Best Lakes In Idaho To Enjoy A Summer Vacation Or Camping Holiday

The lakes in Idaho are arguably some of the most beautiful in the nation. With summer just around the corner, there is no better time to start planning a lakeside jaunt to one of these beautiful destinations in Idaho.

Pettit Lake, Idaho

This guide to Idaho’s best lakes covers everything you need to know to decide which is the perfect destination for you. Listed from north to south, we’ve covered exactly where to find these summer retreats, what makes each destination worthy of being on this list, the highlights at each place, and where to stay, swim, boat, and camp!

Starting in Idaho’s panhandle through to central Idaho, and then down to the state’s southern plains, you’ll discover the best spots for family vacations, camping holidays, and fishing trips.

There’s no better way to enjoy those hot summer days than by spending it lakeside with family and friends. These freshwater escapes are ideal for anyone looking to spend a few days on the water or for fishermen who want to catch a prize-winning trout.

From the largest and deepest lakes in Idaho to dazzling alpine pools, you’ll no doubt be impressed by the Gem State’s jaw-dropping natural beauty. Many of the lakes in Idaho are surrounded by majestic mountain peaks and verdant forests which themselves beg to be explored so be sure to set aside enough days to take pleasure in lake activities and take advantage of the world-class hiking opportunities.

Here is our guide to the best lakes in Idaho to enjoy a summer getaway where you can swim, paddle, cast a line, or do nothing but relax lakeside with a cold drink in hand.

Best Lakes In Idaho

Priest Lake

Priest Lake is located in the most northern portion of Idaho’s panhandle and lies under 20-miles south from the Canadian border. It sits at the base of the Selkirk Mountains and is surrounded by mile-high mountains covered in dense forests of cedar, fir, and tamarack trees.

This under-the-radar summer destination offers loads of natural Northern Idaho beauty! The lake is highly regarded for its extremely clear water fed by numerous streams that cascade down from the surrounding peaks. Its clear water is surprisingly warm in the summer months and is perfect for swimming and other lake activities.

Priest Lake is not only a beautiful place, but it’s also very peaceful as it is less commercialized than other summer destinations in Idaho. Although the campgrounds and small number of resorts do get busy during the summer, it’s not hard to escape holiday-makers here. The 19-mile long lake offers plenty of secluded white sandy beaches to enjoy and numerous hiking and biking trails to get lost on.

Adventurous folk can visit Upper Priest Lake which is connected to Priest Lake via a two-mile thoroughfare. The wild and remote upper lake which can only be accessed by foot or boat, is totally worth visiting if you have the time and energy.

Priest Lake State Park which is situated along the eastern shores of Priest Lake, is the most popular place for camping at Priest Lake. There are two campgrounds here; Indian Creek Campground and Lion Head Campground.

Indian Creek Campground is the largest offering 150 campsites that can accommodate RVs and tents. You’ll find clean restrooms with flushing toilets and hot showers at this campground. There is also a small store selling groceries, camping supplies, clothing and gift items. This area offers a nice beach with shallow water for swimming, hiking trails, and huckleberry picking!

The Lion Head Campground is located a few miles north of Indian Creek. Campsites here are primitive with no electrical hook-ups. The sites are also much smaller and first-come first-served only. This tranquil campground has a less-crowded beach. Keep in mind the last three miles to this campground are unpaved.

One of Idaho’s best kept secrets is the natural rock waterslide which can be found not too far from Lion Head. To reach the rock slides, you’ll need to hike a few miles and cross a creek but the trail is easy and so worth it!

Fishing At Priest Lake: Within Priest Lake’s 23,000 acres of freshwater, fishermen can catch smallmouth bass, cutthroat trout, lake trout, bluegill, pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow perch and kokanee salmon. This lake is also renown for its large population of Mackinaw so anglers have the opportunity to catch a prize-winning trout!

Boating At Priest Lake: Whether you’re looking to rent a fishing boat for the week, got your heart set on sipping margaritas from a pontoon boat, or prefer something smaller that requires phyiscal activity like a kayak or paddleboard, you’ll find several places to rent watercraft from no matter which side of Priest Lake you choose to stay.

Elkins Resort on the lake’s upper western shores offer a variety of boat rentals including Boston Whalers, pontoon boats, and open-bow runabouts. They’ve also got stand-up paddleboards, canoes, kayaks, wakeboards, water skis, inner tubes, and life jackets.

Blue Diamond Marina on the lake’s eastern shoreline offers boat rentals too from May to October. Here you’ll find luxury ski boats, pontoon party boats, fishing boats, jet skis, canoes, single and tandem kayaks, and paddleboards.

Where To Stay At Priest Lake: Elkins Resort on Priest Lake’s western shores has 30 cedar log cabins to choose from ranging in size from two bedrooms up to six bedrooms each featuring a fireplace and nice views. The beautiful property has so much to offer including a sandy beach with Adirondack chairs at the water’s edge and multiple firepits to roast marshmallows in the evenings.

Even if you don’t end up staying at this resort, you at least must visit the resort’s restaurant and bar for their fabulous food and drinks. They’ve got huckleberry pancakes for breakfast, and for lunch, wings with huckleberry dipping sauce and the best pulled pork nachos! If you like gourmet burgers, you’ll love the options here which include brisket burgers topped with in-house corned beef, al pastor sandwiches with citrus avocado crema, and chicken burgers with bacon, brie, and apricot mostarda.

For dinner you can choose from tri tip, chicken and waffles, seafood etouffee, salmon, ribeye, and wild Alaskan halibut. Everything here is absolutely delicious.

The drinks are where they really shine here as they have a variety of locally-inspired twists on classic cocktails like huckleberry Long Island iced tea, huckleberry margaritas, and huckleberry daiquiris.

Blue Diamond Marina & Resort located on the eastern side of the lake also offers lakeside lodging along with a waterfront restaurant specializing in northwest cuisine, fine wines, and craft beers.

Lake Pend Oreille

Best Lakes In Idaho For A Summer Vacation: Lake Pend Orielle
Photo by Visit Sandpoint

At 43-miles long, Lake Pend Oreille is the largest lake in Idaho. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the USA; there are only four other lakes deeper than Lake Pend Oreille.

This glacially-formed lake is surrounded by deep-green forests and three mountain ranges; the mountains to the east are the Green Monarchs, to the north are the Cabinet Mountains, to the northwest are the Selkirk Mountains, and to the southwest the Coeur d’Alene Mountains.

Tucked away in northern Idaho, Lake Pend Oreille is a popular summer vacation destination and a fishing mecca. The area boasts endless outdoor opportunities that include hiking, mountain biking, and water activities to help you cool off on the hottest of summer days.

Sandpoint, situated on the lake’s northern shores, is the main tourist hub for visiting Lake Pend Oreille. This is where you’ll find a plethora of lodging options including affordable hotels and lakeside condos. There are also some great restaurants and bars here!

Besides Sandpoint, the majority of Lake Pend Oreille’s shoreline is undeveloped, however the southern tip is home to Bayview and Farragut State Park. Bayview is a peaceful place perfect for relaxing and romantic escapes. There are several houseboat home rentals here and gorgeous lakeside cabin rentals like this cozy lakeside cabin on three acres, and this beautiful four-bedroom lakehouse with sweeping views. If you’d prefer to maximize your time outdoors, you’ll find campgrounds at Farragut State Park.

Fishing At Lake Pend Oreille: The fishing is fabulous at Lake Pend Oreille. There aren’t many lakes in the world where you can expect to catch trout pushing 30 pounds. Lake Pend Oreille is home to the legendary Kamloops, a giant species of trout that is on the bucket list for many fishermen.

Kamloops are a Gerrard-strain of rainbow trout, indigenous to the fertile waters of Canada’s Lake Kootenay, a deep glacial lake southeast of Kamloops. They are shaped like oversized chinook salmon with humped backs, small heads, and massive tails. These monster fish now thrive in the deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille. Other popular species to fish for here include kokanee salmon and lake trout.

Boating At Lake Pend Oreille: There are many boat launches around the lake including in Sandpoint, Bayview and Hope. Several businesses offer boat rentals along with other watercraft such as jet skis, pontoon boats and kayaks at the marina in Sandpoint.

Where To Stay At Lake Pend Oreille: The best place to stay in Sandpoint are these lakefront condos that feature a downtown location, private sandy beach, and year-round heated outdoor pool.

One of the nicest hotels in Sandpoint is the Best Western Edgewater Resort which features a lakeside location, indoor swimming pool, and cozy onsite restaurant. The best affordable hotels in the area are Fairbridge Inn & Suites and Hotel Ruby (in Ponderay).

>>Read: These Affordable Lakeside Vacation Homes In Sandpoint Will Make Your Northern Idaho Experience That Much Better

Payette Lake

Payette Lake In Idaho
Photo: Source

Payette Lake is a glittering jewel in southern Idaho. This glacially formed lake which sits at an elevation of 5,000 feet can be found in the mountain town of McCall. Due to its close proximity to Boise, the state’s capital city, this is one of the most popular lakes in Idaho to visit for summer break.

From the moment you step foot in downtown McCall, you’ll be mesmerized by the dazzling lake and spectacular surrounding mountain scenery. Although this destination is stunning year-round, summer is the best time of year to visit McCall.

This popular summer destination is not only known for its scenic shoreline, but also for its limitless outdoor recreation. The lake’s exceptionally clean glacial waters are perfect for a host of water activities including swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, wakeboarding, and other boat activities. Watercraft rentals are available from the Mile High Marina located in downtown McCall.

There are several sandy beaches but North Beach is the largest public sandy beach on the lake. The 630-acre North Beach area of Payette Lake is a great spot for canoing on the Payette River as this is where the river empties into Payette Lake. It’s also a great spot for wildlife viewing and where you might see deer, elk, fox, bald eagles, bears, and even moose!

The hiking in McCall is too good to be true. There are many hiking trails around the lake that will allow you to explore the unspoiled beauty of the surrounding national forest. Mountain biking here is also fantastic because the terrain is anything but boring! From forest service roads to single track trails, you’ll find plenty of well-maintained bike tracks to suit all levels of riders. Highly recommended is the 16-mile Payette Lake Loop, which offers good road biking all the way around except for a short portion at the north end of the lake. A good side trip on this journey is a ride down Lick Creek Road on the east side to check out Little Payette Lake.

Ponderosa State Park on the lake’s peninsula protects 1,000 acres of wilderness and offers plenty of natural beauty. You’ll find a range of lodging options here including a campground, cabins, and yurts. The campground is open from May through October. There is a second campground at the North Beach Area which has 22 first-come first-served campsites.

Fishing At Payette Lake: Payette Lake offers fishing for smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, kokanee salmon, and yellow perch, however lake trout are the dominant species here. Anglers can easily fish from the shoreline or a small boat.

Boating At Payette Lake: Public access to Payette Lake is plentiful through state and city parks and launching your own boat is easy compared to many other lakeside resorts. The City of McCall operates a public boat launch at the Mile High Marina with minimal waits and adequate parking for trailers.

At Mile High Marina, visitors can rent a variety of watercraft including surf and runabout boats (includes gear and tube), pontoon boats, jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards. Runabout boats are perfect for tubing and cruising around the lake, while the surf boats are designed for wakeboarding. Reservations can be made online with a 50% deposit.

Where To Stay In McCall: The two top-rated hotels in McCall are the Best Western Plus and Holiday Inn Express. Both offer buffett breakfast and indoor pools but the Best Western also has a sauna.

If you would prefer a vacation home, McCall has plenty to choose from! This log cabin in the woods and cabin near downtown are the best options for couples looking for an affordable stay. For families, take a look at this gorgeous riverside property aptly named “The River House” which sleeps six people. The super cute “Carlson Cabin” which sleeps eight people also offers teriffic river and forest views. See all vacation homes in McCall here.

Redfish Lake

Redfish Lake In Central Idaho

Have you ever had the pleasure of escaping to the Sawtooth Mountains? No? Well, a summer trip to Redfish Lake is the perfect introduction to this stunning alpine wilderness destination.

The breathtaking area is home to towering jagged mountain peaks, breathtaking alpine lakes, crystal-clear rivers, natural hot springs, and more.

Redfish Lake is the largest lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and is a wonderful place to take advantage of warm summer days and fresh mountain air. The lake is comprised entirely of snowmelt which means its waters are some of the clearest you’ll ever see! It was named after the sockeye salmon which were once abundant in the lake’s waters, so much so that Redfish Lake shimmered red during spawning season.

You can find Redfish Lake in central Idaho, only five miles south from the adventure mountain town of Stanley. It’s a great stop for anyone on a driving tour of Sawtooth Scenic Byway or road tripping through central Idaho.

The main attraction at Redfish Lake, besides the surreal alpine scenery, is Redfish Lake Lodge, a charming rustic lodge that first opened in 1929. The lodge offers accommodation, a lovely restaurant with qaulity food, and best of all — a massive front porch complete with rocking chairs to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning or to watch sunset from in the afternoons.

Of course there is no shortage of lakelife fun here and visitors can enjoy swimming, sunbathing, boating, and even guided tours of the lake. Tours depart from the main dock three times a day at 10am, 1pm, and 3.30pm. The cost is $20.00 for adults and $5.00 for children.

Hiking in the area is phenomenal. The Sawtooth Wilderness undoubtedly offers some of the best hiking trails in Idaho. Take advantage of your stay at Redfish Lake by exploring some of the nearby trails that will lead you deep into the Sawtooth Wilderness such as the Bench Lakes Trail, Goat Lake Trail, and the popular Sawtooth Lake Trail.

If you enjoy horseback-riding, be sure to visit the Redfish Corrals which is located less than half a mile from Redfish Lake. Operated by Mystic Saddles, you can experience the Rocky Mountains of Idaho in true cowboy fashion on guided trail rides through mountain meadows, lodgepole pine forests and mountain ridges. They offer several options such as this short loop around Little Redfish Lake, a half day ride to Bench Lakes, and full day rides to Marshall Lake and Alice Lake.

Fishing At Redfish Lake: The Sandy Beach Boat Ramp offers some of the best fishing on Redfish Lake. You’ll find the ramp on the eastern shore of the lake along with a beach that runs up to the Redfish Outlet Campground. Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to fish here, especially when there is little boat traffic coming in and out of the lake. Redfish Lake Creek Inlet near the southern end of the lake is another good spot to fish. Anglers can catch sockeye salmon, chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout.

Boating At Redfish Lake: The Redfish Lake Lodge Marina is the only marina on Redfish Lake. They provide visitors with a range of motorized and non-motorized boat rentals including kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, pontoon boats, and motorboats. See prices here.

Where To Stay At Redfish Lake: The only lodging at Redfish Lake is Redfish Lake Lodge who offer a range of rustic lakeside accommodations. Choose from standard motel-style rooms or lake suites that have master bedrooms and sitting areas. They also have stand-alone log cabins that were built in the 1930s which feature king-sized beds, kitchens, dining tables, bath tubs, a fireplace, and private deck. There are also several campgrounds situated around Redfish Lake.

>>Read: 15 Adventurous Things To Do In Stanley, Idaho

Pettit Lake

Pettit Lake in Idaho

Pettit Lake sits at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains and can lay claim to being the third largest lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. This pristine glacier-made lake sits at an elevation of 6,996 feet and is surrounded by magnificent mountain peaks that provide a spectacular backdrop.

Photographers will no doubt love taking pictures of the lake’s remarkable turqoise-green body of water with the craggy peaks of the Sawtooths in the background. One of the best places to view Pettit Lake is from the day use area situated on the east side of the lake. This is where you’ll find a small beach, picnic area, and restrooms.

This is a popular jumping off point for backpacking trips into the Sawtooth Wilderness. In fact, some of the best hiking and backpacking trails in the Sawtooth Recreation Area can be accessed from Pettit Lake such as the hike to Alice Lake and the hike to Toxaway Lake, two other very beautiful lakes in Idaho.

Because the area is largely undeveloped, this destination is best suited for visitors looking for a peaceful camping experience and anyone looking to go off-grid for a few days.

Pettit Lake is located an hour north of Ketchum, just two miles west off Highway 75 on Forest Road 208. Keep an eye out for road signs pointing you in the right direction.

Pettit Lake In Idaho
Bring your pool toys to enjoy Pettit Lake!

Fishing At Pettit Lake: Fishermen will find a variety of fish here including coho salmon, sockeye salmon, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and steelhead trout. Whether you’re fly fishing, baitcasting or spinning, your chances of getting a bite here are good. So grab your favorite fly fishing rod and reel, and head out to Pettit Lake

Boating At Pettit Lake: Only non-motorized vehicles are allowed on Petitt Lake. However there are no rental facilities nearby so you’ll have to bring your own kayaks, paddleboards, or other water toys.

Where To Stay At Pettit Lake: There is a small campground (Pettit Lake Campground) on the north side of the lake near Tin Cup Trailhead. This campground is first-come first-served only. Occupancy limit is ten days in a 30 day period.

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