Best Lake Vacation Ideas in the U.S.

January 9, 2023

Planning an upcoming vacation with your family? For most Americans, on hot summer days, lakeside vacation spots are the best places to get some true rest and relaxation.

big bear lake california at sunset

Lakefront vacations offer something for everyone—from activities like water sports to quiet exploration of quaint small towns in all their glory. Visit historical homes, landmarks, shops, and restaurants. We compiled a list of some of the best lake vacation spots in the U.S. You may have heard of some of these vacation hotspots, but others are a bit off the beaten path. No matter whether you recognize these names immediately or not, all these lake destinations are worth visiting. Here are some of our favorites:

Most Bucket List Worthy Lake Destination

Lakes Erie and Ontario — Niagara Falls, New York

tour boat approaching the base of niagra falls

North America’s Great Lakes are home to one of the most treasured tourist attractions in the United States: Niagara Falls. The Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, creates the three falls — Horseshoe, American, and Bridal Veil — which combined make up this world-famous travel destination. The majority of the popular attractions are located within Niagara Falls State Park, where travelers can even go beneath some of the falls. If you really want to get up close and see the falls face to face, boat rides are also available. Adding to the allure of the area is the Seneca Niagara Casino, which has a luxurious hotel along with many stores and restaurants. What’s great about this destination is that it’s worth visiting all year round. Autumn foliage, highly sought after by “leaf peepers,” provides a pleasant backdrop to the area. Or, brave the winter cold to see the falls when they’re partly frozen over. Just make sure to pack your passport in case you decide to visit the Canadian side of Niagara while you’re here.

Nearby airport: Buffalo Niagara Airport (BUF)

Best Urban Lake Destination

Lady Bird Lake, Austin (AUS)

paddle boarders on lady bird lake austin skyline

If you want to explore an urban environment while enjoying lakeside activities, Austin’s Lady Bird Lake is the place for you. You can spend the entire day here or just walk along the boardwalk during sunset. Lakeside activities include hiking and biking — there’s a 10-mile loop trail surrounding the lake. Popular water activities include stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and canoeing. We recommend visiting ATX between March and November so you can see the bats swarm over the lake at night. Yes, you read that right — Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Congress Bridge and many people come to Lady Bird Lake solely for bat-watching. When you’re satisfied with your outdoor fix, you can try the best tacos in Austin, then check out the music scene of the “Live Music Capital of the World.” It’s the distinct blend of city and nature that makes Austin rank as one of the best places to live year after year.

Nearby airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)

Best of the Midwest

Lake of the Ozarks, MO

lake of the ozarks kayaker

Located midway between Kansas City and St. Louis (three hours away from each), Lake of the Ozarks serves as one of Missouri’s most popular summer destinations. Its shoreline, which forms a distinct serpentine shape, is over 1,100 miles long — that’s longer than the entire coast of California! There’s no shortage of things to do at Lake of the Ozarks — from fishing to water sports, there’s something for everybody. Many of the towns around the lake cater primarily to tourists, so there are plenty of places to stay, shop, and eat while you’re here.

Love the outdoors? Hike through the nearby Ha Ha Tonka State Park for stunning views of the lake, to explore caves, and even see the ruins of a turn-of-the-century castle. For shopping and nightlife, be sure to stop by the Bagnell Dam “Strip.” Shop for Ozarks souvenirs, enjoy some ice cream, and be on the lookout for classic cars in this nostalgia-inducing lakeside community. Lake of the Ozarks and the area around it is chock full of family fun activities, but you can also find a party scene here. The festivities of Lake of the Ozarks — especially within “Party Cove” — offer a vintage charm that was once so notorious that it was written about in the New York Times for being “the oldest established permanent floating bacchanal in the [U.S.].” Like we said, there’s something for everyone at Lake of the Ozarks.

Nearby airports: Kansas City International Airport (MCI) and St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL)

Best Lake for Fishing

Lake Texoma, Texas/Oklahoma

men fishing lake texoma

For a bustling summertime hotspot near the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, look no further than Lake Texoma. The lake itself has an interesting history — it was built during WWII by German POWs to diminish flooding in the area. Located in both Texas and Oklahoma, its name is a portmanteau of the two states. Many regulars simply refer to it as “Texomaland.” Over six million visitors flock here every year to enjoy the many water sports and activities available. While you’re here, try your hand at fishing in the so-called “Striper Capital of the World.” Besides striped bass, there are 70 other species living in Lake Texoma, including catfish weighing up to 100 pounds.

Nearby airports: Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) and Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL).

Best Alpine Lake

Big Bear Lake, California

Winter view of ski resorts next to Big Bear Lake, California.

Named after its former grizzly bear inhabitants, this lake destination has a rich history. It’s one of Southern California’s first mountain recreation spots, and was a popular destination for early Hollywooders like Shirley Temple and Cecil B. DeMille. If you do end up visiting big Bear Lake, you may recognize it from Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Last of the Mohicans — or another one of the many films shot on location here. Don’t let the stunning views of this alpine lake distract you from its many year-round activities. At Big Bear Lake, enjoy fishing, swimming, skiing, mountain biking, and more. And don’t worry, you won’t run into any grizzly bears here — only tourists.

Nearby airport: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Best Party Destination

Lake Havasu, Arizona

party boat crowd on lake havasu

Dubbed “Arizona’s playground,” Lake Havasu City was originally a barren tract of land purchased by entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch in the 1950s. Intending to attract visitors and potential homeowners, McCulloch financed the purchase and relocation of the London Bridge from England to Lake Havasu. And attract visitors he did — over one million people now visit Lake Havasu annually. There’s no shortage of things to do here: rent a jetski, go mountain biking on one of the 1,800 miles of off-road trails, or take a trip in a hot air balloon. Lake Havasu is also famous for its party scene, especially during spring break. Even the Lake Havasu Tourism Bureau agrees. MTV helped cement Lake Havasu as a spring break destination with the release of it’s 1995 “MTV Spring Break: Lake Havasu” special.

Nearby airports: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) and McCarran International Airport (LAS).

Best Lake Destination for Golfers

Lake Oconee, GA

residences beside golf course and lake

Located an hour and a half away from Atlanta, and an hour south of Athens, Lake Oconee is a golfer’s paradise. Many of the communities surrounding the lake are centered around the sport, boasting award-winning golf courses that people travel to from around the country to play. Even if you don’t golf, you can also enjoy traditional lake activities like swimming, fishing, pedal boating, kayaking, jet skiing, and more. History buffs can explore nearby Greensboro to see plantation-era architecture, museums, and even a 200-year-old jail.

Nearby airport: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL).

Best for Nature Lovers

Great Salt Lake, Utah

water and salt flats in utah

The state of Utah has no shortage of natural phenomena, including the Great Salt Lake. Originating from prehistoric times, the lake’s high salinity levels cause some to refer to it as “America’s Dead Sea” — you’ll feel like you’re floating because of the buoyancy caused by its high salt levels. Boating is a popular activity here, especially sailing and kayaking. Besides the natural beauty of the lake and the surrounding landscape, be on the lookout for wildlife. Bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, and elk abound on Antelope Island. If birding is your thing, make sure to visit the Bear River Bird Refuge and the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. The Great Salt Lake is also home to one of the most famous works of land art, Spiral Jetty. If you’re lucky and the lake’s levels drop below a certain point, you’ll be able to see Robert Smithson’s 1970 magnum opus.

Nearby airport: Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)

So, which lake destination is up next on your list? No matter where in the U.S. you live, or where you plan to travel, there’s an amazing lakeside vacation spot just waiting for you. Want to save money? You can count on The Parking Spot for savings on parking near close to 50 major airports in the U.S. Join The Spot Club today to enjoy exclusive benefits and discounts on airport parking.

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