With seas of jostling crowds and sky-high costs (not to mention jellyfish and riptides), ocean retreats can be more frustrating than fun, which is why we’ve compiled a list of quintessential American lake towns. These are places where you can swim and sunbathe to your heart’s content and fill up on BBQ, grilled trout, and freshly made apple pie as you watch the sun go down from your balcony. If you’re anything like us, you may decide to turn one of these trips into a new summer tradition.
Framed by pine-forested hills, the deep blue Lake Coeur d’Alene is 25 miles long. At the northern end, weekenders from Seattle and California pack the town’s brewpubs and art galleries, while its southern reaches are more secluded, with sheltered coves and inlets. The best ways to soak it all in is by kayak, canoe, or paddle board. Local rentals are available from several outfitters like Coeur d’Alene Adventures and Kayak Coeur d’Alene. For a longer excursion, white water rafting trips are available on nearby St. Joe River from ROW Adventures. Their guides will point out wildlife like eagles and osprey along the way (1-day excursions from $120 per person).
Where to Refuel: There’s almost always a line outside Hudson’s Hamburgers, but its Huddy Burgers—garnished only with pickles, onion, and a closely guarded ketchup recipe—are well worth the wait. 207 E. Sherman Ave., 208/664-5444, burgers from $2.70.
Where to Stay: Coeur de Lion Bed & Breakfast is a charming, antique-filled log cabin sitting on six acres. Its six rooms are each artfully decorated and perfect for a romantic getaway or peaceful weekend escape. Nightly rates from $82, breakfast included.
This under-the-radar gem along Lake Ontario in New York is not only rich in colonial-era history, but it’s also pretty darn scenic, too. A battlefield from the War of 1812 has been converted into a lakefront park, while yacht clubs dotting the harbors to the south lend an almost Riviera-like feel. Spend the day at Robert G. Wehle State Park, a waterside retreat of pastures and hiking trails. Snakefoot Trail is the most popular, with stunning views from limestone cliffs that tower some 80 feet high.
Where to Refuel: Tin Pan Galley’s sunny outdoor patio makes a great place to kick off the morning, with Mediterranean omelets and French toast stuffed with cream cheese and topped with maple butter and fresh strawberries. 110 W. Main St., tinpangalley.com, breakfast entrees from $12.
Where to Stay: The Harbor House Inn, overlooking Black River Bay, is a romantic boutique hotel within easy walking distance to the harbor and marina, shopping and dining on Main Street, galleries, and the historic battle field. Nightly rates from $189.
If mountain-ringed Flathead Lake captures Big Sky Country’s raw beauty, the town of Bigfork makes for an artistic counterpoint. The Riverbend Concert Series runs each Sunday of the summer through mid-August, while the Bigfork Festival of the Arts welcomes food, jewelry, and crafts vendors to the town in August. There’s also Wild Horse Island, a Tom Sawyer–like preserve of pastures and pioneer homesteads—reach it via charter boat (406-837-5617, wildhorseislandboattrips.com).
Where to Refuel: Traditions at Bigfork Inn‘s chalet-style restaurant has an outdoor deck in the summer months and is beloved by locals and visitors alike. Chef Francois (a fourth-generation French chef) infuses a unique European style to local fare like elk and duck. Entrees from $28.
Where to Stay: The Outlook Inn Bed and Breakfast is set right beside the lake. Each room features unparalleled lake and mountain views with either a deck or deck access. Home-cooked breakfasts featuring locally sourced foods, like apples and plums grown on the property and huckleberries picked from the mountains. Visitors also have access to community grills, which is particularly useful if you catch a fish during your stay. Nightly rates from $165.
Long a weekend getaway for Chicagoans, Saugatuck’s independent shops, trendy restaurants, and LGBT presence are starting to gain the town national attention. But beaches are its trademark, with long sandy stretches that often feel more Miami than Midwest. Oval Beach is one of the most popular with picnic areas and sheltered dunes. Ride the Saugatuck Chain Ferry from downtown to Oval; it’s the only hand-cranked chain ferry on the Great Lakes.
Where to Refuel: Pumpernickel’s Eatery bakes its bread fresh on-site. Pair two loaves with your favorite lunch meat, have them wrap your sandwich picnic-style, and tote it with you to the beach.
Where to Stay: Lake Shore Resort overlooks Lake Michigan from its bluff above the water. In celebration of local craftsmanship, each of the 30 rooms is decorated with paintings by hometown artist James Brandess. Rates include free continental breakfast, outdoor yoga, a large heated pool with lake view, as well as use of bikes, kayaks, and outdoor BBQ pits. Nightly rates from $265.
Surrounded by the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s largest natural lake couldn’t be more picturesque. The town was founded in 1881 and affects a rustic, Wild West vibe, with saloons and a boardwalk along Grand Avenue. Embrace the theme by hitching a ride on horseback with Sombrero Ranches, whose ranch hands will lead you through alpine meadows, alongside clear mountain streams, and up steep hillsides (sombrero.com, one hour rides beginning at $90 per person).
Where to Refuel: The chefs at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill were taking advantage of local riches—Rocky Mountain trout, elk, buffalo—long before it became trendy. 1101 Grand Ave., entrées from $10.99.
Where to Stay: The Grand Lake Lodge dates back to 1920 and has a homey, welcoming vibe with a circular fireplace and hickory rocking chairs in the main lodge. Plus it’s perched on a hillside overlooking the lake. Nightly rates from $150.
Bemidji best captures the Norman Rockwell glow of a summer lake town, with clean beaches, quirky annual traditions, and a packed social calendar. Its Fourth of July and county fair are pure Americana, while the Dragon Boat Festival and its competitive racing crews channel a Minnesota-style Mardi Gras in late summer. Book an afternoon with a guide to fish for walleye, a flaky white fish that does nicely on the grill.
Where to Refuel: Minnesota Nice Café is a sure bet for Midwestern favorites like potato pancakes with applesauce. Don’t miss the freshly baked apple pies—they taste like they come straight from a county fair. 414 Beltrami Ave. NW, 218/444-6656.
Where to Stay: Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge occupies the lake’s quieter northwest shore, with 38 lakefront rooms and suites and 29 cabins on a 1,700-foot-long sand beach. 7598 Bemidji Rd. NE, 888/788-8437.
Framed by the Grand Tetons and situated just north of posh Jackson Hole, Jackson Lake is a pristine glacial stunner. Soak in the views from a four-wheel cruise down the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway on its eastern edge. For a more immersive take, Signal Mountain Lodge rentals provides several types of watercraft, from sea kayaks to fishing boats by the hour or day.
Where to Refuel: For great breakfast, quick bites, and the best coffee in town, head to Jackson to eat at the Cowboy Coffee Co. After a day on the water, try The Spur Restaurant & Bar located in Teton Village to cap off your day with great beers and burgers.
Where to Stay: It’s nothing fancy, but Signal Mountain Lodge is the only waterfront resort on the shores of Jackson Lake. Each of its rustic log cabins has semi-private balconies and views of the Tetons. Inner Park Rd., Moran, WY, 307/543-2831.
Sunapee Lake is quintessential pastoral New England, with a handful of beaches made for swimming and a revolving lineup of outdoor concerts all summer. Its focal point is the lively marina scene at Sunapee Harbor; other highlights include the Fells Historic Estate & Gardens, an 84-acre estate with gardens dating back to the early 20th century.
Where to Refuel: Head to the Wildwood Smokehouse for delicious barbecued meats, sausages, and chilis as well as local microbrews on tap (happy hour is daily from 4-6pm). For dessert, grab ice cream at the Sanctuary Dairy Farm.
Where to Stay: Dexter’s Inn‘s estate-like grounds are immaculate, with an outdoor pool, tennis court, and views of the lake. 285 Stagecoach Rd., 800/232-5571. Nightly rates from $110.