I grew up boating on a lake: Culver Lake, in the northwest part of New Jersey. My grandfather had a house there with a canoe, a Hobie Cat and a Hobie Sunfish (later replaced by a Hobie Holder) all lined up on the dock. He also had a ski boat on a buoy within swimming distance. I would sometimes dive off the dock and backstroke it out there just to lounge on the bow cushions in the sun.

As an adult covering the boating industry for a living, I’ve had the opportunity to cruise aboard everything from America’s Cup sailing yachts to superyachts in destinations ranging from Fiji to France—all of which is great, but none of which has the same feeling as waking up in a lake house, grabbing breakfast on the porch and then making a whole day’s worth of fun out of the boats on the dock. Especially for kids, being the master of your boating domain at a lake is phenomenal. As long as you don’t crash anything, you’re pretty much free to explore and play at will.

If you want to make memories like mine for your own kids—and for yourself—then consider a vacation at one of these lakes, which are great for boaters.

Here's our five top destinations for the best lake vacations in the U.S.:

  1. Lake Mead

  2. Lake Tahoe

  3. Lake of the Ozarks

  4. Lake Cumberland

  5. Lake George

Lake Mead

Lake Mead

Lake Mead (Arizona and Nevada)

Stretching across the border of Arizona and Nevada, Lake Mead is among the largest reservoirs in the United States. It was formed by the Hoover Dam to serve water to nearby states, but of course, boating quickly became a popular pastime. Everything from ski boats to fishing boats, pontoon boats, Jet Skis and Wave Runners can be rented at the marinas, along with all the gear for water skiing, wakeboarding, kneeboarding and other tow sports.

Boaters, of course, can bring their own boats for launching onto the lake too. The National Park Service offers free information about launch rules and rentals—which can differ depending on whether you’re boating on the Arizona or Nevada parts of Lake Mead. As the agency states, “If you launch in Arizona and cross into Nevada, you must follow Nevada regulations, and vice versa.”

There’s great waterfront dining on Lake Mead, as well. Just one example is the Harbor House Café and Lounge, which is part of the 1,500-slip Las Vegas Boat Harbor. Harbor House is a floating restaurant and bar serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, filled with old photographs of the area, so visitors can appreciate how Lake Mead has evolved as a boating destination throughout time.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe (California and Nevada)

Lake Tahoe is on the border of California and Nevada, in the picturesque Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s the largest alpine lake in all of North America, and about three-quarters of the watershed is national forest land—which means protected scenery and stunning views in every imaginable direction.

Sailors and windsurfers love Lake Tahoe because of the strong winds coming off the mountains, but powerboats are here too, of course. Every August, the area hosts the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance wooden boat show, a two-day event that takes place on the docks as well as out on the water. Anyone with a heart that goes pitter-pat for varnished mahogany will be in heaven.

Boat rentals are available on Lake Tahoe, including through Tahoe Sports, which has 10 locations and everything from ski boats to tri-toons and WaveRunners.

Lake of the Ozarks

Lake of the Ozarks (Missouri)

Lake of the Ozarks is actually a reservoir, one so big that it spans four counties in Missouri. Boaters love to cool off on the water here every summer, either on their own boats or aboard rentals. There are standalone launch ramps as well as commercial marinas and waterfront hotels with slips for anyone who wants to bring their own ride. Or, rentals are available for everything from pontoon boats to ski boats to WaveRunners and fishing boats.

If you’re in the market to buy a new boat, then Lake of the Ozarks is a good place to visit as well. Many boatbuilders consider this region among the top five in the United States for selling boats—which means the local dealerships typically have models in stock and ready for sea trials.

And for go-fast boat lovers, there’s the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, held at the end of August. It’s marketed as the largest unsanctioned boat race in the United States, with crowds as big as 70,000 people showing up to watch boats scream past at speeds topping 200 MPH. The event is also for a good cause, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

Lake Cumberland

Lake Cumberland (Kentucky)

Located in Kentucky, this reservoir is a magnet for fishermen hoping to chase walleye, bass and trout. Anglers have snagged some serious catch here, with reports of everything from stripers weighing nearly 60 pounds to 20-plus-pound walleye and catfish that tip the scales at more than 200 pounds. (There also are crappie, bream … the place is a fisherman’s haven.)

Four full-service marinas are on Lake Cumberland with fuel docks, ship’s stores and more, and there are boat rentals ranging from pontoon boats to ski boats, Jet Skis and fishing boats. A great time to be on the water is early August, which is when boaters gather for the annual Lake Cumberland Raft Up. It’s held in the lake’s Shinbone area and starts around 10 a.m; in 2010, it reportedly set a world record for the most boats tied up in a single raft-up.

Those who prefer to go fast may prefer to visit Lake Cumberland in early September, when the Lake Cumberland Poker Run takes place during a long weekend.

best lake vacations

Lake George

Lake George (New York)

Upstate New York is home to Lake George, whose all-too-fitting nickname is the “Queen of American Lakes.” Given the lake’s accessibility from Manhattan, it has long been a getaway spot for the wealthy. Some of the estates that the rich and famous built in the earlier part of the 1900s became known as Millionaire’s Row, and some of those that remain today are used as hotels and restaurants.

There’s a set of rules and regulations for boating on Lake George, including inspections of every trailered boat prior to put-in, to avoid the addition of invasive aquatic species to the environment. The rules must be followed at all 86 public and private launches, lest a $500 fine be issued. So, read up before you go.

Boat rentals are available at Lake George, with the typical lake fleet of ski boats, pontoon boats and fishing boats in the mix.  For something a little different, take a look at the Lake George Kayak Company, which not only rents canoes, kayaks and standup paddle boards (SUPs), but also offers guided tours for newcomers who want to get the lay of the location.

Looking for more vacation spots to plan your escape? Check out these top lake destinations:

Written by: Kim Kavin
Kim Kavin is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who specializes in marine travel. She is the author of 10 books including Dream Cruises: The Insider’s Guide to Private Yacht Vacations, and is editor of the online yacht vacation magazine www.CharterWave.com.