Watauga Lake, Tennessee:
Insiders' Vacation Guide

Watauga Lake, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest in northeastern Tennessee, enjoys the most stunningly beautiful lake and mountain views in the 'Volunteer State'. Started in 1942 and finally dammed on the last day of 1948, Watauga Lake is the TVA's highest-elevated reservoir in Tennessee. Surrounded by densely forested mountains in the "high country", Watauga Lake sits 1,959 feet above sea level at "full pool" (full summertime elevation). At Watauga Lake, it's usually a few degrees cooler than similar locations closer to sea level.

Watauga's surface covers 10.05 square miles of two mostly-rural Tennessee counties: Johnson County and Carter County. Watauga Lake is accessible only by winding mountain roads. The Appalachian Trail crosses the southwestern tip of Watauga Lake. The lake is located south of Mountain City (Tennessee), west of Boone (North Carolina), east of Elizabethton (Tennessee), southeast of Bristol (Tennessee), southwest of Damascus (Virginia), and northeast of Johnson City (Tennessee).

Watauga Lake at the Harbour in Summer - Photo Copyright 2006 Erin E. Raub Summer Lakeview (see winter lakeview in new tab or window)

Because of its relatively difficult road access, Watauga Lake is lightly touristed. You'll find just one small motel and several seasonal marinas and restaurants with waterviews on its 104.9-mile shoreline. Large-scale lakefront real estate development is limited by Watauga Lake's steep shoreline and by the scarcity of buildable, privately-owned waterfront property.

Click for Hampton, Tennessee Forecast

Part of Watauga Lake covers what was once Butler, Tennessee. Old Butler -- as it is now called -- was a town where Native Americans interacted with white settlers, Daniel Boone stopped to rest, and pioneer families farmed for generations. The TVA's decision to dam the Watauga and Elk Rivers sealed Old Butler's fate: it would soon lie on the bottom of the new reservoir called Watauga Lake.

Instead of watching Old Butler disappear, its citizens relocated their town to higher ground. "New" Butler is located lakeside and is home to the Butler Museum, which preserves the history of life in Old Butler. The museum has exhibits, artifacts, and displays with old quilts, photos of the old downtown, and other reminders of Old Butler. More than just a museum, it takes visitors back to the pre-Watauga Lake days of Old Butler.

Watauga Lake is a man-made reservoir built by the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) for flood prevention, creation of aquatic habitat, and hydropower generation. Recreation and tourism have produced economic and quality-of-life benefits for Watauga's surrounding communities. The TVA began building the Watauga Dam on February 16, 1942. Construction was postponed on December 21, 1942 to divert funds to WWII-related efforts, then resumed again on July 22, 1946. The gates to Watauga Dam finally closed on December 31, 1948 -- and Watauga Lake was born.

Watauga Lake Dam - Photo Copyright 2006 Erin E. Raub The Watauga Lake Dam is an earthen structure -- 331 feet high, 925 feet long, and 1275 feet thick at its base. The dam includes 350 million cubic yards of material. Building Watauga Lake incurred 10,274,559 man hours of labor. One man lost his life during Watauga's construction and 48 others were injured.

In the past, Watauga Lake has been drawn down to the riverbed by the TVA for a visual inspection of the earthen dam, exposing the remains of Old Butler and providing an opportunity to repair docks, stabilize the shoreline, and to add fish-attracting structures. A drawdown is no longer necessary; the submerged portion of the dam can now be viewed with the use of remote controlled vehicles.

Watauga Lake, or Lake Watauga as it is sometimes called, is 16.3 miles long and covers 6,430 acres (10.05 square miles). Its maximum depth at full pool is estimated at 305 feet -- and 265 feet at the dam. According to the TVA's Rerervoir Operations Study (2004), Watauga Lake boasts 104.9 miles of shoreline. Just 47 miles of shoreline are privately owned. Many of those 47 "private" miles are below the 100-year flood plain (1,975 feet above sea level) and can accommodate only temporary structures like RVs and campers. The other 58 miles of shoreline are public land. Most of those 58 are part of Cherokee National Forest and can never be developed, helping Watauga Lake to remain the TVA's most beautiful and pristine mountain-surrounded lake.

Watauga Lake's water level usually drops seasonally by as much as 10 feet to about 1,949 feet above sea level. In times of drought, like 2007-2008, the water level can drop by 20 feet or more. The TVA tries to maintain "full pool" during summer months -- Watauga Lake's peak recreational season. Off-season the water level is typically 1,949 feet above sea level, anticipating spring rains and snow-melt from the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. [For a mobile app that shows water levels, follow the previous link.]

Contrary to often-repeated but unsupported claims, Watauga is not the third cleanest lake in the USA. Watauga Lake's ecological health is rated "good" by the TVA - its third highest recorded rating to date. Several of the TVA's 31 tested reservoirs had higher 2008 TVA ecological health ratings, including Apalachia Reservoir, Blue Ridge Reservoir, Nickajack Reservoir, and Parksville Reservoir. See River Neighbors Newsletter for TVA updates on all of its lakes and rivers. Contact the TVA's Environmental information Center with questions on environmental issues, including Watauga Lake's water quality.

James Mooney, an American anthropologist, said that that the meaning of Watâ'gi (commonly misspelled Watauga, Watoda, Wattoogee, and Whatoga) has been lost (Myths of the Cherokee, 1900). However, there are several conjectured meanings of "Watauga" that you can find online: "beautiful waters", "clear waters", "whispering waters", "running waters", "falling waters", "foaming at the mouth", "village of many springs", "broken waters", "river of plenty", and more. Regardless of its true semantic origins, most visitors agree that Watauga Lake is all of the above.

Watauga Lake Lodging

If you're planning several days' stay at Watauga Lake, here are some "sample" vacation rentals and other lodging options. Full-week vacation rentals are ideal for families or for couples sharing costs. Rates vary by season; summer is "peak season":

Watauga Lake Real Estate

See: Watauga Lake Real Estate at Lakelubbers.com.

Watauga Lake is a beautiful and serene choice for your first or second home. Like any lake, Watauga Lake has its own set of unique factors to consider when you buy real estate.

Watauga Lake View

Watauga lake is nestled amongst the Appalachian Mountains. Most waterfront property is steep. Gently sloping lots are rare. Many homes quite literally sit mountainside. Seasonally changing water levels create a unique challenge for docks on Lake Watauga. Property owners must take special care to float their docks up and down as lake water levels change. You must also be sure that your lake home's waterfront will not be dry when Watauga's water level falls to 10 feet or more below "full pool."

If you decide to buy lakefront real estate at Watauga Lake, be prepared for a challenge. Just 47 of the 106 miles of lakefront shoreline are privately owned, so there are few waterfront homes on the market at any given time. Watauga Lake is large (6,430 acres), but developments are few. Potential buyers have several decisions to make. Do you want your own slice of wooded privacy, or do you prefer a development surrounded by neighbors? Can you drive half an hour for groceries, or do you want closer shopping?

Choose your real estate agent with care. Watauga Lake real estate differs from many other real estate markets. There is a centralized Watauga Lake MLS (Multiple Listing Service), but many homes for sale are not immediately listed on the MLS. Only the seller's agent and his/her real estate company may know that a home is available for sale. Also, many homes at Watauga Lake are listed as "For Sale By Owner" (FSBO); these never appear in the MLS. You should not only choose an agent with whom you feel comfortable and who knows the lake well, but you should regularly scout all neighborhoods that interest you to find newly available FSBO's.

If you want to buy a waterfront or off-water home or lot at Watauga Lake, these real estate companies (alphabetical) recently advertised lake-area homes and lots for sale. Companies in Butler are closest to Watauga Lake:

Watauga Lake Activities - What to Do?

There are many water activities at Watauga Lake: power boating, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, parasailing, water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and wakeboarding. Watauga Lake can be accessed at several public and private boat ramps and marinas for a nominal fee ($5 or less).

Several National Recreational Areas are located on the southern shore of the western arm of Watauga Lake (see: webcam). These Recreational Areas are wonderful places to enjoy the natural beauty of Watauga Lake, share a picnic, camp, and relax. The only public beach at Watauga Lake is located at one of the Recreational Areas. The beach and surrounding area are a great place for a family to spend an afternoon picnicking and playing in the water. A public boat launch ramp at Rat Branch Recreational Area (map) collects a small launch fee on the honor system - and also offers a fishing pier. The more remote Sink Mountain Boat Launch ramp (map) off Lakeview Road - at the northeast corner of the lake - charges no launch fee.

If you enjoy fishing, Watauga Lake stocks Black Crappie, White Crappie, Bluegill, Brown Trout, Lake Trout, Rainbow Trout, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, and Walleye. If you fish at Watauga Lake, please note that a Tennessee State Fishing License is required.

Fishing guides are available at Fish Springs Marina. Joe Bailey specializes in lake trout and rainbow trout: 423-768-2336 or 423-330-8544. Metz Guide Service targets walleye and smallmouth bass: 423-768-0167 or 423-946-7425.

Watauga Lake Dam Visitors Center - Photo Copyright 2006 Erin E. Raub

Off-water you'll enjoy spectacular views and sightseeing opportunities from the many official and unofficial scenic overlooks.

Cherokee National Forest surrounds Watauga Lake and is home to bubbling brooks, hiking trails, waterfalls, and secret spots just waiting to be discovered. Phone: 423-476-9700.

The Appalachian Trail crosses Watauga Lake at the Visitors Center near the Dam. Hikers cannot ask for a better opportunity. Join the Appalachian Trail Conservancy: 304-535-6331.

Dogwood Springs Ranch, located on Highway 67 just 2.4 miles from Butler, offers horseback riding. 1-3 hour trail rides start at $35. Phone: 423-768-2050

Golfers enjoy Red Tail Mountain Golf Club in nearby Mountain City. It offers a par 72, 18-hole mountain course designed by Dan Maples -- with 400 feet of elevation change and beautiful mountain vistas. Packages are available for non-members. Phone: 423-727-7931.

Have you (or your kids) ever been to a drive-in theater? They're vanishing fast, so don't miss this one. Elizabethton's Stateline Drive-In features family-friendly movies at reasonable prices, weekends from April to September. Operating since 1947, the Stateline is located on Highyway 19E South between Elizabethton & Hampton. Holiday weekends include double features. Call for the current schedule: 423-542-5422.

Are you physically fit? Participate in the Watauga Lake Triathlon.

For a directory of local merchants and events, visit Watauga Lake Experience, the Watauga Lake Business Association.

Johnson County's first farm winery, Watauga Lake Winery, is elevated 2,350 feet above sea level and overlooks the lake in the "historic" Dry Run School. Phone: 423-768-0345.

Watauga Lake - Day Trips

Further afield, there's shopping and antiquing in Boone (North Carolina), Johnson City, and Elizabethton. Consider these day trips. Drive times are estimated from the center of Butler:

Watauga Lake - More To Do Nearby

Watauga Lake Restaurants

Looking for Watauga Lake restaurants? You'll find seasonal restaurants with lakeviews, plus a few more within 5 miles of Watauga Lake's 106-mile shoreline. You'll find many more in the nearby towns of Mountain City, Elizabethton, Johnson City, and Boone. Near the lake, most restaurants close or reduce their hours after the peak summer season. Some are open weekends-only. $=Least Expensive, $$$$=Most Expensive. $ ratings are relative to other restaurants near Watauga Lake.

Watauga Lake Restaurants - Lakefront & Lakeview

Watauga Lake Restaurants - Off-Water

Watauga Lake Restaurants - Nearby Towns

Watauga Lake Boating & Marinas

When you boat at Watauga Lake, please be careful and courteous. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is an excellent source of information about safe boating.

Boating Courtesy and Safety

Watauga Lake Marinas with Boat Gas

To gas up your boat while cruising Watauga Lake, here's where to go. Call each marina for hours, directions, and current gas prices. Some marinas are seasonal.

Watauga Lake Boat Rentals

Boat Rentals are available at most of the marinas listed above.

In 2013, Carefree Boat Club arrived at Lakeshore Marina on Watauga Lake with an alternative to renting. They offer shared boat ownership that enables you to have access to a boat without buying it. There's an initiation fee plus a monthly fee that provides access to a boat when you need it - at Watauga and about two dozen other lakes.

Watauga Lake - How to Get Here

Watauga Lake (map) is located in the northeast corner of Tennessee, 45 miles south of the Tennessee/Virginia border and 10 miles west of the Tennessee/North Carolina Border.

The directions below will take you to the SR-67 bridge that crosses Watauga Lake. The town of Butler TN is located 2 miles north of that bridge; Butler is the only town located on Watauga Lake. The roads near Watauga Lake are mountainous, winding roads. Expect sharp curves (many are unmarked) and drive slowly.

After you arrive at Watauga Lake, visit any marina to buy a detailed, waterproof map of the lake for about $8. If you plan to explore the lake, these maps will help you to find the local roads that lead to Watauga Lake's many coves.

Watauga Lake Driving Directions from Virginia I-81

Travel south on I-81 in Virginia to Exit 29 (SR-91 exit at Glade Spring VA). At the bottom of the ramp, turn left onto SR-91 south. Follow SR-91 south approx. 15 miles to the Tennessee border, near Damascus VA. Continue on SR-91 approx. 12 more miles to Mountain City TN, where SR-91 turns right (West Main Street) and becomes SR-67. Follow SR-67 approx. 18 miles, past the town of Butler, to the bridge that crosses Watauga Lake. This mountainous, winding route is very secenic, especially near the Virginia/Tennessee border. It should take you 60-70 minutes to reach Watauga Lake after you leave I-81 at Exit 29.

Watauga Lake Driving Directions from Boone NC

Leaving Boone NC, travel west on US-321/US-421 for approx. 5 miles, until the two highways separate. Turn left onto US-321, then travel west for approx. 11 miles to the Tennessee border. Continue approx. 12.5 miles west on US-321 until you reach SR-67. Turn right onto SR-67, and follow SR-67 north about 1/2 mile to the bridge that crosses Watauga Lake. This route is mountainous, very scenic, and includes many sharp turns. It should take you 40-50 minutes to reach Watauga Lake after you leave Boone NC.

Johnson County Airport (near Watauga Lake) - Photo Copyright 2006 Erin Raub

Johnson County Airport

If you fly a small plane, you can land it at General Aviation Airport 6A4, the Johnson County Airport in Mountain City, Tennessee. It's about 12 miles north of Watauga Lake, with an elevation of 2240 feet and a runway that's 4498' x 75'. They sell 100 low lead and Jet A fuel. Enterprise Rent-a-Car is on-site.

Contact: Bob & Cindy Johnson, Doe Mountain Aviation LLC, 611 Airport Rd., Mountain City, TN 37683. Phone: 423-727-1223.

Watauga Lake - How Far?

The distances shown below are measured, using Google Maps, from the SR-67 bridge that crosses Watauga Lake. Shorter routes may be available.

About this Watauga Lake Webpage

This webpage was first developed by Brian Raub and Erin Raub. It is updated regularly by Brian and Lisa Raub, frequent vacationers and friends of Watauga Lake.

All text is Copyright © 2006-2014 Brian Raub and Raub's Internet for Business LLC. All rights reserved.

Photos are Copyright © 2006-2014 Erin Raub, Brian Raub, and Raub's Internet for Business LLC. All rights reserved.

Raub's Internet for Business LLC also owns and operates:

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Website Created Sep/29/2006; Last Updated Mar/5/2014.