Spend your next vacation at one of these beautiful lake destinations.
With all of the noteworthy landmarks and landscapes the U.S. has to offer, including its world-famous beaches, mountains and metropolises, the country’s variety of lake destinations have a habit of fading into the background. But they shouldn’t. The U.S. is home to hundreds of remarkable lakes both big and small. U.S. News rounded up 27 lakes that deserve a spot on your bucket list — or, at the very least, a considerable amount of time on your next vacation itinerary. From miles-long natural swimming pools to remote wilderness getaways, these are the top lake vacations in the U.S. (Note: Some of these destinations may be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. New policies may be in place, including testing or vaccine requirements for visiting. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Lake Tahoe, California
There are many reasons why Lake Tahoe stands out as a lake vacation. The first is its sheer size. Lake Tahoe is so big (22 miles long and 12 miles wide) that it straddles two states (California and Nevada). The second is its remarkable clarity, which is due to precipitation falling directly onto the lake rather than draining into it from the adjacent land. The third is its striking surrounding mountains, which yield outstanding hiking and skiing trails, especially at the area’s top resorts like Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Northstar California. As for where to stay, know that you are spoiled for choice thanks to a variety of hotels, including the highly rated Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, and campgrounds, such as those found at scenic D.L. Bliss State Park.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Located in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is home to America’s deepest lake at 1,943 feet. Like Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake’s water gets its vibrant color and clarity from rain and snow falling directly into the lake. You can take in the grandeur of this amazing natural wonder in a handful of ways. Drive around the 33-mile-long Rim Road, which features multiple scenic viewpoints, hike along one or more of the park’s 90 miles of trails, or sign up for a boat tour of the lake. If you’re visiting in summer, you can swim in the lake via the Cleetwood Cove Trail. Inside the park, you’ll find accommodation options like Crater Lake Lodge and The Cabins at Mazama Village, as well as two campgrounds with 214 campsites for tents and recreational vehicles.
Lake Havasu, Arizona
Lake Havasu offers visitors the unique opportunity to cool off in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Situated along the California-Arizona border, Lake Havasu features plenty of opportunities for fun in the sun (the city experiences more than 300 days of sunshine per year). The most popular things to do here are boating, hiking and swimming (the region boasts 400 miles of shoreline), with popular spots including Lake Havasu State Park, Rotary Community Park and the shores along the Bridgewater Channel. Lodging options can accommodate all types of budgets thanks to a variety of hotels, motels, RV parks, campgrounds and more. Keep in mind, Lake Havasu is a popular spring break destination, so visit outside of March and April if you want to avoid crowds.
Lake Powell, Arizona and Utah
While spring breakers are drawn to Lake Havasu for a good time, travelers make the trek to this lake to see its spellbinding scenery. And there’s a lot of it. Lake Powell is longer than the West Coast of the United States. The best way to experience the lake is by spending time both on the water and the surrounding land. Popular natural wonders, such as Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, can be found in the area. Boat tours are another popular activity, with some operators taking visitors to scenic spots like Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Navajo Canyon. When thinking about where to bed down, consider that the majority of Lake Powell’s hotels are located in Arizona, while the Utah side offers more campgrounds.
Mammoth Lakes Basin, California
This alpine gem is a playground for adventure travelers. Located about 40 miles southeast of Yosemite National Park, Mammoth is home to more than a dozen lakes, all of which are surrounded by scenic Eastern Sierra mountain wilderness. This means you’ll have plenty to do both on land and on the water. The lakes allow for swimming, fishing and boating, including kayaking and paddleboarding. During winter, Mammoth Mountain is popular among skiers and snowboarders. The Mammoth Lakes Basin also boasts more than 50 miles of hiking trails, with part of the famous John Muir Trail running through the area. Five campgrounds are available in the basin area, and several hotels can be found in the adjacent town of Mammoth Lakes.
Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City is a superb home base if you want to explore northern Lake Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is home to some of the world’s last perched dunes, is within driving distance of downtown. After exploring the protected area’s 35 miles of sky-high sand dunes, make a trip to the state’s wine country, which can be found on the scenic Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Once you’ve taken in the sights on land, hop on a boat tour. Outing options range from kayak rentals to a guided excursion atop an old-fashioned schooner. Plus, there are a variety of accommodations here, including hotels, resorts and beachside condos.
Caddo Lake State Park, Texas
Caddo Lake’s romantic scenery will make you do a double take. The kind of idyllic setting you’d imagine as the backdrop of a romance novel or movie, this state park along the Texas-Louisiana border is dotted with stately baldcypress trees that drip with Spanish moss. The first thing visitors should do here is rent a canoe or kayak to get closer to these natural wonders. The park features more than 50 miles of paddling trails through its sloughs, bayous and ponds, providing plenty of opportunities to soak up the captivating scenery. Other activities include fishing (there are more than 70 species of fish here) and short hikes through the lake’s surrounding forest. Lodging options within the park are limited, with the exception of cabins and campsites.
Lake Chelan, Washington
Get a taste of the Pacific Northwest’s revered scenery at this Washington lake. Located between Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan offers plenty to see and do thanks to its massive size (it measures more than 50 miles long). The lake is the ideal setting for kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding, as well as snorkeling, scuba diving, water skiing and wakeboarding. Back on land, there are 250 miles of trails, more than 60 of which can accommodate mountain bikers, horseback riders and motorcyclists, in addition to hikers. Accommodations range from resorts and hotels to cabins and campsites, so you have a lot of options to choose from.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Michigan’s Mackinac Island offers a unique type of vacation for visitors. This small island (it measures less than 4 square miles) located on Lake Huron has no cars or chain hotels and features old-world charm not often found in island getaways. Mackinac Island is awash with beautiful Victorian architecture, horse-drawn carriages and lots of activities. Unwind at a spa or golf course, learn about the island’s storied past at its two military forts and other historical sites, and admire its natural attractions (80% of the island is a state park). For such a small island, there are a lot of places to stay, from palatial resorts (see the impressive Grand Hotel) to bed-and-breakfast accommodations to condo rentals.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Central Missouri’s most popular lake destination is awash with activities that will entertain travelers young and old. Families will enjoy the lake’s many boating and swimming opportunities, as well as popular attractions like Big Surf Waterpark. Meanwhile, the area’s golf courses, spa scene and collection of wineries along the Lake of the Ozarks Wine Trail will appeal to couples. What’s more, Lake of the Ozarks offers a diverse range of accommodations. Rent a cabin, park yourself at an RV campground, or book a stay at a resort or palatial vacation rental for a more luxurious stay.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
This remote lake vacation will require some time and effort to get to, but its incredible scenery and peaceful atmosphere will be more than worth the journey. Composed of 21 of the 22 islands that are part of the Apostle Islands archipelago, this protected area can be found in Lake Superior, just off the coast of Wisconsin’s northernmost point, and is only accessible by boat. The islands stand out for their colorful, uniquely carved sandstone cliffs and sea caves, which are a result of erosion. Book a boat cruise or a kayak tour to enjoy an up-close view of these natural wonders. You can also hike, visit remote beaches, fish and even scuba dive. Because of the lakeshore’s location, campsites are the only lodging option available. If you’re looking for more traditional accommodations like hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments, consider bedding down in Bayfield, Wisconsin, which is considered the gateway to the Apostle Islands.
Lake George, New York
Travelers seeking a lake vacation with lots of adventure should turn to Lake George. Part of the verdant Adirondacks region, Lake George is so vast that it encompasses more than 170 small islands within its borders. Take in the splendor of Lake George from above by hiking up Prospect Mountain or Sleeping Beauty Mountain. You can also get your heart pumping by cycling along the leafy Warren County Bikeway, renting water sports equipment (including kayaks, paddleboards and canoes) or testing your inner daredevil at the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, which offers everything from obstacles and rope swings to zip lines and rock climbing walls. Lodging options are plentiful, though if you’re hoping to save money, booking a cabin or cottage is the way to go.
Cooper Landing, Alaska
Southern Alaska’s Cooper Landing is an excellent home base to explore several nearby bodies of water, including Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake and Tustumena Lake. Plus, all of these lakes are accessible via the Sterling Highway, which connects directly to Anchorage (only 20% of Alaska can be reached by road). These lake landscapes feature vibrant blue waters, snowcapped peaks and plenty of wildlife, as well as ample opportunities for fishing. Due to the climate and water conditions, these lakes are best for admiring, not swimming. If you’ve explored the lakes to your desire and have more time, know that Kenai Fjords National Park and Kachemak Bay State Park are both located on the same peninsula.
Finger Lakes, New York
The Finger Lakes is not your average lake destination. This region in central New York offers a diverse range of activities that could fill a weeklong itinerary. Here, visitors are treated to the Finger Lakes’ American Viticultural Area and enjoy access to three state parks, including Watkins Glen State Park, which is known for its many picturesque waterfalls and trails. You’ll also find top-notch skiing during the winter months, as well as cultural diversions like the impressive Corning Museum of Glass and the world’s oldest photography museum. There are plenty of accommodations in the region, though you should consider splurging on one of the Finger Lakes’ beautiful lakefront hotels, including Geneva On The Lake, Aurora Inn and Mirbeau Inn & Spa Skaneateles.
Travelers looking for a low-key lake vacation with serene beaches and pretty sunsets will enjoy Saugatuck. Situated along the shores of Lake Michigan, about 40 miles southwest of Grand Rapids, Saugatuck is a charming small town that boasts a population of just 850 year-round residents. The town welcomes as many as 2 million visitors annually, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to picturesque streets, Saugatuck is home to a lovely shoreline. Kick back and unwind at Oval Beach and Saugatuck Dunes State Park, or admire the spectacular views at Mount Baldhead Park. For an added dose of adventure, consider a ride with Saugatuck Dune Rides, which offers group tours of sand dunes via open-top dune buggies. As for where to stay, accommodation options here include hotels, resorts, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, inns and vacation rentals.
Lake Santeetlah, North Carolina
Resting along the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just miles from the Appalachian Trail, lies serene Lake Santeetlah. This North Carolina lake and its striking leafy surroundings are refreshingly peaceful and ripe for exploration. The lake features 76 miles of shoreline and boasts more than 200 miles of trails in the adjacent Cheoah District. Visitors can also unwind and take a dip at Cheoah Point Beach, go boating (there are boat launches and marinas available) or spend the day fishing (the lake is home to nine different types of fish). Because of its remote location, there are only primitive campsites (no water or bathrooms) available at Lake Santeetlah.
Moosehead Lake, Maine
New England’s second-largest lake stands out because, like its name suggests, the lake is populated with moose, so much so that moose outnumber people three to one. If you’re interested in getting an eyeful of the lake’s namesake residents, you can join a moose safari. The lake is also known for its fishing. You can catch salmon and trout, and during winter, ice shacks can be found on the lake for ice fishing. Aside from its wildlife, this lake region provides the ideal setting for swimming, boating, Jet Skiing and even whitewater rafting. Lodging options range from bed-and-breakfast accommodations to campgrounds and sporting camps, the latter of which offer a place to stay and outdoor recreation experiences as part of your rate.
Flathead Lake, Montana
Montana’s striking mountain scenery is illuminated next to the glass-like waters of Flathead Lake. Situated in northwestern Montana about 40 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake features 185 miles of shoreline, making it the largest natural freshwater lake in the western United States. There are six state parks that border this beautiful lake, so you’ll find plenty of campsites to bed down at. Available activities include swimming, boating, water skiing and hiking along scenic trails by the lake and through neighboring Flathead National Forest. If you aren’t up for roughing it, know that nearby towns, including Kalispell, Bigfork and Polson, offer more traditional accommodation options and amenities.
Oconee County, South Carolina
You’re truly spoiled for choice with a vacation in Oconee County. This South Carolina county, which is located about 45 miles southwest of Greenville, is home to four lakes, including Lake Jocassee, Lake Keowee, Lake Hartwell and Lake Tugaloo. Lake Jocassee and Lake Tugaloo are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and feature waterfalls that feed into the lakes, while Lake Hartwell is often referred to as “the Great Lake of the South” due to its size (962 miles of shoreline). All of the lakes offer similar activities, including swimming and boating, though Lake Keowee is best for water skiing. As for where to stay, Oconee County boasts plenty of campsites and vacation rentals in the lake areas, as well as traditional hotels in Seneca.
Lake Champlain Islands, Vermont
There are few places in the U.S. where you can island hop via car. The Lake Champlain Islands in Vermont is one of those places. These five islands, which sit on 120-mile-long Lake Champlain, are all connected via U.S. Route 2 (also known as the Roosevelt Highway). The islands are home to beaches like Alburgh Dunes State Park and White’s Beach, farms (including Snow Farm Vineyard and Hackett’s Orchard) and plenty of lovely trails. The bike-friendly Island Line Trail is a particularly scenic pathway that crosses the lake from Causeway Park on mainland Vermont to South Hero Island. There are some hotels on the islands, and camping is available at Grand Isle State Park. Plus, since Burlington is less than 24 miles southeast of South Hero Island, you can always book accommodations there.
Thousand Islands, New York
With a name like Thousand Islands, you can only imagine the plethora of things to do here. This region is home to 1,864 islands and stretches across both New York and Ontario. On the New York side, you’ll find 15 state parks that offer year-round hiking trails. The region, which includes the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, also allows scuba diving, fishing and plenty of opportunities for boating big and small, fast and slow. All first-time visitors should book a boat tour to take in the splendor of this unique region and admire the castles that are dotted throughout the Thousand Islands. Lodging is also aplenty here, with options ranging from hotels to vacation rentals to campgrounds.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
This remote national park offers an ideal setting for intrepid travelers. The isolated island of Isle Royale, which the national park completely covers, sits in the middle of Lake Superior — along Michigan’s border with Canada — and is only accessible by ferry or seaplane. Along with unreliable cellphone service, the island does not allow vehicles and advises exploring via your own two feet or by boat. The park boasts 165 miles of hiking trails that take you through its dense forested land and up along its craggy coastline. You can also scuba dive, fish, kayak and canoe. Despite its remote location, the island does shelter two lodges, plus 36 campgrounds.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska
If you’re looking for a lake vacation devoid of visitors, consider Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. This protected area is one of the least-visited national parks in the country due to its remote location in southwestern Alaska (the only way to get here is by plane or boat). The long trek will quickly be worth the effort once you lay your eyes on the park’s evergreen scenery, turquoise waters and snowcapped peaks. First-time visitors should go hiking, book a boat tour and seek out opportunities to spot brown bears with a local guide. Although the park does have campgrounds, it’s best to book a lodge or bed-and-breakfast that will provide meals. If you camp or rent a cabin, know that you’ll have to bring your own food with you into the park.
Dubbed the “family-friendly Las Vegas,” Branson is the lake vacation of choice for travelers with kids. Parents will be able to keep little ones entertained for hours with fun attractions, such as White Water Branson, the Promised Land Zoo and Silver Dollar City. There are also the Branson Scenic Railway, Adventure Ziplines of Branson tours and the area’s caves and caverns for more adventurous groups. On Table Rock Lake, visitors can take a cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle or go swimming in multiple locations along its 800 miles of shoreline. As for accommodations, there are plenty of hotels, including the Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa & Convention Center, as well as outposts from Hilton and Radisson.
Lake Kissimmee State Park, Florida
Come to this central Florida park for its abundance of wildlife and its peaceful, verdant lakeside setting. Florida’s third-largest lake is home to more than 200 species of birds, including bald eagles, cranes and turkeys, as well as a variety of other animals, such as white-tailed deer, bobcats and gray foxes. You don’t have to search too far to find these animals, especially if you bed down at available campsites or wander along the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails. On-the-water activities include fishing and boating; kayaking, in particular, is a popular means of taking in Lake Kissimmee State Park’s waterways. If you’re not up for camping, you’ll find hotels in the towns that line U.S. Route 27, including Lake Wales and Winter Haven, where Legoland Florida Resort is located.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Lake Geneva is a solid option for travelers who want a little dose of luxury during their lake vacation. This lake, found less than 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee, is home to a handful of waterfront resorts, as well as spas, shops and golf courses. You’ll also enjoy unique outdoor activities here, including zip lining, scooter tours, hot air balloon rides, horseback riding and drives through an animal safari park that’s perfect for the kiddos. You can also partake in more traditional lake activities, such as taking a boat tour of the region and swimming at beaches like Riviera Beach and Big Foot Beach State Park. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to pencil in time for a stroll along the 26-mile-long Lake Geneva Shore Path, which weaves around the lake and looks particularly scenic come sunset.
Lake Oconee, Georgia
One of Lake Oconee’s most enticing features is its proximity to Atlanta. Unlike some other lake destinations that tend to be more remote, Lake Oconee is just 84 miles (less than a 90-minute drive) southeast of Atlanta and its large international airport. Hours wasted in the car or catching a connecting flight can be spent soaking up some sun on one of the lake’s beaches or on a boat, leaping feet first into the water at the popular Jumping Rock, or playing a round of golf or tennis at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Accommodations vary from a luxurious Ritz-Carlton to rustic campgrounds.
The Top Lake Vacations in the U.S.
— Lake Tahoe, California
— Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
— Lake Havasu, Arizona
— Lake Powell, Arizona and Utah
— Traverse City, Michigan
— Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
— Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
— Lake George, New York
— Finger Lakes, New York
— Caddo Lake State Park, Texas
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