Ive wondered about paddling Lake Fontana in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for many years. Every time Ive passed it on the road, I thought it looked like a really nice place to paddle. Unfortunately, the only available time available to my wife and I was the weekend of July 4th, 2006.
We made several calls Park Service to try to get an idea of what to expect for crowds, campsites, permits etc. Detailed information was hard to get. We thought that was a good sign and that the area was probably seldom used. When we talked with a park ranger, we were told that July 4th weekend would be busier than usual but still not too crowded. We were also told that campsites would have to be shared with others but we would have no trouble finding a tent spot. About the only other information we obtained was that the lake is full this time of year and we were given some updated campsite location information since our brand new Trails Illustrated map was out of date.
The first order of business was to drive all the way to Fontana Dam to get our free permit. This was a one hour round trip from our put-in location. With permit in hand, we headed back to the Tsali Recreation Area and launched at the free ramp on the Nantahala River.
Off we went with a full canoe (large cooler, big tent, fishing gear, lawn chairs, etc.). Just as we left the ramp, another canoe came up to the ramp and told us there were a lot of power boats out there.
Although we are avid boaters and have experience with navigation, we found it difficult to find our bearings on the wide and winding river. There are absolutely no markings or signs of any kind until you reach the main body of the lake. On the lake, there is a sign every mile and small markers at the camp sites in the north shore.
The scenery was beautiful in every direction but power boat traffic was very heavy. At any given time, there was an average of 4 or 5 power boats within sight. On the positive side, they were mostly small pontoon boats that didnt make very big wakes. The second most common were bass boats. There were only a few noisy "jet skis" and high powered sport boats. Overall the boat traffic didnt cause a big problem but it would have been nice to have more of a wilderness experience while paddling.
When arriving at our first camp site (which was on an island in the national park), we found several tents, chairs coolers etc and no place to set up our tent. The occupants were no where to be found so we dont know if they had a permit.
We moved on to another site a couple of miles down the lake. Upon arrival, we found another empty tent but were able to walk up a hill about 100 feet to a wide place on the "Lakeshore Trail" and set up there. This turned out to be a very nice site. There was an old cemetery near by and we also took a hike the next morning on the Lakeshore Trail. We stayed there for 2 nights and never saw anyone arrive at the empty tent, nor did we see any hikers other than some volunteer trail workers doing maintenance.
Here are out tips about paddling this area.
In summary, this is a very beautiful place to paddle. The tree covered mountains come right down to the lakes edge and reach up to more than 6000 feet in the center of the park. Still, the area feels like it is "owned" by the locals in power boats and "floating trailers." We do a lot of backpacking in national parks and we were hoping for a peaceful nature experience but this was not what we are used to. Nights were perfect, but during the day, nearly every one of the hundreds of secluded coves contained a boat.
There are several crude marinas on the south side of the lake and the lake fills up with power boats on July 4th weekend. We saw no other canoes more than a mile from the launch ramp. Im sure there are better times to go and I would do it again in slightly cooler weather at a time when there are not so many people on the lake.
FYI: There is talk of building a road along the north shore. If you are thinking about going, go before they start on the road because the lake will be changed forever after that.
Free parking and ramp at Tsali Recreation Area.
Camping also available.
Drinking water at campground.
Old Town Discovery 164 Canoe - Fully Loaded
Free permit required to camp in the National Park.
Trails Illustrated map was out of date and did not show enough details of the shoreline or islands. Get the USGS 7.7 minute quads too.