25 Best Lake Vacations in the U.S.

From flooded volcanoes to world-renowned wetland areas, here's where to go for a lakeside getaway.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California
Photo: Anjelika Gretskaia/Getty Images

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 three and four million lakes across the U.S., ranging from duck ponds to wonders like Oregon's Crater Lake.

Minnesota, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, actually counts nearly 14,000 — 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 6,000. But Alaska trumps them all with an estimated three million lakes. We're partial to Lake Clark by Port Alsworth, where wilderness adventures are guaranteed, whether you're in the mood for kayaking, fishing, or spotting grizzly bears and caribou.

While Lake Tahoe is most popular for winter sports and Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago windsurfing continues well into fall, we associate most lakes with summer vacation, as places to cool off and chill out. After all, bodies of water can inspire quiet reflection, most famously in the case of Henry David Thoreau, who sought out Walden Pond in the backwoods of Massachusetts.

These are the 25 best lake vacations in the United States.

01 of 25

Lake Champlain, New York and Vermont

Lake Champlain with Burlington Vermont state in background in late fall
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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 the New York side and add another lake to your itinerary with a stay at the nearby Sagamore, a historic resort on the shore of Lake George, just south of Ticonderoga.

02 of 25

Lake Superior, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

Miners Castle, the best known rock feature of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, surrounded by fall foliage in the month of October.
Pam Susemiehl/Getty Images

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, Minnesota, and Bayfield, Wisconsin are among the charter hubs.

03 of 25

Crater Lake, Oregon

America's Best Lake Vacations: Crater Lake
Michele Falzone / Alamy

Best for Geology: Other lakes have shipwrecks or sunken towns, but only Crater Lake offers the bragging rights of visiting a flooded volcano that also happens to be the deepest lake in the U.S. (and the 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 appreciate from the surface: lava cones, sheer cliffs, and rock formations like Phantom Ship. Try a Wizard Island boat cruise, which combines a tour of the lake's perimeter with up-close views of Wizard Island, a 763-foot cinder cone created after Mount Mazama's last eruption about 7,700 years ago.

04 of 25

Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin

High Cliff State Park, Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin
Getty Images/500px Plus

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 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit). In winter, the lake converts to a natural rink for sail-powered ice racing.

05 of 25

Lake Kabetogama, Minnesota

America's Best Lake Vacations: Lake Kabetogam
Tom Bean / Alamy

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 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 bears and bald eagles to otters and wolves.

06 of 25

Lake Clark, Alaska

Hikers, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska
Andrew Peacock/Getty Images

Best for Wilderness Adventures: The only way to reach super-secluded Lake Clark is by flying in by a bush plane or float plane. Flanked by snowcapped peaks, thick boreal forest, and whitewater rivers, the 42-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 rentals, guide services, outfitters, a post office, and lodging.

07 of 25

Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada

Aerial shot of Lake Tahoe

Don Eim/Travel + Leisure

Best for Snow Sports: High-altitude Tahoe (6,225 feet) is best for skiing, snowboarding, and other cold-weather sports. There are 15 winter resorts ringing the shore, and you can 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.

08 of 25

Lake Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois

America's Best Lake Vacations: Lake Michigan
Courtesy of The Inn at Bay Harbor – A Renaissance Golf Resort

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, and the pastoral shores of Wisconsin's Door Peninsula offer totally different sun-and-sand experiences on the same lake. Nature lovers staying in the Traverse City area are especially spoiled for choice, with the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore being home to several sandy beaches, scalable dunes, and waterfront hiking trails.

09 of 25

Finger Lakes, New York

America's Best Lake Vacations: Finger Lakes

Best for Wine Tastings: With more than a hundred vintners, the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York is one of the prime wine regions 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 pinot gris, cabernet franc, pinot noir, chardonnay, and gewürztraminer.

10 of 25

Lake Powell, Utah and Arizona

View of the beautiful Lake Powell, Utah
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Best for Desert Houseboating: From the original "Planet of the Apes" to "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," more than two dozen movies have been filmed in and around the 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.

11 of 25

Lake Havasu, Arizona

Lake Havasu, Arizona
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Best for Partying: Thousands of college students gather on the Arizona side of Lake Havasu each spring for around-the-clock boat parties. There are plenty of places to party onshore too, whatever the season — nightclubs, bars, restaurants, lake-view hotel rooms, and the patio of Heat Hotel.

12 of 25

Moosehead Lake, Maine

America's Best Lake Vacations: Moosehead Lake
Danita Delimont / Alamy

Best for Ice Sports: With winter temperatures that often plunge below freezing and lake ice that's two feet thick, Moosehead Lake is prime territory for ice sports enthusiasts. The ice-fishing season runs from Jan. 1 to April 30; local outfitters rent heated fishing shacks, equipment, 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.

13 of 25

Walden Pond, Massachusetts

America's Best Lake Vacations: Walden Pond
Yevgenia Gorbulsky / Alamy

Best for Relaxation: Suburbia may have sprawled through much of the woodland west of Boston, but Walden Pond remains much as it was in the 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.

14 of 25

Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming

West Thumb Of Yellowstone Lake
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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 non-motorized boating permit. Sailors can overnight at special 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.

15 of 25

Table Rock, Missouri

Sunny day at Table Rock Lake, Missouri
Marty Bauer/Getty Images

Best for Music: Combine catfish, cannonballs, and crooning for the ultimate stay 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.

16 of 25

Caddo Lake, Texas and Louisiana

America's Best Lake Vacations: Caddo Lake
SuperStock / Alamy

Best for Bigfoot Searches and Sightings: A world-renowned wetland area, Caddo Lake is bounded by primeval swamps, sunken cypress trees, and a thick forest where strange creatures are rumored to dwell. Hairy, apelike figures have been detected around the lakeshore dozens of times, according to the North American Wood Ape Conservancy. Whether you believe the stories or not, Caddo is an eerily beautiful place to explore by foot or boat.

17 of 25

Lake Chelan, Washington

America's Best Lake Vacations: Lake Chelan

Best for Hiking: Dozens of trails lead along the 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 a 17-mile overnight backpack journey to Prince Creek in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Bookending the longer hike are rides on the legendary Lady of the Lake steamer.

18 of 25

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Lake Charles, Louisiana
Paul Harris/Getty Images

Best for Cajun Culture: Cajun culture comes alive along the shores of Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana, where the waterfront provides a scenic backdrop for several annual food and music festivals. Ryan Street in downtown Lake Charles (two blocks off the water) is the place to head year-round for local tunes and eats in the heart of the bayou country.

19 of 25

Lake Washington, Washington

America's Best Lake Vacations: Washington
Danita Delimont / Alamy

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 reach as high as 220 mph on the Lake Washington circuit. Vintage "thunderboats" are on display at the nearby Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, Washington.

20 of 25

Flathead Lake, Montana

America's Best Lake Vacations: Flathead Lake
© Blaine Harrington III / Corbis

Best for Horseback Riding: Montana's largest freshwater lake is a wildlife mecca, with bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and wild horses freely roaming its islands. Along the shore, equestrian adventures await at the all-inclusive Flathead Lake Lodge, where guests can enjoy horseback riding lessons, trail rides, cookout rides, rodeos, and team roping demonstrations. Other dude ranches in the Flathead Valley can organize multi-day packhorse camping trips into the surrounding wilderness mountains.

21 of 25

Lady Bird Lake, Texas

Lady Bird Lake Kayakers above Austin, Texas
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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 the 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 a large fleet of stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as demos, lessons, and summer camps.

22 of 25

Lake Oconee, Georgia

America's Best Lake Vacations: Lake Oconee
Courtesy of Ritz Carlton Lodge

Best for Golf: About halfway between Atlanta and the legendary golf haven of Augusta, Georgia, the Lake Oconee area has emerged as one of the country's leading golf destinations since The Landing course opened in 1986. Seven world-class golf courses frame the lakeshore. Among them is the Tom Fazio-designed National course and the Jack Nicklaus signature, Great Waters.

23 of 25

Lake Erie, Ohio

America's Best Lake Vacations: Erie
Tom Uhlman / Alamy

Best for Bird Watching: Since the 1960s, when the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire, Ohio's north shore has morphed from a disaster area into an eco poster child. Environmental initiatives over the last 40 years have brought the birds (and many other creatures) back to the lakeshore. The state's Lake Erie Birding Trail spans 312 miles along the waterfront between Toledo and Conneaut, passing through marshes, estuaries, and lakefront woodlands where you can spot more than 400 bird species.

24 of 25

Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

America's Best Lake Vacations: Coeur d’Alene
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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.

25 of 25

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

Lake of the Ozarks Castle Ruins
Eifel Kreutz/Getty Images

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, soothing treatments are the hallmark of this lakeside retreat. Mix your pampering with other Ozark activities like boating, bass fishing, biking, hiking, and waterfront golf.

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