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Watauga Lake is located on the Watauga and Elk Rivers in northeast Tennessee. The reservoir was created by the TVA in the 1940’s due to persistent flooding in the area. The flood-prone original town of Butler now lies under the lake; the town relocated during the damming work to higher ground near the edge of the lake. An “Old Butler Days” festival is still held to celebrate the lake and the town’s history.

(The following is copied from the Tennessee Valley Website)


At more than 1,900 feet above sea level, Watauga holds the distinction of being the highest reservoir in the Tennessee River system. The reservoir is managed for many uses, including flood damage reduction, power generation, water quality and aquatic ecology.


Surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest and flanked by the Appalachian Mountains, Watauga Reservoir is one of the most scenic in the Tennessee River watershed. It offers access to the Appalachian Trail.


Below Watauga Dam is a wildlife observation area where visitors have a chance to view unique species of wintering waterfowl, including buffleheads, mallards, American black ducks, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaups and other ducks including canvasbacks, redheads and scoters.


Watauga: Facts + Figures


  • Construction of Watauga Dam began in early 1942 but was curtailed later that year in favor of other wartime building efforts. Work resumed in 1946, and the dam was completed in 1948.


  • Watauga Dam is 318 feet high and extends 900 feet across the Watauga River.


  • Watauga Dam is a hydroelectric facility. It has two generating units with a summer net dependable capacity of 63 megawatts. Net dependable capacity is the amount of power a dam can produce on an average day, minus the electricity used by the dam itself.


  • In a year with normal rainfall, the water level in the reservoir varies about 11 feet from summer to winter to provide for seasonal flood storage.


  • Watauga has a flood-storage capacity of 152,800 acre-feet.



It is just under a two hour drive from home to the launching area. We pulled up to the Rat Branch access area at about 11AM for an overnight excursion to check out the lake for a future extended cruise. Old Codger was all excited to see the rats, but they must have been away playing with the cats. We were the only ones launching except for a couple of folks with their kayaks, and soon found that we were to be almost alone on the lake. Just the way we like it. There were hundreds of boats parked in various marinas around the lake though. Maybe some of them actually get away from the dock occasionally. Most of them were ski type boats or pontoon boats, but many were larger cruising sail boats, power boats and house boats. You’ll see a few as we go through the pictures. I wonder how many of these big-uns get used, I once read in a book about small boat cruising that boats are used in an inverse proportion of their size. In words that even I can understand, the bigger they are, the less they are used.

I tried to find a lake map to order on-line, but couldn’t, so we just had navigate with the “fake-it-til-ya-make-it” method. We did ok, but did manage to miss a turn into the upper part of the lake. Guess it’ll still be there when we come back again.

Let’s move on to our “picture essay”.




We chose Rat Branch from the several ramps around the lake as it seemed the most secure to leave the truck and trailer. It’s right on Hwy 321 and fishermen seemed to be around even at night to keep an eye on things. It has a bathroom, although it was closed for maintenance. A crew was pouring new concrete side walks around it. The parking fee is $2.00 per day. You put the cash in an envelope, tear off a tag that you hang on your mirror, and drop the envelope in a deposit box.



This is the Watauga dam. It’s just across the lake from Rat Branch.




This next picture is of the Watauga Point Recreation area just a short way up-lake from the launch area. It’s a beautiful to pic-nic, hike, fish, or just hang out.




The lake has these markers at strategic locations around the lake. If only we had a chart…




There were lots of these guys around the lake. Cormorants. As a kid growing up in Florida, we called them “gooney birds”. They don’t have oil in their feathers like other water birds, so they would have to sit on a piling or branch for awhile with their wings spread so their feathers would dry out. We took great delight in chasing them off of their perch with our boat, and watching them run across the water building up enough speed to take off. We would chase them trying to catch up to them, but never could quite reach them. They would finally give up and dive. Hey, we would never have intentionally run one over, so don’t look at me in that tone of voice! One day, a marine patrol officer gave a ticket to one of my friends who was racing around in a little boat acting crazy. He said the ticket was for “di-dapping”. He said that was what it was called when a water bird would run across the water taking off. Hmmm, sounds like a clever name for a little hydroplane type of boat. “Di-dapper”




One of several marinas around the lake.




These are cozy little cottages right on the water. I don’t know if they are rental units, or if folks own them. Notice the floating tire breakwater across the entrance to the marina.




This sign is pointing to the marina.




I thought this was pretty cool with the trees growing out of the water across to a little island. Old Codger said, “Don’t go through there!” “I’ll break my widdle prop!” He must think I’m pretty dumb. Actually, I DO sometimes go where “no man has gone before”.




These next are just some views as we head down the lake, Mountains are around us on all sides. There are very few houses on the lake.








Just another marina. I like to poke into the dock areas to see the boats. I’m always looking for something unusual. Rarely find it.




There are lots of interesting coves and creeks that we can’t get into. I’m building a little kayak right now that I can tow behind the Codger just to get into these places. It’s a “Happy Hour Fishing Kayak” with plans from Duckworks.




This is the Hwy 67 Bridge that crosses about half way up the lake.




Another one of those interesting creeks that Codger won’t fit into.




Every once in awhile, you can find an interesting boat tucked up into an isolated little cove. A wooden ketch.




Just past the ketch was this cabin perched on “cliff”. It appears to be abandoned. On closer inspection, you can see weeds and vines snaking their way around it.




I couldn’t resist a picture of these houses. There is a wide variety of homes sprinkled here and there around the shore line. Most of the lake is within the Cherokee National Forest. I’ll pop a few more house pictures in as we tour the lake, just to show you the variety.






This little floating “house” was definitely abandoned with a collapsed dock next to it. It was at the end of a cove that was filled with fallen trees and not accessible by boat. Happy Hour sure woulda been nice here.



Another purty house in a great location. The term “location-location-location” certainly fits here. Oh, for y’all new to our stories and posts, “purty” is how we Southern folks say “pretty”.




You pass everything from mobile homes, RVs, home built cabins, on up to million dollar houses as you follow the shoreline.





Even a church overlooking the lake. There’s a large cemetery right next to the church. I wonder if the Pastor has to worry about his flock looking out over the lake and dreaming of that big lunker that got away last time rather than listening to his exhortations. But a peaceful view for the dearly departed as they wait for the final resurrection.




I just thought this was interesting. Great view and the young-uns can jump right off of the railing into deep water.




We’re about to enter where the Watauga River flows into the lake. There’s a bridge to go under and a marina and campground right as you enter the river. Most of the campgrounds only have long term camping.




We went through this forest of stumps poking their heads above the water. Codger whined and complained the whole way. What a wuss! Actually, as we were part way through, we saw another boat coming out over by the other side. Turns out that there is deep water there.




We’re almost at the end where the river flows in.




This one is looking back from where we came in.




The world is on edge here.




Codger wanted to work his way through the rocks and bars to get up to where the river enters the lake. That was surprising as he usually refuses to go into places like this. We were hoping for a water fall, but there is only what is known as a “cascade”. Sure is purty.






Interesting rock formation split by a mud slide as we pass under the bridge on the way back out into the lake.




Back on the main part of the lake. Somehow we got lost here and went into another branch of the lake rather than continuing up the main part. After getting home from the trip, I was able to find a source for a lake map. NEXT time, we’ll know where we’re going. By-the-way, for you salt water types, what y’all call “charts” are called maps for these lakes.




We’re approaching the town of Butler. The original town is buried at the bottom of the lake. Scuba divers have a great time exploring these old towns. Seems like this is very common in all of the larger power generation and flood control lakes here in the Appalachians.






Another big marina.




At about 5pm, we like to settle in for the night in a snug little cove. We listen to big band and doo-wop music and read until we get sleepy. As I was heating my can of  ravioli for supper, these ducks came over begging. One of them would come almost to my fingers as I held out bits of ravioli. They liked it!




I had come almost all the way back to the Rat Branch Access Area to a little protected cove to spend the night. There was a little marina right across from us. I couldn’t resist trying to get a picture of the moon reflecting on the water and the lights of the marina.




Next morning, we were in the clouds. We call this phenomena “smoke on the mountain”.










Before going to the ramp, we continued into the end of the lake. The ramp is just before the end. On the way back to the ramp, we passes the public swimming area. Just beyond this is Rat Branch.




And so ends our short cruise on beautiful Lake Watauga. We’re already making plans to come back. Just gotta save some money for gas for the Red Beast (Our Nissan truck gas-guzzler.) It cost $60 round trip for gas. Old Codger only burned about 4 gallons during the whole cruise.










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Thanks for sharing,  Chick, nice writing - and nice pics as usual. 

I have bought an inflatable kayak meanwhile (sorry - I know, this is a boatbuilding forum - but anyway) in which I was paddling on a small river in northern Germany in our vacation. A cormorant swam before me and dived as I approached. Unfortunately he dived in the same direction as I was paddling. And so he was annoyed to see me even closer when he came to the surface again. This happened 3 or 4 times until he finally surfaced behind me and felt safe.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi Chick, Thank you for the great pics and notes. We hope for similar adventures with Amanda when finished, both in FL and W. NC/E.TN. Trying to "imagine" a small aft porta pot hard or soft "cabin" for her (maybe just a bucket &  sheet to hide under :-). Looking for new NW. NC mt. digs & ideally electric-only lake. R

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Hi Rick. Be sure to get in touch when you're over this way. We can do some boating together. Lotsa lakes over here. some small ones with rules against bigger motors, but don't know of any that are only electric that you can live on. I do know of a couple that don't have houses that are electric only. Many great smaller lakes around that have BIG use fees, both annual and daily. I can't afford to go to those. The bigger lakes are free, or inexpensive to launch. Lake Watauga was $2.00/day. Others are $5.00 if not free.

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i think a CS15 would make a great camp cruiser without the rig. I'd make a removable cuddy for it. Not excited about electric though. Just not enough power or capacity. My little 2.5 hp Zuki would do great. Old Codger is the planing version of the CS15. I wanna go faster than displacement speed.

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1 hour ago, Chick Ludwig said:

i think a CS15 would make a great camp cruiser without the rig. I'd make a removable cuddy for it. Not excited about electric though. Just not enough power or capacity. My little 2.5 hp Zuki would do great. Old Codger is the planing version of the CS15. I wanna go faster than displacement speed.

Great photos and report as usual.... You are on a lake. So buy a bass boat , which lets you go fast.:P But seriously  electric boats have a certain draw about them. They are a step above a sailboat for sure. for older folks their lure increases too, IMHO. But the downside is the requirement for added battery weight if you want any range.  But with the smaller hulls and shorter trips why not just add a pedal prop for those times that you just want to cruise along the shore bank and sip on your wine and eat your brie? Now let me run and get my bag of popcorn.

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