Of the 11 lakes that make up the Catawba River chain as it meanders from the mountains of western North Carolina to the midlands of South Carolina, by far the most scenic and the most pristine are the two most western lakes, James and Rhodhiss.
Lake James spreads its 6,510 acres literally at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of its primary feeder streams is the Linville River, which tumbles straight out of the mountains through the rocky chasm known as Linville Gorge.
Lake Rhodhiss is the next lake east with 3,060 acres, not as breathtaking in its beauty but still framed by high bluffs that often offer views of both the Blue Ridge and the Black Mountain chains.
Thanks to the efforts of progressive conservationists and forward-looking lawmakers, large sections of the shorelines of both lakes are protected from development and are instead preserved as state, county, or municipal parks.
Within those parks are hiking trails which offer views of the lakes, the mountains which surround them, and the many types of birds, including bald eagles and herons, who make their homes along the shorelines.
Lakes James State Park, as well as the Fonta Flora Trail which lies outside the park boundaries, are about 90 minutes from Gastonia. Valdese Lakeside Park is about an hour away.
Lake James State Park
This park is actually divided into two sections — the Catawba River area and the Paddy’s Creek area.
If you’re looking for a shorter hike, perhaps one to include younger children or older adults, I highly recommend the Sandy Cliffs/Lake Shore Overlooks Trail which comes in at a little less than three miles, out and back.
This trail, which is located in the Catawba River section, offers outstanding views at the two overlooks of both the lake and the high mountains to the north and the west. Familiar peaks visible from the overlooks include Shortoff, Table Rock, and Hawksbill.
In the Paddy’s Creek section, the Paddy’s Creek Trail and the Mills Creek Trail can be combined for a longer, nearly 5-mile hike that includes lake views from a variety of vantage points.
And, I have never walked this trail without seeing at least a few deer and a wild turkey or two.
Fonta Flora Trail
The still-under construction Fonta Flora Trail at Lakes James is a joint project between the state and the counties of Burke and McDowell.
When completed, the trail will stretch for 29 miles, completely encircling the lake and passing through the state park land. Currently, about nine miles of the trail are open.
My recommendation is the 5-mile stretch from the County Park trailhead to the Linville Access trailhead, both located along N.C. 126.
This trail has a much more remote feel than do the trails at the state park and highlights include views along a quiet cove where birds are often gathered to an absolutely stunning vista from atop a high bluff of the lake and the western mountains.
Valdese Lakeside Park
The town of Valdese, which purchased the 300 park acres adjacent to Lake Rhodhiss from Crescent Resources, the land-holding arm of Duke Energy, just last year, has big plans for the park including bike trails, overlooks, and a disc golf course.
Right now, a few trails are open, of which my favorites are the half-mile Blue Point Trail and the 1.3-mile Greenway Trail.
Blue Point climbs to the top of a bluff and offers a commanding view of the lake while Greenway follows a cove of the lake back to where McGalliard Creek enters the larger body of water.
Herons, geese and ducks often populate this cove and an early morning or late evening walk can also lead to up close encounters with deer and turkey.
I’m not going to risk giving directions to any of these trails. The internet and GPS are far better at that than I am.
But, I can recommend the hiking at all three locations, particularly if you enjoy lakeside views and the opportunity to view a variety of wildlife.
Bill Poteat, whose home in Drexel is just minutes away from these hiking locations, may be reached at 704-869-1855.
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