Travel

America's 20 Greatest Summertime Lake Towns

Everything you love about the beach. Zero sharks.

Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

We love lobster right out of the ocean in the Northeast and boat parties in the Redneck Riviera. We adore the dreamy coast of the Pacific Northwest and the sand-covered madness of Miami, San Diego, and LA. But the oceans have their drawbacks. Sharks, for one. And they're expensive as hell. Plus, for the majority of the country, the ocean isn't even an option. But lakes are. There are some 125,000 of them in the country, from tiny inland oases for tranquility, boat-packed party destinations, and freshwater seas.

Along these bodies of water, you'll find the kind of lake towns that have all but single handedly rendered the word "quaint" a cliche. They're the stuff of vacation dreams, even if right now dreaming about them is the closest we can get: Idyllic little slices of fudge-fueled paradise where everybody from pontoon-bound revelers to quiet beachcombers find common ground on the sand. Here are 20 of our favorite towns for a lakeside getaway. No sharks. No riptides. Just heaven on calm waters that will be waiting for us whenever a weekend getaway becomes a viable option again.

Priest Lake, Idaho

Fifteen miles from the Canadian border, beneath an endless canopy of Douglas firs, you’ll find this amazing jewel of a town, home to 800-some-odd full-timers who don’t even have their own zip code. Come summertime, the population balloons to 20,000 as weekenders commandeer the cabins that wind along the shores of this 19-mile freshwater lake.

To get there, head north along Highway 57 from nearby Priest River, and load up on huckleberry scones and orange rolls at Lucinda’s Woodland Bakery along the way. You’ll find only small local businesses here, but if you forgot any essentials, the one-stop market/gas station/hardware store The Tamrak has both your back and just about every kind of huckleberry-flavored food item imaginable. Snag a lakeside cabin at Hills Resort where you can start a pickleball tournament with families who have lived here for generations. On the nearby golf course, forage for wild morels that grow in abundance off the sixth hole. Hike the beach trail that hugs the shoreline and find a private cove to take a plunge. Better yet, ask for directions to Indian Rock, where you can see prehistoric pictographs inscribed by Native Americans and practice your backflip into the waters. You’ll be so distracted by all the wildlife (was that a grizzly?), you won’t even notice you have no cell service. -- Ryan MacDonald

MORE:This dreamy state park is just another great reason to visit Idaho

Alexey Stiop/shutterstock
Vacationers on Market Street, Mackinac Island. | Alexey Stiop/shutterstock

Mackinaw City, St. Ignace, and Mackinac Island, Michigan

As soon as the mercury creeps above 60 and the clock strikes 5pm on any given Friday, Michiganders head up north. “Up north” is any lake north-ish of wherever you happen to live. But in the true up north, between the northernmost Lower and the southernmost Upper Peninsula, you’ll find charming Mackinaw City, sandy shores and campgrounds, and the Mackinaw Bridge. At a staggering 26,372-feet long, Mighty Mac is the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world, linking the state’s two peninsulas and marking the place where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

Once you’ve crossed the bridge you’ll find the small town of St. Ignace, home to even more lovely Lake Michigan beaches, plus shops selling fudge, coconut flake, smoked fish, and pasties -- giant, meaty hand pies that are basically the unofficial food of the U.P. Cross the lake by boat and stay on the hugely popular Mackinac Island -- cars are forbidden, but horse-drawn carriages take you anywhere you want to go. The famed Grand Hotel offers opulent rooms and scenic views of the lake from its white verandas and porches. Mackinac’s famous fudge is all sugar (and maple. And peanut butter) and you can take it home by the pound. -- Rebecca Golden

MORE: Mackinac Island is also home to one of Michigan's most iconic bars

Mountain biking is king in and around Hot Springs | Arkansas.gov

Hot Springs, Arkansas

At the center of this hillbound resort town are the 143-degree, mineral-rich waters that give the town its wonderfully on-the-nose title. And visitors are going to stop to ogle the bathhouses that once drew the likes of Babe Ruth and Al Capone, and which made Hot Springs the site of an eponymous, tiny National Park (one that could claim to be America’s first). Famous for horse racing and as Bill Clinton’s childhood home, Hot Springs is still a funky-quaint regional destination for art, music, and one of the planet’s most drop-dead sexy churches, designed by E. Fay Jones, Arkansas’ late dean of architects and a former Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice.

But it’s cooler water that really drives the action in Hot Springs. Once you tire of the tourist shuffle, head to the west edge of town to Lake Hamilton, an impound on the Ouachita River. Locals joke that everyone in town owns a boat, and while plenty of those rigs are just jon boats for chasing largemouth bass, Hamilton is a decidedly a party lake when the temperatures flirt with 100 throughout July and August. Hungry boaters idle right up to Sam's, a pizza joint on the water, when they're ready to dock, grab a slice, and listen to live music. If that's not your scene, the lake also sits alongside some of the most hardcore mountain biking trails in the South, perfect for a dip once you peel off your sweaty helmet. -- Sam Eifling

MORE: Arkansas is totally underrated... here's what you're missing

Saugatuck/Douglas, Michigan

Nicknamed "The Great Art-Doors," Saugatuck -- along with its sister city across the river, Douglas -- has earned a reputation as a gay-friendly arts destination for the arts thanks to ties to the Ox Bow School of Art, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, and art galleries like the Armstrong De-Graaf International Fine Art gallery. In addition, the towns boast a whopping 140 LGBTQ-owned or supportive businesses, along with one of the country’s top LGBTQ resorts, The Dunes Resort.

The “twin towns” sit three hours west of Detroit and just 45 minutes from Grand Rapids, making them a perfect road trip destination for city dwellers in search of a lakeside refuge. After you hit the shore and soak up some sun on the renowned Oval Beach, hike through Mount Baldhead Park or maybe do a little charter fishing on Lake Michigan. Then, have oysters on the half shell at Everyday People Café, enjoy Southern hospitality and Southern-inspired food from two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist Matthew Millar at The Southerner, or make the 15-minute drive to Salt of the Earth in Fennville, a farm-to-table restaurant and bakery. Oh, and hit up Saugatuck Brewing Company and get some Neapolitan Milk Stout. Obviously. -- Nicole Rupersburg

MORE:Check out even more of Michigan's greatest beach towns

Lake Chelan, Washington
Vineyard over Lake Chelan, Washington | Danita Delmont/Getty Images

Chelan, Washington

With an average of 300 annual days of sunshine, Chelan's a natural choice summer destination for waterlogged Seattleites. Chelan's also smack in the middle of one of Washington's most distinctive wine regions (officially declared an American Viticultural Area in 2009; the Ice Age glaciers that formed the lake here made for some pretty rad terroir, a fancy word that’s sommelier-speak for “dirt, but extra”).

More than 20 wineries and vineyards dot the shores surrounding Lake Chelan, allowing wine lovers -- and I am using this term to refer to literally anyone who drinks -- to take a tannin-infused break from their skydiving, parasailing, and ziplining adventures. Once you've had your fill of wine and adrenaline, stop in at Local Myth Pizza for some artisanal slices, hefty calzones, and, alright, sure, twist my arm already, maybe some more wine. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE: Get to know more of Washington's fantastic small towns

Sugar Pine Point Pier, Southern Lake Tahoe
Sugar Pine Point Pier, Southern Lake Tahoe | Michael Marfell/Getty Images

South Lake Tahoe, California

This town on the Californian side of Lake Tahoe is a solid destination pretty much any time of year, but it's the summers here that really bring out the best of what this lake has to offer -- namely, booze-fueled parties on the water. Yes, it can get a rowdy, and anywhere within driving distance of a major California city is prone to huge crowds. But even if you’re not in the mood to deal with people who want to extend spring break to summer, there are plenty of ways to enjoy nature. When you’re on a cruise through Emerald Bay, taking in the turquoise water and towering trees, you’ll barely notice the throngs nearby.

Tahoe nightlife is the perfect complement to sun-soaked days. Golf is a big draw; ski resorts like Northstar and Squaw Valley offering courses when there’s no snow, and scenic courses like Edgewood even boast a beach. Many ski trails turn into mountain bike trails in the summer, some of which offer ziplining. A quick drive over the border into Nevada, and boom: you're in Reno’s casino country complete with all the clubs, free drinks, and what-happens-here-stays-here attitudes you’d want. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE: Once the snow starts falling, these are the best ski resorts in Tahoe

Lake Winnipesaukee Region, Wolfeboro
Lake Winnipesaukee Region, Wolfeboro | Walter Bibikau/Getty Images

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

The oldest resort town in America happens to sit on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Families return to this WASP-y New England community year after year (mine included, for four generations) to escape the heat, and such famous lake lovers as Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Newman, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, and Dustin Hoffman have also been known to rent and own homes here. Thanks to a crop of young summer renters, the scene here has lately felt like a less-stuffy country club; chefs are setting up shop, Lone Wolfe Brewing Company is now a fixture, and bakeries like Stellaloona are whipping up a blueberry tart that alone makes the drive worth it.

While the lake is the main attraction, Wolfeboro also sees its share of festivals, farmers markets, and free concerts. The best day of the summer? Lobster Day at Hunter’s IGA Foodstore. A massive truck pulls up filled with lobsters and stays until it is empty. The price per pound can’t be beat -- it’s pretty much a local holiday. -- Keryn Means

MORE: After the lake, take some time to explore the best of New Hampshire

Tubing on Lake Seneca
Tubing on Lake Seneca | Flickr/Chris

Seneca, South Carolina

Lake Keowee is a sprawling man-made reservoir that encompasses nearly 29 square miles and boasts 350 miles of shoreline. Only about a quarter of that is developed, so the setting -- at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- is isolated and still feels wondrously pristine. But that’s just the scenic part; what makes Keowee special is the fun part.

The lake’s only 7 miles from Clemson University, a school that may or may not be known as a place where students indulge in the occasional adult beverage. This lends itself to epic boat parties in Keowee’s numerous coves. The cabins that line the shore don’t die down much at night, and most of them have floating rafts, jet skis, and other toys for rent, making a weekend in Seneca the best lake-town experience in the Dirty South. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE:While you're here, might as well explore South Carolina's excellent ocean beaches too

Fishing on Wilderness Lake
Fishing on Wilderness Lake | George Peters/Getty Images

Ely, Minnesota

A mere 12 miles from Canada, Ely is the gateway to the lake-strewn Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- a nearly Delaware-sized wilderness preserve, the country’s largest east of the Rockies. This “lake district” is actually an inland sea with wooded islands seemingly arranged for the canoeing camper’s convenience. It’s an endless medley of interconnected streams, lakes, and waterfalls landscaped by cliffs, ridges, ancient Native American rock graffiti, 1,200-year-old cedars, and soaring white pines. Overhead flights are banned, motor boats outlawed. Life’s complications disappear as you dip a canteen over the side of your canoe and take a swig.
 
Ely’s hilly main drag of earthy shops, restaurants, and outfitters is lost in the deep woods, literally at the end of the road. Folks opt to wear mukluks (locally manufactured moose-hide boots) and baseball caps. Excepting a few plastic-roof joints, most of Ely’s log-cabinish food establishments serve fresh-caught fish (like the walleye, Minnesota’s State Fish) and locally grown rice. Ely Steak House’s wild rice soups inspire moans while its lounge doubles as a community center, and the Northern Grounds café hosts the occasional live band. Ely’s End of the Road Radio station is worth a listen, and stop in to the Root Beer Lady museum while you’re in town. -- Bruce Northam, American Detour

MORE: Minnesota's wild rice is way more meaningful than you think

Whiteface Mountain, Lake Placid
Whiteface Mountain, Lake Placid | Bob Pool/Shutterstock.com

Lake Placid, New York

Wintertime tourists flock to this town 300 miles north of New York City, but summer is no less fantastic. Temperatures in the high 70s make outdoor activities comfortable -- whether you're hiking the nearby Adirondack Mountains or just taking scenic walks around Mirror Lake. Nearby, Whiteface Mountain offers a nifty $40 Olympic Sites Passport, which grants you access to the Olympic Center, Museum, Jumping Complex, Sports Complex (where USA hockey won a surprise gold in the 1980 Winter Olympics), and the Whiteface Mountain gondola ride.
 
The town itself feels a bit like a swank Colorado resort. Pine-scented Main Street offers dining and drinking spots with Mirror Lake as their backyard. Stop in for a pint of Ubu Ale at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery; the beer and chocolate-infused soap in the giftshop make for handy souvenirs. The affordable, easygoing Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort has an ultra-casual Generations Restaurant that’s two-thirds restaurant and one-third saloon. Or dine at KANU at the Whiteface Lodge; the 500-strong wine list can be difficult to focus on with busts of moose, bobcats, deer, five steely chandeliers, and a dangling canoe competing for your attention. -- Bruce Northam, American Detour

MORE: Upstate New York is filled with idyllic towns and gorgeous destinations

Boating on Lake Havasu
Boating on Lake Havasu | Micah Wright/Getty Images

Lake Havasu City, Arizona

Lake Havasu is perhaps the best party lake in the country. Remember spending spring break hopping from boat to boat by day, then jumping into a pool at a club fully clothed at night, because by then what was the difference? Exactly, me neither. So it's no surprise that the city sitting on its shores and sharing its name would soak up some of that greatness.

There’s good food, good drink, and good casino gambling, but ultimately the best part of Lake Havasu City is the water. After the madness of spring break subsides and the party boats clear out, Havasu becomes a legitimately fun place to be for people of all ages. Yes, the heat can get kind of ridiculous (128 degrees isn't unheard-of), but as long as you're doing something in the water -- like scuba diving, say -- you probably won't burst into flames. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE:Here are 9 more great Arizona vacations a short drive from Phoenix

Greim Lake
The Rocky Mountains overlook Grand Lake | Grand Lake, Colorado

Grand Lake, Colorado

Like craft beer, a great view in a charming Colorado Mountain town is not a heavy lift to find. But how many towns have a 50-acre lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains and a downtown that transports visitors back to frontier days? One town. And it is this one.

Founded in 1881, Grand Lake is unique in its location, with blue waters along the shoreline reflecting the mountains of the nearby park. It’s best viewed by horseback, climbing up through meadows to spectacular views of the city below. One short mile from Rocky Mountain National Park, the city is an Old West throwback, complete with a Grand Avenue boardwalk and authentic old saloons, all of which make a perfect place to relax after a long day in the mountains, on the water, or both. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE: How to tackle Rocky Mountain National Park like a pro

The Loon Lodge Inn & Restaurant
The Loon Lodge Inn sits on the shores of Rangeley Lake | The Loon Lodge Inn & Restaurant

Rangeley, Maine

Maine in the summer can be almost heaven (sorry, West Virginia) and this town of 1,170 on Rangeley Lake is as great a summer destination as the state has. Boat, canoe, or kayak on one of the six lakes here, or hike and camp in Rangeley Lake State Park, and climb up Saddleback Mountain for a panoramic view of it all.

The small town is all quaint New England, with antique shops, seafood restaurants, bed & breakfasts, and storied lodges like the Loon Lodge and The Rangeley Inn. Golfing here is a pleasant change from humid courses in the South and Midwest, so playing 18 at the Mingo Springs golf course won’t wear you down. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE:Make Rangeley part of an epic Maine road trip

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

In the summer this popular resort town of around 7,500 swells with Chicagoans and Milwaukeeans who pack the shops and restaurants of its downtown quarter. (Head for Fat Cats, a locals-heavy dive downtown, or the historic 1885 mansion Baker House for a drink on the front lawn overlooking the water.) On the other side of town, Fontana is home to the iconic Abbey Resort, while Williams Bay is a friendly little paradise tucked between the two where you can grab a fresh sandwich at the Green Grocer.
 
The smaller lakes nearby are just as fun -- hit up the old-school Mars Resort on Lake Como and The Inn Between on Lake Delavan. When you need to sober up or just reset, take a boat tour or walk at least some of the gorgeous 23-mile lakeshore path. -- Jay Gentile

MORE: You could spend a whole summer exploring Wisconsin's lake towns

Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Located on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, the resting population (a mere 135 souls) of this tiny Victorian town explodes during the summer months, when it transforms into the Midwest's premier party destination for coeds toting coolers full of booze. If that's your scene, you won't be disappointed. There are plenty of  outdoor biergartens and bars, including the world’s longest swim-up bar, and rentable golf carts to ferry you between them all.

While many come to the island with flip-flops and a strong desire to turn Ohio into Margaritaville, there are daytime attractions galore here, too, including Crystal Cave, the world’s largest geode, which you explore after climbing down 100 stone stairs. Get your fill of the outdoorsy stuff at South Bass Island State Park, where you can rent a mid-century modern “cabent” -- a round, spaceship-like structure billed by the park as a cabin/tent combo, or set up your own tent at a rented beachside campsite. But really, if boozy revelry and loud music just aren't your jam, you'd be better off at literally any other place on this list.

MORE:Get a look at some of Ohio's most vacation-worthy small towns

Bigfork, Montana

Though Montana can be a downright frozen wasteland in the winter, in the summer the place comes alive. You already know about Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and you know about Bozeman, but you might not know about Bigfork. Here, fly fishing, hiking, and big skies meet the arts, creating a summer-long outdoors paradise. The 27-mile freshwater Flathead Lake might not be home to its eponymous mythical monster -- though if you aspire to the paranormal with your vacations, we’re certainly not here to judge -- but it is home to many kinds of lake trout that are especially tasty when grilled after a long day on the water.

Beyond the outdoors, summer here is home to the Riverbend Concert series, with live music in Riverbend Park on Sundays. Early August brings the Bigfork Festival of the Arts, and the Bigfork Summer Playhouse has live theater and musical productions from May through September. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE: You should probably tack an unforgettable trip to Yellowstone onto your itinerary

Artist's Point on Lake Superior at Grand Marais
Artist's Point on Lake Superior at Grand Marais | Sharon Day/Shutterstock

Grand Marais, Minnesota

Right, so you're probably not gonna be doing much swimming in the generally frigid waters of Lake Superior, even in August -- but if all you wanted to do was swim, you'd be looking at beaches. Not lake towns. There's more to a lake town than showing off your scissor kick, and Grand Marais offers the full outdoorsy spectrum of canoeing, hiking, fishing, camping, rock climbing, and even birdwatching (for all you voyeurs who like to spy on birds).

On top of the active stuff you'd expect, this town of 1,400 has some fantastic dining (like Sven & Ole's Pizza and World's Best Donuts) and a vibrant arts scene that might surprise you. No trip to Grand Marais is complete without taking a walk down to the lighthouse at Artists’ Point, a small peninsula perfect for snapping the kind of Sutro-filtered Instagrams that'll get you hidden from your friends' feeds. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE: Grand Marais is also a stop on northern Minnesota's incredible beer trail

 Silver Dollar City Theme Park
Silver Dollar City Theme Park in Branson | Explore Branson

Branson, Missouri

Branson gets a bum rap, almost exclusively from people who’ve never been. Yes, the main drag in town is a classic stretch of American kitsch, complete with celebrity tribute artist shows, a museum constructed to look like the Titanic, and plenty of neon. But give up the pretension and Branson is one of the best places in America to go for raw silly fun.

For starters, Table Rock Lake is a serene, family-friendly alternative to the rowdy Lake of the Ozarks. But the real fun here isn’t just relaxing in the quiet hills -- it’s in all those cheap tourist thrills you think you’re too good for. Branson is home to Silver Dollar City, which this year opened the world’s biggest spinning roller coaster, in the Time Traveler. Outside the park, the single-car alpine coaster at Runaway Mountain -- and the original Branson coaster -- are as close to taking a go-kart down a winding mountain road as you’ll ever experience. There’s also the towering Bigfoot, a 200-foot free-fall ride that lifts you for a stunning view out over the town and the lake before dropping you. To calm down, hit the 150-foot Branson Ferris Wheel, which boasts the same views without the stomach drop. -- Matt Meltzer

MORE:Learn all about that crazy-ass roller coaster here

Shasta Lake, California
Shasta Lake, California. | Alexey Ulashchick/shutterstock

Shasta Lake, California 

Shasta Lake offers every possible lakeside perk plus one more: dynamite views of Mt. Shasta and its 14,180-foot, snow-capped peak. Summer sees pontoons, sailboats, jet skis, houseboats and bass boats scattered like gems across the bright blue water. Lake Shasta hosts a bounty of fishy deliciousness -- bass, catfish, sturgeon, and crappie -- with nearly 370 miles of coast and myriad coves great for dropping anchor and casting a line. Opt to stay on a houseboat -- marinas all over the lake have plenty of offerings -- and you’ll be able to grill your fresh catch right there on deck.
 
If you need a diversion from swimming and fishing and water skiing and eating fresh AF fish, you can take a free tour of Shasta Dam. The 602-foot structure is the nation’s second largest concrete dam. Famed folk singer Woody Guthrie legendarily composed “This Land is Your Land” while helping construct the dam’s arch barrier. And if all that wasn’t enough, the Lake Shasta Caverns, underground parts of the lake you can only explore via boat, offers guided tours of the 250 million-year-old caves. -- Rebecca Golden

MORE:Nearby Redding is a prime spot for a solo adventure

Arnolds Park, Iowa

Time abandoned Arnolds Park long ago, leaving this “City of 5 Lakes” riddled with kitsch and nostalgia. A resort town since the late 19th century, it now’s so vintage it’s back in style -- picture wooden roller coasters, tiny colorful Ferris wheels rising just above the lake, popcorn and lemonade stands, and families taking glass-bottom boats out for wholesome Sunday afternoons on the water. It’s a summer-long county fair, practically an Iowa trademark.

The eponymous theme park sits on West Lake Okoboji, a prime spot for lazy days in the sand or for renting jet skis, boats, and stand-up paddleboards. Afternoons outside the park are meant for getting on the water, strolling the idyllic downtown, and navigating melty Nutty Bars, Okoboji’s favorite ice cream since 1949. Late nights are for live music, ice-cold beer, and last-call lake parties. To the north, Big Spirit Lake -- the biggest of Iowa’s “Great Lakes” -- is more about communing with nature and the water, if that’s more your scene. Several waterfront state parks get you the best of both worlds, too, at least when paired with a pint at nearby West O Beer. (Not as classic as the Nutty Bar, but just about!) -- Jacqueline Kehoe

MORE: There's so much more cool stuff to see in Iowa

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