We had a blast back this fall thinking about our favorite lakes in the Northeast—so much so that we decided to give it a second go, this time focusing out our beloved Midwest. Arguably the king of American boating culture, the Midwestern region’s lakes offer a stunning array of possibilities for on-the-water fun. The geography of the region lends itself to giant watersheds filled with the perfect combination of motorboat-friendly open water plus protected coves and bays and shallow rivers connecting them all together. There’s just nothing else like it in the country, and we’re excited to share our favorites - read on for our top 5 Midwest Lakes to visit!
Lake of the Ozarks
This 14,000 square mile behemoth of a lake in the Ozarks region of central Missouri has some impressive stats: 1,150 miles of shoreline and over 54,000 acres of surface area. That’s some serious territory for summer exploring from a boat! The lake’s unique, serpentine shape stems from an equally unique backstory: it’s actually a massive reservoir formed when Union Electric Co impounded the Osage River and three other smaller river systems to create hydroelectric power for the entire region. Unlike most man-made lakes, it’s not publicly owned or managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. That private ownership has led to its reputation as a midwestern vacationland with more than 70,000 lake-side cottages and 5 million annual visitors flocking to its shoreline resorts, bars, marinas, and booze cruises. There’s something for everyone: you can open up the throttle on an amazing 93 mile long stretch of lake, quietly explore the smaller tributaries in a kayak, take in a round of golf, or enjoy a picnic at numerous state parks and conservation areas that have been created through donated land since the Osage was dammed in 1929. The Lake of the Ozarks is a world all on its own—and you’re missing out if you’ve never taken a watery adventure along its shores.
Elk River Chain of Lakes
Though significantly smaller than Lake of the Ozarks, this watershed in the northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is still quite impressive: it’s a meandering waterway created by 14 interconnected lakes and rivers. From its starting point in the uppermost lake in Echo Township, water flows more than 55 miles and drops 40 feet, ultimately emptying into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. That mighty journey across the Elk River Chain of Lakes fuels the adventurousness of the region’s boaters—though Elk Lake and Torch Lake are big enough for some serious speed, the real fun is the endless twists and turns of the smaller ponds and rivers that are picture perfect for early morning outing in a canoe. In fact, with the exception of a single dam in Bellaire about halfway down the watershed, nearly the entirety of the 14 lakes and rivers are navigable with a small boat. When you’re ready for a bit more excitement after a serene paddle, there’s certainly plenty to go around; Torch Lake has a summer-long fete on its famous sandbar, and Elk Rapids along Grand Traverse Bay has a vacation ready quorum of hotels and dockside bars.
A sprawling chain of glacial kettle lakes connected by marshland and shallow channels, Lake Minnetonka’s irregular shape immediately sticks out when looking at a map of Minnesota. Just 15 miles West of Minneapolis, the lake has a sizable impact on tourism spending and the larger economy of the Minneapolis suburbs. Some of the state’s most beautiful summer homes are perched along Lake Minnetonka. It’s a dream to explore, too: 18 islands, an upper and lower half, 125 miles of shoreline, and countless marshes are beckoning for some summer recreation. Despite all those shallow areas, its sections of open water can get as deep as 113 feet and there’s plenty of room for motor boats, sailing, and everything in between. With four active yacht clubs, numerous lake-side parks and gardens, and an up-and-coming dining scene heavily influenced by both hip restaurants in Minneapolis and summer resorts, Lake Minnetonka is as much fun off the water as on it. A rich history of streamliners, now long gone, still impacts the lake’s culture of summer luxury and escape—large cruise vessels with sightseeing tours, brunch cruises, and dinner excursions. Lake Minnetonka is a year-round getaway for fun, too: ice fishing, ice yachting, and snowmobiling draw enormous crowds and tourists from all over the region during the winter months.
Nestled between Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Appleton, Lake Winnebago is the epitome of Wisconsin’s family-friendly boating culture. Among Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes, Winnebago is the largest one entirely within the state at around 10 miles long and 30 miles wide. Despite the size, it remains pleasantly shallow—a maximum depth of 21 feet. It used to be even shallower, too; though Winnebago isn’t man-made, it was artificially deepened by nearly three feet by the construction of two dams between 1850 and 1930. It’s an important center for tourism, conservation, drinking water for more than 250,000 people, and loads of recreational boating fun. In fact, the larger Winnebago Pool watershed—of which Lake Winnebago is undoubtedly the crown jewel—consistently ranks as the state’s busiest waterway, surpassing even the Mississippi River. With its shallow footprint and dozens of shoreline campgrounds and parks, Lake Winnebago is the quintessential summer getaway for a family vacation. There’s even an amusement park and petting zoo if the kids need a day to dry out from all that swimming.The fishing, too, is spectacular in and around the Winnebago Pool, with many local anglers considering it a top destination for walleye. The country’s largest annual freshwater fishing tournament takes place on Lake Winnebago, and the sport draws in more than 300 million for the local economy. And the fun doesn’t stop just because summer ends: the winter season welcomes more than 10,000 cars onto the lake for ice fishing derbies.
Just north of Baxter and Brainerd, Gull Lake is one of Minnesota’s most coveted locations for summer homes and lakeside real estate. Though smaller than some of the region’s freshwater giants, Gull Lake’s shoreline has been built up with luxurious cabins and rustic getaways like no other—for every mile of shore there’s on average 27 cottages or homes. And it’s not just residential, either; Gull Lake hosts 19 resorts ranging from sporting lodges for fishing and recreation to well-appointed hotels with stately great rooms and stonework patios where you can watch the sunset over the lake. The tourists attractions don’t just end there either: there’s breweries, mini golf, spas, raceways, yoga centers, and family fun centers with water slides. If it’s a reasonable means of relaxing for a weekend away from the city, Gull Lake has it. It distills everything good about midwestern lake and boating culture into one pristine body of water—the fishing, the family-friendly resorts and cabins, the mindset of slowing down and cooling off during a hot summer day, the excitement, the quiet, and the spirit of outdoor adventure. When we say honor the boat: Gull Lake is exactly what we have in mind!