The 10 Best Natural Lakes in the USA

This list of the ten best lakes in America will consider the overall look and feel of the location, rather than specifically naming the best for boating, fishing, camping, hiking or the many special favorite sports and pastimes enjoyed by both vacationers and residents.

Intentionally missing from this list will be the fake lakes, that is, man-made ones like Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam or Lake Powell. While beautiful recreational spots, these are actually reservoirs, created by constructing dams across flowing rivers to address specific human water needs.

Crater Lake, OR

This National Park is the grand-daddy of them all at 250 square miles and at over 2,100 feet maximum depth, making Crater Lake one of the deepest on earth. A caldera lake formed by the collapse of a volcano about 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake is known for its very clear, deep blue water and surrounding sheer cliffs covered in forest which is home to elk, black bears, coyote, big brown bats, bald eagles, pine martens, spotted owls, snowshoe hares and nutcrackers.

Visits must be carefully timed with seasonal conditions in mind, as snow often persists through early May with heavy average snowfall of forty feet per year. In summer, there are more than 200 campsites and two lodges operating on the shores.

Artists have had a long relationship with this country’s national parks and Crater Lake National Park is one of their favorite scenes, as this lake is one of our nation’s true natural treasures. The famous historic Crater Lake Lodge will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2015, where it is nestled between views of 2,000 foot high surrounding cliffs and the deep blue water of a volcanic lake.

Lake Tahoe, NV

Over a mile high in the Sierra Nevada range at the California border, the largest alpine lake in North America richly deserves its place on this list. This lake, which never freezes, is the second deepest lake in the nation after Crater Lake and has been photographed by satellites in space.

Lake Tahoe’s clear blue freshwater carries a reflection of mountains on all sides which are world famous for blizzards at no fewer than twelve outstanding ski resorts operating well into the spring months. The close proximity to casino gambling and resort hotels on the Nevada side keeps the entertainment going into the wee hours.

The sun shines at Tahoe 300 days of the year on average. August is the warmest summer month when there is scuba diving with dramatic underwater drop-offs not for amateurs due to the high elevation, parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking and boating. Biking and hiking trails are numerous, with Tahoe Rim Trail, the longest at 165 miles.

Being so easily accessible to large metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno, Lake Tahoe plays host to five million visitors per year and one must book well in advance for July 4th through Labor Day.

You may have seen Lake Tahoe on the small screen as the setting for the Ponderosa Ranch in the second-longest running series ever, “Bonanza”, and on the big screen in “Godfather Part II”, “Smoking Aces”, Charles Bronson’s “Assassination”, “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston and a bicycling Meg Ryan in the closing scenes of “City of Angels”. Consider putting Lake Tahoe onto your bucket list of must-see places.

Lake Michigan and Lake Leelahau, MI

Traverse City was named by TripAdvisor in 2009 as the second-best small town destination in America.

The eastern shore of Lake Michigan is blessed with sandy beaches and a sandy bottom with sandbars. While the water remains cold through spring, you’ll be fine come along in July and August . There are dozens of public beaches in ten counties, so choosing just one is difficult; you may be attracted to one of the many themed festivals in the region.

“Delight of life” in Native American translation for Leelanau, this area is cold in winter and sparsely populated by people, but not by birds. Lakeside residents can have their wine delivered by pontoon boat. And everyone can enjoy a Sunday morning sail to see resting gulls, cormorants and Caspian terns on Gull Island. Lake Leelanau is the third-largest body of water in the USA but rather shallow and is sometimes referred to as Carp Lake. It sits at the tippy-top of the “mitten” shaped part of Michigan about ten miles from Traverse City.

Festivals abound in Leelanau County and these folks know how to throw an old-time American party. Kick off with the 8th Annual Asparagus Festival with a Dance & Pig Roast for $5, an Ass-paragus Fun Run and a bake-off in Empire, MI on May 20-22, 2011. Or bird-watchers can visit during the First Annual Leelanau Peninsula BirdFest, June 1-5, 2011.

Traverse City area is the nation’s largest producer of tart cherries and at harvest time, half a million people enjoy the Cherry Festival during the first week of July. Named one of USA Today’s top ten festivals, with parades and a Cherry Queen, events and entertainment, delicious cherries straight off the trees are tucked into every imaginable recipe. Latest report is that a delayed onset of spring in 2011 will mean an abundant harvest. There are plenty of grapes growing and wineries abound. Later in the month, July 26-31, 2011, sees the 7th Annual Traverse City Film Festival over six days.

Fountain Point is the popular historic summer resort across the bridge, where French fur traders once roamed, plying their trade with Native Americans. The Fountain Point Resort, privately owned and operated for three generations and featured on the National Register of Historic Places, has a half-mile of lakefront and is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Lake Calhoun, MN

Minnesota is the “land of 10,000 lakes”. However, according to the local visitors association, there are actually 11,850 lakes. Surprisingly, 929 of them are located within the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the locals adore them.

Oval-shaped Lake Calhoun near trendy uptown is the largest in Minnesota, yet it’s practically in downtown Minneapolis, offering stunning skyline views.

This lake is not for those seeking isolation and serenity. It features on this list for a lakeshore experience coupled with urban life and for sheer popularity, receiving 2.5 million visitors a year ranking it with Yellowstone National Park. All these visitors have not put off the 209 species of waterfowl and waterbirds recorded in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes over a ten year period ending in 2005.

The jogging path is a perfect 5K, there are three beaches (Thomas, North and 32nd Street), plenty of restaurants and vendors so you needn’t plan ahead, sand volleyball, roller blading, grassy picnic areas and playgrounds, good people-watching, canoeing, fishing in its abundant waters, sailing and swimming in the summer months. The gorgeous sight of fall foliage is spectacular, doubly reflected on the lake’s surface.

Think of the opening scenes of the vintage television series, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, where she enjoys a lakeside stroll and the Minneapolis skyline. Apparently, the scene was located at Lake of the Isles, another in the Chain of Lakes National Park, although this lake was engineered in the early 20th century.

Squam Lake, NH

Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest lake in New Hampshire and rates high on plenty of best lake lists. But it is not the best, unless you like the vroom of Harley-Davidsons, bawling babies, racy motorboats and the air horn of the tour boat with your picnic. Head back to Winnepesaukee for fried clams and evening amusements.

Remember “On Golden Pond”, the wonderful 1981 movie starring Oscar-winning Henry Fonda in his last film appearance with his daughter, Jane Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn? The film was actually made at Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire just down the road from Lake Winnipesaukee, which could not be more different in atmosphere. The second-largest lake in the state, Squam is a protected environment known for its rare nesting loons, immortalized in “On Golden Pond”. Last time I visited, we saw a baby eagle in its nest on one of the islands where boats were kept at a reasonable distance. Outboard motorboats are simply not allowed on Squam Lake, which is dead quiet save for the lapping of waters at the shoreline, the occasional paddle splash of a passing canoe and the gorgeous call of the loons.

August 2011 will see the 6th Annual Squam Lake Swim, a greatly anticipated event to raise money for the Loon Preservation Committee. Contact the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center http://nhnature.org for a 90-minute canopied pontoon boat tour if you’d enjoy seeing loons and eagles and get closer to nature.

There are plenty of inns, motels and campsites. Squam’s lakefront property with private access and an historic boathouse run $4 million and up, if you can get it, in this tranquil setting nestled in the White Mountains with beautiful views and unspoiled coves filled with blackberries, hummingbirds and the occasional moose.

Lake Geneva and Lake Delavan, WI

Situated in an area that was an inland sea during the Ice Age, the modern world is left with this gorgeous lake, still frozen in wintertime. During winter, there’s ice fishing, ice skating, cross country skiing and snowmobiling.

Better known than Lake Delavan is its neighbor, Geneva Lake, which is big at 5500 square acres, 21 miles around and 150 feet deep. By the way, at the bottom lie the hulls of Lucious Newberry, sunk in 1891, and Lady of the Lake, lost in 1893, making this a popular destination for scuba divers.

But the quieter Lake Delavan is the gem of the district, only 90 minutes from Chicago and 60 minutes from Milwaukee, where the Victorian influence is still reflected in the charming historic downtown with brick-lined streets and quaint boutiques. Smaller by half, Lake Delavan boasts no fewer than five Frank Lloyd Wright houses on its shores, all built in the early years of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright, a Wisconsin native, was named in 1991 as the “greatest American architect of all time” by the American Institute of Architects.

After the requisite round of golf, a swim or some fishing, take the kids to Delavan’s Animal Gardens with its train ride, Baby Barn of farm animals, wildlife and exotic bird show. There is an evening dinner show at The Dancing Horses Theater for adults and children alike.

Lake Champlain and Lake George, NY

“Champ” is the mascot of Lake Champlain, a creature of Loch Ness monster-type legend that locals have reported sporadic sightings and perhaps you will get lucky?

Lake Champlain is the long and narrow freshwater lake at the northernmost valley of the Adirondack Range, sharing the US-Canadian border. Both lakes fall between Vermont’s Green Mountains and the New York Adirondacks, which features one billion-year-old rock formations.

These lakes are a great choice for American historians. Champlain was named after the French explorer who came upon its shores in 1609, the lake region was important in colonial times for battles fought at nearby Fort Ticonderoga, Fort William Henry at neighboring Lake George and Saratoga further south. These battlefield grounds are one of the areas major visitor attractions along the Rte. 9 drive, one of the most scenic drives in the northeast which connects the lakes.

Interesting to note: for only three weeks in 1998, Lake Champlain was officially the nation’s sixth Great Lake under a bill signed by President Clinton and then rescinded.

Today, kayaking is popular in this area of connecting lakes and eleven picturesque canal locks numbered 1-12 (there is no number 10!) on the 133-mile waterway Lakes to Locks Passage. You cannot choose a better time to visit than autumn for the incredible shows of vibrant fall foliage. Adirondack Park is one of several and you will also run across half a dozen old lighthouses on island lakes, the elegant 1870 Canfield Casino closed in 1907 by pre-Prohibition reformers and a carousel in Congress Park, Saratoga.

Historic Saratoga Racetrack, opened in 1864, is home to the oldest thoroughbred race in the US, the Travers Stakes and Saratoga Springs, with its mineral water sources much loved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sources:

Lake Leelanau 2011 BirdFest at: http://www.leelanauchamber.com/calendar_day.asp?date=6/1/2011

Traverse City: http://www.traversecityfilmfest.org /

http://visit.cherryfestival.org/

http://www.nps.gov/archive/crla/ani.htm

Historic canal Locks at: http://www.lakestolocks.com

Hear the sound of the loon at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tThBGV5_JdM