Editor’s Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
There are few things more relaxing than the quintessentially American lake vacation. This is a country chock-full of picturesque lakes, from the northeastern shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and Rangeley Lake in Maine, all the way to the southern California shores of Big Bear Lake. And we specifically wanted to hone in on the best lake towns in America as a way to help travelers pinpoint exactly where to book a week-long rental or a charming inn for their next lake vacation.
These towns are not only right on the waterfront of the country’s clearest and most sought-after lakes – they have bustling town centers and lively culture within. And isn’t that what makes the best lake towns shine? They’re not just waterfront havens where you can rent a boat for the day or go stand-up paddle boarding, they’re also destinations with exciting restaurants, hotels, shopping, and plenty of non-water-based activities.
Whether you’re renting a lake house for the summer, or looking for a lakeside long weekend to book this fall, these are the 15 best lake towns in America.
Related: More nature travel ideas
Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
On Lake Winnipesaukee, Wolfeboro is fast becoming the best lake town in the Northeast. The drive to Wolfeboro is about two hours from Boston and five from New York City. The town center of Wolfeboro is actually positioned directly on Lake Winnipesaukee, which offers an expansive 72 square miles of water. Your life in Wolfeboro will be filled with sunset swims at Brewster Beach, ice cream cones at Wolfeboro Dockside Grille & Dairy Bar, and beers at Lone Wolfe Brewing Company. Treat your family to a boat tour aboard the M/S Mount Washington, which has been cruising the lake for nearly 150 years, and if you’re looking for a charming hotel, Pickering House Inn is just the place.
Just 85 miles outside of Atlanta sits one of the most charming lake destinations in the South: Lake Oconee. Greensboro is situated right on the 19,000-acre lake and is home to a posh golf community (there are six courses within Reynolds Lake Oconee). Scout a rental property to live out your Southern lake dream sequence, or stay at The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee in Greensboro for waterfront five-star accommodations.
Bayview, Idaho is a floating village – yes, that’s a real thing – on Lake Pend Oreille. The community is nestled between the southern shores of the lake and the foothills of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. Bayview is right on the water (literally), giving it a northwestern island feel, and it is home to the 4,000-acre Farragut State Park. You have the best of land and sea activities here, from hiking trails and wildlife spotting opportunities to boating and swimming along 42 miles of shoreline. Rent a cabin with a private dock (and a boat, if you like) at MacDonald’s Resort in Bayview.
Aurora, New York
The New York Finger Lakes region is a pristine part of the state with 11 glistening bodies of water, each lined by towns with character. Aurora, New York sits on Cayuga Lake, one of the largest of the 11 Finger Lakes. Cayuga Lake is known for its stunning wine trail and Aurora, nestled right on the shores of Cayuga, is in close proximity to wineries along the lake as well as wineries lining the adjacent Seneca Lake. The beauty of Aurora, apart from the gorgeous sunsets on Cayuga Lake, is that you have culture, incredible food and wine, and water activities at your fingertips. Venture into Ithaca, New York for dinner at Maxie’s Supper Club, visit Heart & Hands Wine Company in nearby Union Springs, and of course, stay at Inns of Aurora for a luxurious lakeside escape at one of their five beautifully curated inns.
The pinnacle of Montana lake culture is spending the summer months on Flathead Lake. It’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi – boasting 200 square miles of water. Along the 185-mile shoreline, you’ll find patches of crystal clear water. You’ll also find the town of Bigfork, Montana, which has old Western resort town energy, not dissimilar to the ski towns you’d find in Colorado mining country. The actual town of Bigfork has a growing arts scene – between their impressive array of galleries, notable theatre presence, and annual Festival of the Arts – and it is known for great hiking, with many trails offering views of the lake. Rent a house right on the shores of Flathead Lake, or book a cabin at the all-inclusive Flathead Lake Lodge for a memorable dude ranch experience.
Clermont Chain of Lakes is a system of 11 lakes in Florida, but the historic village of Clermont is specifically nestled on Lake Minneola. About half an hour from Orlando, Clermont is the heart of this multi-lake community and is also close to Lake Louisa (the largest of the Clermont Chain of Lakes). When you’re not exploring the surrounding lakes, enjoy the small-town charms of Clermont, from the Downtown Clermont Farmer’s Market every Sunday to the shopping along Montrose Street in Clermont’s Historic Village.
South Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular year-round destinations in California – and when you see the sunshine ricochet off the lake in the summer months, you’ll see why it’s just as enticing in June as it is in the height of ski season. Summer and fall in the South Lake Tahoe area is synonymous with boat rentals, hiking Rubicon Trail for views of the lake, dining al fresco at Boathouse on the Pier, and sunsets savored with a bottle of wine. Rent a house along the water – on either the Nevada or California side – or stay at Edgewood Tahoe, the only five-star resort right on the water with gorgeous architecture, golfing, and an idyllic pool overlooking the lake.
Just outside Austin, Texas is Lakeway, along the southern shores of Lake Travis. The light turquoise waters attract vacationers from all over the country. You can drive 30 minutes to Austin to go out for a meal or take in some live music, or unwind in the quieter suburb of Lakeway, where you’ll still find great barbeque and Tex-Mex. Lakeway Resort & Spa is the place to be in the area – not just for those looking for a lovely lakeside hotel, but for those renting in the area who want to book a spa day or dinner at the resort.
Charlevoix is the perfect getaway to Lake Michigan. While Charlevoix offers both waterfront attractions and inland charms, beach-going visitors will love the five miles of shore at Fisherman’s Island State Park and Beach. For those who aren’t as keen on sinking their toes into soft white sand, Charlevoix is also home to Lavender Hill Farm, with idyllic fields packed with 25 lavender varieties, and Castle Farms – an actual stone castle in northern Michigan. This lake town is brimming with charming accommodations, too, from the more modern Hotel Earl to the historic Bridge Street Inn and the waterfront Edgewater Inn & Suites.
White Lake, North Carolina
Supported by natural spring and rain water, White Lake is a 1,200-acre body of water in North Carolina, and the town welcomes 200,000 tourists each summer. It’s all about the water sports at White Lake – tourists come to swim, boat, tube, jet ski, wake board, and the like. That said, you’ll also find an amusement park in town and, next to White Lake (heading toward neighboring Elizabethtown), a picturesque 18-hole golf course. Come for the entire summer, or just for the annual White Lake Water Festival traditionally held in May.
When it comes to American lakes, Maine’s got game. Maine is home to (literally) thousands of lakes and ponds, from the largest lake, Moosehead, to midsize lakes like Portland-adjacent Sebago Lake and Rangeley Lake near the middle of the state. Rangeley Lake is known for terrific fishing (it’s a trout and salmon hub), swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. Rangeley Lake State Park boasts 850 acres of mountainous terrain, making the area a perfect hiking destination as well.
Osage Beach, Missouri
If you’re looking for the perfect vacation town on Lake of the Ozarks, look no further than Osage Beach. The famously human-made lake is known for speed boating and waterfront resorts, but Osage Beach claims 420 acres of shorefront that’s particularly inviting for families keen on a beach vacation. While the town of Osage Beach has only 5,000 residents, there is a variety of restaurants, bars, and parks that attract visitors every summer. Check out Margaritaville Lake Resort for a family-friendly vacation in Osage Beach.
The Pacific Northwest is filled with pine tree-lined bodies of water, but in terms of lake towns that offer both water activities and mainland charms, Chelan is one of the best waterfront enclaves in the PNW. On the southeast shore of Lake Chelan, Chelan is a resort town nestled between the water and the Cascade Mountains. There’s something for every travel palette in this town, from the boutique shops and locally-owned restaurants, to the 9,000-foot-plus peaks boasting hiking and mountain biking trails, to the seemingly unlimited boating and water sport opportunities on the clear blue water of Lake Chelan.
Vermont’s first and smallest city, Vergennes is a short drive to both Burlington and Middlebury. Vergennes and the area bordering Lake Champlain have an old-world New England feel – which stands to reason, as Vergennes was founded in 1788. Those looking for history and a well-preserved downtown will enjoy the heart of this city, while those keen on a lake vacation can head straight to Basin Harbor, a resort on Lake Champlain celebrating its 135th season.
Big Bear Lake, California
Big Bear Lake is a year-round California destination because, much like Tahoe, it transforms from a ski town in the winter to a lake town in the summer. Big Bear is less of a hotel town – the name of the game here is renting a house on the water and spending your days fishing, hiking, swimming, and mountain biking. Visitors will find endless entertainment within the village of Big Bear, from brunch at Teddy Bear Restaurant to midday microbrews at Big Bear Lake Brewing Company.