Lake James State Park – named North Carolina State Park of the Year in 2014 – has been around for less than 30 years but has become one of the state’s most popular. Here’s why:
Once known for a couple of nice trails, some rustic camping and a modest beach, the park really took off in 2010 as new facilities came on line after a six-fold increase in area. Just last year, attendance grew 18 percent.
One major enhancement was Paddy Creek. Here, you’ll find a new swimming area with a 700-foot beach, spacious bathhouses, concessions, canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals and picnic areas. When lifeguards are on duty, you pay $5 to swim ($4 for kids); at other times when the area is open, there is no charge.
Park entry is free, making it especially nice for those who like to hike, picnic, enjoy nature … and as of last summer, mountain bike. Park superintendent Nora Coffey notes that nearly 15 miles of biking trails were added last June and other trails were upgraded. The biking is great, but if you prefer nature up close, the walking trails are great for wildlife, birding, wildflowers and just being outside.
The park’s Catawba River Area offers 20 sites for walk-in camping (two are handicap-accessible). Most are on the water or have water views. Reservations are highly recommended.
Coffey says that this June, a 30-site “boat-in only” camping area should open, offering primitive camping by permit and adds something that’s been requested of the park for many years.
Due to its Foothills elevation and the fact it is man-made from a dam on the Catawba River, the water of Lake James is deep and cool. The result? Really good fishing. Almost a dozen species of fish are here including largemouth bass, walleye, crappie and bluegill. With 150 miles of shoreline, you’re sure to find a quiet spot to dangle a line (N.C. fishing license required).
The park also offers interpretive programs throughout the year, every weekend during summer. Almost all programs are kid-friendly.
Lake James is a special place, perhaps one of the prettiest lakes in the Southeast. And views from it are still relatively pristine. “One of my favorite things about our park is its views,” Coffey said. “From our park, you can see the South Mountains, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and the Linville Gorge. You just can’t beat the views from out here.”
Admission: free. Details: www.ncparks.gov.
Along the way...
Need a change-of-pace in Morganton? Consider The Beanstalk Journey at Catawba Meadows Park. This very large city park offers a number of activities, including disc golf, a greenway trail, playgrounds and a zipline course that caters to all ages. Details: www.thebeanstalkjourney.com.
If you’re hungry/thirsty...
Nearby spots to check out include Elliotts Diner on Nebo School Road, Nebo – 3 miles from Lake James State Park (828-659-5801); it serves American fare. For an Italian option, Roma Restaurant (www.romarestaurantpizzapasta.com), about 4 miles from the park on U.S. 70 East.