How to Explore Lake Norman, Charlotte’s Favorite Outdoor Getaway

The spectacular water of Lake Norman offers unparalleled recreational pursuits—and an unusual history.

When the hustle and bustle of Charlotte gets to be too much,  jump on Old Statesville Road and take that farm-lined, winding road to a down-home getaway from city life: Lake Norman. Just far enough from the skyline but close enough to know it’s there, the lake’s a place where life’s a little easier and sunsets a little more serene as long summer days turn into firefly-speckled evenings. 

Dubbed the ‘inland sea of North Carolina,’ Lake Norman is the largest man-made lake in the state with 520 miles of shoreline. Duke Energy created the lake in 1973, and according to the archives at Davidson College, flooded thousands of acres in the process. ‘Under Lake Norman,’ a historical map on Davidson’s website, marks several sites that sit beneath the surface today. Most notably: the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, which claimed the life of General William Lee Davidson, namesake of the town and college.

Many sites, like cemeteries, were moved to new locations while others, like the Beatties Ford Bridge, were demolished. There are however, a few structures that remain untouched under the water—Blythe Family Farm, a two-story farmhouse built in 1848 and Elm Wood (Graham) plantation, a late Georgian-style home built around 1825. Below the lake’s surface, there’s certainly history. Above it, there is a mix of old and new.

Beatties Ford Bridge before Lake Norman was filled in

On the edge of the lake, nearby towns like Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson charm with their historic downtowns dotted with old craftsman homes, soda shops and antique stores.

In historic Davidson (est. 1837), Saturday mornings offer a feast for the senses. Farmers and local purveyors set up shop next to the town’s beloved Summit Coffee, while marketgoers fill their baskets with wildflower bouquets, farm-fresh eggs, collard greens and other goods. Bearded banjo players pick while cyclists sip coffee on the patio and kids run wild and free. Just down the street, lights twinkle on the outdoor patio of Kindred, named one of America’s best new restaurants in 2016 by bon appétit.

In town, there’s nostalgia and charm on every corner, but when it’s summer, there’s no better place to be than on the lake. From sailing and fishing to waterskiing and wakeboarding, there’s an activity for every water enthusiast. One town over from Davidson in Cornelius, Rob Bennett owns and mans the shop at Aloha Paddle and Surf, which rents out paddleboards and kayaks from its waterfront showroom.

“A few years ago, people on the lake didn’t know what SUP (stand up paddleboarding) was,” said Bennett.

Seven years later, his shop is filled with beginners seeking lessons and skilled paddlers returning for self-guided adventures. On full moons, seasoned paddleboarders opt for night tours—LED lights and paddles included. For yogis, there’s anchored SUP yoga classes on calm water by the marina. Bennett, who said he could never live far from the water, is passionate about bringing new experiences like these to the lake. Currently, he’s working on launching Charlotte Cycleboats, a pedal-powered boat that will offer local craft beer tasting cruises, family-friendly history tours and more.

Down the road, Morningstar Marinas offers full or half-day rentals including pontoon boats for cruising and deck boats for tubing and skiing. Though there are several rental marinas around the lake, you don’t have to be on a boat to enjoy a day on the water. Ramsey Creek Park, a public beach that’s open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, has a swimming area, fishing pier, walking trails and more.

Sail away on Lake Norman

Water sports aside, there’s also more to do and see on the land surrounding the lake.

For history buffs, there’s historic Latta Plantation, a circa-1800s home on the site of a gorgeous nature preserve in Huntersville. Guided house tours, farm animals and re-enactments offer a glimpse of North Carolina living in the early to mid-1800s. The nearby historic Rural Hill homestead hosts annual fan-favorites like summer food truck rallies, the Lock Norman Highland Games and the North Carolina Brewers and Music Festival.

And because nothing goes better together than the lake and a cold one, visitors should stop for a drink at the Lake Norman beer and wine trail. Between Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, there are five craft breweries including D9 Brewing, which brews a number of seasonal, small-batch and sour beers.

For wine drinkers, there’s the Lake Norman Cottage, a hidden gem accessible by boat or car. Here you’ll find locals settled into the cottage’s cozy living rooms or waterfront patio while owner Trudi Zangardi mingles with guests, pouring wine and dishing up cheese and fruit plates. Though she’s not a Lake Norman native, her welcoming demeanor and passion for the area says otherwise. Ask her what she loves most about the lake and she’ll give you two good answers: “the weather and the people.”

One good reason to come, and another to stay a while.