Trails: Paddy’s Creek and Holly Discovery Trails
Hike Location: Lake James State ParkGeographic Location: northeast of Marion, NC (35.75140, -81.87834)Length: 3.6 milesDifficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)Last Hiked: April 2019Overview: A lollipop loop along the banks of Lake James and Paddy’s Creek.Park Information: https://www.ncparks.gov/lake-james-state-parkHike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=742993
Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Marion, take US 70 east 5 miles to SR 126. Turn left on SR 126. (Note: this intersection can be reached from I-40 between Asheville and Winston-Salem by taking exit 85, exit 90, or exit 94.) Drive SR 126 north 5.4 miles to the signed park entrance on the right, passing the entrance to a different part of the park on the left en route. Turn right to enter the park, and drive the main park road 2 miles to its end at the park office. Park in the large parking lot in front of the park office.
The hike: Located near the mouth of North Carolina’s famous Linville Gorge, Lake James State Park protects more than 6800 acres around its namesake lake. The lake was formed in the early 1920’s when Duke Energy built hydroelectric dams on the Catawba River and two of its tributaries. The lake is named after James B. Duke, who is the founder of Duke Energy. The park was established only in 1987, and the area that contains this hike opened for public use only in 2010.Although you can peer into the rugged gorge from an overlook you drive past on your way to this trailhead, the terrain contained in the park itself is mostly flat or rolling. The park is organized into three sections: the Long Arm Peninsula Area, the Catawba River Area, and the Paddy’s Creek Area featured here. The Long Arm Peninsula Area features only some boat-in campgrounds for amenities, but the other two areas feature developed campgrounds, picnic areas, and an excellent selection of hiking and/or mountain biking trails. This hike takes you along the north bank of Paddy’s Creek and Lake James, thus offering a nice combination of lakeside and forest hiking on fairly flat and easy trails.

East trailhead of Paddy's Creek Trail

The hike starts at the park office building, which also contains a concession stand and changing facilities for the adjacent swimming area. Follow the asphalt path to the right (west) that provides handicapped access to a picnic area, and look for the beginning of the Paddy’s Creek Trail on the right. The wide dirt Paddy’s Creek Trail heads into the woods at a sign that simply says “trail.”Marked by orange plastic triangles, the Paddy’s Creek Trail follows the north side of Lake James’ Paddy’s Creek inlet with the lake visible to the left. The forest in this area is a nice mix of maple, sweet gum, and loblolly pines, but some nice shady hemlocks will be passed later on. Some wide well-constructed wooden bridges carry you over two of Paddy’s Creek’s tributaries, and overall the hiking is easy and pleasant.

Old stone wall

At 0.3 and 0.7 miles respectively, the Mills Creek and Homestead Trails exit right at signed intersections. Stay close to the lake by remaining on the Paddy’s Creek Trail. Broad lake views appear at a couple of points, and some piles of rocks probably indicate farm field boundaries that predate the park and maybe even the lake.

Lake James

Soon the western end of Paddy’s Creek inlet comes into view, and the trail climbs gradually to an elevation about 40 feet above the lake. A blazed but unsigned spur trail exits left to descend to a wetland at the inlet’s western end, but it exits at such a sharp angle that you will have a better chance of finding the spur trail on your return route. Continuing west, the trail exits the woods and enters a narrow grassy area as you approach the main park road. I passed a couple of deer in this area on my visit.At 1.15 miles, you reach the west end of the Paddy’s Creek Trail at a parking lot on the main park road. You could turn around here, but the short and easy 0.75 mile Holly Discovery Trail also starts at this parking lot, so you may as well extend your hike by adding on the Holly Discovery Trail. The Holly Discovery Trail features some excellent hands-on exhibits designed to educate younger kids about the forest. In fact, if I was hiking with kids younger than 10, I would skip the Paddy’s Creek Trail by parking at this parking lot and just hike the Holly Discovery Trail.

Start of Holly Discovery Trail

Marked with red plastic triangles, the Holly Discovery Trail starts by passing through a wooden portal before quickly splitting to form its loop. For no reason, I turned right and used the left trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise. True to its name, the forest along this trail features a lot of American holly. Some wet areas need to be negotiated, but the gravel trail surface keeps your feet mostly dry.1.8 miles into the hike, a signed spur trail exits right to Paddy’s Creek. This short spur is worth taking, as it leads to a nice spot along the clear-water creek, which is a rapidly flowing mountain laurel-choked waterway at this point. The contrast between this view and the Lake James view you passed only 1 mile earlier is striking.

Paddy's Creek

Back on the main loop, you pass a couple more interpretive stations before closing the loop. Retrace your steps across the park road and back down the Paddy’s Creek Trail to return to the park office and complete the hike. Be sure to take the short spur down to the wetland area on one of your trips along the Paddy’s Creek Trail, and stop at the Linville Gorge overlook on your way out if you did not do so on your way in.