A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In the five-plus years Captain Martin Cagle has grown his Lake Norman Ride Wake & Surf Co from a wakeboarding school to an all-inclusive boat rental service, he’s learned the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In the five-plus years Captain Martin Cagle has grown his Lake Norman Ride Wake & Surf Co from a wakeboarding school to an all-inclusive boat rental service, he’s learned the

4 Waterfront Adventures in Lake Norman

Overview of Lake Norman

In the five-plus years Captain Martin Cagle has grown his Lake Norman Ride Wake & Surf Co from a wakeboarding school to an all-inclusive boat rental service, he’s learned the “ultimate day on the lake” is far from a universal definition.

While wakeboarding and wakesurfing are still among the outfitter’s most popular activities, an increasing number of people just want to relax. They might opt for floats in Cocktail Cove or cruising up to a waterfront restaurant by boat — no car necessary.

Ride the waves — and catch some air! — with instruction from Ride Wake & Surf Co’s wakeboarding school. Photography courtesy of Visit Lake Norman

Lake Norman is a balance of contrasts. Here, high-speed excitement meets low-stakes relaxation; you can fish for dinner from the lake or enjoy it in waterfront elegance; and both old-timey vibes and modern-day amenities flourish. Some people need a big boat to navigate Lake Norman’s 520 miles of shoreline, but others are just as happy with a kayak and a fishing pole.

Ready to dip your toes into all the ways to play on the lake? From boating to floating and fishing to swimming, these outfitters and locations ensure smooth sailing no matter how you take to the lake.


Motor On

Ride Wake & Surf Co is one of several charter companies offering guided cruises along the state’s largest man-made body of water.

“It’s very expensive to have a boat, especially the types of boats we use,” notes Cagle, the U.S. Coast Guard-certified Master Captain whose fleet features several MasterCraft powerboats.

“I wanted to give people the opportunity to come out, bring their friends and family, and pay by time — not by person — so they can experience the day on the lake however they want.”

For many, that day includes a tour of famous hotspots dotting Lake Norman. Ricky Bobby’s house from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a frequent stop. So are homes owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin.

With Carolina Cruising Charters, everything from top-of-the-line equipment to playful inflatables is designed to curate a dreamy day on the water for passengers. Whether it’s a sightseeing tour for two or an island-hopping bash complete with watersports for 10, Master Captain Matt Ryan wants people to invite their friends and family, bring some drinks, and leave their worries behind when they board his pontoons and wake boats.

On a massive lake with many shoals and (sometimes) massive traffic, safety is one concern that Ryan wants to alleviate for everyone. “I thought there was a way we could not only make better experiences for those on board, but also make the lake all around safer for everybody,” he says.

If you’re comfortable and experienced in driving a boat, you can rent manual and motorized watercrafts from What’s Up Watersports. Located on the quieter northwest part of Lake Norman, this outfitter offers kayaks and standup paddleboards, or, if you’re chasing a thrill, Jet Skis, pontoons, and motorboats. The helpful staff on-site will walk you through how to operate the boat before you take to the water.


People launch their paddleboards

Head to Latta Nature Preserve to launch your paddleboard or kayak from the Gar Creek kayak-only launch. photograph by Visit Lake Norman

Paddle On

Those interested in being active on the water can rent a paddleboard from Moose Island Paddleboard Company. Located in the Langtree area along Lake Norman’s D10 marker, this division of the Moose Yacht Club outfits you to paddle around the shoreline. They make paddleboarding easy and will even bring their mobile showroom to you.

Woman paddleboards in Mountain Island Lake

Bordered by the Latta Nature Preserve, Mountain Island Lake’s quieter, less-trafficked waters make it ideal for standup paddleboarding. Photography courtesy of Visit Lake Norman

If paddling in a smaller setting is more appealing than hitting high speeds on open water, then you can rent kayaks and paddleboards from Mountain Island Lake Paddle Company. Head to the kayak launches at Latta Nature Preserve in Huntersville with all the equipment dropped right off for you and embark on your adventure. The preserve borders Mountain Island Lake, a smaller, less-trafficked body of water. Wildlife abounds in this less-developed, forest-covered area, and you and your family members have plenty of space to paddle — and splash around — without having to share the area with as many motorized vessels.

Another serene spot to paddle is Lake Davidson. This 340-acre secluded section of Lake Norman imposes restrictions against power boats, making it another family-friendly destination for lakeside play. On Saturdays from April to October, you can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards there for easy and immediate access to the water.


Cast a Line

Lake Norman teems with enough black crappie, striped bass, white bass, channel catfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, and yellow perch to draw the Big Bass Tour and Major League Fishing for annual competitions. However, there are plenty of public spaces for amateurs to fish, too. Start with the ADA-compliant Patriot Pier at Ramsey Creek Park in Cornelius or the shore at the Latta Nature Preserve — flash your fishing license at Quest, and you can borrow a fishing rod for free.

A few things to know before you start casting: You’ll need a casual or sportfishing license. In general, catch-and-release is the rule on Lake Norman. But get familiar with the state’s fish size and creel regulations for Lake Norman for specifics on which fish to toss and which to keep.

Those are the basics. For an insider’s perspective on finding the best spots to pull in big hauls, it’s hard to beat a personal fishing guide. At Denver-based Fish On!, Captain Craig Price has been fishing Lake Norman and the rivers that feed it since the 1960s. He’ll tell all when it comes to where, when, and how to find fish in these waters.


People on the beach at Jetton Creek Park

Don’t have time for a full day of water activities? Pack a cooler and a chair or blanket and enjoy a picnic on the shore at Jetton Park. Photography courtesy of Visit Lake Norman

Take in the View

Several local parks offer other ways to enjoy the surrounding beauty, no boat, paddle, or swimsuit required. The 104-acre Jetton Park in Cornelius has a sunning beach, playground, tennis courts, walking and biking trails, tennis courts, and picnic areas. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Ramsey Creek Park is a public-access swimming beach on the lake. It also boasts boat launches, nature trails, a sand volleyball court, and outdoor play areas. Another popular park is Blythe Landing in Huntersville, complete with its six boat launches, floating piers, four volleyball courts, and outdoor play areas.

Or perhaps you’d rather watch the rippling water reflect the sunlight (or moonlight) while you dig into a delicious meal. We recommend the following waterside spots:

Outdoor deck at Hello, Sailor in Davidson, NC

From your perch atop the lakeside deck at Hello, Sailor, you can watch boats arrive and depart from the Holiday Marina. Photography courtesy of Visit Lake Norman

Hello, Sailor, a lakeside bar and restaurant in Cornelius was opened by five-time James Beard Award semifinalist Joe Kindred. It offers a range of seafood dishes and custom cocktails. Try the popcorn shrimp basket with beef fat fries, or the citrus crab louie with avocado and seared chicken breast.

Also in Cornelius is Port City Club, where the New-American menu was shaped by owner and Iron Chef contestant David Burke. The restaurant’s covered, heated deck makes waterside dining a year-round attraction.

The patio at North Harbor Club restaurant in Lake Norman, NC.

Open for lunch and dinner, North Harbor Club lets you kick back on the outdoor terrace and take in views of the water throughout the day. Photography courtesy of Visit Lake Norman

North Harbor Club, a fine-dining eatery in Davidson, fully commits to its regatta theme. There are six slips out front, and boats hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls inside. The Beef and Reef — a rib-eye with crab cake or shrimp — is the restaurant’s take on classic surf ‘n’ turf.

With so many options for every level of activity, reservations for Lake Norman’s range of watersports book up quickly. Whether you want to spend a day on the lake or all weekend basking by the sparkling blue waters, click here to start planning your trip.

This story was published on Apr 30, 2024

Jimmy Ryals

Jimmy Ryals is a writer and editor based in Raleigh. A Kinston native, his work has appeared in Slate, The Assembly, several eastern North Carolina newspapers, and little notes in his kids’ lunchboxes.