The Best Lake Vacations in the Pacific Northwest

Sep 20, 2019

“It’s all about the lake life,” declared Kim Kardashian last summer, when she, hubby Kanye, and their three children rented a “cabin” (i.e. palatial spread) in Coeur d’Alene. And though you may have nothing else in common with her—minus the $11 million in jewelry you travel with, no doubt—this is one vacation idea worth borrowing. Not only is Coeur D'Alene drop-dead gorgeous, it's one of many reasons you should make your way to the Pacific Northwest: From the gloriously isolated Ross Lake near the Canadian border to the impossibly blue waters of Crater Lake in Oregon, these six spots will have you living your best #lakelife.

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Despite being dubbed the “New Hollywood North” (okay, by tabloids), this town of 50,000 on the shores of Lake Coeur D'Alene remains low-key and lovely. Kimye enjoyed skurfing (like waterskiing with a surfboard), huckleberry vodka cocktails (a local favorite) and Gozzer Ranch (a swanky private golf and lake club). And in case the $2 million cabin the family rented isn't available when you're there, consider another lakefront spot that's gotten a lot of press: Coeur D'Alene Resort, a fixture of Conde Nast Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards and Gold List  thanks to the likes of "the Floating Green" (the golf course's 14th hole is an islet you access via electric shuttle) and the lakefront infinity pool. But the true local must-do's are far humbler: cheeseburgers with signature spicy ketchup from Hudson’s Hamburger’s (which started out of a tent in 1907); a stroll along the 3,300-foot floating boardwalk, and casting a line into the lake for rainbow trout, pike and Chinook salmon. You may also want to consider a spin around the lake with Coeur d’Alene Cruises, or a ride along the North Idaho Centennial Trail (you'll find plenty of bike rentals in town). Just bring your binoculars and try to catch sight of osprey through late October, and—from November through March—bald eagles. Of course, you may spot an even rarer bird: a celebrity.

Cascade Lakes, Oregon

Just outside Bend—a happening mountain town smack in the middle of Oregon—sit 14 alpine pools, all seemingly created to serve one purpose: peacing out in nature. Choose one, or see them all on a road trip along the 66-mile Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway. Fun fact: This used to be called the Red Road because it was paved with red volcanic cinders in the 1950s (imagine the gramming ops!). Fortunately, there’s still plenty of Instagold along the drive. A few cases in point: Elk Lake serves up a stellar view of Mt. Bachelor, in addition to year-round recreation ops (if you're here in winter, rent snow shoes or fat tire bikes from Elk Lake Resort, a cozy lakeside spread where you'll want to consider staying, too). Meanwhile, Lucky Lake is a hidden idyll, where the reward for the one-mile hike in is  crystal-clear water surrounded by forest, mountain—and near silence. But if photographers had to pick a favorite, it might be Sparks Lake: Hard to beat the dual-peaked backdrop of South Sister and Broken Top Mountain, especially with a bit of snow, mist and golden hour light. (Note that depending on weather, the Scenic Byway typically closes at Mt. Bachelor sometime in October, but these lakes are still accessible by snowmobile, snowshoes or skis.) 

Ross Lake, Washington

Long before influencers, there were the Beats: intellectual explorers who didn’t ask for lodging without working for it. One of them, Jack Kerouac, spent 63 hermitic days in 1956 atop Desolation Peak, where he worked as a fire lookout and bunked in the most basic of shelters. Still, he had a killer view of Ross Lake, a stunning, 24-mile-long, two-mile-wide expanse of blue that straddles the Canadian border. Of course, even if you’re not planning to write the next great American novel, the fjord-like Ross Lake is where to go if you’re serious about getting away from it all: The only vehicle access is via a 40-mile drive from Canada on a gravel road. An easier way in? Take the Diablo Lake Ferry, then a shuttle operated by the Ross Lake Resort (open through Oct. 31), whose waterfront cabins are decidedly cozier than Kerouac's old digs, as you'll see if you head up to Desolation Peak. Mind you, the hike involves a 3,500-foot elevation gain, but comes with epic views and literary cred.

Crater Lake, Oregon

What’s the bluest blue you’ve ever seen? We’ll bet you Crater Lake is even bluer. It also seems bottomless—at nearly 2,000 feet, it’s America’s deepest lake. While you likely won’t be plumbing its depths, the lake is still well worth the detour to south-central Oregon. Just getting here is an experience: from I-5, the meandering drive east will take you past a number of waterfalls (one not to miss: Toketee Falls—a two-tiered, 113-foot cascade backed by soaring basalt columns). When you arrive, hole up at the historic Crater Lake Lodge, which dates to 1915 (13 years after Teddy Roosevelt made Crater Lake the nation's sixth national park). Book well in advance for a boat excursion to Wizard Island, a 763-foot volcanic cinder cone topped by a mini-crater known as the Witches Cauldron. Here, you can climb the moderately challenging Summit Trail for a 360-degree view of the ultimate #nofilter lake.

Lake Quinault, Washington

On October 1, 1937, an obviously famished President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped at the Lake Quinault Lodge for a lunchtime feast of olives, pickled peaches, clam chowder, boiled Chinook salmon, whipped potatoes, green peas, cottage cheese, currant jelly, hot rolls and wild blackberry pie. The meal—along with views of Canada geese gliding over the lake—must have made an impression: Nine months later, FDR signed a bill designating the area Olympic National Park. The menu items have changed, but the views from what is now known as the FDR dining room have not. The lake, owned by the Quinault Indian Nation and set at the south end of the park, is surrounded by old-growth rainforest, where you might spot a herd of Roosevelt Elk (named after FDR’s cousin Teddy)—particularly if you take the lodge's four-hour tour. But definitely have a just-in-case poncho on hand. Not for nothing is this called a rainforest. 

Mt. Hood Territory, Oregon

Mention Mt. Hood, an 11,249-foot, snow-crowned beauty just an hour outside Portland, and most travelers will immediately think winter sports (there's year-round skiing and snowboarding here). But the cluster of stunning alpine lakes nearby, many with superb views of the mountain, are gorgeous year-round. The iconic Timberline Lodge—a Depression-era WPA Project built from native stone and timber—makes for a great home base. You can explore a different lake each day, but if you're going to hit only a couple, don't miss Timothy Lake (there's a stunning, 16-mile bike path) or Mirror Lake (as the name would suggest, this is the ideal place to capture Mt. Hood's ridiculously pretty reflection). Whichever lakes you choose to explore, leaving at day's end is always tough...until you remember the towering fireplace back at the lodge, and the second-story balcony bar that circles the old stone chimney.  

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