Want to cool off this summer in Asheville? Well you have choices... Head to the Outer Banks and its oceanfront beaches 450 miles away (a bit of a drive if you’re short on time), or enjoy sunshine, sandy beaches and a gorgeous natural backdrop at the mountain lakes within an hour or two of Asheville's city center.

All of these lakes allow swimming, most offer boat rentals, and many are staffed with lifeguards from June through August. And you’ll often have direct access to miles and miles of hiking and biking trails. But the best part? These high-elevation lakes tend to run chilly, so you can cool off quickly on a hot summer's day. 

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Young man jump onto summer water during calm sunset
Is there anything better than a sunset swim after a long day of hiking forest trails? © Shutterstock / kovop58

Lake Lure Beach

Best for families

With its waterslide and water park, Lake Lure Beach is a blast for families. About 45 minutes from Asheville in the Hickory Nut Gorge, this artificial lake has a sandy beach, lifeguards and a picnic area. But instead of the ocean and sand dunes as the backdrop, beachgoers gaze upon the forested slopes and granite ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can learn more about the history of the 14-mile gorge – and see landmarks featured in the movie Dirty Dancing – on a guided boat tour (adult/senior/child $18/16/8). It’s easy to combine a Lake Lure beach visit with a trip to Chimney Rock Park, home to a 315ft granite monolith. Enjoy a sweeping view of Lake Lure after climbing 499 steps – or taking the elevator – to the top of the skinny rock.

The beach is open daily from 10am to 5pm from early June through mid-August. From mid-August through early September it’s open on weekends only. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and $8 for children aged 4 to 12 years. Pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are for rent at the marina. 

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Lake James State Park

Best for active travelers

The sandy beach at this vast reservoir 50 miles east of Asheville is a top choice for active beachgoers and groups with varied outdoor interests. Those planning to sunbathe, read and swim can stake a claim on the 700ft-long swimming beach, which is in the Paddy’s Creek Area of the state park. Here you’ll find a bathhouse, concessions, a picnic area and, most of the time, lifeguards. Rent paddleboards, kayaks and canoes from the concession stand (Fri-Sun May-Sep; $10 per hour with 2hr minimum). Beyond the beach, you can hike 25 miles across 14 trails, or hop on your bike and tackle the 15 miles of trails open for mountain biking. As you explore, watch for bald eagles. Anglers can cast a line in various coves for largemouth bass. Fishing license required. There are two boat ramps in the park.The swimming area is open May through September from 10am to 6pm. Admission to the beach and swimming area is $6 for adults and $4 for children 3 to 12 years. Rent paddleboards, kayaks and canoes from the concession stand (Fri-Sun May-Sep; $10 per hour with 2hr min).

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Boats, canoes and kayaks at Pines Recreation Area at Glenville Lake in the southwestern corner of North Carolina
The forested mountains and clear waters of the Pines Recreation Area at Glenville Lake set a pretty scene © Tricia Daniel / Shutterstock

Pines Recreation Area at Glenville Lake

Best for hikers

The beach in front of Lake Glenville at Pines Recreation Area might not be the largest patch of sand you’ve ever encountered, but the forested mountains and clear waters set a pretty scene. It’s also a great place for a low-key introduction to the enormous lake, which is one of the highest-elevation lakes east of the Rocky Mountains. You can swim, sunbathe and picnic here, and it's a pleasant spot for paddleboarding. There’s also a fishing pier. Amenities are handicap accessible. Parking and access are free.

For a hike to gorgeous waterfalls, walk directly across Pine Creek Rd to the High Falls trailhead. This 1.4-mile round-trip hike passes 60ft-high First Falls before reaching 150ft-high High Falls, which tumbles down a series of rocks into a rocky pool. The intensity of the cascade varies based on dam releases by Duke Energy. The recreation area is 65 miles southwest of Asheville and 10 miles south of Cashiers, a fun mountain town. 

Wildcat Lake

Best for cold water swimming

Is Wildcat a lake or an overgrown swimming hole? Opinions about the status of this 13-acre body of water may vary, but if you're ready to flee the heat of Asheville and avoid big-lake busy-ness, this is your spot, Sitting at 3700ft in Banner Elk, Wildcat Lake has a white sand beach, a swimming pier, a fishing dock, lifeguards and cool temps – you might even see a Fraser fir, notable for adorning most households around Christmastime, on your drive-in! Kayaking and canoeing are popular, but no motorized boats are allowed. The lake is stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass and trout. North Carolina state fishing licenses are required. 

There is no admission fee, but the lake is owned by the Edgar Tufts Memorial Association and maintained by the Grandfather Home for Children, and donations are accepted. A bathhouse and picnic tables are available at the adjacent Tufts Memorial Park. The lake is open June through early September but check the website for the specific opening dates. Wildcat Lake is 90 miles northeast of Asheville.

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Kid sliding down the natural rock waterfall at Flat Rock, North Carolina
Sliding Rock Recreation Area is one of the best all-natural water playgrounds near Asheville © UniversalImagesGroup / Getty

Sliding Rock Recreation Area

Best for thrillseekers

You won't find a big sandy beach at Sliding Rock Recreation Area, but it is one of the best all-natural water playgrounds near Asheville. Kids and families converge here to slide down the namesake rock – a thrilling 60ft-long granite waterslide that propels adventurous swimmers into an 8ft-deep pool. With 11,000 gallons of cold water pouring over the rocks every minute, you’re gonna move! If you’re not a fan of cold water, no problem, you can still have fun watching the action from two viewing platforms.

Though located in Pisgah National Forest, the recreation area is managed by Adventure Pisgah. Lifeguards are on duty 9am to 8pm daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day then on weekends through October. Restrooms and changing rooms are open when lifeguards are on-site. Admission is $4. The park gets busiest from noon to 4pm. Try to arrive early or later in the day to nab a parking spot and avoid the crowds. Sliding Rock is about 40 miles southwest of Asheville and seven miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Lake Powhatan

Best for campers

Hardwoods and conifers surround this small lake and its swimming beach in Pisgah National Forest ten miles south of Asheville. Sitting at an elevation of 2200ft, the lake is part of a campground and public recreation area, making it a great choice for campers who want easy access to a beach as well as a quick drive to the city. You can rent boats from June through August. To avoid the introduction of foreign materials into the riparian ecosystem here, no personal watercraft are allowed on the water. Fishing is permitted, so bring your poles.

From the recreation area hikers and mountain bikers can access numerous trails in the adjacent 6000-acre Bent Creek Experimental Forest. The North Carolina Arboretum is about 2.5 miles up the road.

The campground has 75 tent and RV sites April through mid-November. Thirty-nine sites are open from mid-November through March. Canvas glamping tents are also an option. Adventure Pisgah manages the campground and recreation area. The day-use fee per person is $5. The swimming area is open 10am to 8pm daily from June through early September.

You may also like: 
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How to road trip the Southeastern US on a budget
How one first-time hiker conquered the Appalachian Trail

This article was first published September 2021 and updated May 2022

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