We have seen the bright blue waters of Lake Fontana many times, but always from a distance. On our recent trip to the Nantahala National Forest, we decided to get a closer look at Western North Carolina’s largest lake. We felt the best way to do this was with a visit to the East Coast’s tallest dam, Fontana Dam.
On one side of Fontana Dam is the Great Smoky Mountains, on the other, the Nantahala National Forest. Cross over the dam, and you’re walking a small piece of the famous 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. It’s a beautiful spot to visit when your are in Western North Carolina.
Brief History on Fontana Dam
Fontana Dam took two years to complete, starting construction in 1942 and finishing in 1944. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built the dam to support the WWII effort. It supplied power to the Oakridge, TN Nuclear Facility.
Building Fontana Dam also helped alleviate seasonal flooding in the Tennessee River Valley. However, the creation of the beautiful Lake Fontana displaced residents in towns like Judson & Proctor.
Though Proctor is practically demolished, Judson lies below Lake Fontana, peaking out every few years when TVA drains the lake.
Visiting Fontana Dam
Typically, the Visitor Center is open April through the last Sunday in October. Not surprisingly, the center was closed for our August 2020 visit due to Covid restrictions.
Though we missed out on the indoor informational displays (and clean restrooms), we could still access the panoramic observation tower on top of the Visitor Center.
It’s worth noting, there are no public tours inside Fontana Dam, even when the center is open. So, though the center was closed, it didn’t make a huge difference to our experience. Plus, there are some informational plaques outside.
Walk, Ride or Drive Over Fontana Dam
Next, we headed to the top of the dam. Immediately, we noticed the gigantic spillway and gates. When water is released through these large concrete tunnels, it travels at a velocity of 95 miles per hour.
To minimize erosion at the base of the dam, two concrete aprons intercept the water. This forces the water into the air at about 150 feet, and crashes into the Little Tennessee River about 400 feet downstream.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the Appalachian Trail actually crosses right over the dam, and so does the road. Sidewalks on both sides of the road provide great viewing of the giant lifting chains for the spillways.
Driving across the dam takes you to overflow parking on the left. The overflow lot has picnic tables and a nice view over the Fontana Dam basin.
Follow the road around to the right for lovely views over the lake. The road eventually dead ends at parking for the Appalachian Trail and Lakeshore Trail.
Fontana Dam Amenities
In addition to the picnic tables in the overflow lot, just before crossing the dam is the Group Pavilion. What an amazing place to have a picnic. It’s also just a lovely spot to catch a final view before leaving the area.
If you’re at the dam to do the Appalachian Trail, you’ve probably heard of the “Fontana Hilton.” Just a little further back from the dam’s entrance, this small shelter has restrooms, hot showers, a phone charging station, and gorgeous views.
What Else is There to do at Lake Fontana?
Of course, water activities are by far the most popular thing to do at Lake Fontana. Nearby, the Fontana Village Resort Marina rents pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards. They also put on a scenic cruise.
Though not on Lake Fontana, just the other side of Fontana Dam is the Lewellyn Branch Boat Launch. This launch site gives access to the Cheoah, and lovely views of the area.
Most of the lake is within the Great Smoky Mountains, or Natahala National Forest, so the lake has few commercial activities. The town of Almond has the most recreational access, such as boat rentals. Plus, it has the only day use and swimming area we are aware of, Fingerlake Day Use Area.
Where to Stay Near Lake Fontana?
A favorite in the area is the Historic Tapoco Lodge with unique and spacious rooms, in a beautiful setting.
Other nearby accommodations are mainly vacation homes, like the Fontana Lakeview Escape Home. Lake view homes are popular, though they can be pricey.
For anyone craving some mountain views, the Secluded Nantahala Forest Refuge can’t be beat. The beauty of a location like this is being able to catch the sunrise and sunset each day, right where you are staying.