Affordable Local Escape
I’m not sure if it’s symptomatic of having a career in sales or just getting old and sick of everything and everyone, but these days I far prefer peace and relative solitude over high energy crowds when it comes to time away from work. Gone are the days I dreamed of vacationing in all-inclusive Mexican resorts or the wild pool parties of Vegas; now an ideal vacation consists of 9-hour sleeps, connecting with nature and zero cell service.
Lucky for me and the rest of the Tri-Ciites we have the perfect location for just such an escape. A weekend camping on Watauga Lake can be as action packed or relaxing as you like, and it’s so affordable it can be done for less than the cost of 1 night in most hotels. So allow me to share my itinerary for an amazing mountain getaway that’s close enough to go out for dinner but secluded enough to hide from your in-laws for a few days.
First you need to secure your accommodations in advance. Carden’s Bluff is a beautiful campground located on the banks and cliffs of Watauga Lake, with 40+ sites that offer firepits, functioning showers and toilets, and gorgeous water views. Because of its ideal location and amenities the spots book well in advance, particularly on holiday weekends, so you need to get online and book right away. There are options for tents as well as RVs and car camping, and each site is only $12 per day! Imagine waking to birds singing each morning, the sun rising over the lake and surrounding mountains, doing a light yoga stretch while you boil water over open fire for a hot French press. No blaring iPhone alarms to jolt you into consciousness, just the gentle stirring of rising with the natural world. I can’t fathom anything more serene.
Once you’re up and going, you’re going to want to take advantage of some activities. Make sure to pack your walking shoes, because this area is right along the Appalachian Trail with plentiful routes for sightseeing, sweating and cooling off. If you’re in the mood to get in a great workout, there is a 9-mile round trip hike just down the way from Shook Branch to Wilbur Dam. If that is too long or strenuous, there’s a much easier 1.1 mile hike from Carden’s Bluff that links up to the AT. You can drive just a few miles away and do the Laurel Falls hike, which will end with an opportunity to wade in and cool your heels next to breathtaking mountain waterfalls. (Please use extreme caution and do not swim in these areas without a life preserver, no matter how calm the water appears to be. There are dangerous currents beneath that can’t be seen from the surface.)
When you’ve had your fill of hiking, you obviously need to enjoy the water. If you just want to unwind and relax, pack a few inflatables and spend the day floating and sunbathing. Shook Branch and Watauga Point offer swimming access where there’s no threat of being mowed over by a passing boat. And speaking of boats, if you want to splurge there are plenty of pontoons available for rent for around $150-$200. Pack your cooler full of snacks and drinks, grab your friends and explore from one end of the lake to the other. Most have tubing capacity as well, so tie up and enjoy the ride! If you want some non-motorized excitement there’s also the option to rent kayaks, canoes and paddleboards at multiple docks ranging from $40-$75. One of my favorite ways to spend a day is exploring all the lagoons, passages and islands by kayak that are too small or shallow for large boats to get through.
Once you’re fully tuckered out from sun and fun, it’s time to retire back at the campground. Make sure you bring plenty of seating, blankets, tiki torches and solar powered string lights when you set up. There’s nothing quite as American as toasting marshmallows and weenies around a campfire, but depending on how much you want to invest in camp gear you can create quite the culinary feast. For me, if I’m only spending a couple of days, I’d like to keep the bear bait to a minimum and just have snack or even grab a couple of pizzas. If you indulge in alcohol you can stock your cooler with locally canned brews or wine from the surrounding wineries. If you or any of your fellow campers are musically inclined you can break out a few instruments, or just power up a Bluetooth speaker and let your favorite tunes set the mood for stargazing. It shouldn’t be tough to fall asleep after a long day of outdoor activities, but the lull of cicadas and frogs won’t hurt. I consider myself more of a “Glamper” than a camper, so I like to make sure my sleep setup is a luxurious as possible, whether it’s in the back of an SUV or a tent. Get a blow-up mattress and sleeping pad, layer on the sheets and soft blankets, bring a few fluffy pillows from home and hang battery powered lanterns from the ceiling of your sleeping quarters. I also highly encourage brining some batter powered fans in case you’re like me and can’t sleep if it’s stuffy.
Far too often we hold ourselves back from taking much-needed “me time” because we tell ourselves it’s too expensive or we don’t have enough time. When you live in one of the most beautiful places in the US, there’s no excuse for not taking advantage of a few days in practically your own backyard. The older I get the more I realize the best things in life really are free and very simple; connecting with nature and disconnecting from digital stressors being at the top of the list. Take a few days to enjoy this beautiful asset to our community with your friends and family!