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Gaston Shoals Lake and Ninety-Nine Islands Lake are the focal points of a 15-mile stretch of the Broad River flowing through the Olde English District of northern South Carolina. A major tributary of the Congaree River, Broad River flows out of North Carolina below the Lake Lure Dam. Five dams built along the Broad River produce hydropower between the North Carolina-South Carolina border and Ninety-Nine Islands Lake. In addition, Gaston Shoals Lake provides drinking water to the City of Gaffney and other local towns.
Ninety-Nine Islands Dam was built in 1910, with Gaston Shoals' three dams built about 1927. Neither impoundment is typical of the usual lake, in that there is no large body of water separate from the wide course of the Broad River. Instead, the impoundments contain just enough of the flow to produce the amount needed to drive hydroelectric generators. The lakes' surfaces are mostly a wider and deeper spot in the river, interspersed by islands. Duke Energy l1sts Gaston Shoals Lake as having 251 acres surface with full pool elevation at 605.2 feet. Ninety-Nine Islands Lake has 388 acres at full pool of 511.1 feet. There are no separate figures for the impoundment behind Cherokee Falls Dam.
Gaston Shoals Lake and Ninety-Nine Islands Lake are almost entirely undeveloped. No large housing developments break the heavily wooded shorelines, except for the power plants and the mill town of Cherokee Falls. Much of the riverbank is private property, but few houses peak through the tree canopy. Depending on the amount of water in the reservoirs, the river between the dams is often shallow and filled with rocks, riffles and shallow rapids. No parks exist along the river or the two lakes. However, the Broad River Greenway has been created along the Broad in North Carolina above Gaston Shoals Lake, and the Cherokee Ford Recreation Area near the Cherokee Falls Dam offers access to the river but is mostly undeveloped except for some softball diamonds. Below Ninety-Nine Islands Dam the Broad Scenic River opens the next 15 miles to canoeing, kayaking and boating, although only small boats can navigate the shallows. Designated a State Scenic River in 1991 by the State Legislature, the area is protected from development with access to fishermen and paddlers.
What Gaston Shoals Lake and Ninety-Nine Islands Lake have in common is plenty of fishing access. Gaston Shoals Lake has one concrete boat ramp at the Big Bay Access Area, bank fishing areas on both sides of the tailwater below the dams that impound the lake, and a canoe access area along with a portage around the dams. Gaston Shoals Lake is unusual because three dams needed to be build to impound the water flowing between islands and to provide a penstock area for the Gaston Shoals Hydro plant. Gaston Shoals Lake is considered to extend upstream from the dams as far as Lake Lure in North Carolina, so there's plenty of water for fishing. Smallmouth bass are the most popular target in the shallower, faster-moving water, although catfish and other common species can be hooked in the larger pools.
The Cherokee Falls Dam impounds the next area of the river downstream, but there are no estimates available for any lake size. Formerly a waterfall area on the river, the Cherokee Falls Dam drowned the former falls in order to power a small hydroelectric plant used primarily by a local textile mill. A rough portage trail allows intrepid paddlers to get past the dam in their travels downstream. Here at the beginnings of Ninety-Nine Islands Lake, the Pick Hill fishing access site allows for small boat launch. Ninety-Nine Islands Lake is a collection of narrow arms and water trails between islands in this delta-like area. Again, there is no developed recreational facility on the reservoir, and it is mostly visited by fishermen and paddlers. A canoe portage trail around the dam offers access to the Tailrace Fishing Area with a ramp. The Ninety-Nine Islands Hydro Station still produces power, although the former Cherokee Falls Nuclear facility has long since been decommissioned.
Several undeveloped trails skirt the river bank, used by shoreline anglers and nature lovers. The plant life in the undeveloped riparian forest holds treasures such as as wild ginger, endangered in South Carolina. Osprey, bald eagles and song birds congregate near the river and soar overhead seeking prey. Small reptiles and amphibians live along the wet margins of the lakes. Nature lovers can enjoy a wilderness landscape, although they may well have to climb over downed trees and risk wet feet. This is the Broad River as it existed hundreds of years ago; historic artifacts and locations such as pioneer 'fords' and Native American fish traps can be seen in the area.
Although there are no lodgings directly on Gaston Shoals Lake or Ninety-Nine Islands Lake, the area is only five miles or so from the small City of Gaffney and a bit farther from the Town of Blacksburg. Both towns offer a variety of lodgings choices, with guest cottages, campgrounds and commercial hotels. Gaffney offers such local treasures as the Gaffney Visitors Center and Art Gallery, the Gaffney Little Theatre and the Farmers Market.
Although little-known outside the area, this part of South Carolina is rich in Revolutionary War history, with three national parks based on this period within Cherokee County. Kings Mountain National Military Park commemorates an important battle between American Patriots and the Loyalist colonial forces in the area. Most of the battles fought here didn't involve any British forces; instead, the opposing forces were locals loyal to the British Crown. Cowpens National Battlefield was the rarer site of a decisive victory against British forces. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail traces the path of American colonial militia through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Gaffney and the areas around Gaston Shoals Lake and Ninety-Nine Islands Lake are the perfect vacation spot for those looking to trace the nation's history in South Carolina.
Prepare for your visit to Ninety-Nine Islands Lake and Gaston Shoals Lake with good hiking boots, mosquito repellant and preferably a guide to identify the local flora and fauna. Hint: the smallmouth bass like the faster waters of the rapids, so be prepared for some hiking upstream. Or, bring the canoe or kayak and paddle the longer stretches of this lake/river complex to enjoy a wilderness adventure.
*Statistics are the official statistics from Duke Energy on lake acreages, elevations and volume. Because the two sets of statistics are listed as a single entity, we have done the same: acreages is for both lakes together.
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