The Mothership Has Landed

By Michael Vatalaro

Charter a houseboat, bring your trailerables and PWCs, then go explore and play in some of America's most beautiful inland waters.

Photo of houseboating on Lake PowellKick back and relax on the upper deck of your houseboat while you take in the stunning vistas of Lake Powell. The 150-mile-long lake that spans the border of Utah and Arizona is one of the most popular houseboating destinations in the world. (Photo: Aramark Parks & Destinations)

Growing up in a waterskiing family, we got to take the occasional skiing-focused vacation. We'd rent a lakeside cottage for a week and hit the lake early each morning. My sister and I would ski, wakeboard, and tube until our "raisined" fingers and blue lips would convince my parents it was time to go in for the day. But as more and more boaters are discovering, a water-focused vacation doesn't need to be interrupted by those pesky breaks on land.

Growing up in a waterskiing family, we got to take the occasional skiing-focused vacation. We'd rent a lakeside cottage for a week and hit the lake early each morning. My sister and I would ski, wakeboard, and tube until our "raisined" fingers and blue lips would convince my parents it was time to go in for the day. But as more and more boaters are discovering, a water-focused vacation doesn't need to be interrupted by those pesky breaks on land.

A houseboating vacation offers the chance to spend nearly every minute of your trip where you want to be — on the water. By anchoring out and using the houseboat as a mother ship, you can spend the day on your smaller boat, either trailered or rented, and return to a secluded cove each evening without having to run all the way back to the dock. And with modern houseboats easily accommodating eight to 12 people or more, you can also "leap frog" down a lake and see parts you might never make it to otherwise.

Photo of 70-foot houseboat on Norris Lake in TennesseeThe author's aunt and uncle rented this 70-foot houseboat on Norris Lake in Tennessee for a family vacation. The boat accommodated all 14 members of their group, while a bass boat and pontoon boat rounded out the flotilla.

For decades, my uncle and aunt vacationed on Norris Lake in Tennessee for a week in July, trailering down one or two boats from their home in Brimfield, Ohio. Typically, they would rent rooms for the week at one of the marina resorts and tie up the boats each night. But for the last two trips, they rented a houseboat.

"We thoroughly enjoyed it," says Barb Vatalaro. "It gave us great access to the water. We parked it in a cove for the week, away from boat traffic, and it never left." Over the years, their children have had kids of their own, so on their most recent adventure, the crew of 14 required a 70-foot houseboat, with six staterooms, two heads, and a pull-out couch for the kids. The upper deck had a bar, hot tub, and a slide to the water below. "The kids went down the slide 100 times a day," says Barb.

In the morning my cousins took the kids fishing in the bass boat they'd brought down. Later, they'd kneeboard or tube behind the pontoon boat. Besides being the allaround watersports boat, the pontoon boat also served another, more crucial purpose. It allowed my grandfather and late grandmother to participate in the vacation. The level deck of the pontoon made it possible for my mobility-impaired grandmother to walk from the pontoon right onto the houseboat and back, so she could still be at the center of the action.

Photo of a pontoon boat seving as a water taxiThe pontoon boat served as a ski boat and water taxi.

Bringing the whole family along made the experience special. Perhaps that's one reason houseboating destinations often lead the nation's lakes in visitor hours logged each year.

"Most houseboat destinations aren't about nightlife," says Robert Boulds, vice president of "They're about experiencing the destination and spending time with friends and family." is a travel site specializing in houseboat charters, and offers information and booking for 40 different lakes around the country.

Photo of the interior of a modern houseboatThe interior of a modern houseboat. (Photo: Aramark Parks & Destinations)

"Lake Powell by far is our most popular destination, the most popular houseboating destination in the world," says Boulds. "The spectacular scenery is often called 'the Grand Canyon full of water.' Everybody ought to see it once in their lives."

Lake Powell, Utah & Arizona

A Grand Canyon Full Of Water

Photo of a houseboat on Lake Powell

Lake Powell is the houseboating destination, thanks in part to its clean water, red rocks, and favorable summer temperatures; 150 miles long and with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, the lake spans the Utah/Arizona border in the middle of a vast expanse of undeveloped land. Much of the lake is in the Glen Canyon National Recreation area, which means there are a few quirky restrictions. There is a passenger limit of 12 aboard a moving houseboat; however, there's no limit once it's moored or docked. Most boaters with large groups deal with this by transferring passengers to a smaller boat while in transit. The lake is, thankfully, zebra mussel-free. This means that if you trailer your boat from another lake, it will need to be inspected before you drop it in. Most two-stroke personal watercraft are banned from the lake unless they meet 2006 emissions standards.

Fly into nearby major cities such as Las Vegas, Flagstaff, or Salt Lake City, rent a car, and you'll have the option of driving through some of our nation's most majestic public lands including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks on your way to the lake. Pick up your houseboat at the marina, go through a quick orientation, and you're off. Other rentals include runabouts, ski boats, PWCs, pontoon boats, watersports equipment, and kayaks. Sample High-Season Rates: Mid-May-September. 46-footer, sleeps 8, $4,200/week; 75-footer, sleeps 22, $15,000/week.

Lake Shasta, California

Nestled In The Mountains

Photo of houseboating fun on Lake ShastaPhoto: Seven Crown Resorts

Tucked between the mountains and foothills of Northern California, north of Redding, 35-mile-long Lake Shasta is in the middle of Trinity National Forest. Daytime summer temps can hit 100 degrees, but the lake stays a steady 78. The mountains in the background make a special backdrop. Though it's in a national forest, the lake isn't subject to the same restrictions as Powell and Mead, so houseboats accommodating up to 22 people are available. Also available are an even wider range of rental boats and watersports equipment, including small fishing boats and stand-up paddleboards. Lake Shasta is off Interstate 5, and can be reached from Sacramento, San Francisco, or Reno to the south, or from Eugene or Portland to the north. Sample High-Season Rates: June-September. 42-footer, sleeps 8, $1,750/week; 65-footer, sleeps 22, $15,500/week.

Lake Mead, Nevada & Arizona

From a Dam, What A Lake!

Photo of houseboats anchored along a beach on Lake MeadPhoto: Forever Resorts

Just 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas lies 110-mile-long Lake Mead. The lake was created by the construction of the Hoover Dam, which holds back the Colorado River, creating the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S., covering parts of Arizona and Nevada. The 550 miles of shoreline in the Lake Mead National Recreation area offer plenty of coves and small bays to explore. Warm water temps in summer and fall make this a watersports mecca. The climate is generally mild spring and fall, with hot weather rolling in for May through September. Fly into Las Vegas, and the lake is an easy drive. Rentals include ski boats, deck and pontoon boats, plus PWCs. The same 12-passenger limit applies to a moving houseboat here as it does in Lake Powell. Sample Rates: Year-round. 50-footer, sleeps 8, $4,200/week; 75-footer, sleeps 12, $14,000/week.

Lake Cumberland, Kentucky

Fishing, Fun, and Open Space

Photo of marina along Lake CumberlandPhoto:

Lake Cumberland might be the birthplace of houseboating. This Kentucky lake boasts more than 1,500 houseboats moored or berthed along its 101-mile length. But there's still plenty of room to spread out; the lake's 65,000-acre surface (at optimal water level) means you don't have to hang out with a crowd. The nooks and crannies of this flooded valley give you 1,200 miles of shoreline to explore, much of it undeveloped, or part of one of two state parks, Lake Cumberland Resort and General Burnside. The lake is also a prime fishing destination. Seven Kentucky state record fish have come from Lake Cumberland, including a 58-pound striped bass, and a 21-pound brown trout! It ranks fourth nationally among Army Corps lakes for visitor hours logged. Additional watercraft for rent include ski boats, pontoon boats, PWCs, and small jon boats. Though Lake Cumberland spans six counties, all of them are dry, meaning no alcohol for sale. South of Lexington, Kentucky, and north of Knoxville, Tennessee, along Interstate 75, Lake Cumberland is part of a trinity of large dammed lakes in southern Kentucky/northern Tennessee. Nearby are Dale Hollow State Resort Park and Norris Lake. Sample High-Season Rates: Late June-August. 60-footer, sleeps 8, $1,900/week; 80-footer, sleeps 12, $8,000/week.

St. Johns River, Florida

A River Runs To It

Photo of sunset over the St. Johns RiverPhoto: Visit Jacksonville

The St. Johns River offers a few unique twists on the houseboating experience. Running north from near Orlando almost 300 miles to Jacksonville, the slow-moving St. Johns passes several crystal-clear springs, where the year-round water temp is 72 degrees. These springs are used by manatees during the winter and have special restrictions in place during those months. However, you can beach your boat in a designated area and walk to the springs to view the congregation of these marine mammals. The river also offers abundant freshwater fish, and it's not too hard to spot an alligator most days. As you get closer to Jacksonville, some saltwater species migrate up as well. The St. Johns also borders the Ocala National Forest, the second largest such preserve in Florida. Sample High- Season Rates: March-November. 38-footer, sleeps 4, $1,450/week; 53-footer, sleeps 8, $2,650/week. 

— Published: August/September 2013

BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!