America's 20 Greatest Summertime Lake Towns
Everything you love about the beach. Zero sharks.
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, IdahoFifteen 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
Lake Chelan, Washington
About three hours outside of Seattle, drive up through the Cascades and past a series of tiny towns until you come across Lake Chelan: a lake in Northern Washington that gets an average 300 annual days of sunshine (!!!), and whose 1,500-foot deep, robin’s egg blue waters give the Caribbean a run for its money. Take kayaks, paddleboards, speedboats, and jet skis from LakeRider Sports and Chelan Parasail and Watersports for a spin, explore quiet local villages like Chelan, Mason, and Stehekin, or head out into the enormous North Cascades National Park—one of the most underrated national parks in the country, home to 300+ glaciers, sweeping alpine forests, and remote backcountry camping.And if you’re thinking: “Meh, all this excitement is nice, but I’d rather chill lakeside, sunglasses on and a little tipsy,” Lake Chelan is still the place for you. With more than 20 different grapes, this is one of the most low-key but excellent wine regions on the West Coast. Sit in for a spell at Succession Wines, Amos Rome Vineyards, and Cairdeas Winery—all within a few minutes of each other and all of which overlook the lake. —Tamara Gane
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 name. The bathhouses here once drew the likes of Babe Ruth and Al Capone, and which made Hot Springs the site of an eponymous, tiny National Park (and one that could claim to be America’s first, at that). 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 straight-up 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 becomes a party lake when the temperatures flirt with 100 throughout July and August. When they’re ready to dock, hungry boaters idle right up to Sam's, a pizza joint on the water, to 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
Michigan is home to dozens of Great Lakes towns, many interchangeable, all fantastic. This list could include 10 from along the state’s 3,300 miles of shoreline and be very accurate. So go to Traverse City or Ludington or Empire. They're gorgeous. There's fudge and wine. You know this.
The Upper Peninsula, however, remains mysterious. Marquette—the UP’s sprawling metropolis of 20,000—sits about a 10-hour drive north of Detroit. The gruff, friendly old mining town rises from Lake Superior’s choppy shores, its brick-lined streets hosting some of Michigan’s best less-hyped breweries like Blackrocks and Drifa and old-school dives like the musty Wooden Nickel. And when night falls on the waterfront city, you'll find yourself under a bright panorama of stars, whether as a reflection from the Superior overlook on nearby Mt. Sugarloaf or from atop the haunted breakwall in town.Grab a Torpedo sub from local legend Togo’s and jump from the cliffs of Presque Isle into the icy waters of Superior. If summer crowds descend, head north to the less-trafficked Little Presque. And make sure to head south for at least a day to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: it’s an entire shoreline whose entire cliff-covered waterfront appears to have been attacked by a giant toddler with a paintbrush, and it’s a scant hour drive from Marquette. —Andy Kryza
South Lake Tahoe, CaliforniaThis 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 little 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
Wolfeboro, New HampshireThe oldest resort town in America happens to sit on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Families return to this (frankly, 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
Seneca, South CarolinaLake 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
Ely, MinnesotaA 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, motorboats 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
Lake George, New York
New Yorkers love an upstate moment, especially the Adirondacks. The entire region is studded with blissfully chill lake towns—and while Lake Placid reigns as the most iconic, we’re going to set it aside for the summer and come back in autumn, when you can take in the blazing foliage along Mirror Lake, or hit the ski slopes on Whiteface Mountain in winter.For classic Griswold summer vacation vibes, we like Lake George. If you’ve ever wanted to camp on a secluded island (we’ve been fans of renting them lately, ourselves), Lake George has 44 state-owned ones where you’ll find nearly 400 campsites, some of which you can reserve for as little as $28/night. There’s lake cruises, parasailing, waterfall hikes, boat rentals, beer at Adirondack Pub and Brewery, and a great lakeside winery. (One of the state’s largest amusement parks is also nearby, if you’re in that kind of mood.) And if you get tired of the crowds, there’s always the 29-mile secluded shoreline of Great Sacandaga Lake just an hour south. —Tiana Attride
Saugatuck/Douglas, MichiganNicknamed "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
Lake Havasu City, ArizonaLake 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
Colorado is rightly known for its mountains—but don’t sleep on its underrated lakes. Better yet, combine the best of both worlds in the charming little town of Dillon, an oft-overlooked gem just 15 miles north of its world-famous big brother, Breckenridge. Dillon’s number one attraction is the Dillon Reservoir, an absolutely show-stopping alpine lake that feels worlds away from the busy I-70 traffic whizzing by in the distance. Sitting at an elevation of 9,000 feet within 10 miles of four major ski resorts, Lake Dillon also boasts the recently renovated Dillon Amphitheatre as one of the most magnificent outdoor venues in the venue-rich Centennial State.In town, Arapahoe Café and Pug Ryan’s are where you’ll want to be to cover your food and drink bases, while the nearby hike to Sapphire Point and scenic drive through Boreas Pass are not to be overlooked. But when all is said and done, you’re here for one thing and one thing only: to get that ass out on that lake. Accomplish this life-affirming feat via pontoon rental from the friendly folks at Dillon Marina (after knocking back a few at the waterfront tiki bar first.) To spend a few sun-soaked hours boating on the mountain-rimmed Lake Dillon beneath the cloudless Colorado summer sky is to know true happiness. —Jay Gentile
Rangeley, MaineMaine 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
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Those in search of the quintessential Midwestern lake town have been making the short drive from Chicago and Milwaukee to Lake Geneva for generations. Hop aboard a booze cruise with Lake Geneva Cruise Line or pilot your own vessel with help from local outfitter Elmers to explore the gorgeous 8.5-square-mile lake before diving headfirst into the area’s bustling bar/restaurant scene. Nurse your next day hangover crashed out in the sand at Riviera Beach or, better yet, wander the lake’s uniquely open-to-the-public, 26-mile Lake Geneva Shore Path that skirts by the glistening front lawns of million dollar homes with million dollar lakefront views.While most newbies tend to stick close to Lake Geneva’s tourist-heavy downtown district, there are ample delights to be had a little further afield in the surrounding towns. Post up with an always lively crowd and the best broasted chicken known to humankind at the old-school Mars Resort on often overlooked Lake Como, or explore nearby Lake Delavan and wind up at A-plus local dives like the Inn Between. The alarmingly cute hamlet of Williams Bay is another excellent destination for more eating and beach gazing, while an excursion to Fontana’s iconic Abbey Resort is pretty much a summer prerequisite. —Jay Gentile
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. —Thrillist Editors
Bigfork, MontanaThough 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
Grand Marais, MinnesotaRight, 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
Branson, MissouriBranson 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
Shasta Lake, CaliforniaShasta 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
Arnolds Park, IowaTime 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