It's No Wonder Why These Are The Best Lake Towns In America, According To Travelers

Lake towns are the calmer, less expensive alternative to coastal, beachy destinations, and there are plenty of them to choose from across America. The U.S. has 3.2 million lakes that range from tiny swimming holes to gargantuan bodies of water that stretch farther than the human eye can see. With such a bounty of potential choices, deciding which American lake town is the best place to spend your summer vacation can be tough.

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Whether you want a serene waterside escape in the south that's little-known by most travelers or prefer to swim in one of the country's most iconic lakes, this is where you can figure out which lake town is the right fit. The Islands team has poured over real travelers' opinions on forums like Reddit and Quora to uncover all the amazing hidden lake towns the United States has to offer. Here are 12 of the best lake towns in America, according to real travelers.

Watkins Glen, New York

The town of Watkins Glen is situated right at the tip of Seneca Lake. At 618 feet deep, it's the deepest out of upstate New York's eleven Finger Lakes (though it's nowhere close to the deepest lake in the U.S.). This region is famed for its narrow lakes that formed over 2 million years ago when ancient glaciers melted into the mountainous area's valleys. This turned out to be quite serendipitous — at least for nature lovers — because it provided the setting for one of the most charming lake towns on the East Coast.

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Seneca Lake is a beautiful sight to behold every morning from Watkins Glen, and the town offers visitors a range of water activities such as boating, fishing, and swimming. There are also plenty of things to do on dry land around this area, such as the gorgeous Gorge Trail inside Watkins Glen State Park, which is seasonally available to hikers. One of the best activities to do in Watkins Glen, whether for a date or just to embrace the lake town atmosphere, is to take an evening cruise that includes a dinner service, like the one offered by Captain Bill's. This is the perfect way to experience the stunning New York lake at night, and you don't even have to get wet.

Lake Lure, North Carolina

Lake Lure is a highly elevated North Carolina lake town surrounded by mountain ranges — aka the best of both worlds (cue the "Hannah Montana" theme song). This has become a popular spot for lounging summer days away by the water, mostly because there are countless outdoor activities to partake in around Lake Lure. Whether you're traveling with your family or you're an avid nature lover who wants plenty of things to do, Lake Lure fits the bill.

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First of all, Chimney Rock State Park is nestled right next to the town and, unlike most mountains, getting to the top is super accessible. According to Reddit user mikejones84, visitors can either take an elevator up to Chimney Rock to see the top of the mountain's waterfall, or they can test their endurance by hiking up a staircase to the peak. It's also ideal for people who just feel like relaxing, as there's a family-friendly beachfront right on Lake Lure. The area also has several restaurants within walking distance, like El Lago and La Strada.

Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

The name "Hot Springs Village" sounds enticing all on its own. Located in the Ouachita Mountains, the town of Hot Springs Village, Arkansas is a nature lover's paradise situated next to Lake Hamilton. There's plenty of natural beauty surrounding the town thanks to its mountainous location and the nearby Hot Spring National Park, which contains 47 of its namesake springs. These many rejuvenating, naturally occurring hot springs have earned the town the nickname "The American Spa."

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Hot Springs Village is a favorite lake town destination for retirees; it's a fairly warm, picturesque place to stay, plus it offers plenty of leisurely activities. It has a big sports scene with nine different golf courses and tennis clubs to choose from. This little lake town also has a very strong sense of community, and according to its website, its crime rate is 47% lower than the U.S. national average. The combination of tranquility and easygoing outdoor activities makes Hot Springs Village a tempting place to spend either a quick vacation or your golden years.

Traverse City, Michigan

Lakes surround Michigan on almost all of its sides, so it should come as no surprise that the state is home to some of the very best lake towns in the country. One of these is Traverse City. This town happens to be near a ton of gorgeous lakes, from the famous Lake Michigan to more quaint options like Boardman Lake, Silver Lake, and Long Lake. Visitors here are truly spoiled for choice.

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Traverse City is a great lake town for a younger crowd because there are lots of fun events that take place around the area on a regular basis, especially during the summer season. For example, 2024's National Cherry Festival will take place from June 29 to July 6, and during certain times of year, there's a recurring beer and wine festival on the weekends. The wine culture is also top-notch around this Michigan lake town. Visitors can find a full list of upcoming events on the Traverse City website.

Florence, Alabama

Nope, this isn't the Florence located in Italy — this one is right in the American state of Alabama. The U.S. version of Florence is bursting at the seams with southern charm. The town has a prime position near the banks of both the Tennessee River and Wilson Lake. This is also a very family-friendly vacation spot with plenty of activities that can help introduce your kids to the great outdoors of the southern United States.

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When it gets warm out, camping is one of the most popular things to do around these parts, and there's a total of 60 waterfront campsites at McFarland Park, all of which have amenities. In addition to its prime location near the river, the facilities also offer activities like a golf driving range, a soccer field, picnic tables, playgrounds, fishing piers, jogging trails, boat slips, and even a few restaurants. All the items you need for a camping retreat will likely be available nearby. The area is also home to many bird species, making it a solid stop for bird watchers.

Port Washington, Wisconsin

Port Washington, Wisconsin is a quaint waterside town just 30 minutes outside of Milwaukee that provides a low-key alternative to some of the more well-known lake destinations on this list. With a population of just over 12,000 citizens, Port Washington definitely falls into the category of a cozy town, but there's still plenty to do around the area — largely thanks to its location right next to Lake Michigan.

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Visitors can start their time in the town by appreciating one of America's most famous lakes from the laidback Port Washington South Beach. Even though it's a small area, there are 32 different parks and two nature reserves throughout Port Washington, so there are plenty of chances to appreciate nature here. You can even turn up the excitement a bit by participating in activities like paddle-boarding and kayaking, or you can take it up a notch with a boat trip from Port Washington Marina.

Jacksonville, Oregon

Travelers searching for a romantic lake town should set their sights on Jacksonville, Oregon. Technically, Jacksonville is more of a creek town near a lake; however, we're still going to count it because it's just a short drive from the beautiful Applegate Lake. It also provides many more things to do in town than anywhere else near this natural gem.

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Jacksonville is located in an area called the Rogue Valley, which Wine Enthusiast recognized in 2022 (and 2016, according to Jacksonville's website) as one of the world's top wine regions. There are plenty of vineyards to explore, like the Hummingbird Estate and Dos Mariposas Vineyards & Lavender Farm, and plenty of delicious regional wines to try.

For being a relatively small town, Jacksonville is very lively all year round. It's unique among many of this list's other lake towns because it doesn't just shut down as soon as summer ends. Various events take place regularly, and something exciting is always around the corner, like live music performances and annual events like the Country Queer Summerfest, which celebrates pride month.

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Tahoe City, California

Lake Tahoe is one of those U.S. spots that sounds vaguely familiar to most Americans because it has developed quite a legendary reputation. Specifically, it's known for having some of the clearest waters in the country. It's become so popular, in fact, that the area welcomes around 2 million unique visitors every year. This Californian lake that's prized for its beauty and size (as well as its state park) is located right next to the adorable town of Tahoe City, named for the iconic body of water.

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You'll be hard-pressed to find a ranking of the best lakes in America that doesn't mention Lake Tahoe, partly because so much goes on there. It's a quintessential American lake town. According to Reddit user Ry3_Bread, the two-hour sailboat tour out of the marina in North Lake Tahoe was well worth the money as a way to experience the area. (They did, however, recommend arriving early to get a parking spot because the lots fill up quickly during the lake town's high season.) Alternatively, a former Reddit user recommended renting kayaks on Emerald Bay and hiking to Vikingsholm Castle. (Also, if you're into snorkeling, we ranked Emerald Bay as one of the most stunning snorkeling destinations in the U.S.)

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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Idaho probably isn't top of mind when you think about dreamy lake destinations, but the town of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is idyllic for a water-based getaway. This lake town is an endless source of outdoor fun during the warmer months, which usually span from June to September. Reddit user Sufficient_Warning80 explained that it's a resort town, so it's a convenient place to visit, and there's a lot to do in the surrounding area if you're super into nature activities. Another commenter on the same post suggested taking in the picturesque atmosphere by renting a bike and going for a ride, while a Reddit user local to the area said that some of the best things to do there are taking a cruise around Lake Coeur d'Alene and having dinner at Moon Time, a local restaurant.

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Coeur d'Alene is also a great option for a vacation because it offers plenty of ways to recharge. It's home to a few different spas, including one with views of the lake. Although it does retain that small-town feel, Coeur d'Alene has a surprisingly big shopping scene with over 100 stores, in case you're on the hunt for a little retail therapy. Plus, there's a diverse nightlife scene in this little Idaho lake town with live music venues, casinos, and wineries.

Grand Lake, Colorado

The town of Grand Lake, Colorado hugs the body of water from which it derives its name. While it's very tiny — it only has around 300 permanent residents — this picturesque village packs a punch as one of the country's most scenic lake towns because it's in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. As Quora user William Arndt described, "It's small and charming. Almost European feeling. Lovely setting, on the Lake, close to the mountains and trailheads. The trip from Estes over Trail Ridge Road is fantastic. If you have time, don't miss Grand Lake."

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Despite its humble size, quite a lot goes on in Grand Lake. The boardwalk that runs through the town is lined with places to eat and shop. As expected, there's also a wealth of things to do outside.

The town offers easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park, where you'll find a maze of hiking trails and spots for water activities. Mountain biking is also very popular around the area, and many trails of varying difficulties weave through the beautiful surroundings — incidentally, this is one of the best opportunities to spot the local wildlife in its natural habitat. There's also a big boating community in the area, and Grand Lake offers quite a few winter sports, such as snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

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Lake Havasu City, Arizona

Most lakes are a dreary greenish color at best, but Arizona's Lake Havasu puts that stereotype to bed. This town's lake is so bright blue that it almost looks dyed. The water in this area is fed by rainwater and snowmelt that has traveled great distances to reach its final destination of Lake Havasu City. Along the way, high concentrates of magnesium and calcium dissolve into the liquid, and the resulting calcium carbonate reflects off the sun as a vivid turquoise.

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The lake's majestic color is absolutely breathtaking and makes Lake Havasu City a great destination for nature and landscape photographers. Even though it looks like something out of a science experiment, the water is totally safe to swim in at designated beach points. The quirky little town of Lake Havasu City offers visitors tons of other things to keep themselves entertained, as well. As Quora user David Sandbrook noted, some of the best activities include seeing the town's London Bridge, going hiking up Hovey's Rock and the Cupcake Mountain Trail, participating in water sports, and fishing on the lake.

Big Fork, Montana

Montana is arguably one of the prettiest states in America, and Big Fork is just the right lake town to absorb all of that beauty. The town is built next to Flathead Lake, which already comes with the perfect daily dose of nature that makes the region famous. Big Fork is also less than an hour away from Glacier National Park, so it's the ideal place to hunker down while visiting one of the most unique national parks in the country.

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One Reddit user recommended that anyone visiting the area "Head to Big Fork for a cute little town on the bay. Wayfarer's Park has some cliffs that look down over the water. Two bars right on the lake where you can grab a bite and a brew that are right on the water, excellent views."

If you're worried that Big Fork is one of those towns that's rich in views but poor in good food, you have nothing to fear. There are many spots to eat throughout the area, such as Rosa's Pizza, Puente Viejo Cantina, and Pocketstone Cafe. This Montana lake town isn't lacking in bars, either — just check out spots like the Garden Bar and Flathead Lake Brewing Co.

Our methodology

At Islands, we believe that one of the best sources for hidden-gem destinations is real travelers. Listicles are helpful for sussing out the major activities in famous places, but they don't have the raw, local knowledge that's required to make your lake-town trip unforgettable. That's why the Islands team compiled this list with the help of real traveler opinions from countless forums to collect the very best town and activity suggestions.

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Combing through conversations between travelers on websites like Quora and Reddit allowed us to find recommendations for (and brutally honest reviews of) lake towns across the U.S. After compiling the most promising lake towns we could find, we narrowed down the list to our top 12. We chose these towns based on the number of activities they offer visitors, how tourist-friendly they are, and their overall scenery. Additionally, we made sure to include different types of lake towns in our ranking, such as those that are family-friendly and those that are best suited for young adults or retirees.

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