Watauga Lake, sometimes referred to as “Lake Watauga” is located southeast of Elizabethton, Tennessee, was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) with the completion of the TVA Watauga Dam and Reservoir.
The Cherokee National Forest surrounds both the Tennessee Valley Authority Watauga Reservoir and Wilbur Reservoir in an area of northeast Tennessee that TVA describes as being located “…in some of the most beautiful country in the Tennessee River watershed.”
According to the 2004 TVA River and Reservoir Operations Study, Watauga Lake is approximately 16.3 miles (26 km) long, with 104.9 miles (169 km) of shoreline. At the TVA summertime water level target “full pool”, the lake surface covers 6,430 acres (26 km²) and the estimated depth of Watauga Lake is 265 feet (81 m) at the dam. At full pool, Watauga’s elevation is the highest of all TVA lakes at 1,959 feet (597 m) above sea level.
Watauga Lake is regularly released by TVA schedule into Wilbur Reservoir (Wilbur Lake) and impounded by the TVA Wilbur Dam. Water levels in TVA Watauga Reservoir vary about 9 feet (2.7 m) in normal years to provide for seasonal flood storage and for the augmentation of flows of water during drier seasons. Watauga has a flood-storage capacity of 152,829 acre feet (188,512,000 m3).
Construction of Watauga Dam began in early 1942 but was curtailed later that year in favor of other wartime building efforts. Work on TVA Watauga Dam resumed in 1946, and finished at the end of 1948, impounding both the Watauga River and Elk River for the purposes of flood, hydropower generation and downstream navigation on the Tennessee River and Reservoir system.
The original town of Butler, Tennessee, now sits at the bottom of Watauga Lake. “New” Butler was relocated to higher ground above the summer pool edge of the reservoir was dammed by the TVA. Other nearby Tennessee cities and communities include Hampton, Elizabethton, Roan Mountain, Mountain City, Johnson City, and Bristol.
Watauga Lake covers parts of Johnson and Carter Counties.
Another much smaller nearby lake that is not part of the TVA system is the Ripshin Lake located 6 miles (10 km) SW of Roan Mountain.
More than half of Watauga Lake’s shoreline lies within the Cherokee National Forest and cannot be developed. Recreational uses include boating, fishing, water-skiing, and camping. There is no horsepower limit or speed limit for boats operating on the lake. Several fee-based public and private boat launch ramps provide access on the Hampton side of the reservoir.
The release of impounded water from both TVA Watauga Dam and TVA Wilbur Dam provides additional downstream riverine recreational opportunities such as whitewater rafting, trout fishing, and kayaking on the Watauga River.
Houseboat owners have been conducting a large annual July 4 Boat Parade on Watauga Lake since 2001. The Watauga Lake boat parade starts at 2:00 p.m.