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June 30, 2023, 12:40 p.m.

8 Ways to Spend a Day at Lake James

Woman on boat on Lake James in Nebo, N.C.

If your dream vacation is a beautiful place to mix outdoor adventures with peaceful relaxation, Lake James State Park in Nebo, NC is your ideal destination. Enjoy hiking, camping, boating, paddling, and biking in the renowned Blue Ridge Mountains and then grab some sunscreen and a good book to enjoy on the pristine beach of Lake James.

The lake is 6,510 acres with 150 miles of shoreline. It was created in the early 1900s when James B. Duke decided to build a reservoir near the Fonta Flora Community to electrify the Piedmont Region of NC. To do so, his company, Duke Power, built dams at the Catawba River, Linville River, and Paddy Creek. In 1987, Lake James State Park was founded and is celebrated today as a premiere recreational setting.


The park is divided into 2 main sections, Catawba River Access and Paddy’s Creek Access. Both areas offer outstanding opportunities for water activities, and boating is definitely a favorite. You can rent motor boats for waterskiing, houseboats for relaxing, water-slide boats for extra fun, and even pontoon boats. Wave runners are also popular with thrill seekers!


Kayaking, paddleboarding, and canoeing are three of the best ways to explore Lake James. Paddlers can go where larger boats cannot, visiting all of the coves and inlets of the numerous small islands dotting the lake. This makes for a very serene and peaceful experience on the water and a very popular opportunity for bird watching. All three can be rented from the concession stand in the Paddy’s Creek area.

Swimmers at Lake James in Nebo, N.C.


With so many boating activities, it’s critical you know where it’s safe to swim. Swimming is limited to the Paddy’s Creek Access where the 700-foot-long sprawl of soft sand invites you to bask in the sun and then cool off in the crisp, clear water.

There is a concession stand for rentals, rest rooms, and snacks. There is a charge of $5 per adult and $4 per child, and lifeguards are usually on duty. But there are also some free swim days, and parking is free.


There is a superb picnic area just off the beach. It has grills and picnic tables, as well as 2 shelters for those needing a little shade.

Hiking the Fonta Flora trail


Lake James Park has some of the best hiking in the region. There is a 26.5-mile trail system with all levels of difficulty.

Hiking on the Paddy’s Creek side includes 22 of the total miles. If you are looking for a short, easy hike, try the 0.7-mile Homestead Trail or the 0.75-mile Holly Discovery Trail. Both are suitable for a family hike.

The Overmountain Victory Trail is a good option for those seeking a longer hike. The entire trail runs for 330 miles across 4 states, but the section that passes through Lake James only covers about 2 miles and it’s not strenuous. This historic trail played a significant part of the Revolutionary War in NC. It’s the route patriot militiamen took to fight the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain after many losses in the Carolinas.

The Catawba River area only has 4.5 miles of trail, but they are some of the most stunning hikes you’ll find. For a longer trek, you’ll want to take the 2.25-mile Fox Den Loop. The Fishing Pier is a short, 0.3-mile hike if you want to do some hiking and still take advantage of the rest of the other activities.

These areas are perfect for a leaf-peeping hike through the changing fall foliage. There is additional hiking trail information in the Biking section below.


The Paddy’s Creek Area boasts 14 miles of biking trails. Different segments of the loop trail range in distance. Both the Upper Tindo Loop and Lower Tindo Loop are exciting 1.4 miles of easy trail. The trails see a high number of hikers and bikers and is a fantastic place to view the wildlife around you.

The Wimba Loops offers more variety with the West Wimba Loop covering 6 miles of more rugged terrain and the South Wimba Trail coming in at an easy 1.4-mile ride.

The crown jewel is the Fonta Flora State Trail. The trail features a loop around Lake James and continues through the Fonta Flora County Park in Burke County. The trail has a natural surface and offers gentle grades and spectacular views of Lake James.

The Fonta Flora name is a tribute to a local settlement of African American sharecroppers who were flooded out of their homes when the Catawba River was dammed. The trail’s iconic symbol is an orange feather inspired by the bald eagle, our national bird. It’s open year-round.

All of these biking trails also welcome hikers.

Aerial view of Lake James in Nebo, N.C.


You have many options for camping at Lake James State Park. There are 33 drive-in camp sites near the beach. They are all outfitted with a fire pit, picnic table and space for a tent. They offer access to potable water and a washhouse with toilets and hot showers. Each allows for 2 vehicles.

You can also choose to walk/backpack into your site. There are 20 of these sites, which also come with a fire pit, picnic table, room for a tent and a washhouse. The backpack campsites offer a fantastic view of the Catawba River shoreline.

For those looking for a truly unique experience, Lake James State Park also has 30 paddle-in campsites on Long Arm Peninsula about a mile away from the beach. You’ll find a fire pit, picnic table, and tent pad at each one.

Firewood can be purchased from the park office for $7 a bundle. Collecting firewood from the park is prohibited.

Bear Creek Marina at Lake James in McDowell County

Dining and Entertainment

Bear Creek Marina in the quaint town of Nebo is a wonderful respite from campfire cooking. Dine on the Fried Catfish Basket or a Buffalo Chicken Pizza at the water’s edge. There is live music regularly and plenty of Karaoke Nights!