Is there anything better than spending a day chilling lakeside? While the beach seems to get all of the glory for a waterfront vacay, I think lakes deserve more credit. You can soak up the sun, take a dip in freshwater, hop on a kayak, have a BBQ, and more! In order to inspire a lakeside adventure of your own, here’s a list of the best lake vacations in the US!
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Western US Lake Vacations
Located in the Sierra Nevada range and straddling the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is famous for a lot of different things: it’s one of the deepest lakes in the US, one of the oldest lakes in the world, and one of the purest lakes in the world.
But let’s be real, that’s not why people continue to flock to Tahoe year-round. They come for the outstanding natural beauty, the intensely blue water, the snow-capped mountain peaks that ring the lake, the endless opportunities for fun, and the picturesque towns dotted along the shore.
There are a plethora of activities that will satisfy every type of traveler. Head to Kings Beach to rent kayaks, paddleboards, or sailboats for your ultimate water adventure. Opt for Zephyr Cove if you’re looking to relax and unwind without the crowds. Or really go for it and hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 170-mile loop around the lake, where you’ll get amazing views and clear starry nights from your tent. Section or day hike if that’s more your speed!
Within Yellowstone National Park lies the aptly named Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in North America. Because it freezes completely over annually and does not thaw until early summer, it is not recommended to swim in Yellowstone Lake. In fact, the National Park Service has estimated that humans can only survive in the lake for 20-30 minutes because the average water temperature is only 41°F!
But that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do. You can visit Yellowstone National Park Lodges for boat rentals or guided boat trips, where you can learn about the geology behind the famous natural wonders of Yellowstone, local wildlife, and the history of the area! While you’re in Yellowstone National Park, you have to explore the thermal basins that put the park on the map. In fact, over half of the world’s geysers are thought to be in Yellowstone! Of course, no visit to Yellowstone would be complete without watching Old Faithful erupt.
A summer oasis and hidden gem, Flathead Lake is located in the northwest region of Montana, about 20 miles south of Kalispell. One of the best parts of Flathead Lake is how accessible water activities are for visitors. There’s dozens of boat rentals and public access sites, so whether you bring your own kayak or need to rent a speedboat, it’s available to you here.
If you want to reel in the catch of the day, Flathead Lake Charters offers half-day and full-day fishing charters with everything you need to hook the big one provided! Take a day trip to Glacier National Park, about an hour North, to backcountry hike in grizzly country, swim in Lake McDonald, and drive up the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, which offers breathtaking views and stiff drops off inches from the edge of the road. Enjoy all that Montana has to offer without the crowds you would expect from a beautiful lake in the summer.
Crater Lake is an absolute must-visit for National Park enthusiasts. Formed by the collapse of Mount Mazama almost 8,000 years ago, this caldera is the deepest lake in the United States at almost 2,000 feet deep! It’s known for its iconic deep blue water and unreal clarity of 102 feet.
Like many National Parks, Crater Lake gets crowded during the peak summer season, so it’s best to visit early in the morning during the summer if you want space to enjoy the views on your own! A great way to immerse yourself in the views, even more, is by boat. You can book a boat tour that will take you all the way around the lake and then to Wizard Island.
Hiking offers another great way to take in the views. You can just walk along the upper rim of the lake, but if you want a more defined trail, the Garfield Peak Trail offers beautiful views and moderate terrain. You can camp in the park at the designated National Park campground, but I recommend finding a campsite at one of the many Bureau of Land Management campgrounds right outside of the park entrance. You’ll have more space, more shade, and more access to creeks to cool down in, all for a lower fee!
Lake Powell was artificially made by damming the Colorado River in Utah and the result is a haven for summer fun. It’s located within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which offers endless options for water activities, hiking, unique views, and more.
One of the most unique features of the area is Rainbow Bridge, one of the largest natural bridges in the world. You can access it via long hikes through Navajo Tribal Lands, meaning you’ll need a proper permit to enter, or via the 6-hour boat tour that offers audio sets that tell you about the unique geology and history of the land.
If you want to stay cool in the Utah summer heat, float down the famed Colorado River with Wilderness River Adventures, where you’ll end up passing through the iconic Horseshoe Bend. Unwind after a long day in the summer sun at the Anasazi Restaurant of the Defiance House Lodge, which overlooks the lake and is a fantastic spot to catch the sunset from their patio! Lake Powell offers a truly unique lake experience because of its red rock bluffs and surrounding geological wonders.
Located at over 10,000 feet above sea level, Echo Lake in Colorado is definitely a quintessential Rocky Mountain lake. It’s part of the Echo Lake Mountain Park, which is only one hour west of downtown Denver, making it a really convenient weekend getaway. You can camp at Echo Lake Campground within the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests for convenient access to trails, the lake, and wildlife viewing.
The Echo Lake Lodge offers homestyle American food seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because of its more remote location and lack of motorized boating, the best thing to do at Echo Lake is just sit back and relax. Make sure to pack a comfy camp chair, so you can read a book with a glass of wine or have a beer by the campfire.
Honorable mention: if you’re looking for a more developed lake experience in Colorado, check out Grand Lake Lodge at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park!
Lake Havasu, like Lake Powell, was formed as a reservoir along the Colorado River and is located in western Arizona. No matter what time of year you decide to visit, Lake Havasu State Park offers camping, boating, swimming, and more. It’s a great spot to cool off if you do decide to visit in the summer or if you’ve just taken a hike on the beautiful Mohave Sunset Trail through the desert.
Lake Havasu is also home to a very unique landmark: the original London Bridge. Robert McCulloch, the founder of Lake Havasu City, bought the bridge in 1967 from the City of London, dismantled it, shipped it to Arizona, and rebuilt it stone by stone. It’s the second most popular attraction in Arizona outside of the Grand Canyon.
Once you’ve toured the city, walked along the London Bridge, and enjoyed the lake, grab a drink at the Desert Bar, a one-of-a-kind spot that you can only really understand once you’ve been. Let’s just say the owner is quite the character and you never know who you’ll run into there. Just make sure to bring cash, they do not accept cards!
Jackson Lake is located in Grand Teton National Park and it might just be the most beautiful of any lake on this list. That’s because it sits right below the famed Tetons, so when the water is calm, you get a perfect reflection of the peaks. It’s fed by the Snake River and holds over 15 islands to explore. You can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and powerboats from Signal Mountain Lodge or take a dip from shore at Colter Bay.
While on the water, keep an eye out for wildlife-Jackson Lake attracts elk, moose, and even grizzlies! There’s a variety of options for lodging on the shores: from primitive cabins in Colter Bay to classic lodge luxury at Jackson Lake Lodge. You can also tent camp at the Signal Mountain Campground. Pro-tip for Signal Mountain Campground: it’s filled with huckleberry bushes, so if you stay in late July and August, make sure to pick some for huckleberry pancakes over the campfire! Head into Jackson Hole for great restaurants, beautiful art galleries, and a real-life cowboy shoot-out every summer night except Sundays.
Northeastern US Lake Vacations
In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, Lake George is a summer refuge for overheated and overworked New Yorkers. You can find most visitors along the shore swimming, kayaking, and fishing. If you’re looking to explore more of the lake, rent a pontoon boat from Lake George Boat Rentals.
Pack a picnic, sunscreen, and some towels and head off to Dollar Island or Paradise Bay. Hiking is another favorite among lake-goers, so check out this guide to choose the right hike for your group. Stay in charming Lake George village to access all of the amenities available including restaurants, summer cottage lodging, and a relaxed nightlife. Make sure to catch the sunset at Rooftop Cabana Bar and Restaurant—a local favorite!
In upstate New York, just below Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes are made up of 11 long and narrow lakes. If you’re a history buff, this is a bucket-list destination: The Iroquois Confederacy prevented colonization of the area for nearly two centuries, it was a hotspot for Underground Railroad safe houses, and the women’s suffrage movement started in Seneca Falls!
If history tours aren’t your thing, you can grab a glass of wine at one of the 400 wineries or a pint of craft beer at one of the 75 craft breweries in the area. In fact, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail takes you to 13 different wineries where you can taste, learn, and experience winemaking.
Before you hit the wine trail, you can hike the Gorge Trail at Taughannock Falls State Park to see the tallest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi. You can also spend the day in nearby Ithaca, exploring their famous gorges and even more famous Ivy League school, Cornell. There are also all of the classic lake vacation activities like swimming, boating, fishing, and more, so no matter what you like to do, Finger Lakes have it all.
In the heart of New England, Lake Winnipesaukee has long been a summer escape for Bostonians and New Yorkers alike. It’s the largest lake in New Hampshire and is situated in the foothills of the White Mountains, making it a perfect spot for an outdoorsy lake vacation.
There’s the usual boating, swimming, fishing, and hiking, but there are a few unique features that make Lake Winnipesaukee stand out. If your favorite spot at the beach is the boardwalk, you’ll love Weirs Beach. It’s got bumper cars, an arcade, homemade fudge, saltwater taffy, and fried dough stands. Plus, there’s a drive-in movie theater to really make you nostalgic.
Or get your adrenaline pumping at Gunstock Mountain Resort, a ski resort that caters to summer lake-goers with a zip line tour and mountain coaster ride. If you’re looking for a relaxing way to spend the afternoon, hitch a ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, where you can take in the views of the lake and surrounding mountains from a 200+ year old rail system.
Lake Champlain is another great spot for worn out city dwellers to ditch their phones and take it easy in New England. Water activities are the go-to way to spend a day around the lake, but watch out for Champ, the ever-elusive Lake Champlain monster! Stay in Burlington, VT, right on the shores of Lake Champlain, to soak up all that the small town has to offer. From Friday nights at the Truck Stop for the best dumplings you’ll ever have to a bike ride along the Island Line trail, there’s something to do for everyone.
You can even follow the famed Vermont Cheese Trail or visit the Ben and Jerry’s Factory to taste all of the local dairy delicacies. If you need to walk off all of the dairy you sampled, the lake’s location in the Adirondack Mountains offers over 200 miles of hiking trails as part of the Champlain Area Trails. Another great way to spend the day is at Ausable Chasm, also known as “The Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks”. You can join a raft tour through the gorge, hike to the falls, or test your bravery rock climbing, rappelling, or on a high ropes course!
Midwest US Lake Vacations
Lake Superior, located right on the border of Minnesota and Canada, is the largest of the Great Lakes and holds the title of largest by surface area freshwater lake in the world. What this means is that it’s the perfect summer escape for those looking to stay away from the crowds!
Drive along the North Shore Scenic Drive, a 145-mile stunning ride along the shore of Lake Superior. You can picnic at viewpoints, visit 100-year-old lighthouses, and stop for local treats like smoked fish. Visiting Grand Marais, an artsy little town on the northwestern edge of the lake, makes for a great day trip for those looking to grab a bite to eat or shop antiques and local art.
Head out on a short hike to Pigeon River High Falls, the tallest waterfall in Minnesota and right across the border from Canada, or paddle around the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness if you want an active adventure. If you’re looking for a relaxing and low key lake vacation, Lake Superior will leave you feeling absolutely refreshed!
One of the five Great Lakes, Lake Michigan has so much to offer for a lake vacation. You can add lake days onto pre-existing vacation plans to cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, or Traverse City, Michigan, which all sit along the shore of the Great Lake. Or you can make an entire vacation out of the lake itself!
You can’t miss Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has been named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America. Here, you can climb the hundred-foot-tall white sand dunes to reach Lake Michigan or you can opt to swim in North Bar Lake if you want a warmer swim. For more beach options, check out this list of the best beaches on Lake Michigan.
For the traveler that wants to unplug, Beaver Island, a 54-square-mile island only accessible by ferry or 15-minute puddle-jumper flight, is the perfect spot to put your electronics away and enjoy yourself technology-free. You won’t be roughing it too hard, there are still plenty of local restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores. No matter what type of lake vacation you opt for on Lake Michigan, it will be a great time!
Lake of the Ozarks
If you’re from the Midwest, there’s a good chance you’ve spent a summer day at the Lake of the Ozarks. Located in Missouri, this lake offers a classic American lake experience. If water sports are your thing, check out Bridgeport Boat and Jet Ski Rental, where you can rent a speedboat to waterski, wakeboard, or tube. They also offer pontoon boats for relaxing cruises or jet skis for a thrill-filled ride.
For all of my golfers, the Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail will give you excellent views, challenging courses, and first-class amenities. Some of the best memories from the lake can be made at the top-tier dining options. Head to Baxter’s Lakeside Grille to pair sunset views with their Baxter’s Sunset cocktail: “a mango margarita and raspberry daiquiri served side by side.” For a more upscale dining experience, JJ’s at the Copper Pot will have you indulging in surf and turf accompanied by live music in the piano lounge. If you want to relive your summer camp days or have a grown-up vacation, the Lake of the Ozarks has it all.
Southern US Lake Vacations
Lake LBJ in Texas
Lake LBJ is a reservoir on the Colorado River, like Lake Powell and Lake Havasu. However, Lake LBJ is located in the Texas Hill Country, just 45 miles from Austin, making it a great day trip or long weekend destination! One of the reasons that Lake LBJ is so popular is because of its very consistent water levels, which makes boating and swimming an absolute joy.
Most of the property surrounding the lake is private, so check out Hozhonion on the Hill for a glamping experience you’ll never forget! There are also plenty of public access points for swimming and boating around the lake like Sunrise Beach Village, Granite Shoals Lake Estates Park, and Sandy Park. If you need a break from the hot Texas sun, visit nearby Longhorn Cavern State Park to explore a chain of caverns hidden in the hills of Texas hill country. Horseshoe Bay Resort offers luxury and fine amenities right on the waterfront, so make sure to grab dinner at the gorgeous Yacht Club after playing a few holes at one of their three award-winning golf courses.
Located 20 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, Lake Norman is an idyllic retreat that’s perfect for a day or long weekend trip. Boating is the best way to see the lake, so check out one of the many boat rentals in the area. Another way to enjoy the lake is on a fishing charter with Gus, a local captain, and pro fisherman, as he takes you to his secret spots for the best fish and gives impromptu tours of all the local celebrities’ lakeside houses.
There are so many other things to do around the Lake Norman area. If you’re the speed demon of your group, test your driving abilities at the NASCAR racing experience located in nearby Concord. You get to drive a real NASCAR Race Car around premier speedways without instructors or lead cars to follow. If you’re looking for a more peaceful activity, Birkdale Village and Davidson, both quintessential Southern small towns, offer lots of open-air shopping, dining, cycling, and waterfront access.
There you have it: the 17 best lake vacations in the US! I hope you get a chance to get outside this year and spend some time relaxing at the lakeside. Do you prefer a lake vacation or a beach vacation? Let me know in the comments! And be sure to tag me on Instagram @onechelofanadventure if you visit any of these lakes!
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