Summer’s here: It’s time to make a break for the lake! Cast a line, launch a cannonball, dip a paddle or simply float along with a favorite novel. These lakes in Minnesota, Missouri and Washington are sure to add some sparkle to your next vacation.
1. Rainy Lake, Minnesota
Straddling the Minnesota-Ontario border, Rainy Lake anchors what feels like a world of water. Nearly 60 miles long, it’s the largest of hundreds of inland lakes scattered across Minnesota’s northeastern corner. It’s also the gateway to Voyageurs National Park, a woods-and-water wilderness that encompasses much of the lake’s southern shore.
The park takes its name from French-Canadian fur traders, voyageurs who once relied on this labyrinth of waterways to travel by canoe from deep in northern Canada to the Great Lakes. Boating remains an ideal way to explore Rainy Lake—and the only way to reach the national park’s 200-plus campsites.
The National Park Service offers an array of boating adventures departing from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, 11 miles east of International Falls. (Advance reservations are recommended.) You can cruise with a naturalist aboard the Voyageur or Borealis passenger boats on wildlife-viewing cruises, or visit the 1910 Kettle Falls Hotel, which originally housed lumberjacks and drew a reputation for gambling and bootlegging. (You can stay at the renovated hotel, accessible only by boat or floatplane.) Inquire at the Visitor Center about free trips aboard a 26-foot replica voyageur’s canoe that will give you a taste of the life of a voyageur.
Outside the park boundaries, lakefront resorts such as Island View Lodge and Sha Sha Resort have on-site boat rentals, as well as launch facilities and slips. Fishing boats commonly purr across Rainy Lake, a world-class fishery for walleye, small-mouth bass and northern pike. Endless protected bays and coves make the lake ideal for exploring by houseboat, pontoon boat, canoe and kayak, too. You’re almost sure to find a quiet spot to float in silence and listen for the whistle of a loon—a true sign of northwoods solitude.
Download the free guide, George and the Voyageurs, which introduces students to the fur trade, European exploration and the settlement of North America. It’s appropriate for grade-school to middle-school reading levels.
South of Columbia, Missouri, it seems all roads lead to the Lake of the Ozarks. No wonder: Formed by a dam on the Osage River, the flowage twists and curls for more than 100 miles through the Osage Valley, skirting more than 1,000 miles of shoreline. On a map, its sinuous route looks like a mythical beast, earning it the nickname “the Missouri Dragon.”
But rather than breathing fire, Lake of the Ozarks offers cool respite for summer fun. Marinas, resorts and summer cottages line the lake’s wooded shores. The Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau can help you sort through the many lodging and camping options. Tan-Tar-A Resort, spread along a looping shoreline, includes fun ranging from golf to boat rentals to an indoor water park.
Along US-54, Lake Ozark serves as a hub for the region, with shops, restaurants and arcades for the kids. You can also find plenty of ways to get out on the lake here, from marina boat rentals to leisurely lake cruises aboard a modern yacht or old-timey paddle wheeler. These waters are renowned for bass and catfish, attracting anglers year-round to cast from boats and docks.
A few miles south, Lake of the Ozarks State Park spreads out for thousands of acres on both sides of the lake. The big draws include its swimming beaches, marina and campgrounds. Trails weave through oak and hickory forest, native grasslands, and along the lake’s sandy shores and high bluffs. For an additional fee, rangers lead tours through the park’s limestone Ozark Caverns.
A leggy sliver of blue, Lake Chelan spills through a mile-wide valley gouged out by glaciers and surrounded by the snowy peaks of the North Cascades. With a shoreline of steep-sided rock walls and a depth of nearly 1,500 feet, Lake Chelan looks more like a fjord than a lake. In fact, it ranks as the largest natural lake in Washington and the third deepest lake in the nation.
The resort town of Chelan sits at the lake’s southern tip, 40 miles north of Wenatchee (about 160 miles east of Seattle). Summer days center on the water: Sailboats skim by on the breeze as kayaks and paddleboards cruise along the shoreline. Powerboats hum past towing wakeboarders and sky-high parasailors. Swimmers head for sand beaches at Willow Point Park or one of the many other public beaches. The water is so clear that local shops sell snorkel equipment.
The Chelan area offers plenty of lodging options, from basic motels to bed-and-breakfasts to full-service lakefront resorts. Beyond the lake, hiking and biking trails wind through the surrounding Lake Chelan Valley. Golfers can tee off at more than a half-dozen area golf courses, including a few that come with lake views. A growing number of wineries make this a popular region for touring and tasting.
But to truly experience the wild beauty of Lake Chelan, include a visit to the northern end of the lake. Inaccessible by road, you can reach Upper Lake Chelan only by foot, boat or seaplane. The Lady of the Lake offers daily trips in summer, an all-day adventure that ventures up the lake through a wilderness that’s home to shaggy mountain goats and 9,000-foot peaks.