There’s something wonderful about a summer vacation by the lake. Perhaps it’s the crisp, clear fresh water that cools you off on a hot day. Or it could be the stillness and quiet of an early morning canoe outing on a smooth, glass-like surface. Then again, your lake vacation may involve personal watercraft, swimming, fishing, paddle boats or camping by the shore.
In choosing a list of the “best” lakes in every state,we realized that what might make a lake fantastic for one person might make it a definite “no way” for another. So we’ve done our utmost to strike a balance among lakes with different strengths. And we’ve done our best with the few states that don’t offer a lot of choice in freshwater lakes.
With those caveats, here’s our pick of the best vacation lake in every state.
Our details are from Lakelubbers.com, which has information about major lakes across the country.
Alabama: Lake Guntersville
Alabama’s Lake Guntersville is part of Lake Guntersville State Park. It is Alabama’s largest lake, and its 949 miles of shoreline stretch 75 miles into Tennessee.
Lake Guntersville is a reservoir, created in 1939 when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Tennessee River for hydroelectric power and flood control.
The park boasts miles of hiking trails, abundant wildlife, fishing, boating and a nearby golf course.
Alaska: Kenai Lake
Kenai Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge offers a taste of many of Alaska’s spectacular natural wonders. The 22-mile long glacial lake is a popular trout fishing spot. It is the headwater of the Kenai River, which is known for king, silver and Chinook salmon.
It’s common to see mountain goats and Dall sheep in the nearby mountains and bald eagles soaring overhead.
Unlike much of Alaska’s wilderness, Kenai Lake can be reached by road.
Arizona: Lake Havasu
Yes, that is the famous transplanted London Bridge you see at Arizona’s Lake Havasu. While it’s the most famous aspect of this man-made lakeside hotspot in Arizona, the bridge is by no means the only attraction.
Formed by the creation in the 1930s of the Parker Dam on the Colorado River, Lake Havasu has become a popular spot for boating, swimming, fishing and lakeside relaxation.
Arkansas: Bull Shoals Lake
Bull Shoals is the largest lake in Arkansas. It and Norfolk Lake are known as the Ozark Twin Lakes. Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, Bull Shoals Lake has 740 miles of shoreline.
It entices visitors with fishing, boating, camping, swimming, hiking and even scuba diving. A marina offers supplies and boat rentals.
California: Shasta Lake
There are plenty of excellent lake vacation spots in California. It was hard to come up with just one to recommend. In the end, it was a toss-up between Shasta Lake, in Northern California, and Lake Tahoe, which California shares with Nevada.
So we’re featuring Tahoe as the recommended lake destination for Nevada, and Shasta Lake for California.
Bring your boat, water skis and wakeboards to Shasta Lake; it has 365 miles of shoreline and its waters cover 29,500 acres. Houseboats are welcome, too, and visitors enjoy swimming, bicycling, hiking, hunting and fishing and exploring nearby caverns.
Colorado: Grand Lake
Colorado’s Grand Lake, the largest lake in that state, is located at the headwaters of the Colorado River, near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The lake provides the perfect jumping-off point for a lake and mountain vacation. Recreation abounds. In summer, that includes jet skiing, sailing, boating, water skiing, swimming, hiking, scuba diving, horseback riding and golf. Come in wintertime and bring your cross country skis, snowmobiles and snowshoes.
Connecticut: Candlewood Lake
Candlewood Lake is the largest lake in Connecticut. At 11 miles in length and only 2 miles across at its widest, it’s not a big lake.
It does, however, offer boating, hiking and fishing. There are also boat rentals, where you’ll find many types of watercraft, including pontoon boats, kayaks, canoes and runabouts.
Delaware: Lums Pond
Delaware’s Lums Pond may not sound like a lake, but it’s the largest freshwater body in the state and sits within Lums Pond State Park in New Castle County.
There are hiking trails around it, and rowboats, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats are available for rent. It also offers fishing and camping and is popular among horseback riders for its trails and a few horse-only campsites.
Florida: Lake Tohopekaliga
Florida’s Lake Tohopekaliga is a great place to see wildlife — with turtles, alligators, osprey and bald eagles among the natural residents of this 18,810-acre lake.
Taking one of the many airboat rides available is a great way to explore it. Tohopekaliga is a popular lake for anglers, and bass fishing in particular, and you can glimpse what the surroundings were like very early in Florida’s history from a visit to Makinson Island, a county park within the lake.
Georgia: Lake Allatoona
Lake Allatoona is another man-made lake, built in the 1940s and completed in 1950 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Some 7 million visitors each year enjoying swimming, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, boating and geocaching amid wildlife and mixed pine and hardwood forests.
Hawaii: Lake Waiau
Hawaii is a place where you’d typically think about lying on an ocean-side beach soaking up the sun and enjoying the surf. But the multi-island state also has lakes.
Tiny Lake Waiau on Hawaii’s Big Island is interesting for a number of reasons. Sitting at more than 13,000 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest lakes in the world and the only alpine lake in Hawaii. It also lies within a crater near the famous Mauna Kea volcano.
Idaho: Lake Coeur d’Alene
Lake Coeur d’Alene is a glacier-formed lake that also got some help from the 1906 creation of the Post Falls Dam.
The lake offers lots of activities — including swimming, camping, boating, fishing, parasailing and relaxing on the beach. Visitors may enjoy a cruise boat tour of the 30,000-acre lake.
Illinois: Lake Michigan
This Great Lake is so big (22,400 square miles) that it qualifies as the world’s largest (by surface area) to be contained within a single country.
Of course, it offers every lake activity you can imagine. One way to approach Lake Michigan is to start in Chicago, where you might visit one of its many beaches or take a lake cruise.
Indiana: Lake Maxinkuckee
Indiana’s Lake Maxinkuckee is the second-largest natural lake in the state.
It offers plenty of recreational opportunities, including swimming, boating, water skiing, scuba diving, sailing and fishing.
The big draw for this glacially formed lake is its fishing; it has many varieties of bass, as well as walleye, trout and yellow perch.
Iowa: Spirit Lake
Iowa has its own Great Lakes, and they are considered pretty great all on their own. Spirit Lake is the largest of the nine or more lakes, including Spirit Lake (or Big Spirit Lake), Little Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake, the Gar Lakes, Center Lake and Silver Lake.
As a group, they offer a wide range of choices for vacationers. These glacier-carved lakes have provided a fun summer holiday destination for many decades.
Kansas: Clinton Lake
Clinton Lake is a reservoir managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also runs five campgrounds at the site.
One of the campgrounds — Rockhaven Park — accommodates visitors with horses or mules.
Alongside the 7,000-acre lake is Clinton State Park, which offers an archery range, bird watching, mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing.
Kentucky: Lake Barkley
Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, to the west, frame the 170,000-acre Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
It’s a recreational paradise, where you can swim, boat, fish, camp, hike, ride bikes and horses, and view wildlife.
Louisiana: Lake Pontchartrain
Lake Pontchartrain has many claims to fame.
To start, it’s not a freshwater lake. It is, in fact, a large saltwater lake. It also is the largest body of water in Louisiana.
Lake Pontchartrain was hit hard during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster when sludge from the subsequent flooding was pumped back into the lake by the City of New Orleans.
The sludge eventually dissipated as water circulated from the lake out to the Gulf of Mexico. It remains a favorite destination for tourists and locals to fish, boat, sail or swim.
Maine: Great Moose Lake
Great Moose Lake has been known as a quiet Maine lake retreat for many years.
The 3,584-acre lake offers swimming, kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, fishing and birding. Rental cabins are available. Wildlife include deer, loons, ducks and, of course, moose.
Maryland: Deep Creek Lake
Deep Creek Lake has been around since the 1920s, the result of the construction of the Deep Creek Dam on the Youghiogheny River.
It’s now the largest inland body of water in the state, with 65 miles of shoreline. Here you’ll find activities that include swimming, boating, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and, in winter, ice fishing.
Massachusetts: Walden Pond
In many ways, Walden Pond is an entirely unremarkable body of water — with only 2 miles of shoreline, a surface area of 61 acres and only modest swimming, picnic grounds and fishing options.
For many, however, Walden Pond is something else entirely: the spiritual home of the American conservation movement. It’s where Ralph Waldo Emerson owned some property and allowed his friend Henry David Thoreau to build a modest cabin and live in it for two years. During that time Thoreau pulled together the ideas within his seminal book about the experience, “Walden.”
Walden Pond is now a National Historic Landmark. Walden Pond State Reservation, on 335 acres of land around the pond, is protected and is limited to 1,000 visitors at any one time. Motorized boats and vehicles are not allowed.
Michigan: Lake Huron
With a surface area of more than 14 million acres and a 3,825-mile-long shoreline, Lake Huron is the second-biggest of the Great Lakes by surface area.
We selected Lake Huron as the one to see if you’re in Michigan because of the history you’ll find in Alpena, at Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary offers a history of the many shipwrecks in the region, which mirror the evolution of ship design over the last 200 years. More than 200 shipwrecked vessels lie under the water’s surface there.
Minnesota: Lake Superior
Lake Superior has to be the top pick for a lake to visit in Minnesota. Superior is by far the biggest of all the Great Lakes. In fact, by any empirical measure it wins — whether you are talking about depth, surface area or volume.
But being huge is not its only claim. There are spectacular views and destinations along Superior’s North Shore. You can take in the scale and grandeur of Lake Superior on foot by walking the 205-mile-long Superior Hiking Trail.
Mississippi: Enid Lake
The story of Enid Lake is one of triumph over adversity: The lake was created following disastrous flooding in the Mississippi Valley in 1927. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Yocona River, completing the project in 1952.
It has since become a popular Mississippi recreation spot that offers fishing, boating, swimming, camping, hiking and horseback riding. It’s best known as a fishing destination, so Enid Lake would be a good choice for the rod-and-reel crowd.
Missouri: Table Rock Lake
Table Rock Lake is another creation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps built Table Rock Dam on the White River in 1958 for flood control and hydroelectric power.
Being a short distance from the popular entertainment destination of Branson, Missouri, means that you can plan a much richer vacation around a visit to Table Rock Lake than with many of the country’s other lake vacation spots.
When you visit Table Rock Lake, you can scuba dive in the “Enchanted Forest” — a submerged forest of old oaks.
Montana: Bowman Lake
If you’re looking for a lake that offers a greater challenge, then Bowman Lake could be a good choice.
Bowman Lake sits within the vast Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It takes a trek on a rugged gravel and dirt road to get there. But when you arrive, you’ll find a gorgeous glacier-created lake in a mountainous area where grizzlies and mountain lions live. The lake’s primitive campground is a starting point for wilderness hikers. Boat motors are limited to 10 mph.
Nebraska: Lake McConaughy
Lake McConaughy (or “Big Mac,” as is also is known) is the biggest reservoir in the Cornhusker State and home to a broad range of summer lakeside fun.
There’s swimming and lounging on sandy beaches, fishing for a variety of freshwater lake species, boating, windsurfing, sailing, hunting and nearby golf and camping.
Nevada: Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is not only huge (covering 122,000 acres), but also offers the summer visitor everything from beaches to boating to sailing, hiking, cycling and fishing.
The lake is at an altitude of about 6,200 feet, and the surrounding mountains are even higher. Home to the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, Lake Tahoe offers winter sports at and around 12 world-class ski resorts in the area. This sophisticated destination also offers the usual summertime sports — hiking, swimming, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, jet skiing, water skiing, parasailing and canoeing — as well as 20 or more golf courses and casinos.
New Hampshire: Lake Winnipesaukee
As the largest lake in New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee has long been a magnet for summer visitors. You’ll find a wide array of fun things to do and see, including swimming, fishing, boating, sailing, swimming and beach fun.
New Jersey: Pine Barrens Lakes
While most of New Jersey’s beach reputation is built around saltwater beaches (and the Jersey Shore), it has lakes worth visiting too.
Some of the most worthwhile are within the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, which spans the New Jersey Shore, Delaware River and Greater Atlantic City regions. Some of the Pine Barrens Lakes, which typically are shallow and small, were created by early settlers who dammed streams for farming.
Lake Atsion, one of the lakes, is part of the Wharton State Forest and it offers swimming and camping. Bass River State Forest (also within Pine Barrens) is home to Lake Absegami, where you can find camping, hiking, swimming, boating, kayaking and canoeing.
New Mexico: Elephant Butte Lake
It may be that your inner 10-year-old has to stifle a chuckle at the name of this lake, but it is in fact a pretty stunning body of water.
Elephant Butte Lake is part of the Elephant Butte Lake State Park; it has hundreds of campsites, along with fishing, scuba diving, boating, windsurfing and swimming. The name of the lake and the state park come from an elephant-shaped rock formation on the lake. Parades, July 4th fireworks, concerts, fishing tournaments and drag boat races draw many visitors.
New York: Lake Placid
Choosing a lake to recommend in New York isn’t easy, since there are many. But we went with Lake Placid.
It’s by no means the biggest lake in the state, but it carries the distinction of having been home to the Winter Olympics in both 1932 and 1980 (when the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team pulled off a “Miracle on Ice,” with the unexpected defeat of the powerhouse Soviet Union team.
These days, Lake Placid is a great mountain resort town with all the lake activities you would expect. But the heart, history and character of the place make it especially interesting to visit.
North Carolina: Lake Mattamuskeet
While Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in the state, it’s also one of the most shallow — with a typical depth of only around 2 feet. This makes it a safer place to take young kids kayaking and canoeing, but really not ideal for much scuba diving or powerboating.
The shallow depth of the lake does, however, make it an ideal environment for many species of birds. It’s also part of the larger Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. So this may be a place where you’ll want to leave the beach towel at home, but bring the binoculars.
North Dakota: Devil’s Lake
Devil’s Lake is a popular boating and fishing spot in North Dakota, with a surface area of more than 160,000 acres and waters full of pike, walleye and white bass.
You’ll find a healthy choice of boat ramps, cabins, camping sites and vacation rentals dotted around the lake.
Ohio: Lake Erie
Lake Erie is famous for walleye fishing. As the smallest of the Great Lakes by volume, it is the most likely to freeze over in winter and thus a great destination for ice fishing.
The Ohio side of Lake Erie offers island-hopping as well as other recreational pursuits.
Oklahoma: Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees
Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees is another lake created by a dam. Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountain Range, it has become a popular lake holiday destination.
It’s also a well-known fishing spot, and you’ll find plenty of places to rent boats and get fishing equipment.
All of the other popular lake and lakeshore activities also are supported here, including hiking, camping and water skiing.
Oregon: Crater Lake
Oregon has plenty of lakes, but the name of this one gives you all the reason you need to make it a “must see.”
Crater Lake is the result of a destructive volcanic eruption 7,700 years ago, which left a caldera that eventually filled with water.
It is the deepest lake in the United States — nearly 2,000 feet deep. It is part of Crater Lake National Park, which has camping facilities, boat tours, scuba diving, fishing and more.
Pennsylvania: Raystown Lake
Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania is another U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ creation. The 8,000-acre lake offers lakeshore campgrounds and hiking trails — and provides for hunting, fishing and boating. There are also nearby museums, golf clubs and several caverns and caves to explore.
Rhode Island: Tillinghast Pond
In Rhode Island, ponds provide much of the freshwater recreation.
Hikers and walkers will enjoy Little Rhody’s 40-acre Tillinghast Pond, which has three loops of trails covering about 6 ½ miles.
South Carolina: Lake Jocassee
Lake Jocassee, another reservoir lake, has waterfalls, vacation rental properties, fishing, boating, camping and hiking.
Watching wildlife is also a part of the Lake Jocassee experience — with white-tailed deer, peregrine falcons, black bears and bald eagles all found in the area.
South Dakota: Lakes of Custer State Park
As the name suggests, Lakes of Custer State Park is a group of small lakes. They sit not too far from well-known South Dakota landmarks, including Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
The park provides extensive trails for walking, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Wildlife here is abundant and includes bison, elk, wild burros, pronghorns, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Tennessee: Fort Loudoun Lake
A visit to Fort Loudoun Lake combines the pleasure of a typical summer lake vacation experience with a little history.
The lake at the headwaters of the Tennessee River offers fishing, boating, water skiing and camping. And visitors can tour the partially reconstructed Fort Loudoun, built by the British in the 18th century.
Texas: Lake Livingston
Even with a surface area of 83,000 acres and more than 450 miles of shoreline, Lake Livingston is contained within the Texas state lines.
It’s convenient for visitors, with Houston only 80 miles south of the lake, and provides a rich choice of options for campsites, mountain biking, hiking and equestrian trails.
Utah: Lake Powell
Set starkly against the red rock desert of southern Utah, the deep blue of Lake Powell is a welcome sight on a hot day.
The lake is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and, when at its normal water level, is the second-largest man-made reservoir in the country by volume. The lake, though, can be affected by drought.
To get the most out of this experience, you may want to consider renting a houseboat and using it to explore the many canyons and coves.
Vermont: Lake Champlain
The Vermont section of Lake Champlain is home to a number of state parks, including North Hero State Park and Kamp Kill Kare State Park. The lake straddles the states of Vermont and New York and the Canadian province of Quebec.
All along the lake, you can find places to boat, camp, swim and fish.
Virginia: Lake Anna
Virginia’s Lake Anna is a working lake, although it does provide plenty of opportunities for recreation.
Part of the lake (some 3,400 acres of its 13,000-acre total surface) is used to provide cooling water for the local nuclear plant. The remainder is open — and safe — for fishing, swimming and boating by the public.
In addition, Lake Anna State Park has picnic facilities, hiking trails and a visitors center.
Washington: Lake Chelan
Washington state is rich with lake vacation spots; Lake Chelan is one of the most developed.
It’s the third-deepest lake in the country — and is both long (50 miles) and narrow (the average width is 1 mile).
This glacial lake, in the North Cascades National Park, features lots of cabin rentals, campsites, fishing, hiking, boating, swimming, tubing, canoeing, kayaking and parasailing.
Boat rentals and boat tours of the lake are available.
West Virginia: Summersville Lake
If you want to vacation at a lake in West Virginia, why not head to the biggest lake in the state? That’s Summersville Lake, another U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project.
The lake features all the usual water activities, and it’s a particularly popular spot for scuba diving. The lake is known for its combination of warm water and excellent underwater visibility (both important for scuba divers).
Wisconsin: Lake Geneva
There are two Great Lakes (Michigan and Superior) that could be on the Wisconsin “best lake” list, but we selected a lake that’s a purely Wisconsin experience.
Lake Geneva has relaxed beaches, hiking trails, nearby golf courses, jet skiing, parasailing, horseback riding, fishing and boating. Winter activities include ice boating, sleigh rides, cross country skiing and the United States National Snow Sculpting Competition.
The historic Yerkes Observatory, built in 1897, can be toured at Williams Bay.
Wyoming: Grand Teton Lakes
The Grand Teton Lakes lie within Grand Teton National Park, along the Teton Mountain Range. The deepest and most southern of these lakes is 1,200-acre Jenny Lake, a popular spot for guided boat tours.
Extensive hiking trails ring the lake, including challenging and steep terrain on the Cascade Canyon Trail.
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