realty offers units with a private beach, a deck overlooking the lake, and amenities such as a full kitchen. Those with a boat in tow who desire the same amenities should check out the Harborside Villa Rentals. Each condo offers a waterfront view and boat slip on the lake. For a touch more elegance, try the Davidson Village Inn. The eighteen-room European-style bed and breakfast offers coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, and enough charm to ensure that it’s almost always booked.

EAT
You have to check out The Landing in the lower level of the Lake Norman Motel. It may look like a dive before you go in, but it has some of the best ribs in the free world. The Rusty Rudder is always packed, but you don’t really hit this watering hole for the food. It’s more about the “come as you are” attitude that means diners often arrive by boat and wear bathing suits. Boats hang from the ceiling at the North Harbor Club. A little bit pricier, the Club specializes in seafood and features popular lakefront patio seating.

DO
Captain Gus Gustafson’s day and evening guided fishing adventures are a popular family-friendly option. Gus takes pride in helping kids make their first catch and takes people out on the water year round. Grab the rudder yourself and set sail at North Carolina Community Sailing & Rowing. The staff offers lessons and allows qualified boaters to borrow a craft from their Blythe Landing access with an affordable season pass. Just off the lake, check out historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville. You can choose from canoe rentals, an equestrian center, a nature center, tons of hiking trails, and bird shows at the Carolina Raptor Center.

 

Lake Jocassee

Price: $$

Distance from Charlotte: 147 miles, 3 hours

Salem, SC Lake Jocassee is a bit of a hidden gem. With seventy-five miles of shoreline and only one mile or so developed, it’s a mountain lake retreat less than 150 miles away from Charlotte. You’ll hear the word “pristine” a lot when locals describe the lake, which is known as one of the clearest in the South. It’s not uncommon to be able to see loons chasing fish twenty feet under the water. Visitors come here for scuba diving, hiking, swimming, and, most of all, fishing. This is one of the best trout-fishing spots in the state. When the day’s activities are done, you can also take in a little old-time mountain music in a nearby town. But make no mistake about it—this secluded spot is about getting away from it all.

STAY
The idyllic Sunrise Farm Bed and Breakfast rests on ten acres of land that were once part of a late-1800s cotton plantation. Breakfast specialties include a garden vegetable and herb frittata and blueberry buttermilk pancakes. There’s nothing rustic or quaint about the level of luxury you will experience at Salem’s boutique lodge, Three Pines View Inn. Each bungalow boasts a long-range mountain view and its own special features. For example, the Lofty View has a telescope and, you guessed it, a loft. Devils Fork State Park has two campgrounds near the lakeshore. There are also villas (nicely furnished cabins on the lake), which have been recently remodeled.

EAT
Enjoy good home cookin’ at Aunt Sue’s Country Corner off Highway 11. Be sure to save room for ice cream and homemade cobbler. You can walk off lunch or dinner by perusing the surrounding village’s little gift shops. Tommy’s on Main in nearby Walhalla opened last year, earning rave reviews for its pizza. The marinara sauce comes from a 100-year-old family recipe and can be bought by the jar. For cheap and convenient fare, the Jocassee Outdoor Center on Jocassee Lake Road serves up pizza, burgers, hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches, and ice cream.

DO
South Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of scuba diving, but Lake Jocassee is a premier destination for divers of all levels. A unique dive spot by the dam called “The Quarry” features unexpected underwater sights, including a Chinese sailboat and a line of plastic flamingos traipsing across the lake floor. Training and gear are available from nearby Lake Jocassee Dive Shop. Fishermen will also find much to love here. Numerous mountain streams provide the lake with its extremely cold water, allowing it to support species rarely seen in a lake setting this far south. Also, don’t miss the four-hour Lake Waterfall Tour by the Jocassee Outdoor Center. In addition to the waterfalls, keep your eye out for local wildlife such as bald eagles, bears, and wildcats.

 

 

Fontana Lake

Price: $$

Distance from Charlotte: 202 miles, 3 hours, 30 minutes

Fontana Dam, NC Outdoor enthusiasts and thrill seekers need seek no more. Opportunities for adventure abound along the untouched mountainous shoreline of Fontana Lake and its outlying areas, 90 percent of which are owned by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. Kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders will be thrilled by the still waters, while the creeks and rivers that run into the lake make for your own private playground filled with intimate coves and wildlife watching. Splash around the Panther Creek swimming hole, then take a shaded hike past the hole through a canopy of rhododendrons. Don’t forget the mountain biking trails in the Tsali Recreation Area, long considered the top mountain biking destination in the eastern U.S.

DON’T MISS: Nantahala Brewing Company. Stop by the tasting room in downtown Bryson City and kick back with a Depot Street Summer Wheat or a Noon Day IPA.

STAY
The boutique mountain spa at Lakeview at Fontana sits on a wooded hillside with a gorgeous view of Fontana Lake. A guided aromatherapy hike and candlelight yoga will help you blaze a new relaxation trail. Originally a 1920s mountain farmhouse, the Folkestone Inn’s guest rooms have private porches or balconies offering serene, pastoral, or Smoky Mountain views. Organic homegrown herbs and produce provide a nice touch for the two-course breakfast. Fontana Village Resort offers options to those who want to rough it and to those who want to rough it a little less, with rustic tent camping, cabins, suites, and rooms at the Lodge. If you want luxury, this isn’t ideal for you. But it’s loaded with stuff for every member of your family: disc golf, basket weaving, talent shows, hot fudge sundaes, and evening softball games.

EAT
Wind down your day with a glass of wine and a plate of local farmstead cheese in a casual, comfy atmosphere at the Cork & Bean. The strawberry and Nutella crepes are a standout. Pizza by the River is the place to stop for a slice after a day of rafting or paddling. The “shack chic” décor has character with license plates covering the wooden beams and a skull and crossbones flag flanking an American flag, both hanging in view of paddlers coming downstream. The Pourover Pub at Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is a local favorite with its open-air deck that overlooks the river. The eclectic live music lineup runs the spectrum from bluegrass and reggae to funk and punk.

DO
While many great mountain biking trails are available, be sure to ride through the rhododendron thickets on Tsali’s Thompson Loop, followed by a cool-off on the lake/trailside rope swing. You’ll end with a fun, one-mile descent. Stand-up paddle boarding is booming, and you can try your hand with some expert instruction through a half- or full-day clinic at the NOC. Already a paddling pro? Launch at Almond Marina and paddle south one mile to spectacular Bird Falls for your own adventure. Various outfitters including NOC, Endless River Adventures, and Wildwater offer exhilarating whitewater rafting trips on local rivers from the family-friendly Nantahala to the more challenging Class IV Cheoah.

 

Click here for our exclusive Great Lakes Resource Guide including more information and accomodations for travel.

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