Although it’s one of the more remote lakes in the area, Watauga Lake has a lot to offer – the gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and Cherokee National Forest are just the tip of the iceberg! A thriving vacation industry has created a boom in lodging and dining, with plenty of places to start your Watauga journey, and it all starts with a fascinating story about the lake’s origins in the New Deal.
How a flooding town became one of the best lakes in Tennessee
The original town of Butler was first settled in 1768 as Smith’s Mill. It was named Butler after the Civil War in honor of Union cavalry commander and Congressman Col. Roderick R. Butler of Johnson County.
Frequent flooding in Butler, including seven major floods between 1867 and 1940, convinced the Tennessee Valley Authority to relocate the town to a higher location a few miles away. The Watauga Dam was completed in 1948 and “Old Butler” was submerged under the new man-made Watauga Lake, the remaining buildings still standing – the lake was drawn down in the 1980s, and former residents were still able to see their old homes.
The Butler Bridge was also completed in 1948 to offer a shortcut around the winding roads that surrounded the new lake. The town of Butler on the lake’s shores in Johnson County has a museum honoring Old Butler holds an annual Old Butler Days festival to celebrate “the town that wouldn’t drown.”
Watauga Lake quickly became a hot spot for local fishermen, boaters, and outdoorsmen with its miles of shore in the Cherokee National Forest. The Watauga Point recreation center was added near Hampton, Tennessee to offer a convenient place for Johnson County and Carter County residents to cook out, swim, and launch their boats.
Where to go at Watauga Lake
Business is booming around Watauga Lake – several marinas are available, including Lakeshore, Fish Springs, Bayview Family Campground & Marina, Pioneer Landing, Cove Ridge, and Mallard Cove. There are many public boat ramps available for use as well, including Rat Branch, Sink Mountain, and Little Milligan.
Popular restaurants nearby include the Captain’s Table, a seafood restaurant next to Lakeshore Marina, Shirley’s Home Cooking, a family-style restaurant near Fish Springs Marina, and the Butler Trading Post, an old-fashioned general store and pizzeria near Bayview Marina.
Cabins are available for rent with breathtaking views of the lake and the surrounding Cherokee National Forest. Lakeshore Resort and Marina offers motel units and cabins right on the lake. Private log cabins and cottages are available in secluded mountain areas all around the lake for the perfect weekend getaway.
The newest addition to the area is Watauga Lake Winery, which was opened in 2012. The wine is made from grapes locally grown on 35 acres of farmland near the lake. The winery itself is built in the historic five-room Big Dry Run Elementary School, built in 1952 and closed since some Johnson County schools were consolidated in 1989. The popular winery offers several award-winning red, white, and blush wines, catering, and tours of the production area.
Make your perfect Watauga Lake weekend
The Carefree Boat Club has a fleet right on the water at Lakeshore Marina ready for you to explore the rich history and scenic vistas of one of Tennessee’s most beautiful lakes. Members of the CFB even get a discount at the Captain’s Table restaurant!