Lake James State Park is a popular locale for lakeside picnics, family reunions, and days spent splashing around the swim beach. Most summer weekends see crowds filling every available table and stretch of sand. But there’s much more to this outdoorsy spot than grilling and chilling. Butter-smooth singletrack and pleasant hiking trails wind through dense forest, while several boat launches provide easy access to the lake’s tree-lined coves. On the horizon, distant mountains frame incredible sunsets.
In the shadow of such iconic outdoor destinations as South Mountain State Park and the Tsali Recreation area, these adventurous amenities are often overlooked by Charlotte locals. But Lake James State Park deserves a regular rotation spot on your outdoor adventure calendar. Here, just a few reasons why.
1. The basics done right
Lake James State Park is located just past Morganton, NC, about an hour-and-a-half from Uptown Charlotte. As the name suggests, the park is built on the shores of the Lake James Reservoir and is broken up into two main sections: Paddy’s Creek and The Catawba River Areas. Paddy’s Creek is where most of the action can be found. The mountain bike trail system and the longest hiking trails run through the woods here. The largest camping area, ranger station, and swim beach are also in this section of the park.
The Catawba River Area has a few miles of hiking trails, a boat launch, great fishing spots, and bathrooms. In addition, the park maintains two other boat ramps at Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge. Both have bathrooms, are easily accessible from highway 126, and are located in between Paddy’s Creek and the Catawba River sections of the park.
2. Awesome mountain bike trails (especially if you’re a fan of flow)
Lake James State Park is situated along the western edge of the Carolina Piedmont, where rolling hills tumble low and elevation changes are more subtle. That geography doesn’t water down the trail system at the park, however. Plenty of leg-pumping inclines keep things interesting, and thanks to an ultra flowy design, the rides down are fast and fun.
Other than the effort it takes to climb the hills, there’s nothing too technical in the 15-mile trail system at Lake James. Due to their relatively flat course, the Upper and Lower Tindo Loops (1.4 miles each) are the easiest and a great option for beginners.
Even though the West and East Wimba loops offer a progressively more challenging route, their lack of serious technical features make them rideable by anyone comfortable on a mountain bike. For experienced riders, however, they can be among the fastest trails in North Carolina. Coming from the parking lot, the 6-mile West Wimba Loop is first. The East Wimba loop connects at about halfway through its western counterpart for an additional 4.4 miles of even hillier terrain. Expect tons of rollers, a few berms, and a surprising escape that can feel like you're deep in an ancient forest.
The vast majority of the park’s visitors stick close to the lakeshore, so even on the busiest days these trails stay wide open. Access the trail from the second parking lot on the left as you enter the park. There is a kiosk and printed maps as well as a basic toilet and a changing area at the trailhead. For water and more modern bathrooms, continue on the park road to the main visitor center.
3. Historic hiking
You won’t find high altitude views or thundering cascades along the hiking trails at Lake James State Park. Instead, a dozen miles of pleasant walking under shady tree cover, sweeping lake vistas, and a stretch of trail with significant historical implications all await.
The 4.5 miles of hiking trails in the Catawba River Area of the park provide some of the best views of the lake. Both the Sandy Cliff and Lake Channel overlooks are worth the short trek to gain a higher perspective of Lake James.
The trails in the Paddy’s Creek Area offer more distance and variety. The longest in the park is the Mill’s Creek Trail. This rolling path meanders through a thick canopy of forest, offering a bit of protection from the searing heat of a summer afternoon. Several lake views along the way add interest to the hike.
Walk in the path of patriots past with a stroll on the Over Mountain Victory Trail. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers from all over the southeast mustered at different points along the OMVT, followed Loyalist forces, and eventually won an important early battle at Kings Mountain in South Carolina. Two miles of this historical trail travel through Lake James State Park.
Trails in the Catawba River Area are easily accessed from the main parking area, which also has bathrooms and picnic facilities. In the Paddy’s Creek Area, the mountain bike parking lot also serves as a convenient starting point for hiking exploration.
4. Prime opportunities for paddling
After a steamy morning hike or sweaty ride on the trails, the cool waters of Lake James are extra inviting. Watch for hawks, osprey, and even eagles that soar over the lake looking for their next meal, then tuck into a secluded cove for some fishing or just relaxing under abundant shade trees.
The park offers canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard rentals from the boat launch in the Paddy’s Creek Area for $5 an hour. Plan to get your rental as soon as they open, as demand is high, especially in the summer.
There are no bad boat launches at Lake James—the entire lake is beautiful and worth exploring. But if you have your own boat, you can avoid the crowds and head to one of the lesser used put-ins. For a more secluded expedition, Emilee Syrewicze, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeepers, suggests the Linville Access. This boat launch is located approximately eight miles northeast of the Paddy’s Creek Area on Highway 126. It has plenty of parking and an island perfect for exploring just off the launch site.
For an extra special immersion into the park, pack the ‘yak or canoe and stay at one of the paddle-up campsites. There are 22 sites situated on a peninsula in the northeast part of the park that are only accessible by boat. Sites have no modern amenities, but when you’re looking for a natural escape from life’s hectic pace, that can be a blessing.
5. A centennial celebration
The North Carolina State Park System turns 100 years old this year, and a centennial event will take place September 17 at the Catawba Riverfest . Rangers will lead informative hikes through the forested trails and the park will offer free mountain bike, kayak, and canoe demos. The action kicks off with a triathlon, followed by food and music all day long. If you’d like to explore the park with the help of the experts who know it best, this is a great opportunity to take advantage of that insider knowledge.
6. Fantastic food and beer options nearby
The ever-growing town of Morganton is just a few minutes from the shores of Lake James, where several excellent food and beer options dot the walkable downtown. Catawba Brewing Company consistently turns out some of the best beers in the western Carolina brew scene: The White Zombie white ale and Farmer Ted cream ale are widespread favorites, and they turn out best-in-class porters and stouts, too. Conveniently located right around the corner from Catawba Brewing is the delightful Wysteria Gastropub, whose menu features hearty half-pound burgers with creative toppings and farm-to-table takes on Southern favorites. An extensive craft and imported beer selection rounds out the experience.
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.