This "day trip" to Bear Creek Lake was the first day of a three-day 40th anniversary trip to the Great Smoky Mountains to flatwater kayak. It was the first mountain lake excursion for my wife and I, as we live in the Piedmont (central North Carolina) and have only been kayaking for less than two months. All the lakes around us are pretty much plain vanilla man-made reservoirs, though they are nice enough. The idea of getting back to the scenery of the Great Smokies appealed to us, as we spent many wonderful weekends touring the high mountains of southwestern N.C. in our younger days while my wife was attending college there.
Bear Creek Lake is just about as good as it gets, I think. The scenery was everything I had hoped for, with three small but pleasant waterfalls/cascades, one of which was especially captivating. The mountainous shoreline provided beautiful vistas in every direction. Paddling the full length of this lake from the boat access to the far tip where it narrows to end where the creek flows into it is only about 3.5 miles one way, so experienced kayakers could easily explore it fully in a day. Though there were a number of floating docks here, there were very few visible homes to spoil the natural beauty of this place.
We started from the north end (the only boat ramp access) and paddled southeast, following the northeastern shoreline. I regret now that we did not explore the northeast finger or the southwest coves immediately from the ramp, but we'll do that on another trip. We struck out for the center of the lake, exploring the northeast shore and coves, and quickly discovered our first waterfall (I should probably call these cascades) at coordinates N 35.241750 W 083.053761. It was not large by any means, but the shaded cove was refreshing, and the sound of the water trickling was beckoning. There was a profusion of flowering Rhododendron growing out over the shoreline all along the lake (as we discovered was also the case with the other mountain lakes we visited). It made for a pleasant and shaded atmosphere where we could paddle under and through any time we wanted a cool break.
Continuing southeast along the northwestern shoreline we explored cove after cove. The scenery fully met my expectations, if not exceeding them, with a steep shoreline that went almost straight up all along the lake. There was precious little place to haul out for a break anywhere.
Eventually, we came to the lone island on Bear Creek Lake and paddled once around it to check it out. There were no signs posted anywhere to be seen, but there also seemed to be no way to get onto the island itself. The bank was eroded all around it from boat wakes, and even the huge boulder on one side of the island didn't connect to the land in any fashion that you could get from one to the other.
There was, however, a floating dock anchored to the island on the west side, so we decided to try the tricky maneuver of climbing out of a kayak onto the dock. Thankfully there was a ladder which made the task possible. We hauled the kayaks onto the dock and pondered the problem of getting onto the island itself to have a meager picnic lunch. We soon figured out it was possible to step onto a post on the dock just under a tree trunk which leaned out over the dock. With that little boost it was possible to climb onto the base of the trunk and from there scramble up onto the island. This option may or may not be possible at other times, depending on the water level. Higher water would certainly make it easier.
We ate our sandwiches and took in the view from the island while we stretched our legs and enjoyed the shade. It was certainly a great spot to take photos of the surrounding scenery. I suppose it would even be possible to camp here, though I do not know what regulations might apply to this. There was no indication anyone owned the island, and absolutely no signs were present.
As we packed to leave the island, another couple pulled up in a small fishing boat to take a break on the island, and told us to watch for a waterfall off to the north-northeast. Soon we were loaded and headed toward where they had indicated. As we approached, we could see the top of the high waterfall ahead, though it spilled over a cliff some distance back from the lakeshore behind the trees, then flowed toward the lake. Soon enough we came to where it cascaded into the lake.
This second waterfall/cascade was in a cool shaded cove at coordinates N 35.23512 W 083.03762. There were a few floating limbs and a small log blocking our way to get close. I managed to poke and prod the floating limbs enough for them to become untangled and float out of our way. We were then able to paddle right up to the cascade.
After allowing ourselves to be mesmerized for awhile by this pleasant diversion, we finally pulled ourselves away and paddled southeast for about a quarter mile along the narrowing end of the lake. However, a prudent check of the time made it clear that we should head back for the day, since we still wanted to explore the opposite shore of the lake as we made our return trip. We turned back northwest and paddled toward the island again, then on beyond it to explore a deep cove to the south-southwest of the island where we had been told was another waterfall. We soon found this third cascade at coordinates N 35.22384 W 083.04444, which was certainly the most magical of the three.
This waterfall was also accessible so that we could paddle right up to it, although there was a fallen tree trunk farther out the narrow cove which precluded anything larger than a small johnboat from reaching the fall. The atmosphere here was so peaceful, cool and . . . well, magical, for lack of a better word at the moment, we wanted to just float here the rest of the day.
All the rocks here were smothered in rich green moss. I half expected fairies or pixies to come darting out at any moment. We wanted to find a spot to climb out and explore on foot, but there wasn't anywhere we deemed safe enough (for us) to try it here. It appeared we could have made our way around the cascade and back up into the woods to see more of this, if we could only have found a good place to "park". Besides, our time was running short, and we had to settle for just floating and enjoying this wonderfully calming scene for as long as we could. Finally we had to paddle off and leave the sound of rushing water behind us.
We paddled out of the cove and turned northwest, exploring the southwest shoreline as we headed back toward the boat access. The wonderful vistas along the lake were enough to take our minds off the disappointment of having to leave the waterfall behind as we paddled on. We spent seven hours at our usual leisurely pace taking in the majority of Bear Creek Lake and had a great time. We still have parts of this scenic lake yet to explore, and I'm sure we will return.
One small disappointment was the utter lack of wildlife. I spotted one Kingfisher at a distance, and no mammals of any kind except humans. I was pleasantly surprised though, that we were not bothered by mosquitoes or other buzzing distractions. There were, of course, dragonflies and butterflies and fish, and the abundance of Rhododendron in bloom lining much of the shore was a real plus. Being a wildlife photographer (an out-of-control hobby) I really thought there would have been more bird life in particular, but that was not the case. The water was crystal clear and very clean, which I suppose was no surprise, and we saw no liter at all along the shore.
I believe this trip would have fallen into the "perfect" category had there been no motorized boat traffic at all to break the mystical tranquility of Bear Creek Lake. All in all there was very little boat traffic, perhaps a half dozen boats in all, though it only took one inconsiderate boater towing a tube in circles with an aluminum johnboat to detract from the otherwise peaceful solitude and outstanding scenery of Bear Creek Lake. This trip was on a Wednesday of the week before the 4th of July holiday weekend, so I suppose we were lucky there was not more traffic than there was. Despite that, this trip was a truly rewarding experience, not to mention the magic of the waterfalls (cascades) we found. We would both do this again without hesitation. I might consider coming here in late September or early October, after the summer yahoos give up as the water cools down.
This report along with many more photos, maps and Google Earth ".kmz" files can be viewed on my blog at:
The boat ramp parking was spacious and well graveled, but there were no restroom or bathhouse facilities (which I had not expected to find anyway). There was one concrete ramp with floating dock. There was no sandy beach to put in from, though next to the ramp there was a narrow shallow pebbled spot (this will depend greatly on the water level) where we could enter the boats while floating to help avoid scratching them.
No fees or permits required, unless you want to fish.
This lake is stocked, including trout, so I understand you need the "trout" addendum to your license.
Bear Creek Lake is in Jackson County, NC. To reach it from Lake Toxaway, go north on NC 281. From the Sylva/Dillsboro/Cullowhee area take NC 107 south and turn left onto NC 281.
Boat ramp/ kayak put-in location: N 35.243767 W 083.064111
Wildlife Resources Comm./Duke Energy Boating Access, Bear Lake Road (State Road 1137) off NC 281, 4.2 miles south of the intersection of NC 107 and NC 281.
I use Google Earth to map and mark locations and points of interest for my kayaking trips.