Travel

These Mountain Lake Towns Are Next-Level Serene

The new high water mark for small towns.

 Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid lives up to its name in the autumn | Walter Bibikow / stone / getty images
Lake Placid lives up to its name in the autumn | Walter Bibikow / stone / getty images

We’re suckers for a great small town. We go crazy for little lakeside enclaves, and often dream of hanging out in iconoclastic villages in the shadows of mountains. But a tiny mountain town on a lake? That’s like winning at a (very specific) game of comfort-travel bingo. 

There are beautiful mountain lakes from coast to coast, but so few of them have equally alluring small towns attached to them. These aren’t just nice little towns that happen to sit on shores reflecting snowy peaks. They’re cozy hamlets where you’ll find great food and drink, fun things to do, and people whose attitudes seem refreshed by lakeside breezes commingled with mountain air. And right now -- in that sweet spot between the summer boating season and the influx of skiers -- might just be the best time to visit.

North and South Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada

Hot take: Despite being home to some of the highest annual snowfall totals in the country, the best times to visit North America’s largest alpine lake are summer and fall. Whether your preference falls on laid-back North Lake Tahoe or the more popular, party-centric South Lake Tahoe is a matter of preference. And luck you, you have options. 

Strut your stuff at small nude beach Secret Cove then kick back with some beers at the eye-popping Mediterranean-styled Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Survey your kingdom from a lesser-known birds-eye perch atop Donner Summit in Tahoe National Forest, catch the sunset over the lake from the floating bar at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, or carve into some steaks at old-school former Sinatra hangout Crystal Bay Steakhouse. Don’t worry: they’ll be plenty of time for hot hub parties and bikini skiing come winter. Right now, the calm before that storm is extra soothing. 

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Dillon, Colorado

This breathtaking lake, located within 10 miles of four major ski resorts -- including Breckenridge -- is a respite of serenity quietly perched in all of its sun-soaked glory just off busy I-70. Stop by Pug Ryan’s Tiki Bar at Dillon Marina (the highest tiki bar in the US) for some tacos and a Rum Runner before hopping in a pontoon rental and enjoying the greatest boating excursion of your life in summer and early fall.
 
The lake is also home to the recently renovated Dillon Amphitheatre, one of the top outdoor venues in the state (which, in Colorado, is certainly saying something.) Bikers can get their kicks on the 18-mile paved path around the lake, while those looking for a quick hike with sweeping panoramic views are encouraged to make the short jaunt to Sapphire Point to survey the gobsmacking scene from 9,500 feet. Fall foliage fanatics would be wise to cruise nearby semi-hidden gem Boreas Pass, while the charm-packed towns of Frisco and Breckenridge are just a short drive away.

MORE:   Explore even more of Colorado’s gorgeous mountain towns

Lake Lure, North Carolina
Lake Lure, North Carolina | Jon Bilous / shutterstock

Lake Lure, North Carolina

Mountain seekers won’t have any difficulty finding solace in Asheville, North Carolina’s delightfully funky arts-and-beer enclave. But those looking for some top-flight lake action will have to travel 28 miles outside of Asheville to Lake Lure, perched among the Blue Ridge Mountains as one of the most stunning man-made lakes in America. Yes, it is famous as a filming destination for Dirty Dancing -- there’s even a Dirty Dancing Festival -- but don’t let that define your experience.
 
The popular local spot brims with activity with fine recreation opportunities including sunbathing at Lake Lure Beach, mountain biking at Buffalo Creek Park, strolling the Lake Lure Town Center Walkway, and boat renting from Lake Lure Tours. Pair your trip to the lake with an excursion to nearby Chimney Rock State Park for A-plus hiking, rock climbing, and a glorious all-encompassing natural vista of star-spangled splendor from its iconic overlook. You’ll be singing “God Bless America” in short order.

McCall, Idaho

While some might elect for the more famous Coeur d’Alene or the laid-back Priest Lake, it’s hard to find fault with Payette Lake in the town of McCall. This criminally underrated Rocky Mountain town combines a good-time spirit and endlessly charming Old West-styled downtown with that serene forested landscape that Idaho is known for, all perched at the edge of a mini Tahoe-esque lake at an elevation of 5,000 feet.
 
After you’re staring at Payette’s crystal-clear glacial waters and forested mountain backdrop, get out on the water for fishing and boat cruising. Then, lose yourself within the vast expanse of adjacent Ponderosa State Park (of which half the lake is a part of.) Take a stroll along the water’s edge to Porcupine Point, perched smack at the edge of a 1,000-acre peninsula overlooking the lake. We’ll wait as you ponder vacation home real-estate listings.
 
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Lake Placid, New York

Lake Placid will forever be associated with the 1980 Miracle on the Ice, when the US -- led by Kurt Russell -- beat the Soviets to score an unlikely gold medal in hockey. This is a city of Olympic dreams, a place where you can still bobsled on the same course where the world’s best once competed. But it’s also a serene beacon of chill in beautiful Upstate New York, a town that -- especially in the fall, when the color spectrum pops above the waters -- is like a watercolor painting come to life. 

Those colors look their best reflected in the centerpiece Mirror Lake from atop Wallface, New York’s highest cliff. But you don’t need to break a sweat to really fall for this place. You can do it during an ambling hike in the woods or around that reflective lake. You can do it over Bloody Marys at the popular Breakfast Club or beers at the superlative Lake Placid Pub & Brewery. It will wash over you as you kick back at Lake Placid Lodge, or just on an ambling stroll around town. This is a town that washes over you. You don’t need to be a world-class athlete to be drawn in. 

MORE:    Upstate is chock full of gorgeous little towns like this

Big Bear Lake, California

Have you ever heard an Angeleno brag about the time they surfed in the morning and were skiing by sundown? That person is probably lying. But in their fantasy, that second part occurred in Big Bear. Somehow overlooked in favor of places like Mammoth and Tahoe, Big Bear’s a quintessential ski and snowboarding town, sure, but it’s also way more affordable, especially if you’re not inclined to hit the powder. 

The town itself -- not far from also-serene Lake Arrowhead -- is situated around the reflective waters of the eponymous lake, with little boulder islands protruding through the blue. Rentals abound around the shores and the surrounding forests, while the town itself is a straight shot of rugged comfort. Grab a beer Big Bear Lake Brewing Company or a warm up from Big Bear Roasting Co. then wonder why anyone would waste half a day surfing when they could just be idling around this place like a high-comfort sasquatch. 

MOREEscape from LA with these day trips

Chelan, Washington

Chelan seems like it was forged by some sort of divine focus group. This is a town that bucks all those rainy Washington stereotypes with a whopping 300 days of sunshine. Bordering on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the glacial long, snakelike lake that gives this highly scenic town its name doesn’t just provide its aesthetics and pastimes like boating and swimming. It also provides the central Washington countryside with incredible terroir. As such, there are 20 different wineries in one of America’s most overlooked grape regions. 

That’s a lot of pedigree for a tiny town of 4,000. But not content to claim great wine and the third-deepest lake in the US, the town itself is a marvel. Grab a glass of the good stuff, then take in the weekly farmers market or live music. Maybe use it as some liquid courage before parasailing, or as an apres hike treat. But definitely pair it with an artisanal slice from Local Myth Pizza, another notch on this town’s already impressive belt. 

MORE:   Now that you’re here, take another day trip to Washington’s little Bavaria

The Rocky Mountains overlook Grand Lake | GRAND LAKE, COLORADO

Grand Lake, Colorado

Colorado has always been America’s capital of mountain lakes, and Grand Lake is its ideal. When you close your eyes and think of a mountain lake, it’s likely that it looks a lot like this 50-pool surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Here, you’ll find a frontier-style downtown that seems displaced from time, though unlike in the boom days it has great food thanks to spots like the celebrated riverside Historic Rapids Restaurant.

Founded in 1881, Grand Lake’s blue waters are best viewed on horseback, or by 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.

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Bigfork, Montana

Montana’s Flathead Lake is dotted with fantastic towns both rustic and charming, but along this massive freshwater oasis, Bigfork is about the most purely Montana of them all. All your requisite Montana activities are present: This is, after all, a gateway to Glacier, and a ginormous lake surrounded by some of America’s densest forests -- obviously there’s incredible fly fishing, camping, hiking, and floating to be done before the whole thing freezes over. 

But the postcard backdrop of Bigfork also taps into Montana’s more artistic side, offering a more laid-back but still rugged counterpart to rowdier artist enclaves like Livingston. Come summer, this is a place where you can explore the famous Going to the Sun Road and still be back in time for a show at the  Bigfork Summer Playhouse or an outdoor concert. Regardless of the season, grab a brew at Flathead Lake Brewing, one of Montana’s finest breweries and proof positive that beer does, in fact, taste better when consumed on frigid lake. 

MORE:   Speaking of Livingston...

Hot Springs, Arkansas | Tourism Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas

It’s kind of weird that Hot Springs manages to fly under so many people’s radars. This town is also home to a National Park of the same name… the only national park, far as we can tell, where there are mineral-rich bath houses and hair salons. There’s art, music, and architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice, E. Fay Jones. Bill Clinton was born here. Yet for most yankees in particular, it’s a mystery.

Come summer, you’ll find the waters of Lake Hamilton -- the Ouachita Mountain waterway -- clogged with boaters. This is, after all, a lake as legendary among partiers as it is with fishers. But beyond those waters, the area is home to some of the most hardcore mountain biking trails in the US. Even better, whether you’re aching from taking those trails or raging too hard on a boat, the healing waters of those hot springs are there to cure what ails you. 

MORE:    Somehow not sold on Arkansas? This should help.

Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile
Thrillist senior travel editor Andy Kryza lives in between Big Bear Lake and the Pacific Ocean. He has no desire to surf or ski on the same day. But he might be down to build a sand castle and a snowman on the same weekend. Follow him @apkryza.