North Carolina: Santeetlah Lake, where it all began

Santeetlah Lake, North Carolina

2016 was going to be the year that we really got our act together with canoeing. We put our canoe, Karalius (“King” in Lithuanian), into the Connecticut River in February and didn’t look back. Tony is a high school teacher so any vacation that we take during the school year has to happen during a school break. The first vacation of the year came the first week of April. Creating a list of the things we wanted to get out of the trip was important:

  • We wanted to go somewhere neither of us had ever been.
  • Road tripping south could mean some warmer weather than the typical 40 degree weather we ‘d experience in New England in early April .
  • It had to be a camping trip.
  • Canoeing a lake and camping in one location was preferable, as opposed to canoeing a river and carrying all of your gear to the next day’s location.
  • We wanted to drive.

With all of these things in mind, I started planning. After many evenings, lunch breaks and weekends of searching for amazing lakes in the south I came across Santeetlah Lake in North Carolina; nestled right alongside the Smoky Mountains. We loaded up our VW wagen, propped the canoe on the roof and hit the road on a Saturday morning. I was a ball of nerves since this was our first long distance trip with the canoe on top of the car. The tractor trailer trucks on Highway 81 made the canoe shift and wiggle in the wind. We had to stop every few hours to adjust the straps on the canoe. I couldn’t work up the courage to drive so Tony put in all fifteen hours, getting us to Erwin, Tennessee after 10pm.

Arriving late at night did not seem like a great option for setting up camp, so this stop gave us some rest and an opportunity to set up camp in the sunlight the following day. We stayed in a shed that a couple of beekeepers converted into an apartment on their property.

Erwin, Tennessee

Santeetlah Lake Camping

Early in the morning we made our way into the Smokys and on to Santeetlah Lake. We arrived at the campground at Cheoah Point in the town of Lake Santeetlah. We were the only ones at the campground who were tent camping so we opted for tenting down by the water. Having access to our car, even if it was uphill and a bit of a distance from our campsite, was a major plus. In black bear country, it’s nice to know you have a bear safe place to store your food when you’re sleeping or out on the water.

Sunset dinner. Santeetlah Lake, North Carolina.

Paddling Santeetlah

Santeetlah Lake is pristine, surrounded by Nantahala National Forest. The lake is nearly 2,800 acres of open water. We had two days of canoeing, but still have so much more to explore. You can paddle along the eastern shore just off the campground and admire the houses that sit closely next to one another along the waterfront or cross the lake and paddle north or west to enjoy a more natural experience. The lake has inlets and great areas to tuck away and just enjoy everything that surrounds you.

Santeetlah Lake, North Carolina

We used our Audubon bird call to get the song birds singing along the shoreline, we pulled up on the shore to explore the forest, we traversed the center of the lake as the afternoon winds picked up and we bobbed along with waves crashing against the canoe. The National Forest offers some fantastic primitive campsites along the western shore. We explored a few that are on our list for places to stay when we return. These sites do require you to hike in all of your gear, which will be something to take into serious consideration for the next trip.

Audubon Birdcall. Made in Connecticut!

All in all, Santeetlah Lake is an absolute gem. The conditions are great for beginners and the views are spectacular for paddlers of all skills. However, beginners should avoid the center of the lake, it gets choppy. Since we were camping a bit off season I can’t comment on the boat traffic in summer months. I imagine this is a busy spot for watersports and boating. April was serene.

Next stop:

Pittsfield, Massachusetts for a paddle in the Berkshire Mountains.

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