For many, a lakeside vacation home becomes a permanent residence
Second in a series on Alabama’s lakes. Read about Lake Guntersville here.
By John Felsher
What many people consider “the most beautiful lake in Alabama,” Lewis Smith Lake spreads its tentacles through mountain valleys like a giant octopus.
The hydroelectric power lake dates to 1961 with a dam on Sipsey Fork and spreads across 21,200 acres of Cullman, Walker and Winston counties. The extremely clear emerald-green water averages 65 feet deep, but plunges to nearly 300 feet deep. Multiple river-like fingers create about 600 shoreline miles. Those long fingers create ideal places for fishing, wakeboarding, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding because high banks block the wind from almost any direction.
“The major draw to Smith Lake is water cleanliness,” says Jeff Tolbert, the president of Trident Marinas in Crane Hill. “It’s common to see 15 feet down. To experience the lake, people need to see it by water so they can appreciate what a great lake it is. Some bluffs are quite beautiful.”
From Cullman, about 10 miles east of Smith Lake, motorists can reach Huntsville to the north or Birmingham to the south in about an hour. People can reach Memphis in about 3.5 hours, Atlanta in three hours and Nashville in 2.5 hours. Interstate 65 runs north and south through Cullman. Interstate 22 connects Memphis to Birmingham.
“Smith Lake is a remarkable tourism opportunity for Cullman and Alabama,” says Dale Greer, the Cullman Economic Development Agency director who moved to the area from Birmingham. “I remember seeing small cottages and mobile houses on the lake when I was a child. Now, people live in multi-million-dollar homes.”
Easy access, an excellent quality of life, plus abundant natural beauty helped spawn a recent population boom. Some have moved to the lake area from as far away as California. Many who bought weekend lake homes eventually moved to the area permanently.
“It’s amazing how many great people joined our community in recent years,” says Peggy Smith with Cullman County Tourism Bureau. “Many people have been coming for years to spend recreation time on the lake. Now, they are retiring here looking for a place with fewer people and more relaxation.”
Boaters launch at Smith Lake Park, about seven miles off I-65 in Cullman. Launches near the dam, at Lick Creek, and several other places provide access to the sprawling lake. Smith Lake Park offers lodging in cabins as well as primitive and recreational vehicle camping.
“We expanded the boat ramps at Smith Lake Park so we’re now attracting major fishing tournaments,” Greer reports. “Smith Lake is a great spotted bass fishery. It also holds a lot of striped bass, crappie, bream and catfish.”
At one time, the lake held the world record for spotted bass, also called Alabama bass. That 8-pound, 15-ounce fish remains the state record. Some striped bass exceed 40 pounds.
“Smith Lake is best known for its excellent Alabama bass and striped bass fisheries,” says Chris McKee, the Alabama Division Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district fisheries supervisor. “Catches of smallmouth bass have been reported recently.”
People can participate in multiple boating events each year. During Wake the World Alabama, held June 9 this year, about 70 wakeboarders and others volunteered their boats, fuel and time to give abused or neglected children a day on the water that most would never otherwise experience.
Every August, approximately 250 to 300 boaters make a “poker run” as part of the Poor Man Poker Run, set for Aug. 5. Boaters visit participating locations around the lake to pick up cards trying to get the winning hand. Afterward, participants hold a live auction that raises money for local first responders and provide them with vital equipment they need.
In October, many lakefront property owners decorate their docks for Spook the Lake. About 300 to 500 children Trick or Treat by boat. Afterwards, everyone gathers for a party at Trident Marina.
“Water recreational activity is huge at Smith Lake, whether it’s fishing, swimming, wakeboarding, skiing or just boating,” Tolbert says. “Every Saturday night, we bring in bands for live entertainment. We can deliver a pontoon boat to the lake house for people to use during their stay. At some events, we’ll have 750 to 1,000 people at the marina.”
Many restaurants, such as The Grille at Trident Marina or Brothers on the Lake, offer on-the-water dining. People dock their boats, walk into the restaurant in their swimsuits and order lunch or refreshments. Trident Marina also rents boats and personal watercraft and offers dry storage and servicing for boats.
In downtown Cullman, visit Taziki’s Mediterranean Café. Owned by Keith and Amy Richards, the café offers a taste of Greek cuisine with a southern flair.
“Amy and I visited Greece and fell in love with the food and culture,” Keith recalls. “I wanted to bring the culture and hospitality that we received in Greece to Cullman.”
Also in town, WildWater water park features a 22,000-square-foot wave pool and many thrill rides, among other attractions.
“People come from five states away to enjoy a day at the water park,” Peggy Smith says. “Every May, the Strawberry Festival is a huge event. Alabama recognized it as the state Strawberry Festival. We also have a strong German community in the area, so we have a wonderful Oktoberfest each fall.”
People might also visit the Clarkson Covered Bridge on the National Register of Historic Places. Modern motor enthusiasts can enjoy Stony Lonesome off Highway Vehicle Park in Bremen. It offers more than 1,400 acres with trails for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, horseback riding and other adventures.
Hurricane Creek Park in Vinemont offers hiking and rock climbing by scenic canyons. At Whitlock’s General Store and Café, visitors can buy gas, fishing tackle and food on the way to the lake.
Each year, more than 50,000 people attend Rock the South, one of the largest concerts in Alabama. Not just entertainment, Rock the South raises money for multiple causes and projects in the Cullman area.
For more info on locations and events:
Boating, water-based events/parks
Restaurants, events, other