Enjoying the outdoors is easy in Tennessee, given its moderate climate and many scenic lakes. Fishing is a particularly popular sport throughout the state, as its bodies of water both large and small provide outstanding opportunities for anglers to catch bass, walleye, sunfish, crappie and trout. Lakeside campgrounds are packed with families in the summer months when temperatures soar and school is out for the season, but spring and fall are also popular months for sleeping under the stars. With state parks offering RV campsites and cabin rentals through the colder months, even a winter adventure at the lakes isn’t out of the question.
No matter when you visit Tennessee, you can find a lake to suit your vacation desires – whether they involve sunbathing on a sandy beach, renting a pontoon boat or hiking forested lakefront trails. Here’s a look at some of the top lakes in Tennessee.
(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
A 55-mile drive north of Knoxville, Norris Lake – also called Norris Reservoir – is a popular warm-weather vacation destination. Water sports enthusiasts appreciate its 34,000 acres for boating, water skiing, paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking on crystal-clear water in one of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s cleanest lakes. Surrounded by mountains and pristine wilderness, this scenic spot boasts a great variety of fish, including several types of bass. The 800 miles of shoreline and 22 marinas provide plenty of ways to access Norris Lake. Multiple campgrounds also line its shores, including pet-friendly Loyston Point Campground, less than 10 miles north of Andersonville. Pitch a tent or park your RV at one of Loyston Point’s 64 campsites, or book one of three rustic cabins that accommodate up to five people. A sandy swimming beach at the site is free for campers to enjoy or available to daytime visitors for a fee.
Cherokee Lake, also known as Cherokee Reservoir, is about 35 miles northeast of Knoxville. This artificial reservoir was formed by the construction of the Cherokee Dam on the Holston River to produce hydroelectric power during World War II. Today the lake, whose surface spans more than 28,000 acres and whose shoreline stretches across 400 miles, attracts anglers with its plentiful bass, crappie, walleye, sauger and catfish. Panther Creek State Park resides on the lake’s eastern shores, less than 10 miles west of Morristown. Visitors can launch boats, paddleboards and kayaks from the park’s boat ramp, and hiking is a popular pastime here, as the park has more than 30 miles of trails, including Point Lookout Trail, which allows for incredible views of Cherokee Lake and the Cumberland Mountains. Camp at Panther Creek State Park or one of several other campgrounds and RV parks at the lake. If you’re not looking to brave the wilderness overnight, the Hampton Inn Morristown is a budget-friendly lodging option nearby.
Old Hickory Lake
Named for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, whose soldiers gave him the moniker “Old Hickory” for his grit, this reservoir is located on the Cumberland River, with its western end about 15 miles from downtown Nashville. Multiple parks, recreation areas and marinas dot Old Hickory Lake’s 440-mile shoreline, so you’ll have plenty of access points to use for recreation in the 22,000 acres of water. Fishing enthusiasts appreciate the lake’s variety of fish, including crappie, striped bass, catfish and sauger in the winter months, as well as the eight public fishing piers. The lakefront Cedar Creek Campground has 60 RV and tent campsites as well as laundry facilities, hot showers, a swimming beach and a playground. Hyatt Place Nashville/Hendersonville, which offers free breakfast for guests, is less than 15 miles from Old Hickory Beach, a day-use area on the lake that’s great for lounging, picnicking or bird-watching.
Chilhowee Lake, located 40 miles south of Knoxville, forms part of the western boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 10-mile-long lake, which is shaped more like a river, was created by the construction of the Chilhowee Dam on the Little Tennessee River, so it’s also known as Chilhowee Reservoir. Visitors enjoy relaxing at this small, shallow lake (about 1,700 acres at full pool) and consider it a peaceful place to canoe and kayak. The water is generally cool – a friendly habitat for trout, walleye and smallmouth bass. There aren’t many lodging options in this remote part of the state, but less than 20 miles south in Robbinsville, North Carolina, you’ll find Historic Tapoco Lodge. This property set on the Cheoah River offers lodge rooms, suites and cabins, in addition to a riverside restaurant and hiking trails.
About 20 miles west of Chattanooga, close to the borders of both Alabama and Georgia, Nickajack Lake is a reservoir formed by the damming of the Tennessee River. Nickajack Dam’s lock is one of a series along the river that allows commercial barges to make their way up and down the waterway. Nickajack Lake is 46 miles long and part of the scenic Tennessee River Gorge famed for its striking limestone cliffs. You can access the reservoir for boating and fishing at several marinas and boat ramps along its shores. Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge – formerly a shelter for Native Americans and a hideout for river pirates – is located on the south shore of the lake near the junctions of state routes 377 and 156. Endangered gray bats roost at this refuge from April to October, and thousands exit the cave at dusk to feed on the lake’s aquatic insects. You can see the bats from a viewing platform near the cave or paddle out to it in a canoe or kayak. Commercial outfitters also offer guided sunset kayak tours. Hales Bar Marina and Resort is set on Nickajack Lake 15 miles from Chattanooga and offers cabin rentals and RV sites.
Tellico Lake, also known as Tellico Reservoir, is about 30 miles southwest of Knoxville on the Little Tennessee River. On this 16,000-acre lake in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll enjoy your typical water sports, such as boating, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. In particular, this reservoir is known for its abundance of quality-size largemouth bass, but anglers might also fish on Tellico Lake for smallmouth bass, white crappie, bluegill and rainbow trout. Those who like to hike can head to the trails at the Loudon Municipal Park and Fort Loudon State Historic Park, or to East Lakeshore Trail for a popular and scenic route. If golf is your game, you’ll find many championship courses around Tellico Lake. Lakefront communities line its more than 350 miles of shoreline, and the area is popular among those who own second homes, so you’ll find options for vacation rentals here. The Fairfield Inn & Suites Knoxville Lenoir City/I-75 is about 5 miles north of the lake.
While Tennessee’s lakes are largely artificial, formed by the damming of rivers (and thus technically reservoirs), Reelfoot Lake earns the distinction of being created in a completely natural way, when a series of earthquakes rattled the area in the early 1800s. The rumbles were apparently so powerful that the Mississippi River flowed backward, according to folklore, flooding a forest that is today Reelfoot Lake. The tops of cypress trees emerge from the marsh-like lake, and many stumps are found below the surface. This spot is known as a great place for bird-watching, with at least 14 rare bird species found here. It’s not unusual to spy nesting bald eagles, especially in the winter. A visit to Reelfoot Lake State Park is one way to access the lake for not only wildlife viewing, but also fishing and boating. Families can choose from the hiking trails here, and the park offers kayak and canoe rentals. For accommodations, Reelfoot Lake State Park has two different campgrounds: One, set on the south side of the lake about 5 miles from downtown Tiptonville, has 86 campsites, while a smaller campground resides to the north with 14 RV spots with hookups and 10 primitive tent sites. Spacious two- and three-bedroom lakefront cabins are available year-round.
Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake, in the northern part of the state, straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border. This popular vacation destination also known as Dale Hollow Reservoir has 620 miles of shoreline and offers a myriad opportunities for hiking, boating, water skiing, tubing and fishing. Dale Hollow Lake is famed for its smallmouth bass, as the angler who caught the largest one ever – at nearly 12 pounds – owes his 1955 world record to this lake (albeit the Kentucky side). Several area marinas offer pontoon, personal watercraft and boat rentals – even a houseboat that sleeps up to 12 people. Houseboats come with fully equipped kitchens, TVs, air conditioning and bathrooms with showers; some even have clothes dryers and waterslides. But if sleeping on the water isn’t for you, Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park has a 60-room timber lodge as well as cottages and campsites.
In the northeast corner of Tennessee, Watauga Lake sits at nearly 2,000 feet in elevation at full pool amid the Appalachian Mountains and Cherokee National Forest. Much of its shoreline is on protected land, so the reservoir is not heavily developed with vacation homes. Still, Watauga Lake boasts plenty of opportunities for recreation in this remote location with its swimming areas, boat launches and marinas along its more than 100 miles of shoreline. Rat Branch Boat Launch is a popular spot to set off on your watercraft for a day on the lake. On-site at the boat ramp there’s also an accessible fishing pier to catch trout, walleye, bass and more. You can enjoy the peaceful lake scenery at Shook Branch Recreation Area, with its sandy swimming beach alongside picnic tables and grills; another good spot to set up a picnic is Watauga Point Recreation Area, which also offers a hiking trail through the forest. Camping can be found at Cardens Bluff Campground, which has 43 nonelectric sites, primarily for tents. Bee Cliff Cabins in Elizabethton, less than 10 miles from the lake’s southern shore, can accommodate up to 16 people in its fully furnished cabins, which can be reserved in various sizes.
Watts Bar Lake
This large lake between Knoxville and Chattanooga covers nearly 40,000 acres. Its 771 miles of shoreline beckon outdoor enthusiasts with options for boating, fishing, camping, hiking, bird-watching and hunting that make it a great vacation spot year-round. It’s largely located in Roane County, which has a variety of lakefront parks with boat launches, walking trails and fishing spots to catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, as well as crappie, catfish and bluegill. Lakefront campgrounds, RV parks and cabin rentals abound here, but if you’re looking for hotel accommodations, consider the Whitestone Inn, which is set on 50 acres along the lake’s shoreline in Kingston. At this charming bed and breakfast, rooms are situated in various buildings, including a big red barn, a Federal-style farmhouse and even a replica of an old-fashioned schoolhouse, complete with a tower school bell. The elegant dining room serves Southern favorites including buttermilk fried chicken and shrimp and grits.
About 30 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Chickamauga Lake stretches for nearly 60 miles from Watts Bar Dam to Chickamauga Dam. This reservoir is a top place in the United States to fish for record-setting largemouth bass. Other fish found here include smallmouth bass, spotted bass, crappie and bluegill. Its more than 800 miles of shoreline are dotted with spots for boat rentals and public boat launches. Lakeshore Marina, just 11 miles from downtown Chattanooga, rents out pontoon boats, motorboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and personal watercraft. Lakeside camping can be found at Harrison Bay State Park, which has 128 RV sites, as well as a marina with a public boat launch. This park is also a day-use area with a golf course, hiking and biking trails, and more than 100 avian species for birders to seek out. Anglers give rave reviews to Talkin’ Tackle Outfitter and Lodge in Hixson. In addition to a full-service tackle shop, the property has three lodge rooms and a sports court with cornhole and other backyard games, making Talkin’ Tackle an ideal place to gather with like-minded fishing enthusiasts and share stories about the one that got away.
Pickwick Lake stretches for 53 miles south from Pickwick Landing Dam near the community of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, along the Mississippi-Alabama state line to Florence, Alabama. Tennessee’s Pickwick Landing State Park is a great place to enjoy the recreational opportunities the lake offers. The park features a full-service marina, where you can rent pontoon boats, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards; if you have your own boat, you can put it in the water at one of the two public boat launches. You’ll also find a golf course, disc golf course, two easy hiking trails and three public swimming beaches. Bird-watching and fishing are other popular activities that visitors enjoy here. Pickwick Landing State Park also has a lakefront 119-room lodge with a full-service restaurant and swimming pools.
J. Percy Priest Lake
About 10 miles east of Nashville, J. Percy Priest Lake makes for a great day trip from Music City. Whether from a boat or on the lake’s banks, fishing is a popular recreational activity at this reservoir year-round: Anglers toss lines for all types of bass, crappie, sunfish, catfish, bluegill and trout. Multiple marinas have boat launches and rentals for pontoon party boats, ski boats and fishing boats, plus accompanying tubes, wakeboards and water skis. Cook Day Use Area allows you to swim, fish, picnic and hike. For waterfront accommodations around Percy Priest Lake, check out the campgrounds scattered across its 213-mile shoreline. Seven Points Campground has 59 shady campsites plus a boat ramp and swimming beach. If you’re not looking to camp, Comfort Suites on Percy Priest Drive, only half a mile from the water, is one of the closest budget Nashville hotels to the lake.
Kentucky Lake is located in both Kentucky and Tennessee, but despite its name, about two-thirds (more than 100,000 acres) of the reservoir resides in Tennessee. This artificial lake was formed by the damming of the Tennessee River near Gilbertsville, Kentucky, and stretches all the way to Pickwick Landing Dam – nearly to Tennessee’s border with Alabama and Mississippi. Kentucky Lake is known as a prime spot for sport fishing, including for largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, catfish and walleye. Many campgrounds and marinas are located on the west side of the lake, including Buchanan Resort about 15 northeast of the Tennessee town of Paris. Here, you can rent cottages – some are waterfront – or stay in a basic motel room. This full-service resort and marina also has three different campgrounds and offers pontoon, kayak and canoe rentals. One place to access the vast lake on the quieter east side is Cane Creek Marina & Campground, located about 80 miles west of Nashville and featuring boat launches and 60 RV campsites.
The scenic Douglas Lake in eastern Tennessee sits in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, with the south end of the reservoir about 20 miles north of Gatlinburg. Largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie are abundant here. Boat rentals can be found at the multiple marinas around its 555-mile shoreline. Spend the day swimming in Douglas Lake’s open waters and coves or rent a tube or wakeboard for more adventurous fun. If you’re traveling with a big group, consider a multibedroom rental at the lakefront resort Smoky Mountain Villas in Newport. Amenities here include an outdoor infinity pool, boat dock, boat rentals, and complimentary use of kayaks and paddleboards.
Center Hill Lake
In the middle of Tennessee, about 70 miles east of Nashville, beautiful Center Hill Lake has 415 miles of shoreline and borders three state parks. Edgar Evins State Park is a great place to enjoy this reservoir, not only for its fishing and boating opportunities, but also for hiking and bird-watching. The park has 12 miles of trails and hosts wildlife such as owls, bald eagles, hawks, warblers and numerous other birds – as well as nearly 60 species of butterflies. Camping at Edgar Evins State Park features 60 tent and RV campsites that are built into the slopes of the lake. The park’s furnished one-bedroom cabins for rent are not free-standing, as six buildings each house multiple split-level suites with a kitchen, air conditioning and balcony.
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