America's Best Lake Vacations
Brian Raub, founder of Lakelubbers.com, says lakes have an inherent advantage over the ocean when it comes to vacations. “You’ll probably prefer the feel of freshwater over salt, and you probably won’t miss seasickness, seaweed, or sharks. You can choose your outdoor temperatures; lakes exist at elevations from below sea level to 13,000 feet above.”
And temperature isn’t your only choice: America offers a lake vacation for every season and activity, and no matter where you live, even in the Southwest desert, chances are there’s one near you. Satellite mapping has yet to yield a precise answer, but the best guess is that there are between 3 and 4 million lakes across the U.S., ranging from duck ponds to wonders like Oregon’s Crater Lake.
Related: U.S. + Canada Travel Guide
Minnesota, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, actually counts nearly 12,000 — the most named lakes among the lower 48 states. Michigan comes in a close second and Florida third, while among smaller states, Maine stands out with nearly 800. But Alaska trumps them all with an estimated 3 million lakes. We’re partial to Lake Clark by Port Alsworth, where wilderness adventures are guaranteed, whether you’re in the mood for kayaking, getting dragged by a dogsled team, or spotting grizzly bears and caribou.
While Lake Tahoe is most popular for winter sports and Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago reaches its windsurfing peak in fall, we associate most lakes with summer, as places to cool off and chill out.
“Maybe instead of flying to Paris this year, you’re driving from New York City up to Lake Placid or from St. Louis down to Table Rock Lake,” says Matt Renner of ResortsandLodges.com. “No matter the reason, more and more people are spending their vacations on lakes.”
After all, lakes can inspire quiet reflection, most famously in the case of Henry David Thoreau, who sought out Walden Pond in the backwoods of Massachusetts. “They’re a commons, owned by everyone, where you are free to stake out some space for yourself, slow your life down for a day or a weekend or a couple weeks, and take stock of things,” says Jerry Dennis, author of The Living Great Lakes.
Read on to find the lake vacation that’s right for you.
Lake Champlain: New York, Vermont
Best for History: On both land and water, Lake Champlain played a major part in three major American conflicts: the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. The lake’s long and often bloody history is recalled at forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point on the New York side, as well as at Mount Independence and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum on the Vermont shore. You could stick to New York and double up with a stay at historic hotel The Sagamore at Lake George, south of Ticonderoga. Or head to Burlington, VT, to board the lake steamer Moonlight Lady for a four-day history cruise along 121-mile-long Lake Champlain.
Stay: Normandie Beach Club
Lake Superior: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Best for Fishing: Lake Superior is so vast it could easily hold all of the water from all of the other Great Lakes. That means there’s plenty of room for fish to thrive: salmon, trout, walleye, smelt, whitefish, herring, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and many other game species can be caught in abundance along the lake’s tristate shores. No matter what time of year, some sort of fishing is in season; Duluth (MN) and Bayfield (WI) are among the charter hubs.
Stay: Lutsen Resort
Crater Lake: Oregon
Best for Scuba Diving: Other lakes have shipwrecks or sunken towns, but only Crater Lake offers the bragging rights of diving in a flooded volcano that also happens to be the deepest lake in the U.S. (and ninth deepest in the world). Without a deep-sea submersible you won’t be able to reach the absolute bottom (1,943 feet). But there’s plenty to explore in the crystal-clear shallows: lava formations, wildlife (trout and salmon), and underwater moss meadows. The catch is that you have to schlep your own scuba equipment up and down the Cleetwood Cove Trail—700 vertical feet. If that’s not your idea of vacation, try the Wizard Island boat cruises around the crater’s island on that clear, calm blue water.
Stay: Crater Lake Lodge
Play: Wizard Island Boats; (888) 774-2728
Lake Winnebago: Wisconsin
Best for Windsurfing: Steady wind and easy launch make Winnebago the lake of choice for Wisconsin windsurfers and kite surfers—especially in summer, when the shallow, sandy bottom creates water temperatures that are downright tropical (75–85ºF). The annual Wind Power Championships in September brings the nation’s top wind-sport racers to Winnebago to face gusts of up to 40 mph. In winter, the lake converts to sail-powered ice racing.
Stay: Retlaw Plaza Hotel
Lake Kabetogama: Minnesota
Best for Kayak or Canoe Camping: Paddle along the same routes as early French trappers, traders, and explorers on Lake Kabetogama in northern Minnesota. Part of the warren of waterways that make up Voyageurs National Park, the lake offers more than two dozen wilderness campsites that can be reached only by boat, including gorgeous spots along Lost Bay and among the Chief Wooden Frog Islands. Keep an eye out for wildlife along the shore, from bear and bald eagles to otters, wolves, and moose.
Stay: Northern Lights Resort
Play: Anderson’s Canoe Outfitters, which offers shuttle service between Crane and Kabetogama lakes and customizable canoe trips.
Lake Clark: Alaska
Best for Wilderness Adventure: The only way to reach super-secluded Lake Clark is trekking overland through the Alaska bush, getting dragged by a dogsled team, or flying in by a floatplane. Flanked by snowcapped peaks, thick boreal forest, and whitewater rivers, the 50-mile-long lake is quintessential Alaska. Fishing, kayaking, and wildlife-watching are the main aquatic activities, while the lakeshore lends itself to weeklong hikes and backwoods camping. Tiny Port Alsworth offers a visitor center, kayak rental, guide services and outfitters, post office, and lodging.
Stay: Island Lodge, Lake Clark
Play: Lake Clark Air, Port Alsworth
Lake Tahoe: California/Nevada
Best for Snow Sports: High-altitude Tahoe (6,225 feet) is nirvana for skiing, snowboarding, and other cold-weather sports. Seven major winter resorts ring the shore, including Squaw Valley, where the 1960 Winter Olympics took place. Hike along snowy forest trails, snuggle up beside a fire in a lakeshore café, or ride the Sky Express to the top of Heavenly’s highest peak for a snow-mantled panorama of the entire lake basin.
Stay: The Landing Resort & Spa
Play: Heavenly Ski Resort
Lake Michigan: Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois
Best for Beaches: With more than 1,600 miles of shoreline, Lake Michigan offers more beaches than any other American lake. But it’s not just quantity: there’s a beach for nearly every taste. The big-city strands that front Chicago, the wild rolling dunes of northern Indiana, the pastoral shores of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, and the carnival-like atmosphere along the Traverse City Boardwalk offer totally different sun-and-sand experiences on the same lake. You’ll pass that boardwalk on the scenic drive from Bay Harbor to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Stay: The Inn at Bay Harbor
Play: Sleeping Bear Dunes
Finger Lakes: New York
Best for Wine Tastings: With more than a hundred vintners, the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York is the prime wine region of the Eastern U.S. The largest concentration of tasting rooms is along Highway 414 on the east side of Lake Seneca. Wineries with spectacular waterfront locations include Belhurst Estate in Geneva and Thirsty Owl in Ovid. Riesling is the most popular plonk, but the lakes region also produces fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
Stay: Belhurst Castle
Play: Thirsty Owl Winery
Lake Powell: Utah/Arizona
Best for Desert Houseboating: From the original Planet of the Apes to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, more than three dozen movies have been filmed in and around drop-dead-gorgeous Lake Powell. Spin your own high-adventure tale on a houseboat cruise through the red-rock desert wilderness. Created by Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, the vast lake stretches for nearly 200 miles into uninhabited southern Utah and includes more than 80 side canyons where yours will often be the only boat.
Lake Havasu: Arizona
Best for Partying: Thousands of college students gather on the Arizona side of Lake Havasu each spring for time-honored rituals like nearly running aground, naked waterskiing, and around-the-clock boat parties. (No, it’s not legal to dive off London Bridge.) There are plenty of places to party onshore too, whatever the season—nightclubs, bars, restaurants, lake-view hotel rooms, and the patio of the swanky Heat Hotel.
Stay: Heat Hotel
Moosehead Lake, Maine
Best for Ice Sports: With winter temperatures that often plunge below freezing and lake ice two feet thick, Moosehead Lake is prime territory for ice sport enthusiasts. The ice-fishing season runs January 1–March 31; local outfitters rent heated fishing shacks, ice cutters, and snowmobiles to get you there. Ice racing—cars speeding around the frozen lake surface—takes place on winter weekends on a groomed track near Greenville. The 160-mile Moosehead Lake Snowmobile Trail loops right around the lake, with a side trail (Route 66) that cuts straight across the ice.
Stay: Blair Hill Inn
Play: Birches Resort for equipment rentals and guided winter tours
Walden Pond, Massachusetts
Best for Reflection: Suburbia may have sprawled through much of the woodland west of Boston, but Walden Pond remains much as it was in olden days, an oasis of calm for collecting your thoughts. The forest-covered shores look much as they did in the 1840s, when pioneer environmentalist Henry David Thoreau lived deliberately by himself in a cabin overlooking the small glacial lake. Swimming, fishing, and canoeing are the main aquatic activities; trails lead to tranquil spots around the shore.
Stay: North Bridge Inn
Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming
Best for Sailing: Awesome wilderness scenery, waterfront wildlife, and a steady breeze make Yellowstone Lake a surprisingly great place to unfurl your canvas and set sail. Bridge Bay Marina on the north shore provides a launch ramp, floating docks, and a ranger station to purchase the national park’s inexpensive ($5) non-motorized boating permit. Sailors can overnight at special “boat party” campsites on the lake’s secluded (and roadless) south shore. People have been cruising Yellowstone since 1871, when the Hayden Expedition used a sail-powered rowboat to explore the lake.
Stay: Yellowstone Lake Lodge
Play: Bridge Bay Marina
Table Rock, Missouri
Best for Music: Combine catfish, cannonballs, and crooning at Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. Located on the outskirts of music-mad Branson, the lakeshore and its waterfront resorts are ideal for vacations that blend awesome outdoor recreation and classic country music. The annual Bluegrass & Barbecue Festival takes place over three weeks each spring on the Indian Point Peninsula on the lake’s north shore.
Stay: D’Monaco Resort
Play: Baxter Country Store
Caddo Lake: Texas and Louisiana
Best for Bigfoot Searches and Sightings: An internationally renowned wetland area, Caddo Lake is bounded by primeval swamps, sunken cypress trees, and thick forest where strange creatures are rumored to dwell. Hairy, apelike creatures have been detected around the lakeshore dozens of times, including visual encounters and tracks, according to the North American Wood Ape Conservancy (yes, it, at least, really exists). The most recent sighting, according to local press reports, took place in 2014. Whether you believe or not, Caddo is an eerily beautiful place to explore by foot—or by water.
Stay: Shady Glade Resort
Play: Caddo Lake State Park
Lake Chelan: Washington State
Best for Hiking: Dozens of trails lead your way around 55-mile-long Lake Chelan and into the snow-tipped Cascades on either side. The best is the Chelan Lakeshore Trail, which can be done as an out-and-back day hike from the Golden West Visitor Center or as an 18-mile overnight backpack to Prince Creek in Wenatchee National Forest. Bookending the longer hike are rides on the legendary Lady of the Lake steamer.
Stay: North Cascades Stehekin Lodge; lodgeatstehekin.com
Play: Lake Chelan National Recreation Area; nps.gov/lach
Lake Charles: Louisiana
Best for Cajun Culture: Cajun culture comes alive in the heart of the bayou country along the shores of Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana. The waterfront provides a scenic backdrop for several annual food and music festivals including Contraband Days in May and Live @ the Lakefront in March. Ryan Street in downtown Lake Charles (two blocks off the water) is the place to head year-round for local tunes and eats—joints like Sha Sha’s of Creole and the Luna Bar & Grill.
Stay: L’Auberge Lake Charles; llakecharles.com
Play: Contraband Days; contrabanddays.com
Lake Washington: Washington State
Best for Hydroplane Racing: The world’s fastest boats race on Seattle’s Lake Washington when the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Series rolls into town as part of the annual Seafair summer festival. These 3,000-horsepower boats can breach 200 miles per hour on a straightaway and average as much as 150 mph on the Lake Washington circuit. Vintage “thunderboats” are on display at the nearby Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, WA.
Play: Seafair; seafair.com
Flathead Lake: Montana
Best for Horseback Riding: Wild horses roam the eponymous state park that floats in this lake in western Montana. Along the shore awaits the all-inclusive Flathead Lake Lodge, where guests can enjoy equestrian lessons, trail rides, cookout rides, barrel-racing competitions, and team roping demonstrations. Other dude ranches in the Flathead Valley can organize multiday packhorse camping trips into the surrounding wilderness mountains.
Stay and Play: Flathead Lake Lodge; flatheadlakelodge.com
Lady Bird Lake: Texas
Best for Stand-Up Paddleboarding: Lady Bird Lake meanders right through Austin, which happens to be the home base of SUP ATX, America’s largest stand-up-paddleboard maker. Named after the former first lady, the lake offers a super-smooth surface for learning and perfecting this trendy sport. Fans can tour the SUP ATX factory, buy a brand-new board at the Austin showroom, or start with a rental from Texas Rowing Center. It boasts the largest fleet of stand-up-paddleboard rentals on the planet, as well as demos, lessons, and summer camps.
Stay: Four Seasons Austin
Play: Texas Rowing Center; texasrowingcenter.com
Lake Oconee: Georgia
Best for Golf: About halfway between Atlanta and the legendary golf haven of Augusta, the Lake Oconee area has emerged as one of the country’s leading duffer destinations since The Landing course opened in 1986. Nine world-class golf courses now frame the lakeshore, among them, the Tom Fazio–designed National course, the Jack Nicklaus signature Great Waters, and The Plantation.
Play: Reynolds Plantation; reynoldsplantation.com.
Lake Erie: Ohio
Best for Bird-Watching: Since the 1960s, when the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire, Ohio’s north shore has morphed from disaster area to eco poster child. Forty years of landmark environmental cleanup has brought the birds (and many other creatures) back to the lakeshore. The state’s Lake Erie Birding Trail runs along 312 miles of waterfront between Toledo and Conneaut, including open water, marshes, estuaries, and lakefront woodlands in which more than 400 avian species can be spotted.
Stay: Kelleys Island Venture Resort; kiventureresort.com
Play: Lake Erie Birding Trail; lakeeriebirding.ohiodnr.gov
Lake Coeur d’Alene: Idaho
Best for Triathlons: If you’re going to train for a triathlon, spend that time at Coeur d’Alene, where the setting is both conducive and inspiringly beautiful, thanks to lengthy lakeside running and biking trails and clean, clear water. With a heritage stretching back to the early 1980s, “CDA” was one of the first places to catch on to the three-sport craze, and the lakeshore’s competitive triathlon each August was long ago dubbed the Scenic Challenge.
Stay: Coeur d’Alene Resort
Play: Coeur d’Alene Triathlon; cdatriathlon.com
Lake of the Ozarks: Missouri
Best for Pampering: Wellness meets wilderness at Spa Shiki on the shores of Missouri’s sprawling backwoods lake. From Swedish massage to organic green-tea wraps, exotic treatments from around the world are the hallmark of this lakeside retreat. Mix your pampering with other Ozark activities like boating, bass fishing, biking, hiking, and waterfront golf.
Stay: The Lodge of Four Seasons; 4seasonsresort.com
Play: Spa Shiki; spashiki.com