20180207-Virginia-Abingdon-South Holston Lake

The Complete Guide to Water Sports on South Holston Lake

Lakes are scarce in the Old Dominion state, making watery expanses like Southwest Virginia’s South Holston Lake particularly precious. Spreading along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the 7,850-acre lake is shared by Virginia and Tennessee, and is easily accessible from towns throughout Southwest Virginia, including Abingdonand Bristol. Besides being among Virginia’s more sizeable reservoirs, South Holston Lake is also one of the most picturesque. Almost two-thirds of the lake is fringed by the Cherokee National Forest, providing boaters and paddlers a serene natural backdrop. South Holston Lake is also a hotspot for wildlife, from rare songbirds to largemouth bass. There are plenty of ways to enjoy stunning South Holston Lake, so here’s the complete guide to recreational opportunities on the water.


Peppered with intriguing islands, secluded coves, and expansive stretches of forest-fringed shoreline, South Holston Lake gives kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddleboarders plenty to explore. Besides the scenic backdrop, the lake is also a hotspot for wildlife. Paddlers have the chance to spot wood ducks floating on the surface of water, cautious green heron wading in the shallows, and bald eagles soaring overhead. Beyond the birds, the lake also supports plenty of other wildlife to keep perceptive paddlers entertained, including northern water snakes, turtles, and muskrats.

Recreational paddlers headed for South Holston Lake have plenty of options for hitting the water, including the Washington County Park in Abingdon. Two public boat launches are operated by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), and visiting paddlers can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards at the Sportsmans Marina in Abingdon. Kayakers still itching for a little moving water can also explore the nearby North Fork of the Holston River, a hotspot for smallmouth bass. The Mendota, Virginia, based outfitter Adventure Mendota rents kayak for self-guided paddling trips on the North Fork of the Holston, and offers shuttle services.


There’s something especially restorative about swimming in a pristine mountain lake. For sun-worshippers in search of a perfect spot for a swim, there’s the Jacob’s Creek Recreation Area. Spread over a secluded peninsula on the eastern side of the lake in the Cherokee National Forest, the recreation area features a family-friendly swimming area, and a waterside trail perfect for a brief leg-stretcher before hitting the beach. Or turn a day trip to the lake into an overnight excursion and grab one of the recreation area’s 27 campsites.


Nice day to wet a line! #flyfishing #orvis #trout

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South Holston Lake is a big draw for area anglers. The reservoir is loaded with sought after sportfish, including smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, and walleye, in addition to foraging fish, like gizzard shad and alewives. Other alluring species include monstrous channel catfish, common carp, and quillback. Plus, the lake is also stocked with brown, rainbow, and lake trout. Visiting anglers heading to the South Holston Lake can stock up on gear—and get the scoop from locals in the know—at the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon. Anyone hoping to fish the dual-state lake must pick up an annual South Holston Fishing License ($21 per year).

Underwater Adventures

While South Holston Lake has ample acreage for paddlers to explore, there’s also plenty to see beneath the surface. The lake is also a hotspot for local scuba divers, a mountain-framed alternative to the Caribbean. Adventure Diving, based in Bristol, Tennessee, just 20 minutes from South Holston Lake, offers private open-water classes for beginning scuba divers.

Recreational Boating

Relax en este lago en Tennessee…

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Recreational boaters have plenty to explore, including 23.2 river miles of water and 182 miles of shoreline. There are a handful of marinas scattered over the lakeshore in both Virginia and Tennessee offering launch and storage facilities, in addition to daily pontoon rentals. The regional options on the South Holston Lake for boaters in Southwest Virginia include the Sportsmans Marina in Abingdon, Virginia and the Laurel Marina & Yacht Club, the Painter Creek Marina, and the Friendship Resort and Marina in Bristol, Tennessee.

The Lake for Landlubbers

You don’t have to hit the water to enjoy the South Holston Lake region. The Virginia Creeper Trail—a nationally-recognized rail-trail running for 34.3 miles from Abingdon to Whitetop Station—crosses the northernmost fringes of the lake just west of the Alvarado Station. For birders and wildlife enthusiasts, the VDGIF South Holston Birding & Wildlife Trail is a drivable loop with several fauna-loaded stops scattered along the lake.

Practical Information

Just 20 minutes north of South Holston Lake, the historic town of Abingdon is loaded with cultural attractions and lodging options, including the Martha Washington Inn and Spa, which dates back to the early 19th Century. For those who like to sleep under the stars, Abingdon offers the seasonal campground at the Washington County Park. Plus, the town is loaded with post-adventure hangouts, like the Wolf Hills Brewing Company. It’s the perfect basecamp for enjoying any of the outdoor activities in the region as well as spending time on the lake.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Dan Grogan