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Want a classic summer family vacation? Rent a cabin or pitch a tent by one of America’s beautiful lakes. Some are buzzing with things to do from sun up to sun down. Others are calm and quiet, perfect for casting a fishing line and reading a book. Here are the top kid-friendly lakefront destinations in the US.
Think “beach” and chances are the sandy beaches of an ocean are the first thing that comes to mind. But America is overflowing with lovely lakeside towns. They have sandy beaches, too. Plus, many of them have nearby forests, great hiking trails and warmer water. Lake Michigan even boasts some surfing possibilities!
In addition, the laid-back lake culture is fun and relaxing. Who doesn’t want that in a family vacation?
No matter how your family prefers to spend nights at the lake — roughing it in a tent, camping in an RV, or safely ensconced in a comfy bed in a cabin or motel– you may discover, as these TravelingMoms have, that lake adventures will be your new family favorite vacation.
Read on as TravelingMoms share their favorite lake towns and experiences for discovering America’s lesser-known treasures.
TravelingMom Tip: Some locations may have rules governing visits (requiring masks, for example) or limit capacity. Always phone ahead or check the website before venturing out.
Lake Towns in the Northeast USA
Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire
First up on our list is a beautiful lake town in the New England state of New Hampshire. Find nostalgia for your childhood with a visit to the southern shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in Laconia, New Hampshire, says TravelingMom Mary Dixon Lebeau. Dotted with 258 islands, Lake Winnipesaukee’s 72 square miles provide the backdrop for relaxing days spent strolling around charming lakeside villages, sightseeing, enjoying unique attractions, reclining on a colorful Adirondack chair and just about every form of recreation you can think of, including old-fashioned beach fun.
Among Mary’s family favorites there: Building sandcastles on the shores and then splashing in the nearby waters. Strolling on the boardwalk, and taking in the views of the Ossipee mountains. Slipping a penny in to the town’s penny arcades and challenging the kids to a friendly ride in the Half Moon Bumper cars. Then stepping back in time with a ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. And ending the day by kicking back in their rented cottage at the Naswa Resort.
Watkins Glen State Park, Finger Lakes, New York
Pick one Finger Lakes town as the best? TravelingMom Cathy Bennett Kopf votes for Watkins Glen. Located on Seneca, the longest and deepest of New York’s 11 Finger Lakes, Watkins Glen has a rich history of motor car racing and a premiere speedway that’s a regular stop for NASCAR.
Wineries are located on both shores. The wines are good; the lake views are stellar. And there are lots of dairy farms. That means cheese! And ice cream! Don’t miss a visit to Watkins Glen State Park. The entrance is in the heart of downtown and the Gorge Trail has waterfalls. Tons of them, including two you can walk behind!
Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid, New York, is a gorgeous vacation spot to eat, play and stay any time of year. Lake Placid hosted the 1980 winter Olympics, which means there is a huge variety of things to do, from water sports to cross-country skiing to bobsledding. Plenty of Lake Placid hotel choices and terrific Lake Placid restaurants serve all tastes and budgets.
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While it is a year-round vacation choice, Lake Placid offers a typical “summer vacation at the lake” type of experience. We’re talking multiple lakes, mountain biking and hiking in the Adirondack mountains and golfing. In the winter, ski Whiteface Mountain, sit by a roaring fire and get lost in the unforgettable aroma of pine trees.
Lake Towns in the Southeast USA
Lake Lure, North Carolina
If you’re looking for the “time of your life” at one of the best lake towns in North Carolina, point the car toward Lake Lure. This is the town where Dirty Dancing was filmed. In August, there is even a Dirty Dancing festival where you can compete with your own version of the famous lake lift.
But there is much more than dancing at this lake. There’s a majestic mountain backdrop, cool waters, and fresh air, pontoon boat sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, water slides and a water park. There are so many things to do at Lake Lure that your biggest challenge will be where to start your family adventure.
Summersville Lake, West Virginia
The best lakeside town to experience in West Virginia, says Melody Pittman, is beautiful Summersville Lake. This incredibly deep lake (327 feet) has beautiful vertical rock cliffs on both sides. It is perfect for boating, scuba diving, jet-skiing and rock climbing. You can even get scuba certified at Sarge’s Dive Shop.
If fishing is your sport, Summersville Lake is chock full of walleye, bass and catfish. Check out the secret coves that offer perfect little spots for reeling in “the big one.” There are plenty of campsites and cabins at Summersville Lake to enjoy the scenic area, including 28,000 acres and 60 miles of shoreline, including beaches for swimming.
Lake Blackshear Resort, Cordele, Georgia
Lake Blackshear is a man-made lake with 1,800 acres for pontoon boating, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing. Hundreds of pine trees line Lake Blackshear banks, where trophy fishing, water skiing, swimming and kayaking are prime opportunities. Sunset should not be missed.
Located in a state park outside of town, Lake Blackshear Resort, in Cordele, Georgia, offers fantastic waterfront views and opportunities. TravelingMom Melody Pittman says it’s “more beautiful than any state park I’d been to, it has choices of accommodations (cottages, villas and lodge rooms), boat rentals and a marina. There are two on-site restaurants, one (Cypress Grill) with live music and incredible burger creations.”
Lake Towns in the Midwest USA
Lake Erie Islands, Ohio
Don’t worry, be happy — and that’s exactly what you’ll do during a visit to Lake Erie Islands, Ohio. Your Midwest road trip will end at Sandusky, Catawba or Port Clinton, and continue by private passenger boat, plane, or ferry to laid back South Bass or Kelleys Island.
The islands offer a diverse array of activities and adventure. Explore the world’s largest geode, dine in a restored blacksmith shop and ride to the top of a 352-foot monument for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding islands. You’ll find plenty of attractions, dining and lodging options there. And, if you travel with another couple or grandparents willing to keep the kids while you go out for the evening, you’ll find nightlife on the islands as well.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Located 90 minutes northwest of Chicago, Lake Geneva is the go-to lake for Chicagoans. The lakeside Shore Path is filled with historic mansions. Today Lake Geneva is a popular lake escape for families.
And there’s plenty to do, including walking the Geneva Lake Shore Path, taking a boat ride, swimming or just dipping your toes in the lake. One of the popular local beaches is Big Foot Beach State Park, which offers, camping, trails and picnic areas.
A less crowded and more affordable alternative is nearby Delavan Lake.
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Live summer to the fullest with a week-long vacation at Elkhart Lake, one of the best lake towns in Wisconsin. Generations of Midwesterners have enjoyed the crystal clear, spring-fed waters of this town 2.5 hours north of Chicago. For a luxurious family vacation, stay at the classic swanky Osthoff Resort. Its condo-style rooms, world class Aspira Spa and fine dining give a classy spin to a lake vacation.
But there’s also plenty to love about the lake! Take a sunset cruise or just spend the day lounging on the beach and watching the kids splash in the shallow water near shore. If you want a more active vacation, rent a hydro-bike, kayak or stand-up paddleboard for the water. Or explore the quaint little town on a rented tandem bike.
Since you are in Wisconsin, be sure to visit Hennings, a family-owned cheese factory, and sample a few of the award-winning cheese.
Gull Lake, Brainerd, Minnesota
Dotted with resorts, including the fabulous Madden’s on Gull Lake (here’s a review), Gull Lake is heaven for water sports lovers, fishing fanatics, or anyone who appreciates a colorful, peaceful sunset.
This is about as busy as it gets on the large, winding lake. At Madden’s, the beach has all sorts of fun for kids, including an inflatable water trampoline and climbing pyramid. Adults can see views of Gull Lake from the PGA-level golf course.
Deer Lake, Michigan
It’s fun just to stand in waist-high water and throw a frisbee around, but you can also paddleboard, kayak, sail, or play lawn games in this calm, clean lake in northwest Michigan. Near Petoskey, Deer Lake is next to Boyne Mountain Resort, a fantastic, activity-filled family destination. Features include an on-site ziplining course (you take a ski lift to the top), a large indoor water park (great for rainy days or evenings), and organized shows and activities in the courtyard area.
You can read more in this review of Boyne Mountain Resort. If you want a bigger lake to recreate on, Lake Charlevoix is a short drive away.
Lake Michigan Lake Towns
And TravelingMom Editor Cindy Richards raves about Traverse City, Michigan. While it’s bigger than most of the tiny towns on our list, it offers plenty to do in the short summer season and even more to do in the long winter season. Traverse City is the gateway to the gorgeous Sleeping Bear Dunes at the northern end of Lake Michigan where some hearty souls like to surf. Even better, it is a great foodie town.
Read More: 11 Awesome Things to do in Northern Michigan
A delightful tourist town in the heart of the lush Ozark Mountains (113 miles from Lake of the Ozarks), Branson offers so much fun for all ages. From world-class amusement parks and museums to showboat dinner cruises and full-scale musicals, Branson is a top family vacation destination.
More than seven million tourists visit the small town each year, and the overwhelming number of attractions keep them coming back again and again. From zip lines to amusement and water parks, to an amazing array of theatrical productions, you’d be hard-pressed to be bored in this town. In fact, Branson is often ranked as a top family vacation destination worldwide.
With its three lakes, more than 100 live shows, and more than 400 restaurants, there is something for just about every family.
Lake McConaughy, Nebraska
If you’re from the Midwest, chances are you’ve already heard of the white sand beaches of Lake Mac. This freshwater lake is my favorite family road trip destination for so many reasons — from its white sand beaches to a fishing paradise to endless water sports for families of all sizes.
Built on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills just 8 miles northeast of the small town of Ogallala, you’ll be dipping your toes and dropping your fishing line in Lake McConaughy with its more than 100 miles of shoreline.
Generation after generation of families flock to “Lake Mac,” often meeting their “lake family” for annual vacations to fire up the grill and tell stories around the campfire. This is a road trip away for those traveling from other areas of Nebraska and the surrounding states of Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado. From many campgrounds, easy access to Lake Mac’s cool waters is available for boaters, sailing enthusiasts and water skiers. (Bring your own or rent one onsite.)
World-class fishing is also a draw, and something the whole family can do together too. Adrenalin-seeking families can take to the sky together for parasailing.
Lake Towns in the Western USA
Grand Lake, Colorado
Colorado mountain towns are my jam (especially during the summer to escape the heat!), and Grand Lake tops the charts as one of my favorite lakeside towns in the U.S. When I enter Grand County, I can feel the tension release and relax — Mother Nature and small lake towns have that effect on me.
Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest and deepest natural body of water. This mountain town (named for the lake) sits at an elevation of 8,369 feet. Rocky Mountain National Park and its mountain ranges surround the lake on three sides. Grand Lake is just one mile from the park’s western entrance. The headwaters of the Colorado River and the snowmelt from the Continental Divide feed into the lake. Huge Grand Lake grows even more massive as it merges into the neighboring Shadow Mountain Lake.
Things to Do in Grand Lake
And there are so many fun things to do in the small town of Grand Lake that you’ll run out of time before you’ve done ’em all. If you opt for lakeside activities, check into Headwaters Marina for the scenic lake tour, sunset cruise, or be your own captain and rent a pontoon. Or rent stand up paddle boards, canoes or kayaks. Then explore Main Street with its wooden boardwalk, unique shopping and restaurants. And, of course, save time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.
My grandson and I enjoy golfing, so we added a round at Grand Lake Golf Course. Mountain courses can be more difficult but the views are simply spectacular!
While Grand Lake is an easy 100-mile day trip from Denver, we like to make it a real vacation. Our family favorite accommodation options are the Grand Lake Lodge, Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging, and Winding River Resort.
Payette Lake, McCall, Idaho
TravelingMom contributor Terry Ward enjoyed a trip to McCall, Idaho, an adorable town with a quaint and very walkable downtown that’s home to historic buildings, breweries and boutiques. But the highlight is the body of water it fronts – Payette Lake. It’s a playground for ice fishing in the winter and swimming and boating all summer long.
She and her husband vowed they’d be back with their family one summer to stay right along the lakefront at Shore Lodge, with its gorgeous swimming pool fronting the lake and a tucked-away spa with outdoor hot pools in a little garden oasis just for adults. Heaven!
Big Bear Lake, California
Pick a season, any season, and point your family car to Big Bear Lake, California. From anywhere in southern California, Big Bear Lake is a two-hour drive and a quick escape from city life. In the winter, it’s all about skiing, snowboarding and other snowy outdoor activities. From spring through fall, the seven-mile-long lake is a beach and water escape.
Even with its close proximity to the busy city streets, Big Bear Lake has managed to maintain its rustic mountain vibe — and a whole lot of things to do. Fishing, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, jet skiing, wakeboarding, boating, and narrated boat tours are among the many fun activities to enjoy as a family. There’s also a small swim beach.
Lake Tahoe, California & Nevada
Straddling the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe (or Tahoe as the locals call it) offers two high seasons. Centered around outdoor fun, the summer is all about water sports, mountain biking and hiking. Winter brings deep powder and about a dozen ski resorts.
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. Since it’s 1,645 feet (501m) deep, it never freezes in the winter. As an adult bonus, find casinos on the Nevada site of Lake Tahoe.
And you also should visit South Lake Tahoe.
Lake Chelan, Washington
If you’re not from the Pacific Northwest, you’re in for a cool surprise: Lake Chelan, Washington. It’s a scenic 3-hour drive from Seattle, just over the North Cascade Mountains. Not only is Lake Chelan the third deepest lake in the United States, but it’s also a popular regional destination for locals looking to enjoy a summertime getaway.
With 50 miles of shoreline set inside a picturesque mountain valley, Lake Chelan provides plenty of family-friendly fun for travelers from near and far. With four full seasons and more than 300 days of sunshine per year, this is a far cry from Seattle’s drizzle that we outsiders often tend to picture when considering a trip to Washington.