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Great Lake Vacations: 5 Northwest Waterworlds Kids Will Love

Published on: May 30, 2014

Courtesy Diamond Lake Resort

Yes, we Pacific Northwesterners have umpteen miles of sandy, rocky or driftwood-strewn coastline on which to play. But even in summer, that Pacific saltwater is pretty darn chilly. So let’s turn our attention to our lakes, which – at their best – represent the iconic summer vacation, all lazy days, swimming and floating. Here are five terrific picks for a great lakes getaway that offer everything from houseboat floating and wine tasting to lakeside blueberry picking and hiking in pine forests. (Note: Prices, and lake temps, can fluctuate week by week over the summer.) Happy adventuring.

Skip to the first great lake or browse all:

1) Houseboating mecca: Shuswap Lake, B.C.

2) Hot and sunny lake: Sun Lakes, Wash.

3) The big daddy: Crater Lake, Ore.

4) The all-activity lake: Osoyoos Lake, B.C

5) The classic family lake: Payette Lake, Idaho

6) 5 swimming holes around Seattle

Courtesy Shuswap Tourism

1. The houseboating mecca: Shuswap Lake, Sicamous, B.C.

It’s not too often you get to sleep on the water. In south-central B.C., Shuswap is Canada’s houseboating mecca, a sprawling, multi-armed lake with 119 square miles of water to play in, surrounded by a thick forest of spruce, birch and cedar. Some boats even have waterslides, hot tubs and fireplaces. Avoid the party boaters and hang out at the white-sand beaches at the ends of Anstey and Seymour Arms. 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 to explore. Loads of trails for biking and hiking. Good scuba spots, too (including the fall sockeye run back to the Adams River).

Heads-up: This may not be a great choice for families with young kids — 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 Celesta Creek through Albas Falls’ series of five cascades; dock at Steamboat Bay. Keep your eyes peeled for bears. Also, free Wednesday night concerts at Salmon Arm’s Marine Park.

Lake temps: 65-70 degrees.

The skinny: Prices vary; a small houseboat (sleeping 10) runs about $2,300 for a three-day summer weekend, $3,900 for a week; Waterway Houseboat Vacations, 877-928-3792;  or Twin Anchors Houseboats, 800-663-4026

Best for ages: Schoolage and up.

>>Next: Hot and sunny lake: Sun Lakes, Wash.


Sun Lakes | Credit: Denis Felton

2. The hot and sunny lake: Sun Lakes, near Coulee City, Wash.

Why suffer Puget Sound’s June gloom when you can kick-start summer by heading to the carved islands and scoured cliffs of the Sun Lakes in Eastern Washington? Part of the Grand Coulee (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 and ideal for little ones, the other has a more unpredictable bottom with some steep drop-offs (great for older kids). Rent canoes, pedal-boats, rowboats and aqua cycles from the Sun Lakes Resort on site (ice cream too).

Off-the-water fun includes a playground, mini golf, a 9-hole golf course and a “Water Wars” water balloon stadium. Park aficionados recommend camping in the C loop (eye-spy for quail). Heads-up: burn bans are often in effect later in summer. Be prepared for heavy winds (they usually die out in a day.)

To escape the crowds, head about 2.5 miles along the back park road to smaller Deep Lake (5mph limit on powerboats there). Hike the 2.6-mile loop trail around Umatilla Rock for a geology lesson on the go: soaring pinnacles, enormous snowball-like rocks and weird protrusions jutting toward the perpetually blue sky. Breathe in the sagebrush.

Don’t miss: 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 cliffs 3.5 miles wide — more than twice as high and three times as wide as Niagara Falls.

Lake temps: The low 70s (closer to 60 in June).

The skinny: Coulee City has a few small motels. Sun Lakes Resort has cabins, though long-time Sun Lakes fans swear by the state park camping. Reservations ($20-$31 per night for standard site) at 888-226-7688; midweek is quietest. Just four first-come, first-serve tent spots.

>>Next: The big daddy: Crater Lake


Crater Lake | Photo credit: Madeleine Holland on flickr CC

3. The big daddy: Crater Lake; Ore.

Hardly a hidden gem, but what a gem. With surface water temps between 50 and 60 degrees, America’s deepest lake (1,943 deep) is not a place to be IN the water so much as a place to be on or around the water (though I did take a brief, fully clothed limb-numbing dip last summer just to 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 picturesque. Our kids gobbled up the “we’re hiking on an old volcano” angle of this amazing living-science-lab–cum-national park.

Take advantage of ranger-led hikes, talks and the Junior Ranger programs for kids ages 6-12. If necessary, bribe your kids with soft-serve from the lodge. 10 miles away, Diamond Lake has warmer water (swimmable if there’s no algae bloom), trout-fishing, spacious Forest Service camping and a great 12-mile paved bike path that circles the lake (and offers a lunch stop for pizza and beer en route).

Bonus fun: Bumper boat rentals at 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 (a rocky one, not for small kids) to Fumarole Bay, where you can feel like you have the whole island to yourself.

Lake temps: Brrr. Between 50 and 60 degrees. Diamond Lake is about 65 in summer.

The skinny: Three U.S. Forest Service campgrounds (we like Thielsen View) in the Umpqua National Forest at Diamond Lake have more than 450 spots, only 174 of which are by reservation at 877-444-6777 or; $15/night. (Note: The national park campground is not on the lake itself.) For views, splurge on Crater Lake Lodge (reserve well in advance online or 888-774-2728; lakeside rooms from $205).

>>Next: The all-activity lake: Osoyoos Lake


Osoyoos Lake | Credit: JamesZ_flickr on flickr CC

4. The all-activity lake: Osoyoos Lake, Osoyoos, B.C.

Just over the border in the Okanagan desert, Osoyoos claims Canada’s warmest waters and summer temps that hit the high 80s. With loads of rental outfitters, you can sample pretty much any kind of water sport known to humankind on this lake, from wakeboarding and barefooting to parasailing and banana boating (more traditional options like sailing and kayaking too, of course.). Families flock to the shallow warm waters of Cottonwood Beach, but check out White Sands Beach at the nearby Osoyoos Indian Reserve if the crowds are too thick in town.

Haynes Point Provincial Park, on a spit jutting out into the lake, offers camping just a few feet from the water’s edge (book far ahead, people have been known to hawk their reservations on eBay for this place). Bonus for mom and dad: That desert sun does wonders for wine. Osoyoos boasts 20 wineries within 13 miles of downtown. Some, like Tinhorn Creek Estate vineyard, are kid-friendly: Tinhorn offers kids their own “tastings” of sparkling cider, lets them run around the amphitheater, and play bocce ball while mom and dad are sipping. Loads of nearby U-pick cherry and peach orchards.

Don’t miss: NkMip Desert Cultural Centre offers daily programs in summer and gives kids the chance to check out a traditional pit house and sweat lodge, go face-to-face with a Western rattlesnake, hear the legends of Sen’klip (Coyote) and learn about desert ecology.

Lake temps: Around 70 degrees.

The skinny: Spirit Ridge resort has a pool, kid’s club, private beach, waterslide, spa, vineyard; suites with kitchen from $260 per night; 877-313-9463. Camping at Haynes Point Provincial Park, $30 per night; 1-800-689-9025

Best for ages: All ages.

>>Next: The classic family lake. Payette Lake; McCall, Idaho


Payette Lake | Credit: Hugh Millward (Idaho Fish and Game) on flickr CC

5. The classic family lake: Payette Lake, McCall, Idaho.

Eight square miles of glacial-fed water at the edge of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, 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), nearby natural hot springs (check out Burgdorf) and you’ve got yourself a classic.

Payette Lake even has its own Loch Ness 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. Good local grub too in this former timber town, from upscale Bistro 45 to burgers at Lardo’s. August brings both the annual wooden boat festival right at the Shore Lodge in McCall. If you want a back roads road trip, hit the harmonica festival in tiny mountain hamlet Yellow Pine (normal population 35), honoring pioneers who carried pocket harps into the wilderness with them.

Don’t miss: Ridiculous monster cones at Ice Cream Alley.

Lake temps: Around the mid-60s.

The skinny: From $389 in peak season to stay at Shore Lodge; 800-657-6464; Ponderosa Point State Park, camping from $29 per night and more affordable cabins, from $75-$150 a night; 888-922-6743.

Best for ages: All ages.

>>Next: 5 swimming holes around Seattle


5 lake swimming holes around Seattle

Pine Lake
Pine Lake, jc. winkler, flickr Creative Commons

Got a day? Below, some closer-to-home swimming holes. The upside? Smaller lakes tend to warm up faster than the big boys (like Lake Washington). The downside? Smaller lakes are more likely to have aquatic plants to dodge. Always check conditions before swimming; sadly there’s been an increase in toxic algae blooms around the Pacific Northwest. If a lake looks pea soup green or has large algae ribbons, follow the water-quality experts’ motto: “When in doubt, stay out.”

Green Lake, Seattle: I swim here all summer long, despite jokes from friends that I’ll sprout a third arm. Contrary to its sullied reputation among some, Greenlake is safe for swimming (unless there’s an algae bloom) and motorboat free. Greenlake sports two lifeguarded areas: the sandy “East Beach” (stand-up paddleboards plus kayak, canoe, pedal, sail and row boats available to rent a short walk up the lakeside path) and the “West Beach” (grass, no sand) by the Bathhouse theater (older kids love the floating docks decked out with diving boards).

Haller Lake, Shoreline: An unlikely North Seattle oasis tucked between I-5 and Aurora that still feels a world apart. Shoreline is private except for public access from N. 125th St where it dead-ends at the lake (east of Densmore Ave. N. Limited parking.) It’s about a 250-foot walk on a crushed rock path to the shoreline (pea gravel, no sand). The sheltered lake often offers glassy conditions. No lifeguards; no motor boats.

Pine Lake, Sammammish: This Sammamish gem has it all (including that unforgettable smell of pine in the sunshine). Lifeguards in summer? Check. Motorboat-fume-free? Check. Playground? Check (including climbing wall). Picnic tables and BBQs? Check. Even free summer concerts Thursday nights. Parking can be limited, a bit of a walk to the lakeshore unless you’re using the boat dock.

Lake Meridian, Kent: This lake in Kent allows powerboats, but the lifeguarded swimming area is completely separate from the rest of the lake. On-site concessions with the all-important ice cream. Good sand area for digging fun. Great waterside playground with an unusual merry-go-round surrounded by a tee-pee like net.

Lake Goodwin, Stanwood: Great especially for little kids, this Stanwood sandy-bottom lake stays shallow enough to sometimes wade out almost all the way to the pier. No lifeguards. Motorboats allowed, but they stay out of the shallows. Lake Goodwin Community Park has sand and playground, too. 

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