A visitor’s guide to Deep Creek Lake, Smith Mountain Lake and Lake Anna
By Amanda Loudin,
“Life is better at the lake” — you see it on signs, T-shirts, and wall prints. In the D.C. area, plenty of vacationers are eager to test the proposition, and you can generally find them heading to one of three destinations: Lake Anna and Smith Mountain Lake in central and south-central Virginia, respectively, and Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland. These freshwater gems offer a different vibe than the beach. A little more laid-back, a little less commercial and somewhat off the beaten path, they have a lazy, old-fashioned feel. Here is what you will find at the region’s most popular lake destinations.
Maryland stands out among all 50 states as the only one with no natural lakes. But what it lacks in natural fresh water it makes up for in all that Deep Creek Lake has to offer. Located in Garrett County in the western corner of the state, Deep Creek Lake traces its roots
to 1925, when the Youghiogheny Hydro Electric Corporation created
a dam across Deep Creek to power its plant. Today the lake has 65 miles of shoreline and covers 3,900 acres, with an average depth of 26 feet.
Columbia, Md., resident Janet Yahiro has been a regular at Deep Creek Lake since 1986, when her mother purchased a lakeside cabin for the family to enjoy. Now 65, Yahiro still visits regularly with her grown children and a grandchild in tow, making the property an integral part of leisure time for four generations. “One of the main things I love is the quiet and lack of interruptions,” she says. “We’re unplugged here and can lead a simple life.”
Like many Deep Creek vacationers, the Yahiro clan spends a good portion of their time on the water, whether in kayaks, on stand-up paddleboards or on Jet Skis. The lake is also popular for pontoon boats, water skiing and tubing. There are several marinas and rental services to ensure you can find a favorite toy. Fishing is another option, and the stocked lake is full of bass, walleye, crappie and pickerel.
Janet Yahiro’s view from the front of her cabin at Deep Creek Lake. She has been vacationing at the lake since 1986 and says the area has retained its charm despite its increased popularity.
Got little ones? There are also two swimming beaches that make cooling off in the water or playing in the sand an easy bet.
If you reach a saturation point for all things water, Deep Creek is also part of Deep Creek State Park and situated near thousands of acres of other park lands. Swallow Falls State Park, Big Run State Park and Garrett State Forest all offer up miles of trails to hike and explore.
Looking for a bite to eat or some shopping? There are plenty of options in and around the lake and extending into the neighboring town of Oakland. From smaller, boutique stores and a local cheese shop to big-box retailers like Walmart and Lowe’s, you will be able to find whatever you’re after.
The most common lodging option at Deep Creek Lake is renting one of the hundreds of homes available through local operators Railey Vacations or Taylor-Made Vacations. Both feature lakeside and mountainside options in a wide variety of sizes. There are also hotels and inns, although these are somewhat limited.
In her many years spending time at Deep Creek Lake, Yahiro has borne witness to the large tourist and second-home owner growth, but says the lake still maintains its character and charm. “The many conveniences have perhaps taken away from quaintness a bit, but it still feels good to visit,” she says. “There are more people, but it’s never overcrowded.”
Drive time from the District: Around three hours
Activities: Boating, swimming, water skiing/tubing, fishing, hiking
Unique feature: Deep Creek Lake is also home to Wisp Ski Resort, making winter as good an option as summer
Favorite local restaurant: Mountain State Brewing Company, for its outdoor patio views of the nearby mountains
“Do you live on the hot side or the cold side?” is a question that might only make sense to homeowners at Lake Anna, located in Lake Anna State Park in central Virginia. If you are wondering what it means and if there really is a difference in temperature from one side to the other, the answer is yes. The reason behind the variation is that Dominion Energy houses two nuclear generating plants on the southern, or private, side of the lake, warming the water several degrees more than on the public side, after using it to cool the plant’s turbines.
Because the lake is divided by three dikes, you can’t cross via water from one side to the other. But that doesn’t slow down the fun on either side, and your toughest decision when choosing to vacation at Lake Anna might be which side of the 17-mile-long body of water fits your style and desires.
Randy Sleight, a 45-year-old systems engineer, holds Lake Anna near and dear to his heart, even now that he lives in Washington state and the trip there requires a flight. “My (Maryland-based) parents bought a place there in the early 2000s, and we used to visit about once a month,” he says. “Now when we visit them at the holidays and in the summer, we always make a point of driving down to the lake, too.”
In doing so, Sleight has had the opportunity to share his love of the lake with both his wife and his young daughter. “We have a beach entry and shallow water around our dock, which is perfect for our daughter,” he says. “We also fish, water ski and kayak out into the middle, and we don’t have to watch out for too many boats.”
The sunset from the Sleight porch at Lake Anna. Randy Sleight now lives in Washington state but returns to his parents’ house at the lake whenever he’s back in the area.
Sleight likes that part of the lake remains warmer, affording a longer swim season and the ability to get out on the water even in the quiet of winter. “The lake might freeze a little bit at the coldest part of winter, but it doesn’t last long,” he says. “We were there last April, and we were already able to get into the water.”
A stay at Lake Anna will usually involve a rental through Airbnb or VRBO — most hotels or lodges are near the lake, but not on the lake. If a hotel is your preference, check nearby Thornburg and Fredericksburg for these options, and plan to drive in and out of the park each day. There are several boat and Jet Ski rental establishments on the public side of the park, including Pleasants Landing and Commonwealth Boat Rental.
Restaurant options are limited as well, but look for Mexican, Asian and Italian options, among others. For outdoor dining with a view, consider Tim’s at the Lake or The Cove at Lake Anna.
Because the lake stands in the middle of Lake Anna State Park, there are plenty of hiking trails, a swimming beach, lakeshore picnicking spots and a nearby fishing pond for young children. Take in Dickinson’s Store for a taste of an old-fashioned general store and to pick up provisions for a picnic. Top off your purchase with some craft beer at the beer cave inside.
Over the years, there have been attempts to further develop the public side of the lake with hotels and other tourist attractions, but locals have so far succeeded in pushing back. Sleight likes it that way. “Every Fourth of July, people take their boats out to one of the dikes and light off fireworks,” he says. “We have a good mix of full-timers and vacationers here, and everyone seems to get along. It has a nice, quiet and natural feel to it.”
Drive time from the District: Around 1.5 hours
Hotels/inns: Look in nearby Thornburg or Fredericksburg
Activities: Boating, water skiing, fishing, swimming, nearby hiking
Unique feature: A public and private side of the large lake, offering a water temperature difference
Favorite local restaurant: Anna Cabana, which you can reach by land or water
As the longest drive from D.C., Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke boasts the most shoreline of the three lakes with more than 500 miles. Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it might also win most scenic, and it’s the deepest of the three, measuring up to 250 feet at some points.
Becca Niberg, a 43-year-old immigration attorney from Laurel, Md., started going to Smith Mountain Lake at age 8, when her parents purchased a home there. Growing up in North Carolina, it was a short hour-and-a-half drive for her family. “We went on weekends and in the summer, my mom would take me and my siblings there for the whole season, with our dad joining us on the weekends,” she says. “Today we don’t get there as often, but every July Fourth the whole family descends on the lake house.”
A view of a double rainbow from Becca Niburg’s deck after a thunderstorm passed through Smith Mountain Lake.
For vacationers looking to spend some time on the lake, there are multiple options, including hotels, inns, and a robust condo and home rental market. Looking for a more rustic feel? Check out the state park cabin rentals, complete with fire pits for roasting s’mores. There are even nearby hotels equipped for bigger events, such as weddings and reunions, if you are seeking a post-pandemic gathering place. With its size, the community also hosts a variety of festivals and activities, such as an annual wine festival in September and a mid-June golf invitational.
If you are looking to get on the water, the Smith Mountain Lake State Park concession area offers rentals of a wide variety of watercraft, from Jet Skis and pontoon boats to canoes and kayaks. There are also hiking, biking and walking trails in the park, and centrally located Bridgewater Plaza offers a host of activities, including restaurants, mini golf, an arcade and a variety of shopping. For a unique experience, head to the Smith Mountain Project visitor’s center for an up-close look at how the lake’s dam was constructed in the 1960s.
Niberg says the lake is a great destination for families. “The state park rangers offer a variety of fun classes throughout the week, like birdwatching or knot tying,” she says. “Anything you want to do outdoors, you can find it here.”
The lake is where Niberg first learned to love water skiing, something she did competitively in college and now shares with her kids. “A basic day for us is getting out on the water early and getting in bunch of ski runs,” she says. “Then we have breakfast on the deck and from there, follow the kids’ lead. For me, this is home, a place I can breathe and not have to worry about anything.”
Drive time from the District: Around 4.5 hours
Hotels/inns: A couple close to the lake and more if you’re willing to drive
Activities: Water skiing/tubing, fishing, swimming, hiking, cycling
Unique feature: Popular with houseboaters
Favorite local restaurant: Drifter’s, for its marina location and lake views
Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.
More from Travel:
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments on The Post’s live blog at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus