Lake James is a picturesque, man-made lake that offers a wide variety of recreation options to visitors of all ages. The 6,812-acre lake boasts 150 miles of shoreline and spans two counties in the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Lake James State Park is divided into two recreation areas — the Catawba River Area on the southern shore, and the larger Paddy’s Creek Area on the northern shore. Both areas feature hiking, fishing and camping, and the Paddy’s Creek Area also offers boating and biking trails.
The lake was created in the early 1900s to provide hydroelectric power for the region, and the area was designated as a state park in 1987.
Be sure to snap a photo of the Paddy’s Creek bridge, a beautiful arched wooden structure that is a great place to catch the sunrise. And look out for bald eagles — the park is home to a year-round population of the majestic birds, including a nesting site that has been in use for more than 10 years.
Things to Do at Lake James
Outdoor adventures at Lake James include activities both on land and on the water.
Hiking & Biking
Lake James State Park has 14 trails, totalling 32.6 miles of hiking and 20 miles of biking access across the park. Kids will love the 0.75-mile Holly Discovery Trail, punctuated with family-friendly activities, and history buffs will appreciate the Overmountain Victory Trail that traces a 2-mile section of the route a patriot militia hiked to the Battle of Kings Mountain, a pivotal battle in the American Revolutionary War.
Many of the bike trails in the Paddy’s Creek Area are perfect for beginner or intermediate riders, with the East and West Wimba Loops providing a greater challenge for more technical bikers.
Along the trail, keep an eye out for native wildflowers such as pink lady slipper, mountain laurel and flame azalea, and for wildlife including box turtles, red salamanders, deer and red foxes.
Visitors are welcome to bring their own boats to Lake James State Park, accessing the water via boat ramps at Hidden Cove (open during park hours, closed in winter) and Canal Bridge (open 24 hours).
Interested in a peaceful paddle on the lake? The park rents canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards from the Paddy’s Creek area from Memorial Day to Labor Day for a small fee.
Cool off on a hot summer day at the Lake James swimming beach. The designated swimming area is open in the park’s Paddy’s Creek Area from May 1 through September 30 with lifeguards on duty. A small per-person fee applies.
The cool mountain rivers that flow into Lake James create the ideal environment for many popular gamefish including largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, white bass, crappie and catfish. Fishing areas are available in both parts of the park, and a N.C. fishing license is required and can be purchased online from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. (Keep the confirmation on your phone in case you need to show it!)
Lake James State Park has three tent-camping areas, each offering a different overnight experience. At the Catawba River Area, 20 walk-in campsites along the shoreline are perfect for campers who travel light, while the 33 drive-in campsites at the Paddy’s River Area are ideal for car camping or visitors with more gear.
Those seeking a more remote experience might enjoy one of 30 paddle-in campsites on the Long Arm Penninsula. These sites can only be accessed by boat and require campers to bring their own water for drinking and washing.
No matter what adventure you find at Lake James State Park, you’re sure to work up an appetite! Bring your picnic to one of several available picnic areas, each featuring tables, grills and waste receptacles, with restrooms nearby. Three large picnic shelters are available by reservation to accommodate large groups.
Planning Your Visit to Lake James
Lake James State Park is located in eastern McDowell County and Burke County, about 8 miles northeast of Marion on NC 126.
The park is open year round (closed Christmas Day) and the day use areas, picnic shelters and trails are free to explore.
A small fee does apply to boat rentals, the swimming beach and campsite reservations — rates and additional information is available on the park’s website.
Find maps, information and knowledgeable park rangers at either park office, plus a gift shop where you can find a souvenir from your day at the lake!
Download a Lake James State Park map here to begin planning your visit.