Watauga Lake Experience this Weekend – May 26-27

Immerse Yourself in the Watauga Lake Experience May 26 to 27 – Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Memorial Day Weekend means open season on water play, and businesses surrounding Watauga Lake began months ago planning a festival that will launch it with a splash.

They’re calling it the Watauga Lake Experience, and they’re holding it at two marinas, two B&Bs, a museum, a horseback riding stable, a school and a real estate agency on Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27.

The logistical link between land and lake will be Captain Wally Bender at the helm of Toy Box, a 23-foot Sweetwater pontoon boat. During the festival, he will conduct lake tours starting every hour from a dock near Old Butler Museum, carrying visitors from the relics of “the town that wouldn’t drown” to the spot on the lake where Old Butler once existed—and now, buried deep beneath the waves, continues to be a phantom that lives on forever in old black-and-white photos and museum memorabilia.

In his laid-back, puttering-along-the-lake sort of manner, Captain Wally will also point out other items of interest, such as the ridge along Iron Mountain where the Appalachian Trail runs and the mouths of the Watauga and Elk rivers.

Captain Wally doesn’t coat his running commentary with a high-gloss varnish as you might expect. No local legend is sacred, including some of the oft-heard claims about the distinctive qualities of this deep blue inland sea.

“The funny thing about Watauga Lake is it’s supposed to be the third cleanest lake in the nation,” he said, “and nobody knows where that came from. So when people ask me about it, I say if you’re going to choose something, choose third. Nobody will challenge it. If you want to be first, somebody will challenge you.”

He will tell his guests it’s probably a pretty clean lake and it’s also a very deep lake, up to about 270 feet in spots. It covers about 6,000 acres and has roughly 190 miles of shoreline. “What drew me up here is so much of it is in national forest so it remains native,” he said. “Of course you never know with government. They could sell that whole hillside right over there.”

And, who knows, he might even try to debunk portions of the Old Butler myth. Everyone in these parts has a different version of that story.

In 1948, the Tennessee Valley Authority evacuated the town and closed the floodgates to create Watauga Lake. Evacuees went from a cozy little town with streets and sidewalks to a muddy farmland with no public water or power. Survivors of that whole debacle are still visibly upset about all that.

The Old Butler Museum was built in 1999, more than 50 years after the fact, opening the floodgates for an outpouring of donated items, such as the pulpit from the church, the chair from the dentist’s office, the post office window and boxes. The museum is now clearly a shrine.

Captain Wally has an old aerial photograph of the town and he can surmise its exact location based on the faded ridgeline in the background. In relation to that, the railroad tracks must have run right down the middle of the lake and a street grid is over by the north shore. And now, by virtue of yet another whim of the federal government, all can be traveled by boat.

While it will launch from a private dock in Butler during the festival, ordinarily Toy Box is based at Fish Springs Marina, where the celebration continues with boat shows, trout trolling and a demonstration of the sonar cameras and other equipment the Carter County EMS uses to search for missing persons on the water.

“We’re having our annual boat show open house,” said Thomas White, Fish Springs Marina owner. “This is kind of our kickoff weekend, so we’re having quite a few events in conjunction with this.”

His unequivocal objective is to get people out on the water this summer. “Rental boats will be available or you can test drive boats if you’re interested in them. We welcome anyone to come see what we’re all about. Bring your own boat if you have one, and have fun on the lake.”

Cove Ridge Marina in Butler will have a similar boat safety demo, as well as a classic car cruise-in on Saturday.

A few miles west on Highway 67 and then a few miles south on Highway 321, Sugar Hollow Retreat has a brand-new mountaintop amphitheater and plans a string of bands, a lineup of food and craft vendors and an old-fashioned bake-off. All will cluster around a brand new outdoor bluegrass stage, completed during the frosty months of early winter.

“There’s a view up there on top of the ridge,” said Dr. Surry Roberts, owner of Sugar Hollow Retreat and creator of White Tail Stage. “As you’re sitting in the amphitheater looking at the musicians, at the same time you’re looking at Stone Mountain. It’s a pretty spectacular spot.”

In other words, Julie Andrews could come swooping in at any time when these hills, for the first time, come alive with the sound of music.

The Old Milligan School is in that same neck of the woods and will present a play on Friday, The Return of the Clampetts, and hold games for children and a jug race down the Elk River on Saturday.

OptOutside will conduct a Laurel Falls hike bright and early on Saturday morning, shuttling hikers uphill so that the return hike is downhill. Iron Mountain Inn wants to know who has the best water, a competition to be held on Sunday.

Pick up maps and brochures for the festival at Stone Mountain Realty and Auction on Highway 67, where the “photo safari” begins. Follow the map, take the right photos, ask the right questions and you could win big prizes. Or at least get to keep the photos.

For more info and a full schedule of events, click to

Want To Go?
Dates: Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27
Times: Various, see schedule
Location: Businesses at Watauga Lake
Cost: Various, see schedule

Watauga Lake Experience Activity Schedule

Times and activities are subject to change, so be sure to check the program brochure available at participating businesses and locations and online at Watauga Lake Experience headquarters is Butler Corners on Highway 67 and will be open all day Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27.

Butler Museum
Saturday and Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.—Guided tour of the museum by residents of Old Butler, $2 adults, $1 children
Saturday and Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.—Old Butler tour on the lake by Outdoor Adventures with Captain Wally Bender leaves the marina at Bayview Campground, Butler on the hour from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., $5

Cove Ridge Marina
Saturday, 11:00 a.m.—Boat Safety, Tennessee Wildlife Resources, Dennis Ward
Saturday, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.—Cruise In, classic cars, Carter County Car Club
Sunday, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.—Poker Run on the lake, entry is $10, and first prize is 40 percent, second prize is 30 percent, and third prize is 20 percent.

Dogwood Springs Ranch
Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—Guided horseback trail rides; call 423-768-2050 for reservations and rates.
Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—Local Artists Exhibit

Fish Springs Marina—Boat Rentals available
Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—Boat Show
Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—Boat Show and Carter County Rescue, Water Rescue
Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., every half hour—Trout Trolling Demonstration
Saturday, 10:00 a.m.—Boat Safety, Tennessee Wildlife Resources, Dennis Ward
Sunday, 12:00 to 5:00 p.m.—Boat Show
Sunday, 2:00 p.m.—Carter County Rescue, Water Rescue

Iron Mountain Inn
Sunday, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.—Water Tasting Competition with local celebrity judges – Who has the best-tasting water? Categories are municipal water, bottled waters and sparking waters.

Little Milligan School
Friday, 7:00 p.m.—The Return of the Clampetts, a play about Tennessee mountain life
Saturday and Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—Supervised games for children, free giveaways for children and adults and a “Poga Float” (pronounced “pogee”), a jug race down the river. Winner will receive a Watauga Lake Experience at a cabin or B&B, dinner, boat on the lake; tickets are $3 each or two tickets for $5.

Saturday, 8:00 a.m.—Laurel Falls Hike, limited to 10 people. Bottled water and snack packs available for $3. Bring a daypack if you have one. Preregistration required at

Stone Mountain Log Homes
Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.—Photo Safari Scavenger Expedition: follow the map and shoot the pictures. Cameras provided; you keep the pictures. Prizes awarded Sunday. Entrance fee is $15.

Sugar Hollow Retreat
Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—An exhibition of various arts and crafts for sale, food and refreshments, local bluegrass bands, supervised games for children
Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.—Old-Fashioned Bake-off: categories are jelly and jam, dessert and main dish, entries must be submitted by 11:30 a.m. and the fee is $2 per entry. Judging begins at noon.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—An exhibition of various arts and crafts for sale, food and refreshments
Sunday, 1:00 to 6:00 p.m.—Local bluegrass bands and supervised games for children