The Legend Of Atagahi – A Hidden Lake In The Smoky Mountains

a pinkish purple lake

Legend states that Atagahi Lake was shallow, purple, and fed by mountain springs (AI-generated image)

According to Cherokee legend, the enchanted lake only reveals itself to those who are pure of heart

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is dotted with well-preserved conclaves of cabins and barns. And the occasional mill or silo. Places like Cades Cove or Greenbrier or Roaring Fork serve as reminders of life in the mountains in the decades leading up to the formation of the park. And as we walk through these places, running our hands along the rough-hewn wood, feeling the planks creaking beneath our feet and feeling the crisp breath of a breeze blowing through, we try to imagine ourselves living in such a time and such a place. 

But it is impossible for most of us. It was so long ago, we tell ourselves. And yet it wasn’t that long ago. We’ve been fooled by the acceleration of technology, by the quickened march of time over the last century and a half. We lie to ourselves and pretend the first European settler in the Cove is ancient history. But it’s not. 

John Oliver and his wife only arrived in the Cove in 1818. John Oliver passed away in 1864. His wife Lurena in 1888. Their youngest child lived until 1912. Their longest-living grandchild lived to 1960 – moving us through two World Wars and Korea into Vietnam. Therefore, John Oliver had a grandchild who lived almost long enough to see the moon landing. Their great-grandchild – Rutha Mae Ramsey O’Daniel – lived until 2010. That’s four generations of a family that carries us from horse and wagon over the mountains to the iPhone

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The Cherokees believed that the lake would only reveal itself to the pure of heart (AI generated image)
The Cherokees believed that the lake would only reveal itself to the pure of heart (AI-generated image)

The Cherokee legend of Atagahi

There is so much more to the history of the mountains. And we only brush the surface. The truth is, the great story of the true people of the mountains goes under-told, underrepresented and often misunderstood. It goes back eons and is truly ancient. It’s preserved in the stories of the people called the Cherokee by the settlers who arrived in the mountains not that long ago. 

The Cherokee – like the other peoples of the world – examined the world around them and over time developed traditions and folklore that explained the world and their people’s great place within it. One such story is that of Atagahi (Atagâ’hï), the secret lake. Atagahi, which means Gall Place, is a legendary hidden lake deep in the high mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. It cannot be seen unless the proper preparations are made. Fish and fowl in this paradise teeming with wildlife are not to be hunted or disturbed in any way. And only a select few are allowed to see the lake.

Those seeking Atagahi should fast and pray, heightening their spiritual development. A seeker can only be led there by the sound of the wings of the fowl and birds flying by. If someone finds the right spot but hasn’t followed the sound, they will find only a dry mudflat and not be blessed with seeing the sacred waters.

Lore says the lake has revealed itself to a select few (AI generated imaga)
Few are said to have seen the enchanted lake (AI-generated image)

Stories of those who found the lake

One of the Cherokee stories involved a young brave who seeks the secret lake but not to hunt or fish. He is granted access and marks the spot with a pile of rocks. That winter things turn rough for his people who are starving. Reluctantly, he returns to Atagahi and shoots a bear with his arrow. The bear falls into the waters and emerges unharmed, telling the brave he has violated his sacred oath. 

Another story involves a young brave named Utani, who is admiring his new knife gleaming in the sun when his sister’s shadow gets in the way. He commands his older sister, Netani, to move, which she does but wants to know why. Utani, not wanting to admit he was enthralled with the glint of his knife, tells his sister the sun is sending him a message about the way to find Atagahi. Netani is excited and wants to find the secret lake. But Utani refuses to admit his lie and leads his sister into the forest. After a long hike, the two are tired and hungry. The sister asks to go back and try again the next day. Utani happily agrees. 

But as they turn on the trail, they knock a rock down the embankment and hear a splash. They’ve found the mystical lake after all. It is said that travelers who are near the secret lake may spot a young Cherokee brother and sister kicking pebbles down the bank along the trail. 

Have you heard of the legend of Atagahi Lake? Let us know in the comments!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com.

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12 thoughts on “The Legend Of Atagahi – A Hidden Lake In The Smoky Mountains”

  1. I’ve never heated of the lake. But it sounds to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. God put his hands on the Smokey’s I think he put the lake there for very special eyes to see it. Thank you for blessing us all with this story. God bless you

    Reply
  2. Being of Cherokee blood from my Grandmother I would love to see this beautiful lake! However, I believe it should remain hidden. To many eyes could destroy its beauty and reverence.

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  3. Lake Atagahi is unfortunately now a gated community. Full of snowbirds (Retired Floridians) and deer. I have done lots of work up in Conneestee Falls and there are an abundance of deer, squirrels, and birds. And covered in turkey.

    Reply
  4. Never heard of it as I pretty much heard all kinds of lores BUT not this one. I’m surprised… like all comments it’s better left alone except for ppl that are special is able to see… or it’ll be destroyed. Look at this world??? Not as beautiful as should have been

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  5. Leave the lake to the wildliffe let them enjoy don’t let humans know where it is they will ruin it just like every other place they put there foot

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  6. Growing up near cades cove was an adventure the secrets the cove shares if your kind to her, The lake is real not sure if my earlier post went thru so I’ll try to recreate, I believe the lake is being look at by University of Tennessee , Look up on you tube was big when found now its dieing down as to be a secret one day when we’re all gone so much you can learn in cove from old people, Tuckleechee Retreat center is on the other side of coves mountain we ran it many years and was able to share tall tales and true tales of the cove your old friend Richard

    Reply
  7. I dont think this lake is in the SMNP…about 40 miles east of park..and its man made..
    This may not be the same lake this article is talking about though..
    But I’ve been all over the Smokies on foot and horseback and never seen this lake..and mean all over I mean all over..
    Been hiking and horseback riding the Smokies for over 40 years..off the beaten paths and on the trails..
    camped in the back country for days at a time and never seen or heard of it…

    Reply
  8. I lived on top of the world for years and it is not like in the sky, but it is not far from there. At least I think that it’s this little lake I found, it’s only about a half acre to acre in size, and has the most beautiful clear water that you have ever seen it appears to have no bottom. It is not in the national Park it is actually in the top of the world community I will not disclose its location because as I want to lived on top of the world I did not like people wondering around my property. I will say the water run off feeds like in the sky.

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  9. If it has been found by humans it is already ruined. We can’t seem to leave anything alone. Everything we touch we mess up.

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  10. If there’s an article on Google , it can’t be that hidden from people. And Google maps says a dollar general is right across the Rd from it ☠️. TOURIST NEED TO STOP COMING TO TN AJD BIG CORP. NEED TO STOP BUYING IT TO TURN IT INTO CABINS !!! MAKE AN ARTICLE ON THAT! WHY ISNT THERE A PETITION??

    Reply

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