Lake James: Emerging nexus of outdoor adventure

Scott Carpenter has a vision that may seem myopic at first. Hear him out, though, and your adventurous self can easily see what he’s talking about.

Hiking: Looking into Linville Gorge from atop Shortoff Mountain.

Carpenter’s vision is this: Lake James, the 6,800-acre lake currently best known as the gateway to other adventurous places (Linville Gorge, Wilson Creek, the Pisgah National Forest) is the next Nantahala Outdoor Center, an all-encompassing outdoor playground that’s day-tripable from North Carolina’s major population centers: Charlotte, the Triad, the Triangle.
Carpenter is Deputy County Manager and Planning Director for Burke County, in which Lake James and its associated state park reside. Burke County, like many mountain counties, is dealing with a changing economy that must figure out how to rely less on manufacturing and more on … .
“Tourism,” answers Carpenter.
The ultimate goal, says Carpenter, is to lure an NOC-type outfitter to the region to help exploit the local recreational resources. Chances are, if you see the Lake James exit on I-40 as little more than a sign that you’re almost to where the fun starts, you’re scratching your head: What can I do at Lake James that doesn’t

Whitewater paddling: Linville River, Linville Gorge. Photo courtesy americanwhitewater.org.

involve a power boat?
A lot, it turns out. And a lot more, if Carpenter and Burke County Commissioner Johnnie Carswell, who shares Carpenter’s vision, get there way.
Currently on Lake James area’s adventure menu:

Climbing: Table Rock in Linville Gorge. Photo courtesy southeastclimbing.com
  • Paddling: flat water. True, Lake James may be best known for it motorboating options, but Carpenter says the lakes numerous fingers snaking into the rugged surrounding terrain makes for great paddling for those in the know.
  • Paddling: whitewater. Though access is a challenge, the Linville River through Linville Gorge, offers some noteworthy whitewater kayaking. (Shortly after exiting the gorge, the river empties into Lake James.)
  • Rock climbing. Linville Gorge, especially the east rim, is a popular spot, and not just in North Carolina: MountainProject.com calls it “a premier climbing destination in the SE.”
  • Hiking. Lake James itself has several miles of hiking trails; Linville Gorge adds another 40 miles (some of it among the most challenging —
    Paddling: Canoes on Lake James. Photo courtesy lakejamesvillage.com

    and rewarding — in the state; an eight-mile run of the Overmountain Victory Trail connects with the state park; and, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail swings by as well.

  • Mountain biking. Earlier this year, Lake James State Park added 15 miles of mountain bike trail in the Paddy’s Creek area, including a four-mile beginner loop (Tindo), and the more aggressive East Wimba and West Wimba loops.

That alone would seem enough to justify a day trip and a dedicated outfitter. But Carpenter and Burke County are hoping to seduce us further with a multiuse trail that would circle the lake. That would mean a trail of between 24 and 27 miles. A trail that would link with the Upper Catawba River Paddle Trail, MST, Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail and the existing trail at Lake James State Park.
How confident is Carpenter that the trail, which still needs an easement or two from private landowners who border the lake and will take about $5 million to build, will become reality?
So confident that a volunteer group has already begun building the trail.
One reason for his confidence is the documented economic impact of recreational tourism elsewhere. The master plan cites two examples:

  • On the Outer Banks, bicycling is estimated to have an annual economic impact of $60 million and 1,407 jobs supported from the 40,800 visitors for whom bicycling was an important reason for choosing to vacation in the area. “The annual return on bicycle facility development in the Outer Banks is approximately nine times higher than the initial investment.”
  • In Damascus, Va., hub of the Virginia Creeper Trail (a 34-mile rails-to-trails project), “locals and non-locals spend approximately $2.5 million annually related to their recreation visits.” (Damascus is also a popular stop on the Appalachian Trail.)

Does Carpenter’s optimism for the project extent to projecting when the Lake James Loop might be complete. It does, as he offers an answer without a moment’s hesitation.
“Within four years,” he says, “it will be done.”

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Learn more about the proposed Lake James Loop Trail and the area in general in Lake James Loop Trail Master Plan, here.

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One thought on “Lake James: Emerging nexus of outdoor adventure”

  1. Tent camping area is marginal. For the car camper the sites are a pain to get to, the camp sites are far too close together, most sites do not allow easy access to the lake. I won’t go back for camping at Lake James again.

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