Idaho is known internationally for its abundant, free-flowing rivers, but that sometimes means its amazing lakes and reservoirs are overlooked. In every region of the state, there are lakes with postcard scenery, cool, clean water and lots of fun things to do.
If you haven’t experienced them, you are missing out on a fantastic part of Idaho’s outdoors. They can be great weekend outings or extended trips, but don’t expect to see everything about a particular lake in the first outing. That’s the beauty of large lakes. There’s a lot to discover.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, or even a top-five list, but these are spectacular places to visit and are worthy of your time and effort to get to them.
Lake Pend Oreille: This North Idaho lake is the "Lake Superior" of Idaho’s great lakes. It's the largest at 43 miles long, includes 111 miles of shoreline and is 1,100 feet deep. But those facts are almost dwarfed by its scenic splendor and rich history. Let’s start with submarines, because genuine naval submarines have plied its waters, and a generation of sailors underwent basic training on its shore. It now offers hundreds of lake-front homes, parks, campgrounds and marinas. Sandpoint is a gem of a resort town that serves as an excellent base.
Redfish Lake: The scenery alone makes this worth the trip to Stanley; in fact, it’s arguably the most iconic spot in Idaho with the lake in the foreground and the jagged Sawtooth Mountains providing a majestic backdrop. Add the historic lodge and lakeside camping (reservations are easier to get in September), and you have a true Idaho classic. You owe yourself and your family a trip there, but beware—fall weather comes early in Stanley. If you plan to camp, watch the forecast and expect chilly mornings and maybe have a backup plan because September snowstorms are a possibility.
Bear Lake: This large lake straddles the Idaho/Utah line in the southeastern corner. It’s known as the “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its brilliant blue water. This natural lake is home to four fish species found nowhere else in the world: Bonneville cisco, Bonneville whitefish, Bear Lake whitefish and Bear Lake sculpin. The lake is also home to trophy-sized cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and lake trout. The lake is popular for waterskiing, swimming, sailing and personal watercraft, as well as nearby recreation activities ranging from caving to golf to ATV riding.
Payette Lake: There’s no doubt it is beautiful, but so are many other Idaho lakes. What makes it great is that McCall is also a perfect resort town to complement it. You can luxuriate in first-class, lake-side accommodations at Shore Lodge or pitch a tent at Ponderosa State Park. The lake is popular with boaters (no surprise) but there’s also a variety of other recreation opportunities nearby that make Payette Lake and McCall a favorite destination for outdoors folks.
Lake Walcott: One might argue the nearby (and larger) American Falls Reservoir deserves this spot, but I have a soft spot for Lake Walcott east of Rupert because it’s a big reservoir that feels smaller. If you want to troll from a motorboat or just cruise around, you have 15,000 acres to do so. But the north shore adjacent to Lake Walcott State Park has miles of coves that beg to be explored in a kayak or canoe. The park offers nice shoreline camping with rustic cabins for rent, as well as traditional campsites for tents and RVs. The Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge encompasses most of the lake and shoreline, and where the arid land meets abundant water, there’s an explosion of wildlife.