Plan a boating getaway to Lake Powell, Lake Tahoe, Lake Cumberland, Lake Travis — you know, the places everyone with a hitch knows about — and you’ll find more travel information than you can use. But pencil together a real getaway in the truest sense, and you’ll want suggestions from friends who have tested the untested waters. Consider us your friends, and the following places a little something between you and us.
Hungry Horse Reservoir
Hungry Horse, Montana
It could be that vacationers reach this northwest section of Montana with pinpoint focus (Glacier National Park) and ignore the periphery along the route. Or maybe most of the roughly 2 million annual visitors to the park enter from the east side rather than the more-rugged west entrance. A distance of 10 miles, all of it twisty, between the lake and the park might discourage side trips. Then again, our visit in late September was notably past the tourist season and followed a dusting of snow only five days earlier. Whatever the case, a dearth of pretrip information on Hungry Horse Reservoir and an absence of humanity en route to, and right up to, the water’s edge, had me second-guessing a four-day commitment to camping and boating there.
“Why,” I asked photographer Doug DuKane at the launch ramp, “did we see more people at the huckleberry stand [two] than here [zero]?”
When the boat drifted off the trailer, I turned it 180 degrees and sat still. Mountains climbed in three directions. Pine trees appeared as green carpet rolling down a slope and into the water as far as we could see. Three rides the length of the lake and 96 hours later, we were just as awestruck, having seen exactly one structure (a former ranger station) the entire time.
We did tour Glacier National Park. The massiveness was beyond comprehension, and still is. But at some point, just as we found at Hungry Horse, you stop asking the whys and hows and simply drink in the wows.
Overshadowed By: Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park
If You Must Know: There are more species of mammals in this region than anywhere in the continental U.S.
Most Popular Boats: Aluminum fishing boats for trailerability and access into rocky coves and creeks.
Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Butcher Hook, Arizona
There’s a crooked desert road meandering northeast along the Salt River, from Mesa, Arizona, that turns to dirt at Tortilla Flats. It takes you past two smaller desert lakes called Saquaro and Apache, but if the weather is good and you’re game enough to follow the trail another 45 miles, you’ll find the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Theodore Roosevelt Lake.
One November a few years ago, a bizarre cold front pushed snow all the way into Mesa and Phoenix, making the historical Apache raiding trail impassable. We went on pavement east through Globe and then north, an extra 75 miles. We came over a ridge and around the White Mountains, still dusted with snow. Below us in the ruddy-colored desert valley, Roosevelt glistened like a bowl of sapphires. Saguaro cactuses stood as sentinels along our route, and we pulled into the first national campsite that appealed to us. We had our choice; in November, Roosevelt Lake is all but deserted.
Near the west end of the lake, a flat, called Butcher Hook, held a couple of small motels along the shore, a grocery and a bar and grill. About midlake, Roosevelt Lake Marina offered full-service slippage, ramps, fuel and sundries. We slapped burgers on the grill and barbecued under a full moon that put a glow on snow-capped mountains, and listened to coyotes calling in the distance.
Overshadowed By: Lake Powell, Lake Pleasant
If You Must Know: Roosevelt Lake is noted for its clear water and population of enormous crappie.
Most Popular Boats: Fish and ski boats or trailerable cruisers make visiting this remote waterway lots of fun.
From the top of 1,800-foot Mount Kineo, which sits on a peninsula jutting into Moosehead Lake, you can see miles upon miles of water. Wilderness frames the lake’s estuaries and can be seen stretching deep into Canada. On a Saturday afternoon in late July, I stood there with photographer Grafton Marshall Smith and watched the heaviest boat traffic of the year on the largest lake within one state east of the Mississippi. We counted five boat wakes in 30 minutes.
“Most people who come to Maine in summer go to the coast,” said Bruce Hamilton, innkeeper of the Lodge at Moosehead Lake. “They don’t bother coming inland. Lake Winnipesaukee [four hours south in New Hampshire] gets all the lake boaters even though this is … “
He stopped and waved his hand toward the lake, as if to say, “This is yours if you want it.”
So, on that same July afternoon, down from the mountaintop, Smith and I directed two WaveRunners across the lake and shut them down next to a crowd of trees hugging the shoreline. It was like being in a cathedral, the click of a camera echoing off the tree trunks. We spoke in hushed voices and watched three moose standing nearby, one of them audibly munching on vegetation in the water. It was only appropriate at that moment, on a lake called Moosehead, they had us outnumbered.
Overshadowed By: Lake Winnipesaukee, Bar Harbor
If You Must Know: Native Americans considered Mount Kineo a goldmine for arrowheads because it is the largest deposit of flint in the world.
Most Popular Boats: Pontoons and runabouts with four-stroke outboards because they fit the quiet and green attitude of the lake.
It’s become a vacation tradition for my wife, three girls and me to find at least two never-visited lakes each summer. We drive through unfamiliar territory to Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and the upper Midwest to spots we’ve seen only on our trusty Rand-McNally. It can be risky when you’ve committed five people to three valuable days in an imaginary place.
In July 2008, we did something we’d never done. We revisited one of those spots: Lake Watauga. Of all the places we’ve visited, this is the one we had to see again.
Only this time our boat ride lasted a little longer. We took more notice of the hillsides hitting the water at such a steep angle that the depths drop to 170 feet, and of boats that had been sitting in slips for months, with no scum lines. The little girls, normally engaged in the most entertaining activity for 45 minutes max, didn’t want to leave the boat after six hours.
I’m not about to claim that ours was the only boat on the water in mid-July. But long after beaching up for a long lunch on one of Watauga’s many sandy peninsulas, a bowrider passed 200 feet from where we were swimming. As the rich green water rolled to shore, my wife asked, “Think we should go to another spot?”
This summer, on Watauga, we probably will.
Overshadowed By: Lake Tellico, Norris Lake
You Must Know: It’s at the highest elevation in the TVA network of waterways.
Most Popular Boats: Small runabouts because of the ease of trailering, and pontoons.
Marion, North Carolina
You could say that Lake James literally comes out of the woodwork. With only a few obvious exceptions around the shoreline, the hickories, cedars and oaks come down to greet the water. But the partnership between forest and water is so seamless that occasionally the woodwork comes out of Lake James.
Case in point: Last summer, a vintage 30-foot HackerCraft casually cruised out from a slip alongside Camp Lake James, where stone steps lead to an old amphitheater and log-sided structures.
“How old is it?” a visitor asked about the meticulously maintained wood boat, believing it to be 70-something.
“Twelve years old,” said Tim Miner, director of sales and marketing for Crescent Communities on Lake James. “It’s a perfect fit for the lake — looks old but it’s still fresh.”
The same could be said for the camp itself, which with all its throwbacks was opened last July. And all the new homes around the lake have self-imposed restrictions on colors and rooflines to keep the shoreline looking woodsy.
“There’s a 4,000-square-foot home right through there,” said Miner, pointing into a thick forest. Even with his help, the house could not be detected.
Before my first visit to Lake James, I couldn’t find anyone who knew about it, let alone had been there. One afternoon, a man from Hendersonville walked into the restaurant at Bear Creek Marina and said: “This place is gorgeous. I’d never heard of Lake James until last week.” Hendersonville, by the way, is all of 50 miles away. ** **
Overshadowed By: Lake Lure, Lake Norman
If You Must Know: Last of the Mohicans was filmed here in the early 1990s.
Most Popular Boats: Literally all-comers, though pontoons and large runabouts have a home because of the easy access.
Cave Run Lake
A lake in the middle of Daniel Boone National Forest doesn’t seem like the ideal spring-break destination, but that’s what first took me and a half-dozen friends to this clear, hideaway lake. We pitched tents in Twin Knobs Campground, which is run by the park, and launched a handmade boat from a handmade trailer on the nearby ramp. The fees might be more than $2 today, but not much more. Now, there’s a boat-up campground called Clay Lick, so you can launch first and pitch camp afterward.
The area has grown since more and more boomers have discovered they like rural areas, but the shores of Cave Run Lake are protected by the Corps of Engineers, so they remain uncluttered by condos and tacky T-shirt shops. Still, you can find cozy bed-and-breakfast places and a motel or lodge near its shores.
Crash Mullins is the area’s most famous fishing guide, and he specializes in bass, crappie and musky — a fish normally found only in northern lakes, but stocked here decades ago. The species has done well and most anglers release their trophies, which keeps the population virile for future fun.
The best way to enjoy Cave Run is to hitch a ski rope behind your boat and view it from a leisurely tube ride. The winding shores mean you’ll find protected water somewhere for a glassy-smooth ski ride too. Kentucky is the heart of houseboat building, with brands like Sumerset, Thoroughbred and a dozen more. So you won’t be surprised to find plenty of rentals around for the luxury-minded boat camper. ** **
Overshadowed By: Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and Lake Cumberland
If You Must Know: Summertime waters can be so deceptively clear that you’ll be watching your depth finder in 10 feet of water.
Most Popular Boats: Houseboats for longer stays and whatever is running shotgun with them.
Twin Lakes, Colorado
I’m not sure if it was the spectacular alpine scenery that took my breath away, or if it was the altitude. There, a bit more than 10,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by some of Colorado’s highest and most spectacular peaks, sat Twin Lakes. This is where we would shoot the inaugural cover images for Boating Life in 1997. It could have been the 78th cover, as the significance of the moment leaned most heavily on the place, not the occasion.
Originally formed by glacial activity, the natural melt-water reservoirs known as Twin Lakes were enlarged to provide water storage — a process that created some 1,700 acres of clean but cold water for recreational boaters to enjoy. It’s easy to understand, after a mountainous drive that tests a truck’s transmission, why the place is not overrun with boaters.
Furthering the adventurousness of Twin Lakes is the fact that shore-side amenities tend toward the rustic. Five Forest Service campgrounds dominate the accommodations, though there are a couple of small lodges and trailer parks. Most other lodging and eating establishments are at least a half-hour away in either Buena Vista or Leadville.
A robust set of trailer brakes are advised for anyone approaching Twin Lakes from the north, as the route crosses the Continental Divide and entails miles of cliff-hanging two-lane roads. Yes, we got our shot. I’m not sure the original cover left any casual readers breathless, but all who were live on the scene, like me, could certainly say otherwise.
Overshadowed By: Grand Lake, Blue Mesa Reservoir
If You Must Know: Twin Lakes is adjacent to Mount Elbert, the highest Rocky Mountain peak in the U.S. at 14,440 feet.
Most Popular Boats: Fishing boats and small runabouts because of the trailering challenges up mountain roads.
Cedar Key, Florida
Cedar Key isn’t the sort of place I just stumbled across. Situated along the most remote and undeveloped sections of Florida’s Big Bend coastline, my first drive to this waterfront village took me across a miles-long two-lane road with water on either side, down dead-end Route 24, a fair piece from anywhere.
But despite its out-of-the-way, end-of-the-road status, Cedar Key does draw its share of visitors. Bird-watchers flock to one of the oldest bird and wildlife refuges in the U.S., and those in the know come here for what has to be one of the most impressive can’t-miss-restaurants-to-people ratios in the country.
Fishing is the area’s big on-water attraction, and during peak redfish season in October, the town’s marina and boat ramps are abuzz with action. You don’t need to be a die-hard saltwater fisherman to enjoy the many miles of undeveloped estuaries and backwaters accessible from Cedar Key, but you should have a good depth sounder and some up-to-date charts, as the shoals and oyster bars are numerous and largely unmarked.
Boaters willing to read the waters and follow the channel markers can make their way to any number of small uninhabited islands featuring white-sand beaches and wooded hammocks. Summer brings the chance to snorkel for scallops, while wildlife viewing is best in the cooler months. At any season, nature takes center stage, and your boat becomes a time machine back to an era before Florida was a land of theme parks and beachfront condos.
Overshadowed By: Crystal River and Florida’s Panhandle
If You Must Know: Cedar Key was one of Florida’s first seaports and railheads.
Most Popular Boats: Shallow-draft boats like pontoons and bay skiffs because of the sensitive tidal waters and numerous oyster beds.
Pomme de Terre Lake
You could travel to Missouri 20 times and never hear of this little, French-named lake on the northern edge of the Ozarks that means “apple of the earth” or for the less romantically inclined, “potato.” I had been living and working on our family’s resort and marina at Lake of the Ozarks for 15 years before I escaped the bonds of business ownership one day to find myself hanging out at a lodge on a bald knob overlooking the Pomme, as locals call it (rhymes with “mommy”).
Some folks walked up the hill that day carrying a 10-pound musky, and I never forgot it. Neither have the nation’s musky enthusiasts, who flock there for a better-than-average crack at this elusive trophy.
Besides angling, Pomme has the beautiful winding shorelines and hardwood-covered hills and bluffs that made Lake of the Ozarks so popular. Unlike that lake and the also-busy Table Rock Lake 90 minutes to the south, Pomme is nearly as unspoiled by development today as it was when the dam flooded the impoundment a few decades ago. Pomme’s main channel is more than 20 miles long and has enough winding shoreline to keep explorers occupied for days.
You’ll still find signs of the Osage Sioux along its shores. Just pull your boat up on a broad flat after a rain, and the sharp edges of flint or chert arrowheads peek through the clay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the lake for flood control, electricity and recreation, in that order. Corps-run campgrounds are the mainstay of weekenders. Only on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day does one normally need reservations.
Overshadowed By: Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake
If You Must Know: Pomme de Terre (which came from French trappers who called it “apple of the earth”) is considered to be in the northernmost reach of the Ozarks.
Most Popular Boats: Pontoons with enclosures for camping, cuddies and pocket cruisers to take in the evening sounds drifting off the bluffs and hills.
Lake Billy Chinook
I was in Portland to shoot Tigé’s wake team the first week of August 2008, when an idea was tossed around about driving to the nearby Columbia River for some different scenery. Then someone in our group mentioned Lake Billy Chinook. I’d heard of the lake, but aside from that, I had no idea what it had to offer.
With a boat in tow, it turned out to be a three-hour drive over a mountainous and desolate route that included the edge of Mount Hood. At the end of a crooked path through miles of empty Native American reservation, we descended a rim into a large crack in the ground appropriately known as Crooked Canyon, also the site of Cove Palisades State Park. Not until we nearly reached the canyon bottom did the rich green lake come into view.
Like the rest of our crew, I’ve been fortunate to see hundreds of lakes, rivers and harbors during my career as a photographer. So it says something about the framework of Billy Chinook’s scene that we would literally stop in wonder of the 500-foot canyon walls and be awed at the 400-foot waterfall in full flow a day after a hard summer rain. Down near Three Rivers Marina, we laid eyes on Mount Jefferson’s snowcapped peak.
This was a Monday, and boat traffic was nil. I’m told weekends are another story on the lake. Yet I still have to believe that the average Oregon boater heads to the coast or to the Columbia and leaves Billy Chinook for another day. For a photographer, and a boater, it’s the recipe for a can’t-miss opportunity. ** **
Overshadowed By: Columbia River, Crater Lake
If You Must Know: A huge remnant of basalt lava formed an island in what is now the lake canyon; it’s one of the last ungrazed ecosystems of its kind in the country.
Most Popular Boats: Wakeboard boats and runabouts because of the day-excursion nature of the lake.