15 of the Most Crystal-Clear Hidden Gem Lakes in the U.S.
Dip your toes into some of these under-the-radar lakes.
As the weather warms up across the U.S., many travelers are locking down their plans to flock to the crystal clear cooling waters of some of the most beautiful lakes across the U.S. Instead of spending time at a crowded lakeshore, here are a collection of some of the most “off-the-beaten-path” alternatives that offer a lesser-known location to enjoy a getaway. These 15 lakes feature a diverse collection of opportunities to enjoy a proper cooldown (sans crowds) all while showcasing the gorgeous views of nearby local natural scenery.
Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake’s cooler mountain temperatures, scenic beauty, and wide range of outdoor recreational offerings are just a few of this Southern California destination’s standout features. Travelers can embark on a trip to Big Bear Lake to explore its hundreds of miles of mountainous trails, its 22 miles of lake shoreline, or its deep blue waters. Partake in a water activity like boating, fishing, or paddleboarding. After a day in the SoCal sunshine, wind down in a range of lodging options including resort cabins, hotels, B&Bs, or vacation homes. Big Bear’s classic lakeside charm makes it a fantastic freshwater destination to “beat the heat” for travelers of any age.
Rebecca Rimmer Photography
WHERE: South Carolina
Lake Jocassee sits in the heart of the spectacular Jocassee Gorges, located in the far northwestern corner of South Carolina. This 7,565 acre, 385-foot deep reservoir is nestled into Devil’s Fork State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina and is known for its undeveloped shoreline and clear waters. Here, visitors can dive into some of the cleanest and clearest waters of the Southeast–up to 50 feet at some depths. Divers can see the old Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery, remnants of a deserted hotel, a church cemetery, and even a basketball court lurking beneath the water’s surface. Those who prefer to stay dry can explore the shady forest lands along the Oconee Bells Nature Trail, Bear Cove Trail, or the Foothills Trail. Visitors who want to prolong their stay can book a villa in the park, or a standard camping site to extend the trip.
Fed by Eklutna Glacier, the icy, clear blue glacial waters of Eklutna Lake are just under an hour from Anchorage and easily accessible for travelers of all ages and interests. This lake boasts 15 miles of stunning shoreline and is nestled between the awe-inspiring Chugach Mountains. Visitors can admire Eklutna Lake’s natural beauty on a leisurely walk, bike ride, or ATV ride, along the Eklutna Lake Trail. Those who are feeling more adventurous can hike Twin Peaks Trail for an “elevated” view. Eklutna Lake is also a great destination for camping, fishing, and kayak rentals in the summer months. History and culture buffs can catch a glimpse of Eklutna’s interesting heritage at the nearby Eklutna Historical Park, which offers education into the blend of Russian Orthodox and Dena’ina Athabascan traditions in the area. Set home base in Anchorage, which hosts a generous selection of accommodations.
Caples Lake, Silver Lake, Kirkwood Lake, Shealer Lakes
When most people think of NorCal lakes, a first to come to mind is the beloved Lake Tahoe–but what people don’t realize is there’s a whole host of undiscovered alpine lakes surrounding this better-known gem. Caples Lake, Silver Lake, Kirkwood Lake, Shealer Lakes are just a few bodies of water that are well worth adventuring outside of the waters of Lake Tahoe itself. South Lake Tahoe’s Hope Valley region is an under-the-radar destination that’s perfect for discovering a plethora of incredible hidden gem alpine lakes galore. Set home base somewhere like the uncrowded Wylder Hope Valley, a newly opened 65-acre all-season alpine resort to explore this pristine nature area. It’s close enough to civilization to feel connected–while far enough away to be able to make the choice to fully disconnect.
WHERE: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
String Lake is located in Grand Teton National Park where the mountains literally meet the water, making for fantastic reflective views of the towering peaks. Visitors can bring a paddleboat or stand-up paddleboard to get out on the water where the beauty of the lake is as clear as the waters. Set a home base either at a campground in the park or in the nearby town of Jackson, at The Lodge at Jackson Hole, where visitors will encounter an experience that feels as elevated as the nearby mountains.
WHERE: Taos, New Mexico
When people think of New Mexico, oftentimes they think of desert terrain–but high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Taos perches the impressive Williams Lake. This natural, glacial alpine lake sits just below Wheeler Peak in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness of Carson National Forest, and can easily be reached by traveling along the Williams Lake Trail from the trailhead in Taos Ski Valley. The walk is worth the views of the lake and its majestic surrounding peaks. Those who want to extend their experience can set home base as the Village of Taos Ski Valley which hosts a range of accommodations from quaint cabins, to chalets to slopeside hotels, condos, and comfy bed and breakfasts to relax in, after a day of lakeside adventure.
Nestled in the heart of the picturesque Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas, Beaver Lake is a hidden gem tucked away in the town of Eureka Springs. This lake showcases 28,000 acres of crystal clear waters that extend throughout northwest Arkansas. The lake is host to a variety of adventures, and visitors can expect to enjoy a relaxing, slower pace while living the “lake lifestyle. Travelers can go bass fishing, birdwatching, hiking, and partake in various types of watersports. Travelers can set Eureka Springs as home base for the adventure and appreciate the many lodging options this historic town has to offer–from cozy treehouse cottages and adorable bed and breakfasts to famously haunted historic hotels and retreats.
Green Lakes State Park
WHERE: New York
Green Lakes State Park in the Finger Lakes region of New York hosts two spectacular glacial lakes well worth exploiting, surrounded by lush upland forest terrain. Both Round Lake and Green Lake are “meromictic lakes”–which means that there is no seasonal mixing of the different waters on the surface and bottom of the lake. This means the lakes host a range of unique plant and animal life. Set home base as one of the local campsites, or in one of the nearby city of Syracuse, which is located in the Finger Lakes region (the more publicized of these two New York lake areas) and offers a host of alternative accommodation offerings such as cozy B&Bs and cabins.
There’s no need to travel to the Caribbean with Clear Lake in Oregon offering similarly gorgeous blue waters right in the heart of the Pacific Northwest. This lake formed more than 3,000 years ago and is known for its remarkably translucent, crystal waters and thriving underwater forest (yes, you read that correctly!). The unseen subwater terrain provides scuba divers with one of the most exceptional freshwater diving spots in the United States and with visibility to the bottom in more than 100 feet in some areas. Visitors can stay at Coldwater Cove Campground, which is open from late May to mid-October and offers amenities including a general store, boat ramp, and a seasonal restaurant. Nearby Clear Lake Resort also offers boat rentals, cabins, and a restaurant that’s open all year-round.
Wyatt Pace / EugeneCascadesCoast.org
The hidden gem of McGregor Lake is located just 90 minutes outside Glacier National Park, between the towns of Libby and Kalispell. This gem is set against the backdrop of the Flathead National Forest and the Flathead Valley wilderness areas. It’s a clean, spring-fed lake with an impressive 1,522 acres of surface area. What makes this lake “crystal clear,” is its icy temperatures, which keep out the plants and algae life that would otherwise cloud the waters. The area of Flathead Valley is known for its sizable population of working artists who are drawn (and rightly so!) to the striking natural beauty of this relatively isolated region. There’s a range of overnight accommodation options available including The Lodge at McGregor Lake, campgrounds, or the relatively nearby town of Kalispell.
cclark395 [CC BY-NC 2.0]/Flickr
Jenny Lake, Wyoming, in Grand Teton National Park hosts an unchallenging but gorgeous walk around a flat perimeter with easy access via a scenic shuttle service across the waters. Here, visitors can admire the alpine beauty of these glassy cerulean waters and reflect on the importance of protecting the wildlife and picturesque sights of rural Wyoming. Visitors can set their home base as Snow King Resort, which is located right in the heart of Jackson Hole–and serves as an ideal location for exploring the bustling downtown village area while also offering easy access to the wild nature of the Grand Tetons.
Gifford Lake within the Olallie Lakes
A crown gem among the 200-lake Olallie Lakes scenic area between Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson in Marion County, Oregon, Gifford Lake showcases aqua-blue colored waters and fantastic campsites that host 270-degree views of private-island feeling seclusion. Getting here is especially notable–it involves following a secret path that doesn’t exist on most topographic maps. Adventurers can start at the Lower Lake Trailhead and then take a left at the four-way intersection past Lower Lake, before hiking less than a half-mile more until they reach a tree marred by hatchet marks. Then, follow the overgrown trail on the left a few hundred feet to reach this unspoiled paradise. Bring lunch and a hammock to relax and fully enjoy gorgeous views, or swim in the clear turquoise water for an unmatched, uncrowded experience and a pristine day spent by the lake.
Note: Gifford Lake is currently closed due to the wildfires last year but the area is slated to open back up this year, so to check back at their website.
Idaho’s Priest Lake is a lesser-known lake in the state, but those who do know it appreciate it for its exceptionally clear waters which are fed by streams cascading from the high Selkirk peaks. Travelers can explore this magnificent 23,000-acre azure lake nestled beneath the majestic Selkirk Mountains, known as one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the U.S. The main body of Priest Lake extends for 19 miles, located in the northernmost portion of the Idaho panhandle. Considered by many as “Idaho’s Crown Jewel,” this northern lake area is truly a natural wonderland offering an unspoiled, uncrowded, and unhurried adventure. Those who want to extend their trip can book a night at The Lodges at Cavanaugh’s, which offers unparalleled access to the finest sights on the lake–as well as a restaurant and a concierge to expertly organize a range of unforgettable experiences.
Higgins Lake is one of Michigan’s most beautiful inland lakes, known for its size, clear waters, and seclusion. Hosting has 21 miles of shoreline and two state parks on its shore, this lake offers multiple boat launch sites and a large stretch of well-preserved shoreline. Here, visitors will encounter sights of incredible sunrises and sunsets, as well as activities like fishing, boating and swimming. This lake is often overshadowed by the nearby larger and more popular Houghton Lake just a few miles south, but travelers who set the Roscommon area as homebase can experience both lakes (while sneaking away to Higgins to avoid the larger crowds).