Summer is synonymous with “beach,” but if you’re only looking to America’s coasts to dig your feet in the sand, you’re missing out on the most quintessential of warm-weather destinations: its lakes.
Popular Lakes in the U.S.
Not only do lakes make the perfect swim spot (especially for families looking for calmer waters), they’re often ideal spots for fishing, kayaking, and camping. Plus, the fresh water means you won’t have any sting in your eyes or funky taste in your mouth. Here are 10 must-visit lakes across the country—and what to do there.
Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe is more than a ski destination: It’s also North America’s largest alpine lake. Nestled among the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the border of California and Nevada, visitors generally head to North Lake Tahoe for Sand Harbor Beach, or Tahoe South, where Regan Beach is a family favorite. The lake sees 300 days of sunshine each year, and offers 24-hour casinos for when the sun sets.
What to Do at Lake Tahoe:
- Visit the Nordic-style mansion Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay State Park.
- Paddle via kayak, canoe, or paddleboard any of the 72-plus-mile shoreline that makes up the Lake Tahoe Water Trail.
- Bike from the mountain trails straight to the water (and wash that sweat off).
- Dive to the resting place of boats, launches, and barges in the Emerald Bay State Underwater Park.
- Follow the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile long-distance trail that loops the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Newfound Lake, New Hampshire
Nearby Lake Winnipesaukee may have more name recognition, but Newfound Lake holds its own, laying claim to some of the cleanest water fed by eight underground springs. Though at seven miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide it’s not the state’s largest lake, Newfound Lake is one of the deepest. And with 22 miles of shoreline, it’s plenty big enough to find your own little slice.
What to Do at Newfound Lake:
- Swim at Wellington State Park, the largest freshwater swimming beach in the state.
- Watch for birds at the lakeside Paradise Point Nature Center, a preserve of the Audubon Society.
- Rent a kayak or canoe from Paradise Point for a different view of the surrounding mountains.
- Hike Big and Little Sugarloaf for a birds-eye view of the lake.
- Scramble your way through Sculptured Rocks Natural Area, where the Cockermouth River has carved a gorge.
Lake Texoma, Texas & Oklahoma
As its name indicates, Lake Texoma straddles two states. It’s also one of the largest reservoirs in the country—and one of the most developed. More than 6 million people head to the lake’s shores each year, about an hour north of Fort Worth. But with a surface area of 89,000 acres, there’s room for everyone. Besides jumping off a boat, Eisenhower State Park’s beach is the ideal spot for swimming, tucked away in a cliff-backed cove.
What to Do at Lake Texoma:
- Catch around 70 different species of fish, including striper and catfish (just ensure you get the right license).
- Break from the water for a round of golf at one of the area’s public or private courses.
- Sail the lake by sunset or by moonlight aboard an 1800s-style pirate ship.
- Walk along the Cross Timbers Hiking Trail.
- Spot a bobcat and a pelican at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, one of two refuges along the lake.
Lake Chelan, Washington
The 50.5-mile Lake Chelan is Washington’s largest natural lake, and is surrounded by the Cascade mountains and vineyards. About 100 glaciers continue to drain into the lake during summer. The lake’s surrounding towns and state parks (Willow Point is a local favorite) protect numerous swimming areas, a must when the Lake Chelan Valley sees 300 days of sunshine each year.
What to Do at Lake Chelan:
- Explore the Lucerne Basin, one of the deepest gorges in the country.
- Zip above the valley with Tunnel Zip Lines.
- Taste area wines; Lake Chelan Valley was designated an official American Viticulture Area in 2009.
- Smell the wildflowers—purple lupine, red Indian Paintbrush, and yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot.
- Discover Stehekin, a town accessible only by boat or float plane and the access point for the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
The state’s largest lake destination, the Lake of the Ozarks has more than 1,150 miles of shoreline. Created by a dam in the 1930s, the lake shores are indented by coves, creating quiet inlets. Lake of the Ozarks State Park offers two sandy public beaches.
What to Do at Lake of the Ozarks:
- Spelunk at Ozark Caverns or any of the area caves.
- See the castles ruins, a natural bridge, sinkholes, and more in Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
- Ride a horse on the lakes’ equestrian trails.
- Cross one of the Swinging Bridges of Brumley.
- Eat local products from Osage Beach Farmers Market or Eldon Farmers Market.
Green Lake, New York
The Finger Lakes draw more attention as far as upstate New York lakes go, but Green Lake and neighbor Round Lake offer two lakes for the price of one—and more swimming opportunities. Green Lake and Round Lake, a National Natural Landmark, are both located in Green Lakes State Park. Sitting at the base of a gorge, the glacial lakes and surrounding area are remnants from the ice age.
What to Do at Green Lake:
- Marvel at the green color of the lake at Blanchard Beach.
- Check off all the birds on the Green Lakes State Park Bird checklist (pdf).
- Geocache by signing up and locating the caches within the park.
- Row, row, row your boat: rowboat and kayak rentals are available Memorial Day through Labor Day (no outside boats are allowed).
- Swing a club on the 18-hole Green Lakes State Park Golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones.
Rainy Lake, Minnesota
The land of 10,000 lakes is perhaps the country’s best spot for a lake vacation. One of the top concentrations of the state’s lakes is in Voyageurs National Park. Among the park’s 84,000 acres of water, 655 miles of undeveloped shoreline and 500 islands is Rainy Lake. Since the lake straddles Canada, ensure you understand border crossing rules for boats.
What to Do at Rainy Lake:
- Brush up on waterway regulations and ensure you know how to navigate.
- Rent a houseboat so you can explore more of the 360-square-mile lake.
- Learn more about the area on a naturalist-led boat or canoe tour.
- Camp in any of the 40-plus boat-in camping sites.
- Channel your inner fur trader and explore the area’s archaeological and historical sites.
Lake Santeetlah, North Carolina
Located predominantly in the Nantahala National Forest and surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, Lake Santeetlah has a 76-mile shoreline that’s limited on development and high on seclusion. Cheoah Point offers a swimming area, in addition to camping, and a hiking trail that connects to the Appalachian Trail.
What to Do at Lake Santeetlah:
- Rough it in one of the first-come, first-serve lakeside campsites.
- Raft down the Cheoah River, with Class IV and V rapids during dam releases.
- Wander the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old-growth forest.
- Wonder at the Yellow Creek Falls, a 50-foot waterfall.
- Look for otters, beavers, bald eages, and hawks.
Flathead Lake, Montana
The largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48, Flathead Lake offers up 185 miles of shoreline. Flathead Lake State Park is made up of six units offering recreation opportunities, including swimming: Big Arm, West Shore, Wayfarers, Finley Point, Yellow Bay, and Wild Horse Island.
What to Do at Flathead Lake:
- Purchase a tribal recreation permit if you visit the southern half of the lake, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation.
- Locate the accessible-by-boat Wild Horse Island, a 2,165-acre state park with wild horses.
- Munch on local cherries, apples, plums, and other produce from roadside stands.
- Pair your stop at Flathead Lake with a visit to Glacier National Park.
- Sip a local brew from Tamarack Brewing Company or Flathead Lake Brewing Co.
Lake Ouachita, Arkansas
Arkansas has 23 state parks with water access, but just eight offer a sandy spot to park yourself. Lake Ouachita State Park is one of them. One of the state’s Diamond Lakes, Lake Ouachita is surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest and is the state’s largest manmade lake with 975 miles of shoreline.
What to Do at Lake Ouachita:
- Angle for bream, crappie, catfish, stripers, and largemouth bass.
Unwind in one of the spas in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
- Avoid drinking, but do visit, the Three Sisters’ Springs natural spring water.
Mine for crystals at Ron Coleman’s Crystal Mine.
- Follow the Geo-Float Trail, a 16-mile self-guided route exploring the area’s geology.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Most Iconic Monuments in America
- 9 Places That Aren’t on Your Bucket List (But Should Be)
- 11 Secret Italian Villages to Visit Before the Crowds Do
Follow Kate Sitarz’s nomadic life on Instagram @katesitarz and Twitter @katesitarz.