Avid boaters who live on the coast often have a difficult time imagining that there’s much of a boating scene inland, but the truth of the matter is that several Midwest states trail very closely behind states like Florida in terms of registered boats: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois are all top inland boating contenders. And according to Discover Boating, Michigan beats out even the Sunshine State, having 1,000,337 registered boats to Florida’s 922,597. Thanks to freshwater lakes and impoundments, finding a place to have fun on a boat in the middle of the country is quite easy. But what 10 lakes in the Midwest are tops for fishing, towing a tube full of kids, waterskiing, or just cruising around? Let’s take stock.
Lake of the Ozarks, MO
A manmade reservoir created by damming the Osage River, Lake of the Ozarks is 93 miles long, has a surface area of around 54,000 acres, and its dragon-like shoreline twists and turns for some 1,150 miles. It is situated about an hour south of Jefferson City, MO and an hour and a half or so north of Springfield, MO. Its shores are lined with scenic hardwood forests around most of its length, providing idyllic places to sit back, relax, and take in the scenery. Lake of the Ozarks State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park provide public access to the lake’s beautiful and generally well-protected waters. Locals say it takes a lifetime to explore every inch of it.
Elk River Chain of Lakes, MI
The waters of the Elk River Chain are so clear that they have the appearance of a tropical paradise, when the sun beats down on them during the boating season. And that makes them a prime boating destination. Torch Lake is the biggest and most scenic of the lakes, in our opinion, and is easily accessible—it’s just off Grand Traverse Bay. State parks and launch facilities are literally everywhere and range from concrete ramps to sandy put-in spots. Almost as beautiful and spilling into Grand Traverse Bay at Elk Rapids is Elk Lake. Be sure not to miss an afternoon raft-up on one of the many shallow but accessible sandbars that dot most of the lakes.
Lake Wawasee, IN
Relatively deep throughout its length, Lake Wawasee is in the heart of pontoon boat country, being within a couple of hours of many of the industry’s major pontoon boat builders. Geographically speaking it’s about an hour northwest of Fort Wayne, IN, and an hour southeast of South Bend, IN. Though it is relatively open to wind from the northwest and southeast, its openness makes it a great watersports lake, providing plenty of room for tricks, turns, and long runs. Anglers will appreciate the largemouth and smallmouth bass fisheries here. One need only have a look off the end of a dock to see feisty fish swimming around in the clear water. Oakwood Resort is one of the biggest on the lake and a center of activity during the season. You could also spend an entire day just cruising around the shoreline and checking out the beautiful homes ashore.
Lake Winnebago, WI
One of the most popular boating areas in inland Wisconsin, Lake Winnebago is most noticeable because of the namesake recreational vehicle company that bears the same name—though there’s no relation between the two. Thirty miles long and 10 miles wide at its extremes, the lake is dotted with towns having familiar names like Oshkosh, Appleton, and Fond du Lac, which, for the sake of conversation, is home to inboard and outboard builder Mercury Marine. Public water access is particular good here, with a state park and a handful of county parks scattered around the lake’s 88 miles of shoreline.
Lake Okoboji, IA
Lake Okoboji is situated relatively remotely, about an hour and a half east of Sioux City, SD, and about two hours northeast of Sioux City, IA. A natural lake that covers about 3,847 acres, it gets its name from the Dakota Indian language and the Dakota Sioux native Americans who lived here. Relatively deep, the lake plays host to a wide variety of boating activities including sailing, power boating, watersports and water skiing, and angling. It’s got a healthy population of smallmouth bass, northern pike, crappie, and white bass that draw anglers form miles around. Scenic and serene, many boaters seek out the protected waters found in Millers Bay, Smiths Bay, and Emersons Bay. Arnold’s Amusement park is a good family diversion with plenty of rides, including a Ferris wheel.
Lake McConaughy, NE
Kingsley Dam was built to contain the lake and is the second largest hydraulic fill dam in the world. It was formed by pumping of a mixture of soil and water into the ground, making a watertight core to hold the water back. The result is a relatively open impoundment measuring 22 miles long by four miles wide, that is lined by many miles of white sand beaches. The lake is perfect for sailing, power boating, fishing, and even scuba diving. Walleye fill the lake and birders flock to the area to get a look at species such as Sandhill cranes. Numerous campgrounds and parks dot the shoreline, making it a popular spot for boaters who RV their boating rigs around to various lakes and rivers.
Table Rock Lake, MO
Table Rock Lake is near the tourist destination of Branson, MO, making it a popular place for folks to kick back, relax, and get in touch with nature. The lake’s diverse topography means it’s great not just for boaters, but folks who also enjoy camping. Table Rock Lake State Park is a hot destination, as is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Boaters and anglers enjoy miles of secluded and rugged shoreline that make for great angling, anchoring out, or just exploring. Folks without a boat in tow can pick up a rental at numerous facilities around the lake or take a dinner or excursion cruise out on the lake.
Tappan Lake, OH
Surrounded by thousands of acres of gorgeous deciduous and pine forests, this manmade impoundment draws boaters who are looking for a more serene and less busy experience on the water. There’s virtually no privately developed land around Tappan Lake, which means trees make up most of the scenery. Parks and launch ramps abound, and Tappan Lake Park offers up easy public access. A marina is situated on the north side of the lake on state Route 250 and the town of Ulrichsville is only a short drive away. Whether you’re angling or pulling watersports enthusiasts, we think you’ll like the cut of this lake’s jib.
Mille Lacs Lake, MN
Though its far northern latitude keeps it from being a primo watersports lake until the very height of summer, Mille Lacs is extremely well regarded for its famous walleye fishery. In addition to having excellent fishing, the lake has a wildlife refuge on two islands located in the southeast corner of the lake. It’s the smallest wildlife refuge in the country, by size. Though the lake is relatively open in a blow form any direction, a few protected bays form the perfect havens from bad weather. Four towns around the perimeter offer a variety of services. Go here if incredible views in a secluded setting are your thing.
Lake Kabetogama, MN
No, we’re not ready to leave Minnesota just yet. Another beautiful fishing and boating lake is Lake Kabetogama, which is situated just miles below the United States-Canada border. As you may have guessed, the boating season is short here. Still, the lake is set in the wilderness, which means it provides as stunning a backdrop for boating as you can imagine. The rock-lined shores run down to rocky structures beneath the lake that are a haven to the tasty, fun-to-catch walleye. You’ll want to be self-sufficient when you come here, but the rewards for your independence are one of the most wild and picturesque lakes in the United States.
Where else might a dedicated American boater consider visiting? Check out some of our other favorites:
- Top 10 Fishing Destinations Bucket List
- Editor’s Choice: Best Waterfront Restaurants and Bars
- The 10 Best Beaches for Boaters
- Fire on High: Celebrating the Fourth of July By Boat
- Boat-Gating for Football Fans
- Free Concerts By Boat