Skip Links

Along the American coastline, boaters can play in either salt- or freshwater, depending on their setup. For inland boaters, freshwater is generally the only option, and that's just fine with them. It's no secret that saltwater, with its high salt and mineral content, is more punishing to a boat's hull and running gear. But when it comes to lifestyle choices, many boaters also prefer freshwater for its different fish species to chase, or that lakes are less prone to monster storms, maintain a consistent tide, and generally deliver greater tranquility. Simply put, freshwater is kinder and gentler — and is easy on the eyes when you dive off the swim platform!

Did you know there is no recognized standard for what distinguishes a pond from a lake in North America? The general consensus is that anything bigger than 20 acres of surface area is a lake. Beyond that, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary and imprecise. Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (DEP) tallies 123,439 lakes in the continental United States.

With so many lakes, there's no way to rank "the best" in the U.S., but some are so exceptional, they warrant a road trip, whether it be trailering a boat, or a flying in for a rental or charter. In no particular order, here are nine more lakes that our editors and Members love.

Freshwater lakes in the United States map

Lake Tahoe

California/Nevada

Scenic views of Emerald Bay

Scenic view of Emerald Bay. (Photo: Rachid Dahnoun)

  • Location: straddles the California-Nevada border, 110 miles northeast of Sacramento
  • Size: 122,240 acres
  • Depth: 1,000-foot average, 1,645 feet maximum
  • Amenities: 13 marinas, 2 yacht clubs, 17 launch ramps
  • Fish: lake trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, kokanee salmon, largemouth bass
  • BoatUS Services available: Member discounts | TowBoatUS port | Life jacket loaner sites nearby

Shaped by the Ice Age, this spectacular alpine lake sits 6,225 feet high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It's renowned for its cobalt water so clear you see 75 feet down with the naked eye. Of the water's mirrorlike qualities, American author Mark Twain wrote, "I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth afford." You've seen the stunning aerial photos, but Lake Tahoe should most definitely be seen by boat.

The state lines of California and Nevada split the lake west and east, but Tahoe is really about the tale of two lakes — North and South. The South Shore community (which is still rebounding from the Caldor Fire, but open to visitors) is where the action is. The long, clean, sandy beaches host year-round outdoor activities. Here's where you rent what you need for boating, wave-jumping, fishing, hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, or snowboarding. If the seasons cooperate, you can both snow ski and waterski the same day at Tahoe.

North Lake Tahoe is well known for its quieter, more laid-back atmosphere, with smaller towns and fewer boats. North Lake Tahoe is also famous for its striking rocky granite boulder shoreline.

For wooden boat lovers, the annual Concours d'Elegance boat show in August, held on lake's western shore, is one of the most acclaimed and prestigious wooden boat shows in North America.

Lake Tahoe delivers some excellent fishing. "Tahoe has trophy mackinaw, lahontan cutthroat trout, brown trout, and kokanee salmon — and they are plentiful," says BoatUS Member Tak Watanabe. After a day of angling, boaters can head to MacDuff's Public House, where they'll cook your fish any way you like. "Nowhere else can you find such clear turquoise water, breathtaking views and all the tourist things you want to do," adds Watanabe. "Get on the lake before sunrise and stay for the sunset and evening dining." TahoeSouth.com

— Fiona McGlynn

Lake George

New York

Boating on Lake George

Lake George is a boater's paradise in Upstate New York. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Lake George is, without comparison, the most beautiful ­water I ever saw." (Photo: Warren County Tourism)

  • Location: An hour north of Albany
  • Size: 29,440 acres
  • Depth: 70 feet average, 196 feet maximum
  • Amenities: 16 marinas, 4 yacht clubs, 7 launch ramps (Some marinas also provide public launch for a fee)
  • Fish: Landlocked salmon (stocked annually), lake trout, brook trout, bass, yellow perch black crappie
  • BoatUS Services available: TowBoatUS port | Life jacket loaner sites nearby

There are crystal clear lakes ... and then there's Lake George. New York state rates its quality as "Class AA-Special," the same as drinking water, and many of the shoreline homes draw drinking water from the lake. "The waters are the clearest I've ever seen, and it has a great boating history and culture," says BoatUS Member and local boater, Albert Gray.

Credit the steep surrounding Adirondack Mountains for that. The towering forest-green scenery envelopes the lake, creating tucked-away bays that access quiet hiking trails. Locals boast of its nickname, the Queen of American Lakes. At the hub is the small town of Lake George (pop. 3,500), historic for its battles (French & Indian War) and its early 20th century recreational resort town roots, including Million Dollar Beach, the lake's largest and most popular beach. The Lake George Steamboat Company runs three cruise ships, including Minne-Ha-Ha, one of the last steam paddlewheel ships in America.

What strikes visiting boaters the most is "The Narrows," a mile-wide passage dotted with more than a dozen islands, big and small. Lake George, approximately 32 by 3 miles, is home to more than 170 islands — and camping permits are available for most of them. Watersports fans may head to the open water of Northwest Bay, while the more adventurous can set a waypoint for Calves Pen, a set of cliffs on the east side of Lake George and a beacon for swimmers bold enough to scale them and leap more than 20 feet into the deep water. For families, there's Log Bay, a sandy-bottomed curve in the shoreline that draws many boats to the knee-deep shallows throughout the summer.

Look for the mansions of Millionaires' Row, the nickname for a stretch of palatial estates on the west side of the lake, one-time summer homes to industry titans and Hollywood stars. There is an abundance of boat rentals, charters, cruises, and even nearby whitewater rafting. VisitLakeGeorge.com

— Rich Armstrong

Inland Waterway

Michigan

Boaters transiting between Burt and Mullett lakes pass

Boaters transiting between Burt and Mullett lakes pass through downtown Indian River. (Photo: Travel Michigan)

  • Location: Northern lower peninsula near Cheboygan
  • Size: 35,000 acres (Burt & Mullett lakes)
  • Depth: 110 feet (average maximum depth)
  • Amenities: 11 marinas (7 full service), 11 boat launches
  • Fish: Bluegill, brown trout, largemouth bass, northern pike, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, steelhead, walleye, and yellow perch
  • BoatUS Services available: Life jacket loaner sites nearby

The Inland Waterway cuts 40 miles across northern Michigan, connecting Crooked Lake (a few miles from Lake Michigan) to the west, and Lake Huron's South Channel to the east. In between are a series of lakes and rivers. In the middle are the two largest lakes, Burt and Mullett, connected by the Indian River and divided by Interstate 75.

"Mullet Lake is probably the most popular as there are several bays and points with good fishing, and lake's surface area of 17,360 acres is perfect for watersports and leisure cruising," says Otie McKinley, communications manager for Travel Michigan. "Burt Lake is also popular for these activities, being relatively the same size, but its maximum depth [73 feet] is only half of Mullett's [148 feet]." The 4-mile Indian River connects these kidney-shaped lakes, so most boating amenities (food, fuel, service, sales, parts, rentals, and boat slips) can be found near the river's source in southeast Lake Burt and its mouth at the southwest shore of Lake Mullett.

This is a rural tourist area, and the local population triples in season. Still, compared to the nation's most famous lakes, boat traffic is relatively modest, especially on weekdays. Instead of rows of multistory condos, the vista is of sandy beaches, summer cottages, state parks, and lots of forestry (think fireflies at night). Recreational boats rule the waters, but crews need to keep an eye out for paddlers, who are abundant throughout the waterway.

Burt Lake is ranked among Michigan's top 50 fishing lakes (there are 11,000 in the state). Mullett Lake is home to the state record for lake sturgeon (193 pounds!) as well and numerous other fish species. One (hardly) secret fishing area is a small sunken island in the southern portion of Mullett. Michigan.org

— Rich Armstrong

Lake Chelan

Washington

Lake Chelan sunrise from Stehekin, Washington

Lake Chelan sunrise from Stehekin, Washington. The lake, which was formed by glaciers, is the third deepest lake in the U.S. (Photo: Getty Images/jmacarthur)

  • Location: 190 miles northeast of Seattle
  • Size: 32,663 acres
  • Depth: 474-foot average, 1,486-foot maximum
  • Amenities: 5 marinas, 1 yacht club, 5 launch ramps
  • Fish: kokanee salmon, cutthroat trout, lake trout, chinook salmon, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout
  • BoatUS Services available: Life jacket loaner sites nearby

At just a mile or two wide, the 50-mile-long Lake Chelan weaves its way through the North Pacific Cascades. The name comes from "Tsi-Laan," a Salish American word for "deep water," an apt description because Lucerne Basin is one of the three deepest gorges in the U.S. When the lake is at full pool, the gorge is 386 feet below sea level, making it a must-visit for technical divers.

Surrounded by the Lake Chelan National Recreational Area, the Wenatchee National Forest, and two state parks, more than 90% of the lake's watershed is forested. Much of the lake is boat access only. Local sites include an old copper mining village, the remote community of Stehekin (pop. 75), a 312-foot waterfall, and more than a dozen boat-in campsites.

Did You Know:
Lake Superior is the largest lake in the U.S. and holds 10% of the world’s surface freshwater. The Great Lakes, or “Inland Seas,” are so massive and diverse.

This is a lake for play, with wakeboarding, waterskiing, windsurfing, and paddling enthusiasts a constant presence. Sailors tend to head to the north end, near Stehekin, where the most consistent winds can be found. Anglers can chase a wide variety of species in the lake's blue waters. State records have been broken several times on Lake Chelan, most recently in 2013 with 36-pound trout.

After a day on the lake, the sun-drenched town of Chelan on the south shore has plenty to offer the weary, water-logged boater. The semi-desert climate receives an average of 300 annual days of sunshine and is central to one of Washington's wine regions, with more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms. LakeChelan.com

— Fiona McGlynn

Fontana Lake

North Carolina

Early morning fisherman cast their lines on Fontana Lake

Early morning fisherman cast their lines on Fontana Lake. Record size muskie and walleye have been pulled from its depths. (Photo: Swain County Chamber of Commerce)

  • Location: About 90 minutes south of Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Size: 10,230 acres
  • Depth: 135 feet average, 440 feet maximum
  • Amenities: 4 marinas, 7 launch ramps (some marinas provide public launch for a fee)
  • Fish: brown trout, rainbow trout, steelhead, small- and largemouth bass, Kentucky spotted bass, walleye, muskie, catfish, yellow perch, crappie, bluegill

The overused metaphor "hidden gem" is honestly not an overstatement when it comes to Fontana Lake. Tucked into the western corner of North Carolina, this man-made lake is the deepest in the state, it's emerald green waters sparkling in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite being surrounded by rolling mountains of seemingly endless forest, the lake is accessible via state Route 28. "It is remote in many ways, but its beauty is stunning," says lake-hopping BoatUS Member Bobby Williams. "In my opinion, there are few mountain lakes in the east that rival the beauty of Fontana."

The hydropower-generating Fontana Dam (which the Appalachian Trail crosses) created the reservoir in the 1940s to harness the Little Tennessee River. Today, visitors find a winding watery playground for boating, swimming, and fishing, with plenty of hidden cove hideaways and numerous islands formed from what were once mountain peaks — especially near the eastern end.

At summer lake levels, a boat provides the best access to remote trailheads such as Hazel Creek. Hike up to the observation tower on Clingmans Dome for a heavenly view of the lake below. Fontana Lake is a unique fishery because the cold mountain water makes it chilly for a southern lake (topping out in the 60s). Because of that, Fontana is home to several species of fish typically associated with the north, such as walleye, white bass, and steelhead. Several 50-pound catfish are caught each year. Muskie also thrive.

The price of the ticket to this boating paradise is a paucity of amenities. There are only four marinas on the 16-square-mile lake, all offering fuel but minimal repair services, and there are no dockside restaurants to grab a slip. For out-of-towners who don't trailer, renting a boat is a great option. GreatSmokies.com

— Rich Armstrong

Flathead Lake

Montana

Barn on west shore of Flathead Lake

Commercial boating developed on Flathead Lake beginning in the late 1800s to transport merchandise, agricultural products, lumber, livestock, and passengers. (Photo: FCVB/Kerrick James)

  • Location: 70 miles north of Missoula
  • Size: 126,080 acres
  • Depth: 165-foot average, 371 feet maximum
  • Amenities: 9 marinas, 1 yacht club, 22 launch ramps
  • Fish: lake trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, lake whitefish
  • BoatUS Services available: Life jacket loaner sites

Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Bordered to the east by the Mission Mountains and to the west by the Salish Mountains, stunning views abound. The town of Polson sits on the south shore and the artsy community of Bigfork on the northeast side of the lake. This 28-mile-long and up to 15-mile-wide body of water is what remains of an ancient glacial dammed lake. In 1930, the Kerr Dam harnessed the Flathead River and raised the lake level by 10 feet.

Tip

Visit the article "Boating On America's Freshwater Lakes" to read our last freshwater lake roundup from 2018.

With 185 miles of shoreline, there's plenty of room for boats of all types. Enjoy camping, picnicking, and exploring several islands. A range of boat rentals and guided tours are available, with something to suit everyone's pace, from a rafting class III–IV rapids on Flathead River to a laid-back sunset cruise through Polson Bay. Flathead Lake is one of the top fishing lakes in Montana. Both trout and whitefish are abundant. The vastness of Flathead means you'll never feel crowded out there.

Be sure to make a stop at Wild Horse Island, only accessible by boat, and walk the beautiful old growth Ponderosa Pine forest. With any luck, you might see the five resident wild horses along with bighorn sheep, mule deer, and various birdlife.

The mild, lake-influenced climate; pure water; and fertile soil make for "world-famous" Flathead cherries. "We usually say mid-July to early August for ripe cherries, and some people plan their trip around that," says Carol Edgar of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau. Roadside stands offer a variety of locally grown cherries, apples, plums, and other produce — perfect fare for a waterside picnic. FCVB.org

— Fiona McGlynn

Grand Lake

Oklahoma

Honey Creek Area at Grand Lake State Park

Honey Creek Area at Grand Lake State Park provides visitors with a place to launch boats. Park an RV, camp overnight, or dock and enjoy a picnic lunch. (Photo: Oklahoma Tourism/Lori Duckworth)

  • Location: 190 miles northeast of Oklahoma City
  • Size: 46,500 acres
  • Depth: 36-foot average, 133-foot maximum
  • Amenities: 18 marinas, 2 yacht clubs, 18 launch ramps
  • Fish: largemouth bass, spotted bass, striped bass, white bass, blue catfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, black crappie, white crappie, paddlefish, bluegill sunfish
  • BoatUS Services available: TowBoatUS port | Life jacket loaner sites nearby

Grand Lake O' the Cherokees (its official name) sparkles like a gem in the forested foothills of the Ozark Mountain Range. Its 1,300-mile shoreline meanders through state parks, bustling lakeside communities, waterfront resorts, and secluded coves. The lake is the centerpiece of a tourism destination with museums, golf, casinos, fishing, shopping, accommodations, restaurants, and services all nearby. There are marinas all around the lake catering to a variety of choices, including boat rentals, bait shops, and fishing guides.

"This water destination is a boater's dream," says Keli Clark, Oklahoma State Parks program officer. "Fishermen flock to the coves for great bass action; families take the kids out to the coves and unroll their gigantic floating mats; pontoons are popular to gather family, friends, and food; personal watercraft fly through the air hopping the wakes. It's fun to watch!"

The reservoir was completed in 1940 when the Pensacola Dam was completed on the Grand River (lower Neosho River). Henry Holderman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is credited with first envisioning the Grand River as a source of hydropower for the Cherokee Nation.

Today, you can explore the wide channels and deep waters in just about any type or size boat. Predictable winds make it particularly attractive to sailors. The reservoir is home to several fishing tournaments and is ranked among the top bass-fishing lakes in the U.S.

Five state parks line the shore, offering access to hiking, camping, and exploring flora and fauna. In the winter months, Clark suggests eagle watching. "You can see these great creatures flying through the air, perching in a tree, or floating above the dam and diving to catch fish. It's really a breathtaking sight." GrandLakeFun.com, TravelOK.com

— Fiona McGlynn

Lake Powell

Arizona/Utah

Houseboat overnights tucked among the red rocks of Glen Canyon

A ubiquitous houseboat overnights tucked among the red rocks of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. (Photo: Gary Ladd)

  • Location: 200 miles north of Flagstaff
  • Size: 161,390 acres
  • Depth: 132-foot average, 583-foot maximum
  • Amenities: 5 marinas, 5 launch ramps
  • Fish: largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass, walleye, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill
  • BoatUS Services available: Life jacket loaner sites nearby

For the surreal experience of boating in the middle of the desert, look no further than Lake Powell, where spectacular sandstone canyon walls reach up from deep blue waters. Situated in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the lake boasts 2,000 miles of shoreline and 96 major canyons.

The reservoir was created in 1963 by damming the Colorado River, but it took 17 years for Lake Powell to fill the canyon. Today, Lake Powell is America's second largest man-made lake.

Did You Know:
"Planet of the Apes" (1968) is among more than 30 films and TV shows filmed on Lake Powell's shores.

When you think of Powell, most think of houseboats, as it's considered one of the country's top houseboating destinations (rental options abound). But all stripe of boater is drawn, including adrenaline-seeking wakeboarders, weekend anglers, and paddlers who explore the protected bays or kayak through slot canyons. While it's possible to sail in Lake Powell, the canyon walls tend to deflect and channel wind. The clear waters are stocked with nearly a dozen different species, so it's teeming with fish, and the fishing really is great all year round. Even novices can hire one of several local fishing guides. You can also rent runabouts, ski boats, pontoons, and personal watercraft.

A disclaimer is required for Lake Powell: After two years of intense drought and two decades of long-term drought in the American Southwest, government water managers have struggled to maintain Lake Powell's water levels, which sit at 25% capacity at press time. There was some relief and officials reopened the primary boat ramp, Stateline Auxiliary Boat Ramp, last September. Unfortunately, a La Niña winter weather pattern is forecast, which portends a warmer, drying winter for the Southeast, so be sure to check launch ramp conditions before you go. LakePowell.com

— Fiona McGlynn

Lake Murray

South Carolina

Lake Murray has the largest purple martin roost in North America

Lake Murray has the largest purple martin roost in North America. Sunset boat cruises to see these migratory songbirds are popular. (Photo: Bill Barley)

  • Location: 30 miles west of downtown Columbia
  • Size: 50,000 acres
  • Depth: 41 feet average, 190 feet deepest
  • Amenities:7 launch ramps, 14 marinas
  • Fish: largemouth and striped bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie, catfish
  • BoatUS Services available: Member discounts | TowBoatUS port

Created in the late 1920s when engineers dammed the Saluda River to provide hydroelectric power (which it still does), Lake Murray has become a beloved oasis for recreational boaters and anglers, hosting local and national tournaments and numerous water sporting events throughout the year. The hot spot is Dreher Island State Park, accessible by car or boat, which offers a sandy beach, boat ramps, hiking trails, camping and picnic areas, cabin and villa rentals, a marina, and tackle shop. There are also many rental cottages and Airbnbs — most with their own boat ramps and docks — along with marinas and landings located around the entire lake, offering ample access, gas, and marine services. Numerous restaurants offer fine or casual waterfront dining at several of the larger marinas.

Locals favor quiet weekday boating because the crowds converge on weekends and the water can get choppy. If you're looking for a quiet spot, head in any direction away from the dam on the eastern shore, toward one of the many secluded coves found as the reservoir splinters out to the west. Wide open spaces attract a diversity of boaters — sailors, skiers, pontooners, and plenty of powerboats.

Fishing is one of the most popular pastimes on Lake Murray. The lake is also known for special events, summer music concerts, and an annual July fireworks celebration, or enjoy the Christmas Light Boat parade in December at the dam. A natural phenomenon occurs annually with the return of the purple martins on Bomb Island from June to August, with large waves of birds filling the sky. Be sure to wear a hat as you witness close to a million of the largest North American swallows perform prior to sunset. LakeMurrayCountry.com

— Rich Armstrong

Author

Rich Armstrong and Fiona McGlynn

Senior Editor and Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there. BoatUS Magazine contributing editor Fiona McGlynn and her husband sailed their 35-footer trans-Pacific for two years. Now living north of 59, she’s part of their local search and rescue team and edits WaterborneMag.com, a millennial boating website.