6 new spots to have fun on the Catawba River

Duke Energy added more places in North Carolina and South Carolina to fish, paddleboard, kayak, camp, swim

New whitewater rapids in Great Falls, S.C., are getting a lot of attention, but five other new places to enjoy the Catawba River and its lakes are also available this season.

Duke Energy and city and county parks departments from the North Carolina foothills to the upstate of South Carolina are opening areas for camping and boating, swimming and fishing, picnicking and paddling.

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The Sun City paddlers club on Great Falls Reservoir in South Carolina.

The new recreation areas are part of the company’s FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) hydro relicensing. “We've been in a big building program for the past five years,” said Christy Churchill, Duke Energy’s project manager. “A lot of the parks we’ve built or renovated have opened or will open very soon.”

The Short Bypass Reach rapids at Great Falls, classified by the paddling community as Class III-IV rapids, are intended for elite paddlers. The less challenging Long Bypass Reach is Class II-III. People use all the sites at their own risk. Flatwater areas are for everyone. Children, seniors, entire families can enjoy them.

The opening of the Nitrolee Access Area in March provided the first public access to Great Falls Reservoir in its 116-year history. Both whitewater and flatwater paddlers use Nitrolee to access Great Falls Reservoir and its whitewater runs, as well as the flatwater area in the reservoir.

A group from Sun City Carolina Lakes, a 55-and-over community on the banks of the Catawba in Indian Land, S.C., recently got out on the flatwater Great Falls Reservoir for an afternoon of paddling. Jack Horan, a Sun City resident, led 10 members of Sun City’s paddlers club, all in kayaks.

Club members are experienced paddlers, and many are used to kayaking whitewater. These days, most of them stick to flatwater and Class I and low Class II rapids, Horan said. Sun City makes it easy for residents to enjoy the water; the club boathouse beside the Catawba is stocked with 75 kayaks and canoes.

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Martin Burbank casts a line at the Bridgewater Fishing Area at Lake James, N.C.

The group put in at the Nitrolee Access Area next to Fishing Creek, which empties into Great Falls Reservoir. They paddled down the western shoreline; stopped to enjoy the forested shorelines along the way; crossed before the Headworks Dam next to the town of Great Falls; turned around and came back up the eastern side to Nitrolee. All told, they paddled 4 miles round-trip.

It was a smooth day on the water. Then again, it would be. Motorboats aren’t allowed where they were paddling. Horan, who’s a hiker, cyclist, paddler and fisherman, pointed out that the reservoir has never – until March – offered watercraft access, which means people have never been able to fish from their boats. He’s eager to be among the first.

Despite its name, Great Falls has not had any falls for some time.

“When Duke Energy opened the Great Falls powerhouse in 1907, it diverted water away from the falls,” Churchill said. “This year, we’ve diverted the water back into the channel for the first time in more than a century. We’re bringing water – and people – back to Great Falls.”  

Horan appreciates that the still-water paddling location at Nitrolee is always open. “Whitewater paddlers have to check release dates,” he said, since flows are on designated days. “Flatwater paddlers can go out on the water anytime.”

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A group of fishermen, including Stacy Deal, Paul Jones and Corbin Jones, at the Corpening Bridge Access Area on Johns River arm of Lake Rhodhiss. At back is tuber Landon Andrews.

Why the building boom?

FERC’s license for hydroelectric plants ensures water quality, water supply, recreation and fish and wildlife habitat get equal consideration along with power generation.

Duke Energy is upgrading 32 recreation sites and building 26 new sites between 2015 and 2035 on reservoirs extending from Lake James in North Carolina to Lake Wateree in South Carolina. Check out the new and future recreation enhancements on the Catawba-Wateree lakes here.

The public had input into the amenities. The campgrounds at Ebenezer Park on Lake Wylie, managed by York County, S.C., are among the first campgrounds Duke Energy built. Stakeholders told the company what users wanted: more non-motorized boat access; more camping; canoe and kayak launches; places to paddle board; and more trails. “And,” Churchill said, “that’s what you’ll find.”  

Great Falls may be the summer’s splashiest addition to lakes along the Catawba, but it’s not the only new (or improved) recreation area in Duke Energy’s portfolio.

The 164-acre Allison Creek Access Area – a joint effort between Duke Energy and York County, is an expansion of an existing site opening in summer 2023. Leased and managed by York County, the site includes RV camping, primitive (tent) camping, trails, a new kayak launch, a playground, fishing pier, boat ramps, two new bathhouses with showers, and picnic shelters. There are 34 RV campsites and 16 primitive campsites where you can pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.

“Some primitive sites have really nice water views,” Churchill said. “The RV sites do not have those spectacular lake views, but it’s because we tried to save as many trees as we possibly could, so there are trees obscuring some views. RV campsites require a flat area for full hookups – water, sewer, power. So, we put them a little farther away from the water. But it’s a pretty quick walk to the lake.”

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Boating at the Lookout Shoals Access Area in North Carolina. The site features two boat ramps and a dock.

Allison Creek is one of the biggest parks on the Catawba-Wateree River, with 306 parking spaces, three boat ramps, a fishing pier, a courtesy dock, 4.1 miles of trails, picnic shelters and picnic tables.

Allison Creek also has historical significance. A historical marker will point out the location of a Revolutionary War-era ironworks that stood on the property.   

The 64-acre South Point Access Area on Lake Wylie has been expanded to include a swimming beach, two fishing piers, trails, picnic shelters, picnic tables, more parking and restrooms. Six boat ramps were already at the site. It’s popular, so make sure to arrive early, Churchill said. When the parking lot is full, access is closed. At capacity, officers will turn people away to manage parking, congestion and safety. There are 105 parking spaces for the swimming beach and picnic area.

The 21-acre Rock Hill Park on Lake Wylie in South Carolina has a new swimming beach and canoe/kayak launch. Operated by the city of Rock Hill, the park also features trails, picnic tables and fishing stations. It’s a smaller site that’s great for swimming and paddling because it’s tucked in a cove and protected from motorized boating, Churchill said.

On North Carolina’s Lake Rhodhiss, Duke Energy expanded the Conley Creek Access Area, which the town of Sawmills manages. Two miles of trails were added, and some parts have views of the lake. The trails weave in and out of an 18-hole disc golf course and lead to Sawmills Veterans Park, which has a playground, ball fields, restrooms, a fishing pier and boat ramp.

Duke Energy is completing Black Bear Access Area on Lake James, N.C., that will be leased by McDowell County. The site includes a large campground and trails connected to the popular Fonta Flora State Trail. Picnic facilities and 38 primitive camping sites were added. It has bathhouses, a fishing pier and a large boat landing, including six ramps and three courtesy docks, which, Churchill said, “are the biggest on Lake James.” It’s expected to open in summer 2023.

Play it safe   

Check conditions on Duke Energy’s Lake View App before heading out. Whether you’re swimming, boating or fishing, Lake View can help keep you informed on lake levels, flow releases, alerts for Catawba-Wateree, Keowee-Toxaway, Pigeon River, Yadkin-Pee Dee and the Nantahala areas. Another source of information: Duke Energy’s lake recreation website. The interactive map has information for each access area.

Boats are a big part of summer fun. They can also pose safety risks. Learn about water safety on Duke Energy’s website. Officer Sampson Parker with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission offers these tips.  

  • Always wear your life jacket. The biggest cause of boating fatalities is not wearing a life jacket, Parker said. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law. North Carolina requires anyone younger than 13 to wear a personal flotation device (PFD), specifically a life jacket, when on a recreational vessel. In South Carolina, the age is 12. 
  • Don’t overload your vessel. “We see this every year … pontoon boats that have rolled over or capsized because they’re overloaded,” Parker said. “We’ll see 15 to 20 people on a pontoon that’s designed for 10 or 12." Review the manufacturer's capacity. You could be stopped and fined for reckless or negligent operation for exceeding the limit, particularly if you cause injury or personal property damage.
  • Boating under the influence (BUI) is illegal. “An alcohol concentration of .08 or higher is against the law in North Carolina,” Parker said. “At the very least, you need a sober driver.”
  • Swimming should never be a solo activity. Have someone on shore watching with throw rings ready.
  • Weather and water conditions change quickly. “Know your surroundings,” Parker said. “Check the weather forecast before heading out on your boat. Summer storms, with lightning, can crop up pretty suddenly. Big winds can create big waves and rough conditions.” Additionally, access areas may close before large inflows of water. Check the Lake View app before you head to the lake. 
  • Being in the sun tires you. “Be aware, hydrate and plan ahead,” Parker said. “When on the lake, the sun, wind, noise, vibrations rocking the boat – all these are stressors. Alcohol and drugs intensify their effects. You’re going to tire out faster. A life jacket can protect you when you don’t realize how tired you are.”