There’s something wonderful about a summer vacation by the lake. Perhaps it’s the often 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 lakeshore.
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.
All the Great Lakes states, meanwhile, offer an abundance of lake choices. To avoid overlap, we decided that we wouldn’t repeat the Great Lakes — so that if we featured one of them as the best in one state, we wouldn’t use it again for another. We also decided that lakes created by dams (which account for many) were fair game for our list.
With those caveats, here’s our pick of the best vacation lake in every state.
Use our list as a starting place, and then look for additional details on the ones that pique your interest at Lakelubbers.com — a website with tons of data about major lakes across the country.
Alabama: Lake Guntersville
Alabama’s Lake Guntersville is part of Lake Guntersville State Park. It boasts more than 30 miles of hiking trails, a classic state park lodge with 112 rooms and a nearby golf course. Lake Guntersville is also a popular fishing spot with a lot of largemouth bass (although bluegill, brim, long ear sunfish, red ear sunfish and catfish have also been caught here). In the winter, it’s a nesting ground for bald eagles — and there are eagle-watching centers in the park and on the Guntersville Dam.
Alaska: Kenai Lake
Kenai Lake offers a taste of many of Alaska’s spectacular natural wonders. Not only is this 22-mile long lake home to king, silver and Chinook salmon (along with boating services and fishing guides for those who like to fish), but it’s also common to see mountain goats and dall sheep in the nearby mountains and bald eagles soaring overhead. In fact, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where the lake is located is called “Alaska in miniature” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because so many of the animals and habitat types that exist within the state can be found at Kenai.
Arizona: Lake Havasu
Yes, that is the famous transplanted London Bridge you see at Lake Havasu. While it’s the most famous aspect of this man-made lakeside hotspot in Arizona, it is by no means the only attraction. Formed by the creation of the Parker Dam on the Colorado River in the 1930s, the lake has become a popular spot for boating, swimming, fishing and lakeside relaxation. The city of Lake Havasu, meanwhile, positions itself as an inexpensive “adventure destination” with rock climbing, casinos, hiking, off-road ATV exploration and tours to the nearby Old West town of Oatman.
Arkansas: Bull Shoals Lake
Bull Shoals is the largest lake in Arkansas, with more than 1,000 miles of shoreline nestled in the Ozark Mountains. It offers fishing, boating, camping, swimming and hiking. At the Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock, you can rent boats and scuba equipment. There are plenty of resorts, motels, and RV and camping spots around the lake, so you won’t lack a choice of places to stay. For fans of engineering, there are also tours of the interior of Bull Shoals Dam.
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. Shasta Lake sits in the imposing shadow of Mount Shasta and offers great boating, swimming, fishing, hiking and the option to explore nearby caverns. One popular way to relax and explore Lake Shasta is by renting a houseboat.
Colorado: Grand Lake
Colorado’s Grand Lake, the largest lake in Colorado, is located in the headwaters of the Colorado River near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, providing the perfect jumping-off point for a lake and mountain vacation. There are lots of boat rental options — including kayaks, fishing boats and pontoon boats — as well as swimming, hiking and some historical points of interest. Being only a two-hour drive from Denver also means that flying and then renting a car is a realistic option (depending on weather and traffic) if you only have time for a long weekend trip.
Connecticut: Candlewood Lake
Candlewood Lake is the largest in Connecticut and is enjoyed by the local communities of Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford and Sherman. At 11 miles in length and only two miles wide at its maximum, it’s not a big lake. It does, however, offer boating, hiking and fishing. Two things to note: There’s no camping on the lake, and, if you are bringing a boat, Connecticut law requires that you inspect your boat for zebra mussels before launching on Candlewood Lake. There are also plenty of places around the lake to rent boats.
Delaware: Lums Pond
Delaware’s Lums Pond may not sound like a lake, but it’s actually the largest freshwater body in the state and sits within a state park. There are hiking trails around it, and rowboats, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats are available for rent. It also offers fishing and some unique camping options — including four horse camp sites and yurts for rent.
Florida: Lake Tohopekaliga
Florida’s Lake Tohopekaliga (also known as Lake Toho) 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. A popular spot for bass fishing, it’s also a lake with a lot of history, which you’ll see if you visit Makinson Island Park — or take in the nearby Osceola County Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek.
Georgia: Lake Allatoona
Lake Allatoona is another man-made lake, created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and completed in 1950. According the corps, it’s one of the most frequently visited of the lakes under its management with almost 7 million visitors a year enjoying the swimming, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, boating, geocaching and wildlife it has to offer. The lake sits northwest of Atlanta and is also near the historic Allatoona Pass Civil War historic sites.
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 multiple-island state is not completely without lakes. Although tiny (and subject to periodic shrinkage), 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-altitude 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 creation of the Post Falls Dam built on the Spokane River in 1906. The northern Idaho lake offers lots of activities — including swimming, boating, fishing, parasailing, camping and relaxing on the beach — while also providing cruise boat tours of the 30,000-acre lake. Diving is also popular, with several cars and steamship wrecks littering the floor of the lake. Golfers may want to try their hand at the challenging “floating green” at the 14th hole of the Coeur d’Alene Golf and Spa Resort.
Illinois: Lake Michigan
What can you say about this vast lake that touches four states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin? 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 possibly imagine — and it’s an integral part of life in Chicago, the biggest Midwest city. One way to approach Lake Michigan is to start in Chicago, where you might enjoy one of its many beaches or just take a lake cruise. Later, you may want to go a little further afield and explore beaches such as the recently renovated, award-winning Rosewood Beach (pictured above) at Highland Park, Illinois.
Indiana: Lake Maxinkuckee
Indiana’s Lake Maxinkuckee is the second-largest natural lake in the state and offers swimming, boating, scuba diving, sailing and fishing. In the winter — if you’re into this sort of thing — you can go ice fishing on Maxinkuckee. There are also golf courses and bike trails nearby. The big draw for this glacially formed lake is its fishing — with many varieties of bass, as well as walleye, trout and yellow perch. It’s also deep enough (up to 88 feet) for some good scuba diving.
Iowa: Iowa Great Lakes
Iowa doesn’t need any of the traditional Great Lakes — it has a group of lakes that it considers pretty great all on their own. Iowa’s great lakes include Big Spirit Lake, Little Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake, Gar Lakes, Center Lake and Silver Lake. As a group, they offer a wide range of choices for lake vacationers. These glacier-carved lakes have provided a fun summer holiday destination for many decades. Among the attractions that have grown up around them are the local Okoboji Classic Car museum, several mini golf courses and the Arnolds Park Amusement Park (with classic wooden roller coaster).
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 those campgrounds — Rockhaven Park — can accommodate visitors with horses or mules (making it an ideal spot for a lakeside riding holiday). Alongside the 7,000-acre lake is Clinton State Park, which offers an archery range, bird watching, mountain biking and hiking. In winter, there are also cross-country ski trails.
Kentucky: Lake Barkley
Lake Barkley is for the birds. Literally, bird-watching is a big attraction at this lake — with the Kentucky State Parks Department estimating more than 200 species of birds can be seen or heard in the park. Aside from the usual collection of woodpeckers, owls and other forest-friendly birds you would expect to see, there are eagles, cormorants, hawks, egrets and herons on and around the lake. For non-bird watchers, there’s also plenty to do. You can swim, boat, fish, camp, hike, play golf, go biking and even do some trap shooting at the lake’s trap range.
Louisiana: Lake Pontchartrain
Lake Pontchartrain has many claims to fame. To start with, it’s not a freshwater lake. It is, in fact, the second-largest saltwater lake in the country. It was also hit hard during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster when sludge from the subsequent flooding was pumped back into the lake. The sludge eventually dissipated as water circulated from the 630-square-mile lake back out to the Gulf of Mexico. Water quality at beaches is still closely monitored. It remains a favorite destination for Louisiana tourists who want to fish, boat, sail or even swim in its waters. There’s also plenty of history to take in along the lake and in nearby New Orleans.
Maine: Great Moose Lake
Other than having a fantastic name, Great Moose Lake (aka Moose Pond) is known for having been a quiet Maine lake retreat for hundreds of years. This 3,584 acre lake offers swimming, kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, fishing and bird watching. It has lots of wildlife to enjoy: Deer, loons, ducks and, of course, moose are all also residents of the area.
Maryland: Deep Creek Lake
Deep Creek Lake has been around since the 1920s, the result of construction of the Deep Creek Dam on the Youghiogheny River. It’s now the largest inland body of water in the state, offering 65 miles of shoreline and playing host to activities on and around the lake that include swimming, boating, hiking, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. It’s also part of the larger Deep Creek Lake State Park, which is home to black bears, wild turkeys and camping spots. Given the presence of black bears, campers need to remember to store their food in bear-proof containers and use the dumpsters provided by the park.
Massachusetts: Walden Pond
In many ways, Walden Pond is an entirely unremarkable body of water — with only two miles of shoreline, a surface area of 61 acres and 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 which time Thoreau pulled together the ideas within his seminal book about the experience: “Walden.” Walden Pond is now a National Historic Landmark and has a visitor center that helps bring alive its rich history.
Michigan: Lake Huron
Michigan shares Lake Huron with the province of Ontario, Canada, but there is more than enough of this Great Lake to go around. With a surface area of more than 14 million acres and a 3,825-mile-long shoreline, it is the second-biggest of the Great Lakes by surface area. And Michigan residents are lucky because three other Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior and Erie) border on their state. But we’ve 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 (not to be confused with Thunder Bay in Canada). 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. Dozens of sailing vessels, motor vessels and barges have met their end in the lake.
Minnesota: Lake Superior
Lake Superior simply has to be the top pick for a lake to visit in Minnesota — even though there are many to choose from in a state with the motto “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Superior touches three U.S. states (Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin) and one Canadian province (Ontario) and 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 it’s only claim to superiority. There are spectacular views and destinations along Superior’s North Shore, starting with the historical port city of Duluth in the south. You can also take in the scale and grandeur of Lake Superior on foot by walking the 205-mile-long Superior Hiking Trail — or appreciate its long and rich history by visiting the Grand Portage National Monument near the border with Canada.
Mississippi: Enid Lake
The story of Enid Lake is one of triumph over adversity. The lake was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back in 1952 with construction of the Enid Dam to fight flooding in the Mississippi Valley. 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, which built a dam on the White River in 1958. Being a short distance from the popular entertainment destination of Branson also means that you can plan a much richer vacation around a visit to Table Rock Lake than is the case with many of the country’s lake vacation spots. The other cool thing about Table Rock Lake is diving 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. It sits within the vast Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park where Montana meets Canada — and it’s a slow, sometimes bumpy trip on a dirt road to get there. But when you do, you’ll find a gorgeous glacier-created lake in the mountains that is typically free of crowds and sports a small campground where spots can be had for $15 per night. They’re offered on a first-come, first serve basis — and historical data for summer arrivals shows that you should be able to find a spot on the weekends if you arrive before 10:30 a.m. or before noon during weekdays.
Nebraska: Lake McConaughy
Lake McConaughy is the biggest reservoir in the Cornhusker State and home to a broad range of summer lakeside fun. It offers swimming and tanning on sandy beaches, fishing for a variety of freshwater lake species (including walleye, catfish and trout), boating, sailing, hunting and nearby golf and camping facilities. There’s also a visitors center and Water Interpretive Center that includes an aquarium.
Nevada: Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe could easily be listed as the best lake in either California or Nevada. It’s not only huge (covering 122,000 acres), but also offers the summer visitor everything from beaches to boating to sailing, hiking, cycling and fishing. More uniquely, because the lake is at such a high altitude (about 6,200) feet, the mountains that surround it are even higher and can sometimes support skiing and snowboarding well into the summer. This summer, for example, it would be possible to go swimming in the lake in the early morning, play a round of golf, and then get in a few runs on your snowboard on one of the local mountains. Then you could top it all off by hitting a casino in the evening.
New Hampshire: Lake Winnipesaukee
As the largest lake in New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee has been a magnet for summer visitors for a long time and developed a wide array of fun things to do and see — including lake cruises, a boardwalk at Weirs Beach, the Mill Falls marketplace in Meredith, the turn-of-the century mansion at Moultonboro known as the “Castle in the Clouds” and the Gunstock Mountain Adventure Park in Gilford. And those are in addition to the 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 Pine Barrens Lakes region. Atsion Lake, for example, is part of the Wharton State Forest and offers swimming and camping in a wooded setting. Meanwhile, the 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 and the name of this lake, but it is in fact a pretty stunning body of water. The lake is part of the Elephant Butte Lake State Park and offers hundreds of campsites, many with RV support, along with fishing, scuba diving, boating, windsurfing and swimming. The name of the lake and the state park come from an elephant-shaped rock in the lake.
New York: Lake Placid
Choosing a lake to recommend in New York isn’t easy. The ponds on Central Park were tempting — as was Lake Ontario (the Great Lake that New York state shares with the province of Ontario in Canada), 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 (where the U.S. Olympic hockey team had its “Miracle on Ice” with the unexpected defeat of the powerhouse Soviet Union). 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 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 a lot of diving or power boating. The shallowness 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 along the binoculars.
North Dakota: Devil’s Lake
Devil’s Lake is a popular boating spot in North Dakota that offers a surface area of more than 160,000 acres and waters full of bass, pike, walleye, northern pike, perch and white bass. There’s a healthy choice of boat ramps, a variety of lodges and campgrounds dotted around the lake, and both hiking and biking paths along the shores. Devil’s Lake also comes with its own lake monster legend (a Sioux tale), so you may get even more lake adventure than you expect.
Ohio: Lake Erie
Lake Erie is another Great Lake that borders on four states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. It’s 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, is a great destination for ice fishing. The Ohio side of Lake Erie offers some island-hopping to Put-in-Bay, Middle Bass Island and Kelleys Island, as well as Cedar Point Amusement Park with roller coasters at Sandusky and an African Safari Wildlife Park at Port Clinton — and lots of beaches.
Oklahoma: Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees
This is another lake created by a dam that has grown to become a popular lake holiday destination, nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountain Range of northeast Oklahoma. It’s also a well-known fishing spot, and there are plenty of places to rent boats and get fishing equipment. If you do decide to fish, don’t forget to get a license. All the other popular lake and lakeshore activities 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 as “must see” for your Oregon visit. Crater Lake is the result of a volcano erupting and leaving a “caldera” that eventually filled with water. It is the deepest lake in the United States — nearly 2,000 feet deep according to the National Park Service — and the ninth-deepest in the world. The lake is part of Crater Lake National Park, which offers 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 — the Rockhill Trolley Museum and the Railroaders Memorial Museum, to name two — golf clubs and several caverns and caves that you can explore.
Rhode Island: Tillinghast Pond
Rhode Island isn’t a big place — and it’s no surprise that it doesn’t offer much in the way of large bodies of water (unless you count the water on which the island sits). Tillinghast Pond offers a variety of hiking trails and abundant wildlife and supports fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
South Carolina: Lake Jocassee
Lake Jocassee is another reservoir lake that offers 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 bear and bald eagles all native to the area.
South Dakota: Lakes of Custer State Park
As the name suggests, Lakes of Custer State Park is actually a group of small lakes — Bismarck Lake, Center Lake, Legion Lake, Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake — that sit not too far from some more 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. Heads up: On a number of the lakes within Custer State Park, you may find boating restrictions that limit watercraft to only those that produce no wake. Wildlife here is abundant and includes bison, elk, wild burros, pronghorns, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Tennessee: Fort Loudoun Lake
As you might guess, a visit to Fort Loudoun Lake combines the pleasure of a typical summer lake vacation experience with a little history. Yes, the lake offers fishing, boating, water skiing and camping. But it also features the reconstructed British colonial-era Fort Loudoun. The fort was built in 1756 and was historically important as one of the earliest British fortifications on the Western frontier.
Texas: Lake Livingston
Even with a surface area of 83,000 acres and more than 450 miles of shoreline, Lake Livingston sits completely within the Texas state lines. It’s convenient for visitors, with Houston only 80 miles south of the lake, and it provides a rich choice of options for campsites, mountain biking, hiking and horse-riding 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 it’s at normal levels, is actually the second largest man-made reservoir in the country by volume. To get the most out of this experience, you may want to consider renting a houseboat — and use it to explore the many canyons and coves Lake Powell has to offer.
Vermont: Lake Champlain
Lake Champlain is another dual-nation lake, with part of it lying within the Canadian province of Quebec and the rest of both New York and Vermont. The Vermont section of the lake is home to a number of state parks, including North Hero State Park and Kamp Kill Kare State Park. All along the lake, you 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, while the remainder is open to fishing, swimming and boating by the public. There’s also a Lake Anna State Park with picnic facilities, hiking trails and a visitors center.
Washington: Lake Chelan
Washington is rich with lake vacation spots, but Lake Chelan is one of the most developed of them. It’s also the third-deepest lake in the country and both long (50 miles) and narrow (one mile). This glacial lake features lots of cabin rentals, campsites, fishing, hiking, boating, swimming, tubing, canoeing, kayaking and parasailing. There are also boat rentals and boat tours of the lake 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-built lake created originally for flood control. While the lake features all the usual water activities, it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly popular spot for scuba diving. The lake is known for offering a combination of warm water and great 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 instead we selected a lake that is purely a Wisconsin experience. Lake Geneva offers relaxed beaches, hiking trails, nearby golf courses, ziplining, horseback riding, fishing and boating. One special feature is a historic observatory (Yerkes Observatory, built in 1897) that you can tour at Williams Bay.
Wyoming: Grand Teton Lakes
The Grand Teton Lakes lie within Grand Teton National Park — and the deepest and most southern of these lakes is Jenny Lake, a popular spot for guided boat tours. There are also extensive hiking trails around the lake with some challenging and steep terrain on the Cascade Canyon trail.
What’s your favorite place for a lake vacation? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
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