Jumping in a lake, tubing or cruising down a river and boogie boarding at the beach are what summer memories are made of. If your summer dreams include splashing around with your family, check out these seven lakes, rivers and beaches that promise oodles of fun off the beaten path.
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Home to about 1,000 residents, Elkhart Lake is the kind of place where families gather at the lake for swimming, water sports, beach bonfires and live music. Named for its elk shape by the Potawatomi Indians, the 120-foot deep lake is a hub for family fun spring through fall. Rental kayaks are available to explore the lake on your own, but to scoop up area history join an Ecology Outfitter’s guided Silent Water Tour. A stroll through the neighborhood is a good way to meet the friendly locals and admire the pretty turn-of-the-century homes. Stop by mom-and-pop eateries like Off the Rail for tasty meals, and Gessert’s Ice Cream and Confectionary for sweets.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
White sandy beaches, clear water and swaying palm trees may not come to mind when you think of Alabama, but that’s what you’ll find in the state’s southern border along the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (combined population nearly 20,000) are family-friendly beach towns with 32 miles of silky sand and azure water. Ike’s Beach Service offers guided kayaking tours on nearby Lake Shelby (you may even see an alligator!). Expect to eat well in this region where restaurants feature locally sourced meals. At The Gulf, a casual, outdoor beach restaurant with picnic tables, Chef Wesley True (a Bravo TV Top Chef contestant), whips up seafood dishes, burgers, tacos and more. Sip a mojito from the full-service bar and watch a sunset as the kids play on the grassy area.
Stay: Meyer-Realty, Escapes To the Shores is an oceanfront upscale vacation rental with balconies, and indoor/outdoor pools.
Nashville Shores Lakeside Resort, Tennessee
Sure, Nashville is a hip Music City, but it also has a cool 385-acre waterpark resort. Located on the shores of Percy Priest Lake, Nashville Shores is a destination in itself. The waterpark features a wave pool, lazy river, numerous waterslides and pools. New this summer is Aqua Park, a floating interactive playground on the lake. Test your skills on the slippery monkey bars, wiggle bridges and action towers. Waterpark amenities include several eateries and rental cabanas for total privacy. The family recreation resort also has a marina with boat and jet-ski rentals. In addition, there’s a zip line and ropes course at the onsite Treetop Adventure Park. But do take time out to take in America’s best music scene at Nashville’s theaters, museums and concerts.
Stay: Cozy lakefront and hillside cabins have kitchens; facilities include a dog park, laundromat and camp store. Waterfront RV sites have full hookups.
Lake Ouachita, Southwest Arkansas
Situated in the Ouachita National Forest region, Lake Ouachita is rated among the cleanest lakes in the nation by the EPA. Miles of shorelines and 200 small islands can be explored via pontoons and fishing boats. Sail to an island (people claim their own for a day) to swim, hike and picnic. More lake activities include water-skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, stand-up paddling, and underwater spearfishing.
Stay: Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa is a full-service lake resort with cabins (rustic to luxury), a marina, a restaurant, swimming pools, and water sports. Houseboats are also available to rent.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Meet local artists and outdoor enthusiasts in this welcoming, Indie-style town located at the confluence of the Eau Claire (clear water in French) and Chippewa Rivers. Art sculptures adorn downtown, and parks and bridges overlook the rivers. Row or float down the Chippewa River Water Trail, which flows 4.2 miles through the heart of Eau Claire. A short drive away is Lake Wissota, a 6,300-acre man-made lake. The Edge,a waterfront restaurant, serves good comfort food including a Friday night fish fry. Call in advance to arrange a pontoon ride from a private vendor.
Stay: The Lismore Hotel – a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel is walking distance to restaurants, parks and attractions.
Donner Lake, California
Located about 11 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe, the much smaller Donner Lake is a Sierra Nevada gem. Here you can experience a low-key, family lake vacation in the town of about 1,500 residents. Rent a cabin, swim in the lake, fish, hike, and watch a sunset from a boat dock. Located in the rustic town of Truckee, the lake is named after the ill-fated Donner Party, a group of pioneers who got stranded here (many perished) during a heavy snowy winter. The Donner Camp is a designated National Historic Landmark. Another fun activity is rafting down the Truckee River (leisurely floats launch in Lake Tahoe).
Stay: Donner Lake Vacation Rentals has a number of cabins with kitchens and private decks.
San Antonio, Texas
Flowing from Central Texas through five counties, the 240-mile long river meanders through downtown San Antonio, home to the historic Alamo. While swimming is prohibited in this part of the river, the colorful River Walk is among the city’s main attractions and well worth a visit. Footbridges provide access to riverside walkways lined with cafes, hotels and shops. Take a leisurely stroll along the pathways that connect museums, theaters and other attractions. Narrated river cruises are a fun and relaxing way to get on the water and learn about the area.
Stay: The Drury Inn & Suites Riverwalk has an ideal waterfront location and hosts a free breakfast buffet, and afternoon kickback.