Fontana Lake: A SUP destination

The clear watesr of Fontana Lake are a sup paradise

The clear waters of Fontana Lake are a SUP paradise.

1,311 families and 1,047 graves being relocated doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of a place one wants to visit. Some visitors report strange feelings is this area and refuse to go back. However, this area, Lake Fontana, is one the premier SUP destinations in the southeast…. located in Graham and Swain counties in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, the lake borders the Great Smokey Mtn National Park and the Nantahala National Forest. The lake was formed by the creation of the Fontana Dam in the early 40’s to help with the high electric demand during WW2 and is 480 ft. high, the tallest dam in the eastern US. At the time it was built it was the fourth tallest dam in the world and constructed by an army of over 5000 workers. The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the dam. Fontana Lake is fed by the Little Tennessee, Nantahala and Tuckaseegee Rivers as well as many small creeks and springs.  It is 17 miles long, 10,230 acres, has 238 miles of shoreline and is at an elevation of 1,710 ft. When the Fontana Dam was created entire towns were flooded, including; Judson (where buildings can still be seen when the lake is low) Bushnell, Forney and the lumber and copper mining town of Fontana (derived from the Italian word for fountain) located at the mouth of Eagle Creek. Families and graves had to be relocated. Some people report strange feelings is this area. On one of my trips, I felt like something was in the lake and had an almost overwhelming urge to paddle along the shoreline where the water is shallow and the bottom is visible.


SUP possibilities are almost endless with many points for disembarkation. I paddle a Bounce 11’4 h-tct touring SUP, its’ light, fast and stable and the proprietary construction is almost indestructible. I use Werner SUP paddles because of the superior performance and durability. A life vest or pdf is required by law and Astral pdfs are my go to.  They’re a local company that makes a world class product. You need a dry bag for your GPS, food, etc. and another iconic, local company, Watershed dry bags, are the best. These bags are the industry standard, and are used and recommended by the Navy Seals for a reason.  I like to put in on Hipsher Cove RD. off Hwy 19 just below the Capt.T.A. Sandlin Bridge. There is a small parking area and a trailhead down to the lake on the left jus past where the railing stops on Hipsher Cove rd. I always try to paddle into the wind so when I’m tired and ready to head home, the breeze is at my back. I use the Sail Flow App to check wind patterns and plan my route. Be careful though, I recently paddled a 6 mile route and had to fight the wind both ways as wind patterns can rapidly change, especially in the later afternoon.

Fontana Archipelago

Fontana Archipelago is a maze of inlets and mountain tops that form islands

T.A Sandlin Bridge Hwy 19

T.A Sandlin Bridge Hwy 19

Veiw of Fontana Lake from Hipsher Cove Rd.

Veiw of Fontana Lake from Hipsher Cove Rd.

6 mile round trip starting and ending at Hipsher Cove Rd.

6 mile round trip starting and ending at Hipsher Cove Rd.

If you are looking to do a longer point a to b SUP trip there are some great options: Put in just below Big Wesser on the Nantahala River and take out at Hipsher Cove Rd. The trip is a good 7 miles. Be aware there are some shallow class 1-2 rapids on the Nantahala River below Wesser Falls that may need to be scouted before they are negotiated. One option is to kneel or lay on the board in the rapids. You may also want to get more toward the front of the board in shallow rapids. This lifts the back slightly and keeps the fin off the rocks. Be careful not to let the nose go too deep and pearl or hit rocks. If this sounds like too much…just put in farther downstream where the lake meets the river.  If your into longer trips, there is a 20 miler, but again there are some small class 1-2 rapids requiring care and discern. The put in is in Bryson City at the end of  Riverveiw Rd. near the Ingles Grocery store…there is a public launch site. The takeout is Hipsher Cover Rd. off Hwy 19. The first 6 miles of the trip are on the tuckaseegee river. Be sure to check water levels as the river maybe too low or too high to SUP. Twisting, the river gives way to lake, about 10 miles into the paddle the lake takes a hard left turn and winds south through the Fontana Archipelago; a maze of islands and inlets due to a  series of mountain peaks that stick out of the lake.  This series of geographical anomalies makes having a gps is a necessity. The lake coves are littered with house boats and this is the midway point if you want to make it an overnighter. Overnight camping is possible at the Swain County Park and some of the house boats are available through air b and b. When the lake is low, it exposes steep rocky shorelines, and scree fields.  Kudzu (an invasive weed from Japan brought here to prevent erosion on highways) is in abundance. Old Hwy 288 can be seen in places like some Appalachian connector/extension of the Bimini Rd. The water is clear. Trout, bass, walleye and an occasional musky hit the surface of the lake, whilst feeding on the numerous schools of baitfish. Trolling with fishing lures while paddling is a fun diversion. Just make sure the rod is secure to the sup with a good rod holder (there are a few options for this on the internet). Also u can just tie a high test line to the leash plug and drag the lure sans rod…make sure your N.C. fishing license is up to date. A smooth steady paddle pace to keep the lure moving and you’re fishing and working on your forward stroke maintenance at the same time!

Old Hwy 288…Appalachian connector/extension of the bimini Rd.

Old Hwy 288…Appalachian connector/extension of the Bimini Rd.

Purple pin is put in of 20 mile trip and the red pin is the take out at Hipsher Cove Rd.

Purple pin is put in of 20 mile trip and the red pin is the take out at Hipsher Cove Rd.

The purple pin is the put in of the 7 mile section from the Nantahala River to the red pin on Hipsher Cove Rd.

The purple pin is the put in of the 7 mile section from the Nantahala River to the red pin on Hipsher Cove Rd. The road is named after Mike Hipsher, an old school U.S. Wildwater Team member, and kayak legend, he used to park there for flat water workouts and is rumored to have paddled the Grand Canyon of the Colorado more times than anyone.

A visit to the springs on Cold Springs Rd. is a must, it is off hwy 19 on the right traveling west from Bryson City, its 1.5 miles before Hipsher cove rd. the spring itself is located next to the parking lot of the Cold Springs Baptist Church and is a popular spot since time immemorial to collect water. The water is clear, cool and refreshing, it gushes from a metal pipe set in concrete, a five gallon jug can be filled up in about 30 seconds, locals flock there and its’ not uncommon to see people filling and stacking dozens of gallon jugs in truck beds and car trunks.

Cold Springs

Cold Springs Church is the red pin and purple pin is the spring.

Cold Springs

I have lived in this area for over 20 years, and still love exploring the possibilities on water, SUP is my outdoor vehicle of choice.




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