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Often overshadowed by its better-known neighbor Lake Gaston, Roanoke Rapids Lake offers a quieter and less crowded spot for recreation. The third reservoir in the Roanoke River system, the Roanoke Rapids Dam was the second dam in the series to be built. Located just south of the Virginia-North Carolina border in North Carolina's Piedmont Region, Roanoke Rapids Dam and Power Station contains and re-uses the water released by the Lake Gaston Dam directly upstream. In fact, Roanoke Rapids Dam was built before the Lake Gaston Dam was installed to power a large number of North Carolina homes and businesses.
Small pockets of residential development appear along the heavily wooded 47-mile shoreline, but Roanoke Rapids Lake has no commercial development or marinas. The shoreline skirts the City of Roanoke Rapids to the south of the dam and the town of Gaston on the north side. Both towns are primarily industrial with businesses that have flourished since the advent of plentiful hydro-power. The two cities have suffered in recent years from the loss of American textile manufacturers to cheaper imports from overseas. They are now attempting to promote tourism and their lake to offer advantages to a wider range of visitors.
Roanoke Rapids Lake is a fine place to enjoy swimming, water skiing, sailing and enjoyment of nature. The Roanoke Rapids Lake Day Use Park offers a swim area, picnic grounds, concession stand, restrooms, playground, ball fields, reserve-able picnic shelters, a Frisbee golf course, handicapped-accessible fishing pier, a boat launch and a boat dock. The park is a popular place for hiking; the Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail adjoins the park area. The 7.5-mile trail meanders along the course of the old navigation canal through a wooded natural area with kiosks and information boards detailing the history of the canal and its features. The museum provides a detailed look at the old canal, its uses and its demise through a number of exhibits and mediums. The trail follows the old tow path from the Museum to the Town of Weldon and is a North Carolina Coastal Plains Birding Trail location for bird and wildlife watching. Parts of the trail are popular for mountain biking.
Public access to Roanoke Rapids Lake is available at the Day Use Park, North Side Bank Fishing Area, Roanoke Rapids Dam North Side Bank Fishing Area, Vultare Boat Landing, Thelma Boat Landing and Bank Fishing, 5th Street Boat Landing, Roanoke Rapids Overlook and Roanoke Rapids Tailrace Bank Fishing Area. The lake is very popular for fishing, with an emphasis on striped bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie and walleye. There are several bass fishing clubs in the area, and tournaments are sometimes held on the lake. Fishing guides can be found nearby and are particularly useful for out-of-town anglers who are unfamiliar with the lake and its rapidly-changing water levels. Depending on water releases from Lake Gaston Dam, some of the channels at the west end of the lake can develop shallow spots dangerous to the unsuspecting boater. The many coves and arms of the reservoir can be particularly productive fisheries if the angler knows where to look.
Whitewater rafting is popular below the dam, with water being released on weekends for the benefit of the rafting sport and for fish habitat along the river. All would-be whitewater users must avail themselves of the current water release schedules and regulations before engaging in the sport. In recent years, fish ladders to assist the migration of American eels upstream into the lake have been added at the dam.
Although Roanoke Rapids Reservoir is the smallest of the three man-made lakes along this stretch of the Roanoke River, the Roanoke Rapids Dam has been producing power since 1955. A short shipping canal with locks first provided boat navigation around the actual rapids. Later a power canal was constructed and a low weir dam diverted water into the power canal. Although railroad access reduced the need to ship goods by water, the new power canal allowed mills and water-powered facilities to be built in the area. A later version of the power canal allowed the first Kraft Paper Mill to start business in the North Carolina area and facilitated the development of the region's textile industry. Today, the Kraft Paper Mill still draws 24 million gallons of water a day from the old power canal.
Although Roanoke Rapids Dam provided hydro-electricity starting in 1955, another dam built in 1963 just west of the dam created Lake Gaston, and this new reservoir filled with power-producing water. Water levels in Roanoke Rapids Lake are primarily controlled by the larger Lake Gaston Dam. Lake Gaston is a more popular tourism lake with water sports facilities and year-round and vacation homes. Roanoke Rapid Lake is quieter than its western neighbor, and lucky visitors can often find a private home rental available on its serene waters.
Several major hotels on the highway just east of town provide commercial lodgings, while a few local bed & breakfasts offer quaint settings in keeping with historic Roanoke River living. No commercial campgrounds are located on Roanoke Rapids Lake, but a modern new RV Resort is located outside of town off I-95. The RV resort was part of the planned Carolina Crossroads Entertainment Complex that has temporarily stalled development due to the recent recession. Listed on the Good Sam group of campgrounds, every amenity is provided to RV campers, making it an excellent place from which to explore the region and Roanoke Rapids Lake. Other small campgrounds are located nearby. The city and its surrounding areas hold a number of excellent restaurants, with gift shopping and supplies sold in several locations. And, come fall, the striped bass keep the angling action hopping. So, hitch the boat trailer and stow the gear in the trunk. All kinds of water-based fun await at Roanoke Rapids Lake.
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