Public use of our highly acclaimed Western North Carolina waterways takes on many forms.  Some prefer to experience the river from watercraft, others from within the water, while yet others are content to simply take in the invigorating feeling of being next to a mountain stream.  In 2010, Equinox embarked on a project to update the Lake Ela dam in Swain County to accommodate all of these opportunities.  The project reflects the efforts of a carefully sited fishing pier on the Oconaluftee River, one of North Carolina’s historically rich, trout fishing rivers that drains the Cherokee Qualla Boundary and Smoky Mountains National Park.  The project also included a portage route around Lake Ela Dam, directional signage, canoe takeout enhancement, a river put-in, parking, and stormwater treatment to remove pollutants from the vehicle by products using the parking.

Cantilevered Fishing Pier & Views of the Oconaluftee River
Cantilevered Fishing Pier & Views of the Oconaluftee River

Key design objectives were realized to create an experiential access area.  The project features a custom designed cantilevered fishing platform that places the user close to 10 feet above the water, providing a bird’s eye perspective of the trout holding in the crystal clear water below.  Across the river, a spillway plunges from the lake to the riverbed creating a resonating pounding sound and a spray mist throughout the project area.  Senses are conflicted by the culmination of these stimuli as the tree canopy engulfs you to create a peaceful setting.  On the platform, anglers are positioned to be able to cast at calculated angles into the trout filled water.  Because the ADA accessible pier had to be designed to withstand significant and frequent flooding, sturdy steel and concrete materials were utilized to ensure longevity in such a hostile environment – creating an almost indestructible fortress.  A cantilevered form provides immediate access to the river with a minimal footprint, resulting in lower impact to the surrounding area.

Fishing Pier "Fortress”,  put-in, and boat slide on the Oconaluftee River
Fishing Pier “Fortress”, Put-In, and Boat Slide at the Ela Recreation Access Area

Thoughtful consideration was given to boaters who are preparing for a day (or more) on the river.  Loading zones were designated to provide space for boaters to lay out gear while organizing the boat.  Immediately adjacent to the loading zone and stairs, a boat slide was installed to protect the bank from impact and to aid in transferring unwieldy boats (potentially filled with gear) to the lower floodplain bench located approximately 10 feet below the parking area.

If you’re in the Bryson City / Cherokee area and would like to score a good picnic site, launch your boat, or try your hand at snagging one of a multitude of fish (with the appropriate permits of course), you should pay a visit to experience the Lake Ela Tailrace access area.


– Fred Grogan –

Fred served as project manager and avid fisherman.


Duke Energy
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission project number 2601
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