Nature hikes, canoe trips, pancake breakfasts—just another perfect summer day in one of America's best lake towns.
Chelan, Wash., on Lake Chelan Photo 1 of 3
Everywhere you look in Chelan, some ruddy-cheeked soul is kayaking, swimming, fishing, or windsurfing on the 50-mile-long glacier-fed lake (kayak rental, lakeridersports.com, from $40). The Stillwater Inn, a butter-yellow 1906 house just a block from the beach, makes an ideal home base, thanks in part to the fortifying breakfasts of fresh-baked goods and fruit served each day (509/682-3500, thestillwaterinn.com, from $135). Two miles down the road, in downtown, the one-screen Ruby Theatre has been entertaining families since 1914, and these days it doubles as a community meeting place that hosts benefit concerts, dance recitals, and school plays (509/682-5016, rubytheatre.com, $8). Don't leave without taking a ferry up the lake—the fjord-like gorges make for stunning scenery, with the slopes of the North Cascades dropping dramatically into the deep-blue water. Most ferries make a stop in Stehekin, population 95, where the local organic garden sells fresh vegetables, goat cheese, and yogurt for an off-the-beaten-path afternoon picnic. (ladyofthelake.com, round trip from $39).
Grand Marais, Minn., on Lake Superior Photo 1 of 3
Lake Superior begins at the edge of town, and the Boundary Waters—a series of connecting lakes that offer 1,500 miles of canoe routes—is just 25 miles southwest. Fishing for prime trout and salmon has improved in recent years owing to a massive restocking program. Before you set out for a day of activities on the lake (try Bear Track Outfitting Co., 800/795-8068, bear-track.com, rentals from $35), fuel up at World's Best Donuts. The name sounds like hyperbole until you taste the confections: The simple cake doughnut, with a dense, chewy inside and a golden, just-crisp-enough outside, is a thing of beauty (worldsbestdonutsmn.com, from 70¢). For dinner, head to the Angry Trout Cafe at sunset and ask for a table outside. The combination of simply prepared, freshly caught fish, a light evening breeze, and sunlight reflecting off the lake is enough to make you consider investing in a summer cabin (218/387-1265, angrytroutcafe.com, entrées from $10). East Bay Suites has rooms with lake views, kitchenettes, and balconies (21 Wisconsin St., 800/414-2807, eastbaysuites.com, from $129).
Dillon, Colo., on Lake Dillon Photo 1 of 3
Lake adventures in this Summit County town—within 15 miles of ski-season hotspots Breckenridge, Keystone, and Copper Mountain—start at the Dillon Marina, with weekend sailing regattas, boat rentals, and meet-ups for guided Saturday-morning hikes and kid-friendly wildflower walks (boat/kayak rental from $105, nature hikes free). Find locals at the Tiki Bar, an island-inspired lakeside watering hole where the signature drink, the rum runner, is so popular (and so potent) that the owners instituted a two-rum-runner limit per person (151 Marina Dr., 970/262-6309). From the marina, head two blocks to downtown for the Friday farmers market, where more than 90 vendors sell fresh produce and folk-rock musicians entertain the crowd (Buffalo St., June 11–Sept. 24, 9 a.m.–2 p.m.). For some good old-fashioned fun, spend an afternoon at 18-lane Lakeside Bowl, the only bowling alley in the county (970/468-6257, $3.50 per game). The rooms at the Best Western Ptarmigan Lodge are nothing to write home about, but the lakeside location just a block from the marina is hard to beat. Rooms with decks and lake views are available (ptarmiganlodge.com, from $85).
Forest Grove, Ore., near Hagg Lake Photo 1 of 2
Just 25 miles west of Portland, Forest Grove is quintessential Oregon: laid-back and outdoorsy with a healthy dose of quirk. The historic downtown is lined with old-fashioned ironwork street lamps, sophisticated wine bars, and boutique gift shops. Institutions like Joe's Ice Cream & Deli will take you back to an America you thought was long gone—get the black-licorice ice cream, a townie favorite (2001 Main St., 503/357-3077). The 1,100-acre Hagg Lake is an easy nine miles away and sits at the base of Oregon's coastal mountain range, surrounded by picnic areas, two boat launches, and 15 miles of hiking trails. Serious fishermen appreciate that the lake is well-stocked with rainbow trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and yellow perch, and waterskiing and kayaking opportunities are easy to find, too (503/927-5489, $10 per hour/$40 per day). The area's most unique lodging option comes from the McMenamin brothers, famous in the Northwest for converting old buildings into hotels and bars. In 2000, they restored a late 20th-century Masonic home and opened McMenamins Grand Lodge, a 77-room hotel. On rainy days, hang out at the lodge and watch a second-run movie at the Compass Room Theater with a burger and fries; there's also a heated outdoor saltwater soaking pool for post-waterskiing recuperation (mcmenamins.com, king with private bath $115).
Rangeley, Maine, on Rangeley Lakes Photo 1 of 3
Maine is home to more undeveloped land than any other state in the country, so keep an eye peeled for herons, eagles, and, of course, moose—maybe while sailing Rangeley Lake on a guided boat tour led by Sam-O-Set Four Seasons and Dockside Sports Center. The company can also set you up with anything from a basic canoe to a 20-foot speedboat (207/864-5137, samosetfourseasons.com, tours $25 per person, canoe rental from $25, speedboat from $200). Back in town, browse the quilt and antiques shops downtown, like Threads Galore, a quilter's paradise with close to 1,000 bolts of fabric, plus classes where you can meet locals (27 Pleasant St., threadsgalore.com, classes from $20). Then head south about five miles to Edelheid Road, where you'll find the Maine Mountain Maple plantation. Take a tour of the sugar shack, where locally tapped sticky sap is made into sugary syrup, and one free taste later, you'll never buy the generic stuff again (50 Edelheid Rd., mainemountainmaple.com). Rest your head at North Country Inn Bed & Breakfast. It's a bit like visiting your favorite great-aunt—if she served you quiche or pancakes topped with fresh fruit every morning (northcountrybb.com, from $99).
Leland, Mich., on Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau Photo 1 of 3
Leland rests on a peninsula between Lake Michigan and petite Lake Leelanau. Families who've been spending the summer here for generations often arrive by boat and never set foot in a car during their stay. The town's roots as a fishing village aren't hard to spot—the main attraction here is Fishtown, a cluster of old shanties converted into shops and restaurants, now a lakeside historic district. Locals love the pretzel-bread sandwiches at the Village Cheese Shanty (199 E. River Rd., villagecheeseshanty.com), and kids never let parents walk by the Dam Candy Store without stopping for an ice cream cone or chocolate-covered cherries (197 W. River Rd.). The 107-year-old Riverside Inn and Restaurant, one block from downtown, has a homey feel but is classy enough to offer an extensive international wine list and dining on the deck with views of the Leland River (302 River St., theriverside231/256-9971, 231/256-9971, 231/256-9971, -inn.com, from $100). If you do bring a car, make time to explore the wineries of northern Michigan. The pinot noir from Chateau Fontaine, just three miles outside Leland, has a vibrant berry flavor—it's the perfect summer wine (2290 S. French Rd., 231/256-0000, chateaufontaine.com).
Truckee, Calif., near Donner Lake Photo 1 of 2
This year, skip Lake Tahoe and head 16 miles north to Donner Lake's warmer water temperatures and small-town atmosphere. Originally an Old West town (you can still visit the original 1875 jailhouse), Truckee is a great base for exploring the lake's many outdoor activities—lately, stand-up paddleboarding is the sport of choice (Truckee Sports Exchange, 530/582-4510, truckeesportsexchange.com, boards $60 per day, kayaks $40 per day). Truckee also has a growing local art scene—a slew of new galleries has opened recently, including Riverside Studios, which sells pottery, jewelry, and clothing made by a collective of area artists (10374 Donner Pass Rd., 530/587-3789, riversideartstudios.com), and Carmel Gallery, home to Olof and Elizabeth Carmel's impressionistic prints and photographs (9940 Donner Pass Rd., 888/482-4632, thecarmelgallery.com). Whatever your plans, carb up first with the All Day Addiction, a concoction of hash browns, avocado, Canadian bacon, and two eggs, at 1940s-style diner Jax at the Tracks (10144 W. River St., 530/550-7450, jaxtruckee.com, Addiction $10). Later, you can relive your adventures over a Base Camp Golden Ale at Fifty Fifty Brewing Co., where all the beers are brewed in-house (530/587-2337, fiftyfiftybrewing.com, beers from $4.50), and watch the sun set over the water from the redwood deck at Loch Leven Lodge (lochlevenlodge.com, rooms from $120).
Oakland, Md., on Deep Creek Lake Photo 1 of 2
At the southern end of Deep Creek Lake, Oakland is home to Lakeside Creamery, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor dishing out 90 flavors to flocks of visitors. The peach ice cream, made from fresh local fruit and milk sourced from area dairy farms, is a perennial summer favorite. Right next door, Copper Kettle Popcorn sells the standard sweet-salty version and regional specialties like popcorn sprinkled with Old Bay, plus homemade fudge and chocolate-dipped pretzels (both shops at 20282 Garrett Hwy., 301/387-5655, ice cream from $2, popcorn from $5). You can get to both by car, but it's more fun to arrive by water and pull up to the boat slips. Deep Creek Marina rents everything from canoes to powerboats, plus kid-friendly toys like water trampolines (301/387-0732, trampoline rentals from $150). If it's swimming you're after, try the mile of shoreline at Deep Creek Lake State Park. Naturalists often lead free nature hikes and evening campfire talks centered around the area's black bear population (Discovery Center, 301/387-7067). Rest your head at the Lodges at Sunset Village, tucked deep in the woods about eight miles from Oakland. The cabins sleep four to 10 people and have working fireplaces, rustic knotty-pine furniture, and kitchenettes (rentals.deepcreek.com, two-bedroom cabins from $185).