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.


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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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