Top Lake Resort Vacations for Families in the U.S. and Canada
Like ice cream on a steamy day, lake getaways have their own special flavors and pleasures. Acres of lawns, golf courses, good food, comfortable accommodations, and diverse children’s programs define some resorts. For the ones in national or state parks, mighty glaciers, mountains, or woods might form the backdrop. For other lake-edged properties, you'll find roller coasters, ropes courses, rock climbing, wave pools, and trail horses to round out the water adventures. Frommer's family travel expert carefully selected these diverse lake destinations and resorts to please children of various ages and families with differing budgets—but no matter which one you choose, all offer cooling breezes, beautiful surroundings, and the simple fun of making lifetime memories of cannonballs and summer splashes.
Pictured: Flathead Lake Lodge, Montana
As herds of unbridled horses trot toward the corral, kicking up swirls of trail dirt, you sense the power and beauty of these animals. At Flathead Lake Lodge in Big Fork, the run is a daily sight as are billowing sails, stand-up paddleboarders, and kayakers on the 30-mile-long lake. The 2,000-acre all-inclusive dude ranch, operated by the Averill family since 1945, combines horseback riding with watersports where Flathead Lake flows into the mountains. Typically, families ride in the morning and play on the water in the afternoon. Wranglers guide newbies on slow, scenic outings and lead experienced riders on fast-paced jaunts in the hills. Kids 6 and older hit the trail while younger cowpokes try pony rides in the corral, and teens take part in games on horseback. Families compete in team penning and other rodeo skills. By night, chuck wagon cookouts, marshmallow roasts, mouse races (really), and barn dances round out this enthusiastically Western adventure. Log furniture and quilts adorn the rooms and cabins, some of which have water views.
For resort activities at budget prices, state parks often have facilities for overnight visitors. At Lake Cumberland State Park, in Jamestown, the namesake lake is an enormous expanse of 60,000-plus acres edged with 1,200-miles of shoreline—a boater’s delight. Discover scenic coves and rich spots for hooking large and small mouth bass, rockfish, walleye, bluegill, and trout. Bring your own watercraft and jet skis or rent from the park’s State Dock, which dubs the lake the “world capital of house boating;” expect to play with many others on the water. When you and your family crave romping room, head back to land for hiking, disc golf, and horseback riding. You’ll find basic but comfortable lodge rooms as well as 1 to 2-bedroom cabins with stocked kitchens: Of the park's lodges, Lure Lodge, newer than Pumpkin Creek Lodge, overlooks the lake and has a restaurant.
The water of Crater Lake dazzles with a blue so intense that it catches in your throat even before you notice the dramatic frame of steep cliffs reflected on its surface. When Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed some 7,700 years ago, the volcano’s caldera filled with rain and snowmelt, creating the deepest lake in the U.S. and unquestionably one of the most scenic. At Crater Lake National Park, a getaway isn’t so much about swimming (the shallow water temperatures in summer hover around 55 degrees F). Instead, the park captivates with scenery.
The ranger-narrated boat tours bring you close to the cliffs and to Wizard Island, a cinder cone protruding from the center. To reach the dock, however, you must descend the steep, 1.1-mile-long Cleetwood Cove Trail, and when the cruise is over, you must clamber back up, a challenge grade-schoolers and teens may enjoy. With non-hikers or young children, bike or drive part of the 33-mile rim road, pausing at viewpoints and walking easy paths. Castle Crest, a 0.5 mile loop trail leads through meadows and, in July, blooms with wildflowers. Of the park’s two lodges, Crater Lake Lodge and its restaurant sit lakeside. At night, be sure to make time to appreciate the brilliant starry skies.
Basin Harbor, operated in Vergennes by the Beach family since 1886, sprawls on 700 acres along the shores of Lake Champlain. The resort’s lobster bakes and live jazz, plus the award-winning wine list in the main dining room, add a layer of sophistication to the classic New England country getaway—one that comes with a golf course. Families can sail, paddle-board, canoe, kayak, and ski on Lake Champlain as well as board replicas of 18th- and 19th- century vessels at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, right on site. At Kids Camp, children fish, play tennis, hike, and go on scavenger hunts during morning and afternoon sessions, and enjoy group dinners and arts and crafts in the evening. Teens mingle for biking, boating, ropes courses, lake cruises, and offsite laser tag. Both programs are free with a purchased meal plan. At night, gather round for campfire s’mores, glow-in-the-dark golf, dive-in movies, and trivia games. Guest rooms range from 1-bedroom to 3-bedroom cottages, some of which stand so close to the water that you fall asleep to the rhythm of the lapping lake.
Lake Crescent is just one of the highlights of Olympic National Park, a nearly million-acre wilderness with habitats as diverse as snow-capped mountains, temperate rain forests, and Pacific Ocean beaches (Frommer's named it one of the world's Best Places to Go in 2019). Explore the glacier-carved lake on a guided kayak tour or in your own craft. If your children are too young and wriggly to sit still, trade paddling for a narrated boat tour, or catch and release Beardsley trout (a type found only in Lake Crescent) and other fish. The 8-mile round-trip Spruce Railroad trail, which hugs the lake and makes a 100-foot elevation gain, can also be just enough of a challenge for bike-riding grade-schoolers and teens. Lake Crescent Lodge’s most sought-after room category is the Roosevelt Fireplace Cabins, named for FDR, who visited the region in 1937. For an extended trip, consider also staying at Kalaloch Lodge, built on a bluff above the beach.
Woodloch, an all-inclusive family resort in the Poconos, comes with a twist. Instead of kids-only daylong programs, Woodloch, in the town of Hawley, promotes a week of what it calls “togethering.” Like bunkmates at camp, you and your children join group activities batched for ages 3 to 6 or 7 to 10. Cheered on by the social staff, your team builds boats, constructs sand sculptures, shoots hoops, and plays soccer. For a respite from games, ride bumper cars and go-carts—or live the lake lifestyle and swim, fish, kayak, and water ski. Evening entertainment tends toward things kids like: magicians, jugglers, or a Broadway-style musical performed by staff. Operated by the Kiesendahl family since the resort opened in 1958, Woodloch has a friendly attention to detail. Accommodations include regular rooms and two-bedroom suites close the main dining room, plus a selection of rental houses with one to four bedrooms. (Those larger properties are two miles away and not serviced by a shuttle, so you'll need a car for those.)
Pair Heavenly Mountain Resort and nearby Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, and you come up with the vacation equivalent of surf ‘n’ turf. From the gondola, see sweeping views of the lake’s blue-green waters; you’ll be deposited within reach of a selection of trailheads. Even small sections of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail will reward you with visions of waterfalls, wildflowers, and glimpses of the sparkling lake below. There are more superlative hikes in Van Sickle Bi-State Park. Buy passes to Epic Discovery, Heavenly’s summer adventures program, and your family can tackle ropes courses, zip lines, mountain coasters, rock climbing, and tubing. Famous Lake Tahoe beckons: swim at popular Emerald Bay, Vikingsholm, Nevada Beach, Pope Beach, and Baldwin Beach—if you can handle the 68-degree F water temperatures, otherwise just toe-dip and sun. In South Lake Tahoe, you’ll find condominiums at Heavenly Ski Resort as well as townhomes, casino resorts, and rental homes—there are lots of options.
If your tweens and teens grumble at the mere mention of a lake vacation because they think it will bore them into catatonia, then jolt them with fun at Lake Erie and the Hotel Breakers, in Sandusky. The property is on a mile-long beach within screaming distance of Cedar Point, one of the world’s beloved thrill parks. The lakefront amusement behemoth dubs itself “the roller coaster capital of the world,” and the label is apt, because 18 terrifying track monsters rule here (it's in a never-ending battle for dominance with Six Flags Magic Mountain outside Los Angeles). Your pooh-poohing progeny will recant after surviving such demons as Steel Vengeance, a 205-foot tall hybrid-coaster (a wooden structure with a steel track) that packs in four flips and propels riders at a top speed of 74 mph, or dive coaster Valravn, a fiend that scares scare-seekers with gut-wrenching 90-degree drops. The 52 other rides target those who like things more mild than wild. Planet Snoopy’s Peanuts character-themed train, free-hanging swings, and mini-tower drop please tots too short to ride the big stuff. There’s also the Cedar Point Shores Waterpark, where your family can beat the heat by gliding down slides, floating on the lazy river, and splashing in the wave pool. For more adventures, parasail on Lake Erie or hop a ferry to Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay.
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, population around 1,000, is a postcard-perfect vacation community. The volunteer fire company owns the public beach, Village Square Park showcases sculptures of children pledging allegiance, and visitors in horse-drawn carriages hear tales of vacationing gangsters (Al Capone) now safely in the picturesque past. Reminiscent of Victorian-era lake towns, Elkhart has since added good restaurants, a well-known road circuit sports car racecourse, and a handful of big-enough hotels. At the lakefront Osthoff Resort, getting out on the water means sailboats and canoes as well as hydro bikes, aqua cycles, and other water toys. Kids aged 4 to 10, with families invited, fashion tie-dye shirts, decorate cupcakes, and paint pottery at the Osthoff’s summer Pleasures Program, which schedules activities throughout the day for a fee. Use the resort’s adult and children’s bike rentals to pedal through the village or conquer the turns and twists of Road America’s 4-mile motorsport course. Along with watching competitions, drivers can get on the track to test their mettle. The teen driving school teaches skid control, braking, and other emergency skills. Continue the parent-teen bonding over facials, massages, and scrubs at Aspira, the Osthoff’s spa. The resort offers one- to three-bedroom suites with kitchens or kitchenettes, handy for cutting costs.
Banff National Park, in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, features some of the most extraordinary alpine scenery in North America—and the world. Snowcapped peaks, thick forests, and glistening rivers create miles of varied terrain for summertime hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. The emerald green Lake Louise, with its arresting backdrop of Victoria Glacier, spreads out before the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, an upscale property with fine dining and a spa. The hotel’s team makes exploring as a family uncomplicated. With a canoe specialist, glide on the lake in 26-foot-long cedar-and-canvas canoes, reminiscent of those used by early explorers. Mountain guides lead group hikes for ages 8 and older through the spruce and larch woods to discover secluded lakes and other picturesque locales. Outdoor families can handle many trails on their own, especially portions of the relatively flat path that winds around the lake. For panoramic views of rugged mountains, ride the gondola. The Kids Camp (activities are a mix of complimentary and charged) schedules intermittent nature walks, horse grooming, campouts, and pajama parties for kids aged 6 to 13, as well as canoe outings for teens. After a day of trekking, it’s nice for teens and adults to come back to the indulgence of a massage and a good meal.