East Tennessee didn’t always look like it does today.
The rivers ran wild and free, carving through the bedrock of time.
They were life-giving as people used their waters for irrigation, sustenance and commerce.
But they were also capricious, swollen with heavy spring rains. The people who lived in the valleys and low-lying areas often found themselves endangered in the shadow of the very waters that soothed and comforted them the rest of the year.
Then came the Tennessee Valley Authority. Possibly the most successful of FDR’s agencies, it changed the face of the nation with mighty infrastructure projects and protected people from the fury of flood waters.
They dammed the rivers, relocated entire communities and, for the most part, tamed the deadly floods.
Now, the lakes of East Tennessee are among the area’s lesser known jewels, offering boating, fishing, skiing, swimming and more.
In Sevier County, the lake of choice is Douglas Lake, located just a few miles from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
Work began to dam the French Broad River in East Tennessee in February of 1942 and almost a year to the day later, the job was done. It was a world record time for projects of an equivalent size, according to the TVA.
The Douglas dam features four generating units that together have a net dependable capacity of 111 megawatts. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds quite impressive.
The reservoir itself extends 43 miles upriver from the dam through Sevier, Jefferson and Cocke counties.
What can you do at Douglas Lake?
Technically a reservoir, it’s chiefly called Douglas Lake by locals. It’s great for picnicking, camping, boating, paddleboards and fishing.
It’s also a popular destination for birders. Birdwatchers enjoy the fall migration of shore birds, wading birds and other waterfowl from late July to early October.
The migrating birds feed on the muddy shoreline and shallow water as the level of the reservoir is lowered to winter pool levels, which in normal years is about 44 feet lower than optimum summer pool.
Also of interest if you’re into birding is the nearby Seven Island State Park, located in a fork in the French Broad, just below Douglas Lake at the Knox/Sevier County line.
According to the park’s website, songbirds, hawks, and waterfowl can be seen along the meadow trails and several old barns are a favorite refuge for barn owls.
For paddlers and anglers, there is a small canoe/kayak launch that provides access to the French Broad River.
Douglas Reservoir provides 513 miles of shoreline and about 28,420 acres of water surface for recreational activities which includes skiers, wakeboarders and jet-skiers in addition to fishing and swimming.
What kind of fish are in Douglas Lake?
The reservoir, which occasionally hosts large fishing tournaments, offers black bass (large and smallmouth) as well as crappie.
Other frequently caught fish include bluegill, catfish, walleye and its close relative sauger.
If you are going to fish the lake, you should be aware of the requirements. Anyone 13 years or older is required to have a Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency issued license.
There are some exemptions, but most of them will not be applicable to anyone who does not own lakeside farmland or live on lakefront property.
One exemption that applies is for military members on leave. They must have a copy of their leave orders (not a pass) to qualify.
Also, it should be noted that anyone over the age of 13 who is assisting a child to fish should also have a license, available online at the TWRA official website. They can be purchased before you make your trip.
There are a wide variety of licenses at varying costs for residents and non-residents. For non-residents, prices range from $11 to $99 for an annual pass.
Can you swim in Douglas Lake?
Swimming in Douglas Lake is popular just about anywhere there’s a quiet spot.
Some people will swim in the reservoir’s open waters or coves. The many islands offer great spots to picnic and swim as well.
If you’re looking for a more formal swimming venue, there is a public swim beach located on Douglas Dam Road at the Douglas Headwater and Tailwater Dam Reservation near Dandridge, about a 30 minute drive from Pigeon Forge.
The water is dark and clarity is not great. Floatation devices are highly recommended for anyone swimming out on the open lake and for children swimming at any of the lake’s beaches or swimming holes.
When I take my family to the lake, all the kids and their friends, even the competent swimmers, are required to wear a flotation device.
Allow me to also caution against swimming off of boats, docks or marinas. Two local boys suffered electric shock drowning (ESD) a few years ago.
There was a subsequent push to raise awareness and change some state laws to make marinas and docks better regulated.
Still, it is not safe to go into the water near electricity. Click here for more information.
Is there a campground near Douglas Lake?
The Douglas Dam Headwater Campground is located at the spot with 60 campsites, four of which are primitive tent sites.
The campground features three bath houses, a boat ramp and a picnic area as well as a hiking trail that offers a look at some of the leftover artifacts from the construction of the dam.
Another popular camping option is the Griffin Island Campground, a privately owned 14-acre island which offers camper rentals for those looking to get away. There’s no cable, internet or Wi-Fi on the island. Prices vary on several factors.
Boating and water sports on Douglas Lake
If you’re looking to get out on the lake, there are multiple ramps available. Consult the TVA website for the ones nearest you.
Gator Point and Mountain Cove Marina are both located in Sevier County.
There are also multiple places where you can rent a pontoon, fishing boat or a jet ski if you don’t feel like hauling a trailer down to the mountains.
Or, of course, if you do not own one.
Why is Douglas Lake green?
The water of Douglas Lake has a green tinge, due to relatively high levels of chlorophyll, but gets clearer the closer you get to the dam.
Is it safe to swim in Douglas Lake?
Any body of water comes with some inherent dangers.
The lake isn’t prone to heavy currents and visibility above the water is good. It is important to note that the TVA lakes, especially when low, can hide large trees and other debris just under the surface.
At summertime, on Douglas Reservoir, you’re less likely to run into something. But if the water level is low, you should proceed with caution.
You can get an idea for the water level by the edges of the lake and how much dirt is exposed.
And don’t drink the reservoir water, of course. But otherwise it is well within the acceptable levels for human interaction.
The lake is in a rural area and after heavy rainstorms that follow a long dry spell, the lake’s E. coli levels will rise due to the runoff from area farms.
In that specific condition, you might not want to get in the water immediately downstream of a cow pasture or pig farm.
This is usually a very small threat that quickly and naturally repairs itself.
Millions of people safely enjoy the TVA lake system each year. There’s no reason you and your family can’t be among them.
What are your tips for going to Douglas Lake? Let us know in the comments!