Kayaking on Shuswap Lake in Sicamous, British Columbia
Yes, we Pacific Northwesterners have umpteen miles of sandy, rocky or driftwood-strewn coastline on which to play. But even at the peak of summer, that Pacific Ocean saltwater is pretty darn chilly. So, let’s turn our attention to our lakes, which — at their best — furnish the iconic summer vacation experience: languid days spent swimming, boating and floating.
We’ve rounded up five terrific picks for great lake getaways that offer good times for everyone, including houseboating, wine tasting, lakeside blueberry picking and hiking in pine forests. Happy adventuring!
1. The houseboating mecca: Shuswap Lake, Sicamous, British Columbia
It’s not too often you get to sleep on the water. In south-central British Columbia, Shuswap is Canada’s houseboating mecca, a sprawling, multi-armed lake with 119 square miles of water to recreate in and on, surrounded by a thick forest of spruce, birch and cedar. Some houseboats even have waterslides, hot tubs and fireplaces. Avoid the party boaters and hang out near the white-sand beaches at the ends of Anstey Arm and Seymour Arm. With 600-plus miles of shoreline to explore, it won’t be hard to find a quiet spot. Shuswap Lake Marine Provincial Park has oodles of boat-access-only beaches, beckoning with the promise of adventure. You’ll also find loads of trails for biking and hiking, and good scuba spots, too (including the fall sockeye run returning to the Adams River).
Heads up: Houseboating may not be a great choice for families with very young kids — there’s not much room to roam on board and too many safety hazards to worry about (and who wants to worry on vacation?). But for families with older kids, houseboating can be paradise.
Don’t miss: The sometimes challenging 2-mile loop hike up along Celesta Creek through Albas Falls’ series of five cascades; dock at Steamboat Bay. Keep your eyes peeled for bears!
Lake temp: 65–70 degrees
Drive time from Seattle: About seven hours
2. The hot and sunny lake: Sun Lakes, near Coulee City, Washington
Why suffer the Puget Sound region’s June gloom when you can kickstart summer by heading to the carved islands and scoured cliffs of Sun Lakes in eastern Washington? Part of the Grand Coulee river bed (a National Natural Landmark), carved from massive ice age floods, Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park has two great swimming areas at the main park lake: One is flat and shallow, thus ideal for little ones; the other has a more unpredictable bottom with some steep drop-offs (better for older swimmers). Rent canoes, paddleboats, rowboats and aqua cycles from the Sun Lakes Park Resort — get your ice cream there, too.
Off-the-water fun includes a playground, mini golf, a nine-hole golf course and a “Water Wars” water balloon activity.
Heads up: Burn bans are regularly in effect in this area later in summer. Be prepared for heavy winds at times.
To escape the crowds, head about 2.5 miles along the park’s back road to smaller Deep Lake. (The speed limit for powerboats is 5 miles per hour there.) Hike the 2.6-mile loop trail around Umatilla Rock for a lesson about geology on the move; it features soaring pinnacles, enormous snowball-like rocks and weird protrusions jutting toward the perpetually blue sky. Breathe in the scent of sagebrush.
Don’t miss: The Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park interpretive center and the lookout over Dry Falls, a once-active waterfall where raging waters dropped more than 400 feet over 3.5-mile-wide cliffs — that’s more than twice as high and three times as wide as Niagara Falls.
Lake temp: Low 70s (typically in the 60s in June)
Drive time from Seattle: About three hours
The skinny: There are a few small motels in Coulee City; Sun Lakes Park Resort has cabins; and many longtime Sun Lakes fans swear by the state park camping.
3. The big daddy: Crater Lake, central Oregon
With surface water temps between 50 and 60 degrees, America’s deepest lake (1,949 feet deep) is not a place to be in the water so much as a place to be on or around the water. (Although I did take a brief, fully clothed, limb-numbing dip once, just so I could say I did it.)
The result of Mount Mazama’s cataclysmic eruption some 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake — a volcanic caldera — is almost impossibly blue and utterly picturesque. Our kids loved the “We’re hiking on an old volcano” aspect of this amazing national park.
Take advantage of ranger-led hikes, talks and the Junior Ranger program for kids ages 6–12. If necessary, bribe your littles with soft-serve from the Crater Lake Lodge. About 10 miles away, Diamond Lake has warmer water (swimmable if there’s no algae bloom), trout fishing, spacious Forest Service camping, and an awesome 12-mile paved bike path that circles the lake and offers a lunch stop for pizza and beer en route.
Bonus fun: Boat (of the bumper, paddle, fishing and patio varieties) rentals are available at nearby Diamond Lake Resort.
Don’t miss: The hike up Wizard Island (you’ll need to book a boat tour to visit this island in the middle of the lake) to survey the vast, watery caldera from the middle of the lake; take the side route — it’s a rocky one, not for small kids — to Fumarole Bay, where you can feel like you have the whole island to yourself.
Lake temp: Brrr ... Crater Lake is a chilly 50–60 degrees. Diamond Lake is about 65 degrees in summertime.
Drive time from Seattle: About eight hours
The skinny: Three U.S. Forest Service campgrounds (we like Thielsen View) in the Umpqua National Forest at Diamond Lake offer lots of sites. The national park includes two campgrounds, but note that they are not right near the lake. For a lake view, splurge on a room in the Crater Lake Lodge.
4. The all-activity lake: Osoyoos Lake, Osoyoos, British Columbia
Just over the border in the Okanagan Desert, Osoyoos Lake has Canada’s warmest waters and summer temps that hit the high 80s. With loads of rental outfitters to choose from, you can sample pretty much any kind of water sport known to humankind on this lake, including wakeboarding, barefooting, parasailing and banana boating (alongside more traditional options, such as sailing and kayaking). Families flock to the shallow warm waters of Cottonwood Park Beach, but check out White Sands Beach at the nearby Osoyoos Indian Reserve if the crowds are too thick in town.
Occupying a spit jutting out into the lake, sẁiẁs Provincial Park, formerly called Haynes Point, offers camping just a few feet from the water’s edge. (Book far ahead of your visit — people have been known to hawk their reservations on eBay for this popular place.)
Bonus for mom and dad: That desert sun does wonders for winemaking. This area has many wineries, and some, including Covert Farms, offer kid-friendly experiences. You’ll also find loads of nearby U-pick cherry and peach orchards.
Don’t miss: Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. It offers programs in summer and gives kids the chance to check out a traditional pit house and sweat lodge, hear the legends of Sen’klip (Coyote) and learn about desert ecology.
Lake temp: Around 70 degrees
Drive time from Seattle: About five hours
5. The classic family lake: Payette Lake, McCall, Idaho
Payette Lake contains 8 square miles of glacial-fed water and sits at the edge of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the second-largest federal wilderness area in the Lower 48. Mountain scenery? Check. Sandy beaches? Check. Boating? Check. Charming lakeside lodge, complete with water trampoline? Check. Add epic huckleberry picking, road and mountain biking, hiking, camping, a killer dry pine forest state park (Ponderosa State Park) and nearby natural hot springs (check out Burgdorf) and you’ve got yourself a classic.
Payette Lake even has its own lake monster, “Sharlie” (thought to possibly be an ancient sturgeon hiding in a lake that hits 392 feet at its deepest point). Sharlie sightings date back to the 1920s; today, you’re most likely to see Sharlie on gift shop T-shirts.
McCall is small and safe, great for older kids who want some roaming radius. You’ll find good local grub in this former timber town, from upscale Bistro 45 to burgers at Lardos Grill. If you want a backroads road trip, hit the harmonica festival in the tiny mountain hamlet of Yellow Pine (Aug. 3–5 in 2023), honoring pioneers who carried pocket harps into the wilderness with them.
Don’t miss: “Mountain size” scoops at Ice Cream Alley
Lake temp: Mid-60s
Drive time from Seattle: About eight hours
More Northwest family vacation ideas
Editor’s note: This article was originally published many years ago and just updated for families seeking a lake vacation in 2023!