Everybody likes their home waters. But facts are facts: Some places are nicer than others. Maybe it’s the water or the land that contains it. Perhaps it’s the people, or maybe the lack of them! Easy access? That can be nice, but “hard to reach” sometimes means “hard to beat.” And some places are just plain boaty.
Over the decades, our editors have boated hundreds of idyllic waters in the United States. We’ve tapped our experiences, chatted up other boaters and even checked in with web surfers to help us refine this list of our 10 favorite boater-friendly spots in the Lower 48. We considered livability, public access, convenience and also relaxing getaways that should please anyone looking for a primary or secondary boating home.
Gulf of Mexico
Destin is perfectly situated to celebrate in style the aquatic wonder known as the Gulf of Mexico.
Located on Florida’s Panhandle midway between Pensacola and Panama City, Destin offers snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, light-tackle fishing, trolling and deep-sea bottom-fishing. Sugar-sand beaches and barrier islands are as abundant as dining, shopping and golfing.
Boaters find the bay and Intracoastal Waterway beginner-friendly; the active east Pass into the Gulf of Mexico, with its tides, currents and swells, calls for a more experienced hand.
To celebrate water with friends new and old, visit Crab Island, an “underwater island,” for boating and partying on the north side of the Destin bridge. In summer, a barge and boat vendors sell burgers, ice cream, steamed shrimp and other culinary treats.
Plentiful vacation rentals include home and condo rentals. Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa is a luxury hotel with a AAA four-diamond restaurant, seven miles of beach and bayfront, four championship golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, kids’ programs and more.
Sandestin’s 98-slip, open-to-the-public Baytowne Marina welcomes boats up to 140 feet. The marina staff provides personal concierge services — arranging tee times, restaurant reservations and tram service. Other marinas dot the coastline.
Fun Fact: The nearby beaches of South Walton boast 17 coastal dune lakes. Separating them by sand from the Gulf, their dune barriers are breached several times a year to mix fresh and salt water.
Long Island, New York
One hundred miles long, 20 miles wide and surrounded by water — that’s a recipe for great boating. Add settings from calm bays and inlets to challenging open ocean, and proximity to the never-ending excitement of New York City, and Long Island is a boating natural.
Marinas public and private serve the many port towns on the island.
The South Shore is known for ocean beaches and maritime history. On the North Shore, along Long Island Sound, mansions and even castles are seen perched high on bluffs. The island’s South Fork, or “The Hamptons,” is known as “Hollywood East” for its celebrity full-time and seasonal residents. At Fire Island, you can dock in the protected bay and stroll a few hundred feet to the Atlantic.
On Long Island you’re at the gateway to New England, minutes away from Connecticut and Rhode Island from some Long Island ports, and it’s less than an hour to Massachusetts from Greenport or Montauk. Pass beneath one bridge and you’re in the Big Apple. Why not circumnavigate Manhattan by boat? It’s a great cruise, requiring attention to tides, currents and boat traffic, but the rewards are a view of the city — from Lady Liberty to Yankee Stadium — that only boaters can experience.
Fun Fact: Want to visit a castle? Some Long Island castles, such as Sand’s Point and Vanderbilt Mansion, are open to the public for tours.
Did you ever feel that you were born at the wrong place and time, that you were meant to be among those making their living on the water? Newport, Oregon, residents say you can set things right by sharing Yaquina Bay with its sailboats and working fishing fleets. This is also one of the best places to live aboard a boat.
Newport’s top industries are commercial and sport fishing, fish processing, shipping, tourism, recreation, and lumber and wood processing. Visitors explore aquariums, historical museums and lighthouses, in addition to heading out for boating, beachcombing and whale-watching.
Boating here can be technically challenging, thanks to tides and currents — it’s the kind of setting that makes one feel like a real boater.
Port of Newport Marina and RV Park (aka South Beach Marina) has a paved launch ramp, a fuel dock and boat-trailer parking. There are 450 moorage slips for boats to 48 feet. Charter one of the marina’s boats for five to 12 hours of deep-sea fishing, fishing/crabbing or whale-watching.
Don’t like harsh heat or bitter cold? Newport’s summer temperatures usually run 60 to 72 degrees; in winter they’re about 20 degrees lower. Average annual rainfall is 68 inches.
Newport is billed as “an authentic working waterfront that invites you to come and play.” No wonder it’s been drawing vacationers since the late 1800s.
Fun Fact: Yaquina Bay is open to Dungeness crabbing year-round, even though the ocean proper is closed for much of fall. Crab pots and other gear can be rented at local tackle shops.
Lake of the Ozarks
Ever since the Bagnell Dam was completed on the Osage River in 1931, Lake of the Ozarks has been synonymous with pleasure boating. Covering 55,000 acres within an astounding 1,150 miles of shoreline, and measuring a whopping 90 miles long, it’s the nation’s largest man-made lake not built for flood control. That means water levels are more stable than those in flood-control impoundments. Thousands of boaters applaud.
Nine public-access ramps complement a long list of private marinas. Lodgings are plentiful, with many locations providing boat slips, some covered.
This might be a great place to try a different kind of boat: Many marinas, resorts and campgrounds offer speedboat, pontoon, fishing boat and personal watercraft rentals. Houseboats are big here too, if you want to try driving your own temporary home. This area is actually one of the best places to live on a houseboat.
You want a dry-land home? There are more than 70,000 homes on the lake, many of them vacation homes.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park is Missouri’s largest, and it boasts more than 80 miles of shoreline. Among its novel features is a nearly 10-mile-long aquatic trail leading boaters to a variety of natural communities; the trail’s marked buoys are keyed to a booklet available at the park.
Fun Fact: Lake of the Ozarks sports dozens, if not hundreds, of dockside cafes and watering holes. You’ll never need dry land again.
Do you prefer your boating on a river’s flowing waters or a serene lake? If you visit or move to the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area, you can change your mind every day.
Ok, Chickamauga Lake is an impoundment of the Tennessee River, but it feels like a lake for its nearly 60-mile length. Boaters love it, especially around the south end, closest to Chattanooga.
Booker T. Washington State Park, on Chickamauga Lake, has boat launch ramps for those drawn to fishing, skiing and pleasure riding. Picnic sites, including three pavilions big enough for 60 people each, are sprinkled throughout the 353 acres.
On the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Harbor Lights Marina has inside (dry) storage and deepwater, open and sheltered wet slips. Living in town, you have your pick of ways to have your boat safely stowed and ready to go.
The Tennessee River Blueway stretches for more than 45 miles from Chickamauga Dam to Nickajack Dam, passing through Chattanooga and the Tennessee River Gorge. Canoeists and kayakers can paddle to their heart’s content, sharing the river with commercial barges, bass boats and recreational boats. Launch sites and campsites are sprinkled along the blueway.
Fun Fact: Chattanooga’s $120 million “21st Century Waterfront Plan” helped it win three national awards for outstanding livability.
Arizona conjures up hot and dry images, but where dams pause water on its way to Phoenix, people play. Many lakes fill with boats on weekends; get there early or the gates may be closed.
Four Salt River impoundments offer scenic canyon walls, Southwest expanses, coves and caves begging exploration, great fishing and lots of wildlife.
Saguaro Lake, 40 miles northeast of Phoenix, has 22 miles of shoreline. For a novel experience, visit the boat-access-only Bagley Flat Campground. Canyon Lake, smallest at 950 acres, is about 40 miles east of Phoenix. Apache Lake is just up the scenic Apache Trail.
Roosevelt Lake, which clocks in at about a two-hour drive, is farthest from Phoenix; its 21,000 acres are served by several marinas.
Lake Pleasant, 10,000 acres of water just 45 minutes from downtown, has 14 lanes in two ramps facilities, with parking for 700-plus vehicles and trailers. Pleasant Harbor Marina has recreational vehicle sites, a clubhouse, a heated pool and a spa.
Bartlett Lake, on the Verde River, is 30 miles northwest of the city. Want more? Lakes Havasu and Parker on the Colorado River draw go-fasts in numbers unrivaled anywhere but Miami.
While desert living is attractive in its own right, it’s easy to find a bargain home just minutes to a couple of hours from these boating oases.
Fun Fact: The Apache Trail, a passable but thrilling route through breathtaking scenery, leads from Canyon Lake to Apache Lake to Roosevelt Lake. Watch for javelinas, black bears, mountain sheep and eagles!
Puget Sound, Lake Washington
Seattle calls itself two cities in one, a metropolis surrounded by natural allure. Who might better appreciate both than the boater?
This largest city in the Pacific Northwest stands on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean’s Puget Sound and freshwater Lake Washington, which flows into it through the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Seattle is called “the Emerald City” for its lush forests. It has a reputation for a literate population (more than half its residents are college graduates), high-tech savvy, green outlooks and healthy appetites for outdoor activities. When you add a temperate climate, it’s no wonder boating’s big here.
The city’s main harbor, Elliott Bay, is an inlet of Puget Sound, which draws salmon anglers and cruising boaters and serves as a send-off point for those sailing to the San Juan Islands or to wild Alaska.
Seattle even has an official opening day of its boating season, a tradition since 1895. Crafts of all types pack Lake Washington and the Montlake Cut for the Windermere Cup Opening Day Regatta and Boat Parade. First there’s a blessing of the fleet, and then hundreds of athletes compete in crew.
Then, many of the spectators fire up their powerboats to further explore and celebrate Seattle.
Fun Fact: Known for spacecraft and aircraft, computer software and coffee, Seattle is also famously the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and home to the grunge rock movement led by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and others.
Columbia, South Carolina
Columbia’s Southern charms make it a great setting for relaxing and civility. Nearby Lake Murray provides a place to bust loose.
Lake Murray was formed in 1930 by the distinctive five-tower Dreher Shoals Dam on the Saluda River. The 48,000-acre reservoir — 41 miles long and as wide as 14 miles — produces electrical energy and is the main source of Columbia’s drinking water. It has also become “the water playground for the (South Carolina) Midlands.”
Although the lake is a power-producing reservoir, water level changes are not massive — four feet between normal summer high and normal winter low.
Water skiing, wakeboarding, cruising and swimming are all popular. Murray is famous too for its rafts of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of boats, plus numerous poker runs on this enormous inland waterway.
Dozens of marinas serve the lake, with abundant landings and ramps.
Columbia, 18 miles away, claims one of the lowest costs of living in the United States. Still, upscale home communities ring the lake, so pick your lifestyle. The city overflows with options such as concerts, ice shows, Broadway shows, dancing, historic homes, museums, theaters, and a zoo and botanical garden. Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 10.
Fun Fact: A B-25 bomber on a training run ditched and sank in 150 feet of water in Lake Murray in 1943. It was located 59 years later and, in 2005, raised from the lake’s depths.
Green Bay, Lake Michigan
Green Bay, Wisconsin
This city grew from trading posts, where furs and other goods ferried there by river and lake were swapped. Boating is still big in the city, where residents brag of “small town hospitality, big city amenities.”
Located at the innermost point of the Lake Michigan bay whose name it bears, the town of Green Bay offers dining, shopping, wineries — and the tough legacy of those Packers, the only fan-owned National Football League team, celebrated in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame adjacent to legendary Lambeau Field.
Bay Beach Amusement Park draws more than a million folks a year, with 18 rides and ride tickets just two bits (yeah, 25 cents!) each. Paintball, minigolf, go-carts and bumper boats are right next door. In June, check out Bayfest Live.
Ready to go afloat? The road to Bayshore Park’s launch ramp is cut through the rock of the Niagara Escarpment. Eye the geology on your way to the ramp, but don’t lollygag. The bay offers splendid fishing but is even better known among adventuring boaters for being a safe harbor from which to disembark for the famous Door County Peninsula and destinations beyond, as far across the Great Lakes as quaint Mackinac Island or Killarney, Ontario.
Fun Fact: You have to appreciate a place where the 2011 visitor guide lists among its claims to fame “the invention of the first splinter-free toilet paper in the early 1900s.”
Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan
Traverse City, Michigan
People in these parts, talking about income levels, cushion it with the saying “The bay is half the pay.” But don’t take that the wrong way — the living is good here, and east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay are just bonuses.
Sure, the boating season is shorter than you might like, just spring to fall, but that’s from the first cherry blossoms until the berries have become wine on Mission Peninsula, which divides the bays. Traverse City has all the charm of a tourist town, all the amenities of a big city — and everything a boater could ask for.
Private and township marinas are sprinkled around both bays, offering launch ramps and slips. Public boating-access sites offer simple launch-and-park options.
In town, you can take in a play, shop in boutiques, dine in opulence or convenience, or walk along the Boardman River as it winds its way through the city.
Afloat, set your sights beyond the bays — maybe to the Beaver Islands (once ruled by self-declared Mormon king James Jesse Strang), maybe to far-off ports like Milwaukee or Chicago or beyond. Just don’t be surprised if you’re soon back to the bay that some figure is half their pay.
Fun Fact: Thanks to the weather-moderating influence of Lake Michigan, the Grand Traverse region grows up to 360 million pounds of cherries annually; it celebrates with a National Cherry Festival in July.