So, you want a body of water for your summer trip, but you’re not feeling the beach. Why not try a lake? Not only are there hundreds from coast to coast, but they can also offer a more rustic experience than the hang-ten vibes you’ll get at the ocean. From bucket list places like Lake Tahoe to more under-the-radar spots like Payette Lake in Idaho, we’ve rounded up 12 beautiful lakes you need to visit, as well as the Airbnb spots to book when you do!
Smith Mountain Lake, VA
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Smith Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia covers 32 square miles between Roanoke and Lynchburg, giving visitors easy access and “city lodging” with less than an hour’s drive from either of these two launching pads. Prefer to stay on the water? Rent a lake house and wake up to watersports, nearby golf courses, and the Smith Mountain Lake State Park’s miles of hiking trails.
Airbnb nearby: This three-bedroom townhouse sits right in the middle of Smith Mountain Lake and offers not only amazing views but a swimming dock and quick access to town, where you’ll find movie theaters, shopping and other fun for families. Book it here
Lake Chelan, WA
Lake Chelan was formed over millions of years as the Cascade Mountains rose—you can still see glaciers on the peaks—and is known for its startling clarity. The Lake Chelan Valley includes the towns of Chelan, Manson and Stehekin, which are noted for outdoor recreation and a thriving art scene. You can shop, visit wineries, and play in the arcades and mini-golf after a full day of hiking, boating, fishing and swimming.
Airbnb nearby: Eight people can get into this lovely four-bedroom rental that bodes lake and orchard views! You’ll only be two miles away from the town of Manson, there’s plenty of yard for the kids and parents will love the fire pit after the littles are asleep.
Lake Tahoe, CA
Time to check Lake Tahoe off your bucket list! This pristine alpine lake is the clearest lake in the United States. Nestled in the nook between California and Nevada, there are so many things to do here. Spend time on the sandy beaches, go kayaking, paddle boarding, rafting, hiking, even four-wheeling on the famous Rubicon Trail.
White Bear Lake, MN
This medium-sized lake is just 20 minutes from the heart of the Twin Cities and only about 30 minutes from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, so it's easy to get to, but feels a world away. With multiple boat launches, including a marina with pontoon rentals, you can get out on the lake from May to September. In the winter months, you can skate and ski across the frozen lake, but it's summer when the real magic hits. Clamber on a playground alongside a shallow inlet of the lake, take a late-night stroll to spot fireflies along the pedestrian path, or yuk it up with the locals at Marketfest—a Thursday night street festival throughout the summer. You'll also find a 4th of July fireworks display and parade, all part of Manitou Days. The quaint downtown is full of shops and restaurants and the infamous ice cream at Cup n' Cone, where the prices feel like a throw-back to the '70s. There are summer concerts, a local theater, and even a Center for the Arts that offers classes for adults and kids alike.
Airbnb nearby: The WBL Loft is a restored, historic loft, sleeps 8, and is located up above a local business right in the heart of downtown. This adorable, fully-furnished house is just a skipping stone's throw from the lake, and even closer to the Cup n' Cone.
Payette Lake, ID
Eight square miles of glacial water at an elevation of about 5,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of Idaho? Who knew? It’s true, and Payette Lake is as beautiful as locals claim (and non-locals discover). With part of the lake protected in the Ponderosa State Park, Payette Lake is often uncrowded, leaving you plenty of space to boat, swim, fish, and play in its cool waters. The lake is nestled up against the town of McCall, which is filled with fun restaurants and shopping, and if all this hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: Payette Lake comes with its own “Loch Ness” monster lore, known fondly as “Sharlie.”
Geneva Lake, WI
Enjoy the pristine waters of Geneva Lake on four different beaches, go hiking on local trails, go zip lining, visit the petting zoo, the railroad museum and more.
Fontana Lake, NC
Created by the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains, Fontana Lake is on the Little Tennessee River in western North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park borders the lake to the north, and part of the Appalachian Trail crosses over the top of Fontana Dam. You'll find activities such as boating, horseback riding and crafts making at Fontana Village—a resort on the site of the World War II-era construction village for Fontana Dam.
Airbnb Nearby: This secluded lakeside retreat can sleep 12 guests. Nestlest against 50 acres of property, there’s a stocked fish pond and across the street, you’ll find a dock and Fontana Lake. There are bunk beds and even a separate little cabin with a queen bed! Book it here.
Big Bear Lake, CA
Located in San Bernardino County, you might recognize Big Bear Lake as the backdrop to multiple movies (including Gone with the Wind, oddly enough). As Southern California’s biggest lake and its location near two ski resorts, Big Bear Lake offers hiking and horseback riding in addition to boating, fishing, swimming, and diving.
Airbnb Nearby: The Cub House is very close to Big Bear Lake and just down the street from the Aspen Glen Picnic area. It’s also got tons of family-friendly amenities like a high chair, toys, plates and cups and fireplace guards. Book it here.
Skaneateles Lake, NY
Pronounced "Skinny at las(t)," this small town sits on the shores of an unspoiled blue lake in central New York's Finger Lakes region. Lakes in the region are old and natural, seeped in Native American folklore, and totally worth a summer visit. Skaneateles is an excellent starting point for exploring the entire region, which is filled with quaint towns, historic sites, wineries, museums, and parks.
Airbnb Nearby: You’ll get three bedrooms and three bathrooms in this lake-front home, plus a permanent dock and the use of the property’s kayaks and paddleboards. There’s a grill, a patio and a backyard perfect for kids. Book it here.
Lake Oconee, GA
While it's not Georgia’s largest lake, Lake Oconee is perhaps its most comfortable. Connected to its sister lake, Lake Sinclair, by Wallace Dam, Lake Oconee stretches out between Eatonton and Greensboro, both of which are picturesque and dripping in small-town Southern charm. Choose to stay at one of Greensboro’s many Inns and B&Bs, or opt for a little luxury and stay at The Ritz-Carlton at Lake Oconee—your room will even come with nightly s’more roasts.
Airbnb Nearby: There are two master suites in this beautiful rental that rests along the bank of Lake Oconee. You’ll get stunning sunset views, a fire pit and a large backyard for evenings after lake activities, and a washer and dryer. Book it here.
Lake Maxinkuckee, IN
Lake Maxinkuckee's shoreline is home to the Culver Military Academy and loads of small-town American charm. We’re pretty sure John Mellencamp wrote a song about it. When you’re not splashing in the cool waters, you’ll be watching salt-water taffy be made on Main Street, catching a parade of civic organizations, going for a hot-air balloon ride, or strolling through the town of Culver with an ice cream cone in each hand.
Lake George, NY
Thomas Jefferson described it as "...without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw.” It’s no wonder that the jet-setters of the 1900s built their “cottages” on the shores of Lake George. With its location in the Adirondacks, the plentitude of quaint towns around its shores, and the abundance of old-fashioned family entertainment (think mini-golf, fishing, and horseback riding), Lake George today is as fun a destination as it is a beautiful one. Lodging options abound but if you’re looking for a little excitement, check out the nearby Ridin-Hy Dude Ranch.
Airbnb Nearby: This new townhouse was built in 2019 and is practically a lakefront property! You’ll be within walking distance from Lake George Village, which offers restaurants, mini-golf, the Warren County Bikeway and lots of shopping. You’ll also get a patio and a balcony, and you can connect to the other townhouse for a large group. Book it here.
—Shelley Massey with Gabby Cullen