Carters Lake

Georgia’s deepest lake welcomes reflection or recreation

Photograph by Jamey Guy

Like just about every other sizable body of water in Georgia, Carters Lake is not a lake but a reservoir. It was created thirty-six years ago, when the Coosawattee River—which had been diverted to permit construction of the largest earthen dam east of the Mississippi—slammed into the dam’s embankment. Today the river that once cut deep into this North Georgia gorge and inspired James Dickey’s Deliverance is submerged, in places, 450 feet beneath the eleven-mile expanse of Georgia’s deepest lake, where anglers fish for spotted bass, walleye, and stripers that grow bigger than my dog.

There is no development permitted on the sixty-three miles of shoreline along Carters Lake, which ensures breathtaking vistas and seclusion that are hard to find anywhere else within a ninety-minute drive from Downtown Atlanta. My family and I rented a house near one of the lake’s only commercial operations, the Carters Lake Marina & Resort, which rents pontoon boats. The marina also has ten cabins with lake views, but we went through KZ Cabins in nearby Ellijay, which rents private homes throughout Gilmer and Gordon counties. Called “Cherokee Overlook,” our cabin offered exactly what KZ promised: creature comforts (five televisions, a pool table, and quick Wi-Fi), quiet (except for the suicidal cardinal that insisted on flying into the downstairs window), and a gorgeous view of the lake below. We had hoped the water would be within walking distance, but it was a long hike down the road to the highway, which we would have had to cross to reach the lake. Indeed, it’s a challenge getting down to the edge. Most of the shoreline falls sharply into the waters. An exception is a small beach at the Harris Branch Recreation Area in the lake’s southeast corner, though it was still closed for the season while we were there.

Carters Lake offers at least four boat-launch sites, and there are numerous fishing guides who will take you out on the water. For landlubbers, there’s also a host of hiking trails around the lake, and the helpful guides at the Carters Lake Visitor Center, just off Highway 136, will happily direct you. (One word of warning: Be sure to prominently display your parking sticker; rangers here are vigilant.) Mountain bikers are in luck around Carters Lake: The top end of the lake boasts a six-mile trail that features both intermediate and advanced stretches.

Hungry? If you haven’t packed enough food for your stay, the dining options are limited. Our first night we doubled back about twenty-five minutes to Bigun’s Barbeque, which we’d passed on Highway 515. Attached to a Chevron, the restaurant gets packed on weekend nights. The brisket was tender, and Bigun’s offers a healthy array of tableside sauces. (The staff was also very understanding of the mess my one-year-old left on the floor.)

We couldn’t leave Carters Lake without dropping by Gilmer County’s first winery, Cartecay Vineyards. East of Ellijay, past dozens of apple orchards, Cartecay offers generous pours at its tasting bar, and you’re welcome to check out the thirteen acres of grapes. The phrase “Georgia wines” has for years been an oxymoron, but Cartecay’s wines, especially the Vidal Blanc, made us stop and go, “Hey, this isn’t bad!” And then buy a bottle. Or was it two?