There’s no better place to stretch out the lazy days of summer than in a nostalgic little lake town, watching the sun set over the water from an Adirondack chair. I’ve rounded up the 10 best lake towns in North America, offering quaint main streets, boardwalk shops, wooden roller coasters, and, of course, ice cream parlors.
The Best Lake Towns in North America
You can find your summertime bliss in the best lake towns across the U.S. and Canada.
Meredith, New Hampshire
This quintessential New England town on Lake Winnipesaukee is a 90-minute drive from Boston and about 50 years back in time. In the White Mountain foothills, the town of Meredith charms with historic buildings and nostalgia at every turn. It’s the kind of place that’s reminiscent of your summer camp days. Kids leap from swimming rafts with a stunning mountain backdrop. Restaurants serve comfort food and upscale versions of s’mores. There’s even a comic book shop.
Where to Stay: For a great night in Meredith, stay at Mill Falls at the Lake overlooking Meredith Bay. This restored 19th-century linen mill exudes old-world charm, and has both a covered bridge and a 40-foot waterfall.
Port Carling, Ontario
Some of Canada’s best lake towns are in what locals call “cottage country,” the popular Muskoka lakes region just north of Toronto where city dwellers escape in droves each summer. Family cottages line the shores of lakes tucked away in evergreen forests inhabited by black bears.
Port Carling is the hub of activity. A set of locks in the center of town connects two of the region’s most popular lakes: Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau. You can walk from one end of this quaint lake town to the other, passing by sandy beaches, a farmers’ market, and little shops selling cottage decor.
If you go: Stop in at Muskoka Bear Wear for plaid pajama bottoms and other comfy Canadian-made clothing with the signature paw print logo. Eat a burger on the waterfront patio at Turtle Jack’s Muskoka Grill. Play a round of golf at one of nearly 25 area courses.
Where to Stay: For lodging in Port Carling, nothing is cozier than Duff’s Cottages. Each group of guests can book their own private cottage with access to 300 feet of private sandy beach on Lake Muskoka.
Lake Lure, North Carolina
At the edge of the Blue Mountains, the scenic town of Lake Lure was the film set for the 1987 blockbuster Dirty Dancing. Several locals were extras in the movie. Each summer, residents relive the magic at the Dirty Dancing Festival with a “Baby & Johnny lake lift” competition.
This lake town is an adventurous getaway less than an hour’s drive from Asheville. There are bumper boats, water cannons, waterslides, and certified ski and wakeboard instructors ready to pull you behind their boats. Sunsets are especially spectacular here and best enjoyed by paddleboat or pontoon cruise.
If you go: Spend some time exploring the Blue Mountains foothills that surround the lake. Chimney Rock State Park is the main attraction. From mountain biking and hiking trails you can take in views of Hickory Nut Gorge and see one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. There’s also an area where kids can learn to rock climb.
Where to Stay: A room at Grafton Lodge puts you a short walk from the lake and a short drive from several points of interest, including Asheville and Black Mountain.
Grand Lake, Colorado
A two-hour drive northwest of Denver takes you past Boulder and into the wilderness to the secluded town of Grand Lake. There’s a Wild West feel to this tiny historic village with fewer than 500 residents—mostly artists, musicians, and outdoorsy types.
You can still see hitching posts and old log cabin-style buildings throughout this lake town. The boardwalk, dotted with shops, dates to 1881. Quaint cabins and summer homes rim the lakeshore. Beyond those are Rocky Mountain National Park, Arapaho National Forest, and perfect tranquility without much cell phone service.
If you go: Rent a kayak or paddleboard or go fishing off the dock at Point Park. Don’t miss the regattas in August run by one of the oldest yacht clubs in the west. Grand Lake Lodge’s dining room, with antler chandeliers and plaid carpet, has incredible views of the lake.
Where to Stay: The Historic Rapids Lodge is just a five-minute walk to the lake and a 10-minute drive to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Often called the “Newport of the West” for its historic lakeside mansions built by wealthy Chicago families (think Wrigley and Schwinn), Lake Geneva is a lovely lake town to stroll. The 21-mile Geneva Lake Shore Path takes you past century-old mansions. It’s a local summer ritual to gather in the waterfront gardens at sunset for a Champagne toast at the Victorian-style Baker House.
On the water you can hire a private fishing guide, go parasailing, or rent a boat for the day. Don’t miss the U.S. Mailboat Tour where you’ll see “jumpers” skillfully leap from the boat to deliver and pick up mail in dockside mailboxes as the boat keeps moving.
If you go: Book a tee time or a spa treatment in advance. Lake Geneva is a popular destination for both golf and spa experiences at luxury resorts including the Grand Geneva Resort, formerly Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club.
Where to Stay: Check out Seven Oaks Inn for a stay that feels more like a home and less like a hotel. The inn is located right in the city center and is a 20-minute walk to the waterfront.
One of Iowa’s favorite summer playgrounds, the town of Okoboji sits at the center of the Iowa Great Lakes: a chain of five glacier-carved bodies of water. Aside from waterskiing, paddling, and beach volleyball, there are countless kid-friendly activities to keep families busy.
When in Okoboji, a visit to the legendary Arnolds Park Amusement Park on the waterfront is a must. The wooden 1930s roller coaster, log ride, go-karts, and aroma of funnel cakes make for classic summer memories. Mini-golf, a water park, and ziplining are also nearby.
If you go: Expect jam-packed waterfront restaurant patios and lots of boats on the lake. Try parasailing or flyboarding, where you strap to your feet a water jetpack that propels you up to 50 feet in the air above the lake.
Where to Stay: The charming and lovely Oakwood Inn features beautiful grounds and special amenities such as a fireplace in each room.
Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid hosted two Winter Olympic Games and is best known for its scenic winter vistas, but the town is actually busier in summer. Germans originally settled this Adirondack Mountain lake town, so there’s a bit of an alpine European feel to it on Main Street and throughout the village of shops, restaurants, and brewpubs.
Freshwater springs and mountain streams feed the crystal-clear lake. You can rent a canoe, pontoon, or ski boat and cruise along the shoreline to see the Great Camps, log mansions from the Gilded Age.
If you go: Head to the waterfront park on Main Street on Tuesday nights throughout summer for a concert series. The lawn fills with people, and kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders listen from the water.
Where to Stay: The High Peaks Resort is located between Lake Placid and the equally stunning Mirror Lake. With a private beach and an on-site restaurant featuring a panoramic view of the Adirondack Mountains, this resort does not disappoint.
In the northern Idaho panhandle, huge glacial lakes glitter in the shadow of mountain ranges. One of the best lake towns in the region is Sandpoint, which sits on Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake (43 miles long). It’s a favorite place for locals to spend the long, lazy days of summer.
Bald eagles soar overhead and moose and bears are occasionally spotted in the surrounding forest. Brick buildings line Main Street in this walkable lake town of antique shops and boutiques. You’ll need an afternoon nap in a lakeside hammock after joining in a beach volleyball game or heading out on the water for paddling, sailing, Jet Skiing, or wakeboarding.
If you go: For an incredible view of the lake, take a chairlift ride at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. Silverwood Theme Park, at the southern tip of the lake, has more than 70 roller coasters, waterslides, and rides. Horseback riding is popular in the nearby Cabinet or Selkirk mountains.
Where to Stay: The Lodge at Sandpoint offers something you might not expect when you first think of Idaho: a sushi bar. This lakefront lodge features a quiet reading room with a fireplace and tall windows for scenic views of the lake.
Osoyoos, British Columbia
This lake town is an oasis in the desert between Vancouver’s Coastal Mountain Range and the Canadian Rockies of Banff National Park. Locals and visitors keep cool by waterskiing and wake surfing on Osoyoos Lake, billed as Canada’s warmest. You can find your inner zen at stand-up paddleboard yoga classes on the lake or at one of the town’s resort spas.
Younger kids love Rattlesnake Canyon’s bumper boats, giant trampolines, and other attractions. Yes, there really are rattlesnakes here. You might see them or their eggs on the golf course or on horseback trail rides through this gorgeous landscape.
If you go: Stop by a roadside fruit stand and eat peaches so ripe the juice drips down your arm. Visit tasting rooms at some of the 30+ wineries in the area, including one at a resort run by the local indigenous band.
Where to Stay: On the waterfront, Walnut Beach Resort has a private beach and a pool that overlooks the lake. You can enjoy the view while barbecuing on the pool deck or soaking in the outdoor hot tubs.
In this scenic lake town, soft sand piles up in heaps along the shoreline of the vast Lake Michigan. Sitting atop Saugatuck’s dunes and watching the sunset on the lake, you can easily imagine you’re overlooking the ocean.
Oval Beach is consistently ranked among the Midwest’s top beaches, and Saugatuck Dunes State Park draws numerous thrill seekers who zip around on dune buggies or cross-country ski on the 200-foot mounds. Little resorts and B&Bs provide bicycles for guests to pedal around this artsy town with plenty of galleries, ice cream shops, and craft breweries.
If you go: Check out a performance or exhibit at the new Saugatuck Center for the Arts. At the Express Yourself Art Barn you can paint or fuse glass in a 19th-century barn. Pick cherries or peaches in summer at a nearby orchard and cider mill in Fennville.
Where to Stay: For a memorable stay on Lake Michigan, consider The Maplewood Hotel. Aside from being a short drive from the waterfront, the hotel has a beautiful pool and spa.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 10 Most Swimmable Lakes in America
- The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States
- The Best Beaches in America to Travel to This Summer
Jamie Moore is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel. Her articles have appeared on USA Today, Yahoo Travel, Huffington Post, and WestJet.