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Eight Cool Lake Escapes

Dive into summer fun at the West’s splashiest destinations, where fresh water delivers cool pleasures for all ages.

  • sailboat on Flathead Lake, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Glenn Oakley
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    Flathead Lake, up to 15 miles wide, has ample room for sailboats, and other watercraft.
  • woman on a tram overlooking Wallowa Lake in Oregon, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Glenn Oakley
    Photo caption
    A woman gazes out the window of a tramway high above Wallowa Lake.
  • Beach at Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe, Nev., image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of DimiTalen/Wikimedia Commons
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    At Sand Harbor, on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, the beach fills early. 
  • Lake Powell, Utah, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt/Wikimedia Commons
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    Utah's Lake Powell shimmers under the clouds.
  • Lake Chelan, Wash., image
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    Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service
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    Lake Chelan is on the sunny side of the Cascade Range in Washington.
  • a dock stretching into Payette Lake, in Idaho, image
    Photo credit
    Photo: Glenn Oakley
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    The sun sets on an inviting dock at Ponderosa Pine State Park on Payette Lake.

LAKE TAHOE, NEVADA Beaches, burgers, and the Bard: California may claim two-thirds of Lake Tahoe’s 192 square miles, but the Nevada side offers this summertime trifecta. At Sand Harbor, where the parking lot fills early, crystalline water laps a long, sandy shore dotted with cedars and pines. You can swim, scuba dive, and kayak in the largest alpine lake on the continent at this 55-acre North Tahoe enclave, part of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, or stroll the quarter-mile trail past hidden coves and granite boulders. And when hunger strikes, grab a fresh-off-the-grill burger at the concession stand run by the Char-Pit, a local institution since 1962.

After the daytime crowds have decamped, Sand Harbor morphs into a slice of Olde England, albeit one set amid 10,000-foot Sierra peaks. During the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, actors strut and fret their hours upon a stage backed by a stunning vista of the lake and distant mountains. As You Like It is on the bill this year (July 11–August 24), the festival’s 42nd season.

There’s more fun south of Sand Harbor. Tour historic Thunderbird Lodge, once the Gatsby-esque estate of San Francisco mogul George Whittell Jr., or fish, swim, and boat at Cave Rock’s pocket-size beach, also part of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. At Zephyr Cove Resort’s pay-to-park beach near the casino action of Stateline, a party vibe prevails south of the pier. Parasailing, jet-skiing, and beach volleyball not your scene? Sign up for a cruise aboard a vintage motor yacht, a catamaran, or the m/s Dixie II, a 500-passenger boat resembling a Mississippi River paddle wheeler.

Payette Lake, Idaho For generations of Boiseans and other residents of southwest Idaho, the arrival of summertime heat has meant one thing: escape to Payette Lake. A sapphire-hued playground set in green-robed mountains, the eight-mile-long lake promises pleasant days with temperatures in the 80s and need-a-sweater nights during the months of July and August.

In the town of McCall, the Fourth of July celebrations feature spectacular fireworks over the lake—downtown’s Legacy Park offers prime viewing—plus a melt-your-heart kids’ parade, a watermelon-eating contest, and potato sack races. The Payette Lake Classic and Wooden Boat Show in August always draws a crowd of admirers, as do the monster-size huckleberry scoops on cones at Ice Cream Alley.

McCall is also the center of Payette Lake’s busy summer boating scene. You can embark here on a daytime or sunset cruise aboard the 90-passenger Idaho or rent your own craft. The large choice of rentals includes pontoon boats, perfect for family outings to sandy east-side spots such as quiet Davis Beach, also reachable by car.

Located right next to McCall, Ponderosa State Park is Payette’s crown jewel. A 1,515-acre peninsula that juts into the lake from the south, the park offers campsites, cabins, picnic tables, beaches, and miles of hike-and-bike trails through firs and 150-foot ponderosa pines. The separate North Beach section of the park at the lake’s northern end has a 750-person limit and can draw a party crowd on holiday weekends. Otherwise it is tranquil. Rent a kayak or canoe here and paddle the North Fork of the Payette River.

Wallowa Lake, Oregon Summer mornings start off as quiet as a sigh at Wallowa Lake. This nearly four-mile-long ribbon of pristine blue water in Oregon’s northeast corner is bounded by glacial moraines. At rambling Wallowa Lake Lodge, a restored, 22-room 1920s gem, guests in search of hazelnut pancakes with marionberry butter drift through the wood-paneled lobby toward the dining room.

At Wallowa Lake State Park, campers emerge sleepy eyed from their tents and the park’s rentable yurts to get their coffee going. Out on the lake, the splash of an angler landing a fat trout or a kokanee salmon—the world’s largest was caught here—breaks the water’s smooth surface.

As the sun arcs higher, ponderosa pines and Douglas firs release their bracing aroma, and things start to hop. Swimmers frolic at the county park on the lake’s north end, where the water is often warmer than other spots. Kids bash into each other’s bumper boats or whoop it up when they sink a hole in one at the mini golf course. Some visitors rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, or rowboats at the marina. Others set off on horseback rides, check out the art galleries in the town of Joseph, or climb aboard an aerial gondola that whisks them to the 8,300-foot summit of Mount Howard, where they can take a mountain walk and marvel at the three-state view.

During the Fourth of July Shake the Lake celebration, the boom of fireworks echoes off the mountains after dark. But otherwise the nights are quiet and the skies—far from city lights—sparkle with countless stars.

Lake Chelan, Washington Can a body of water have a split personality? Lake Chelan, on the sun-drenched side of the Cascade Range in Washington state, just might.

On its lower end, this slender, 55-mile-long thread of glacier melt thrums with fun. Jet Skis zip about; powerboats tow skiers and soaring parasailers. Families paddleboard, splash, and swim in the sun-warmed shallows close to shore.

Away from the water, in the small town of Chelan, vacationers poke into shops, catch a flick at the historic 1914 Ruby Theatre, and grab a bite at the Lakeview Drive In, where hungry lake-goers have devoured burgers and fries with house-made seasoning salt since 1957. Some visitors sample vintages at local wineries—there are more than 20 in the area—or gather apples, cherries, and berries at u-pick farms.

Hop aboard the 285-passenger Lady of the Lake II for daily, four-hour summertime cruises to the lake’s upper tip, and you’ll witness a transformation. Soon, the watercraft and crowds are left behind. The gentle landscape of orchards, cozy towns, and rounded, semiarid hills turns into a wild, forested terrain backed by the jagged peaks of the Cascade Range. Keep an eye out and you may spot such wildlife as bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

At journey’s end, in the tiny community of Stehekin, you can take the boat back to civilization and arrive in time for supper. Better yet, perhaps, stay overnight at the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin, near the trails and rivers of the 61,958-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. After a blissful night’s sleep and a horseback ride, a river-rafting trip, or a visit to 312-foot Rainbow Falls, the other Chelan will seem a world away.

Flathead Lake, Montana Does a lake monster really lurk in the depths of Flathead Lake in northwest Montana? Local legend has claimed so since the first alleged sighting in 1889, but on a toasty summer day, when the largest natural freshwater lake in the West sparkles like a Hollywood gown, you’ll have far more important questions to consider: Should I head to the secluded cove of Yellow Bay State Park? Or sunbathe and swim at the long, pebbled beach at Big Arm State Park?

Bracketed by the heavily forested Swan and Mission mountain ranges and dotted with small islands and hidden beaches, 28-mile-long Flathead Lake offers places to rent gear for all the usual water-based fun—from sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, and fishing for trophy-size trout to thrill riding behind a powerboat on a wakeboard, water skis, or an inner tube. A top boating destination is Wild Horse Island, an undeveloped 2,160-acre state park site with cliffs, prairie, and old-growth forest that is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, and a small band of wild horses.

Not far from the lake, take a four-mile round-trip bike ride or walk along the Swan River Nature Trail, or visit u-pick cherry farms where the sweet fruit is usually ripe by mid-July—in time for the Flathead Cherry Festival (July 19–20 this year). In the lakeside village of Bigfork, you’ll find galleries, an August art festival, theater at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, and eateries such as the Flathead Lake Brewing Company. Try the Smokey Paddle—a platter of cheeses, sausage, and smoked salmon—paired with malty Bufflehead Brown Ale.

Lake Powell, Utah Cobalt water, a desert landscape of rosy rock and tawny sand, and a brilliant sun in a blue sky give Lake Powell a beauty that verges on the hypnotic. Located mostly in Utah, with a small portion in Arizona, the country’s second-largest man-made lake by volume lies within the vast space and geologic wonders of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

With summer temperatures sometimes hitting the high 90s, most visitors spend the day in or on the water. Three marinas rent watercraft, allowing houseboaters, kayakers, and anglers to explore the tranquil waters of remote, sheer-walled canyons while powerboaters and jet-skiers zip across open water.

Let someone else do the skippering during a scenic boat tour that winds through miles of towering Navajo sandstone formations in Antelope Canyon. Another tour ferries you to the short trail leading to stunning Rainbow Bridge, an arching, 290-foot-high rock formation that’s the world’s largest known natural bridge. If lolling under an umbrella, picnicking, and swimming tempt you more than a scenic hike, plenty of sandy beaches invite you along the lake’s 1,960-mile shoreline.

Twice a day, Lake Powell puts on a spectacular show. Settle in with your morning coffee or end-of-day adult libation and watch as the rays of the rising or setting sun hit the landscape, creating an astonishingly rich palette of red, burnt orange, and gold. No ticket required.

Glendo Reservoir, Wyoming The word is out on Glendo Reservoir in southeast Wyoming. Boaters and anglers have long had the run of these shimmering waters, created by a 1957 dam on the North Platte River and part of vast Glendo State Park. These days, in-the-know hikers, bikers, and birders are now joining them. What’s the draw? The recently built state park trails—including 35 miles for mountain bikes—that explore the lakeside landscape of ponderosa pine forests, sagebrush steppes, red rock formations, and sandy beaches.

The lake offers a great blend of water fun and nature outings. The state park boasts 14 campgrounds, eight boat ramps, and a marina with watercraft rentals. Bald eagles and ospreys soar, watched over by 10,272-foot Laramie Peak. Blue heron rookeries lie close to the wetlands trails, a pair of easy paths below the dam. You can land big fish (Glendo Reservoir holds state records for three species) or zip around in a ski boat. But if lolling and taking an occasional dip is your thing, head to Sandy Beach, where a cool, green row of cottonwood trees leads to two miles of broad, welcoming shore.

Nancy Lake, Alaska Lake-loving Alaskans owe glaciers a debt of gratitude. About 9,000 years ago, the retreat of glacial ice from the Susitna River Valley left behind not only an entire constellation of crystalline lakes and ponds but also rolling, forested terrain that was far too swampy and rugged for major development. That’s why, today, the 22,685-acre Nancy Lake State Recreation Area and Site, an hour and a half north of Anchorage, contains some of Alaska’s most pristine yet accessible summertime destinations.

The expanse includes namesake Nancy Lake, where homes dot private stretches of shoreline and waters are often abuzz on summer weekends with ski boats and floatplanes. Head deeper into the region and you enter prime canoeing country. Several water trails allow you to paddle around during the summer, when the midnight sun reflects off the water and daytime temps can reach into the 70s and 80s. The eight-mile Lynx Lake Loop is a top-ranked canoe trek and can be done in a single day; Backpacker magazine called it “a perfect starter course for wilderness paddling in Alaska.” If you need a canoe, a local outfit can have one waiting at the trailhead. Backcountry campsites and 13 rustic cabins may tempt you to stretch out the trip and enjoy wildlife sightings, which can include beavers, loons, moose, and more.

If freshwater fishing is your passion, you’ll be happy to find a few lakes stocked with trout. Northern pike—a great fighter—abounds. With no limit on pike because it’s an invasive species, you can catch as much as you like.

This article was first published in July 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.