The 15 Best Lakes, Rivers, and Other Watering Holes in New England

Let the tourists have the Craigville crowds and Crane Beach greenheads. When the weather heats up in the summer, savvy New Englanders know the real fun is inland. Whether you’re looking for a hidden gem or a cherished destination, here are 15 spots for families, adventurers, and anyone looking to cool off.

Edited by Brittany Jasnoff, with Kara Baskin, Abby Bielagus, Madeline Bilis, and Jamie Ducharme


best lakes rivers new england

A natural thrill ride: whitewater rafting along the Kennebec with the tour company Three Rivers. / Courtesy Photo

I’m looking for…
Family-Friendly Fun
Easy to reach, kid-approved.

best lakes rivers new england

Courtesy Photo

1.

Walden Pond

Perfect for a Day Trip

Location: Concord, Massachusetts
Distance from Boston: 19 miles

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden, named for the 61-acre pond (pictured above) along which he spent two years in a cabin. Some two centuries later, the sentiment still applies to this Concord gem, where young and old alike wander carefree down the path around the pond and enjoy nature’s glory from the beach under the watchful eye of lifeguards. Walden’s blessedly crowd-free sands come with a catch—you’ll need to arrive early, as the park closes to visitors once the parking lot is full. Which is likely just how Thoreau would have wanted it.

2.

Pawtuckaway Lake

Perfect for a Day Trip

Location: Nottingham, New Hampshire
Distance from Boston: 68 miles

This off-the-beaten-path lake and surrounding 5,500-acre preserve have attracted outdoorsy families for decades. But one of the site’s major selling points dates back even further—all the way to the end of the Ice Age, when melting glacial ice deposited massive boulders on what is now parkland. The boulder field is accessible from the park’s extensive network of hiking trails, but be sure to bring a map: Even regulars have been known to get turned around on the hunt for these geological phenomena. When you return from your excursion, the tranquil waters beckon for a swim or paddle.

3.

Spring Lake

Perfect for a Day Trip

Location: Burrillville, Rhode Island
Distance from Boston: 60 miles

Home to the oldest penny arcade in America (yes, many games here really do cost just a penny), Spring Lake is a throwback to a simpler time. A time when summertime meant loading the brood into the car for an easygoing after- noon of building sandcastles, picnicking, and playing pinball. Hitting the playground before doing a cannonball off the swim dock. Or just taking it all in from the comfort of your beach chair, icy beverage and sandwich in hand, with the rest of the grateful parents. This place was made for the grade school set, and that’s just fine.

4.

Squam Lake

Make It a Weekend

Location: Holderness, New Hampshire
Distance from Boston: 115 miles

The area surrounding Squam Lake truly offers something for every generation. Tykes will love catching glimpses of river otters and black bears at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. Parents, meanwhile, will love unwinding on a sunset cruise afterward. And the whole clan will enjoy a trip to the public beach in Sandwich: While the children splash around in the water, you can bask in the knowledge that Katharine Hepburn lounged on Squam’s shores while filming On Golden Pond.

Stay: Soak in the quaint bed-and-breakfast charm of the Squam Lake Inn (starting at $149 per night).

best lakes rivers new england

Courtesy Photo

5.

Buttermilk Falls

Make It a Weekend

Location: Ludlow, Vermont
Distance from Boston: 142 miles

It’s an easy hike to reach this verdant wonderland near Okemo Mountain Resort, where you can set your little rock climbers loose among three waterfalls and a swimming hole (just don’t forget the water shoes). Once you’ve toweled off, scoop into your sweet reward: maple ice cream at the only-in-Vermont Green Mountain Sugar House.

Stay: The adventure continues at the nearby Jackson Gore Inn (starting at about $200 per night), where you’ll find an all-season mountain coaster that dips and loops through nearby forests and Jackson Gore.


best lakes rivers new england

Photograph by Gigi_NYC

I’m looking for…
Water Sports Galore
Boating, fly-fishing, and whitewater rafting, oh my!

6.

Ipswich River

Perfect for a Day Trip

Location: Wilmington, Massachusetts
Distance from Boston: 16 miles

Chances are, you won’t even finish an episode of your favorite podcast before you arrive at a spot along the Ipswich River where you can canoe, hike, or fly-fish. The 35-mile-long river has 18 public drop-in locations; choose to begin upstream in Wilmington and traverse the more difficult rapids, or put in closer to Ipswich and fish and swim in calmer waters. Don’t have your own boat? Ipswich’s Foote Brothers will hook you up with equipment, and even provide a shuttle service to several upstream locations. Real enthusiasts will want to take advantage of the overnight package, which includes camping on a private island.

7.

Sebago Lake

Make It a Weekend

Location: Sebago, Maine
Distance from Boston: 131 miles

Drive about 40 miles northwest of Portland and you’ll find yourself in another world: a freshwater haven of inlets, coves, and rugged rock piles chock-full of bass, trout, and perch—some explorers have been known to catch fish as big as 20 pounds. This is Maine’s second-largest lake, with 105 miles of shoreline for boating. Need some sustenance after a day of fishing? Dock your vessel at Frye’s Leap General Store and Café, on Frye Island, for pizza and regional brews.

Stay: You can’t get any closer to the lake than at Migis Lodge (starting at $204 per night), which offers plenty of on-site water sports.

8.

Onota Lake

Make It a Weekend

Location: Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Distance from Boston: 139 miles

Surrounded by the sloping peaks of the Taconic Mountain Range, the 617-acre Onota Lake (pictured above) was made for cruising along the water, gentle breeze in your hair, in a pontoon boat with the whole clan. The hub of activity is on the eastern shore at Burbank Park, where visitors kick it beachside, cast their lines off the pier, and launch water vehicles of all kinds from the public ramp.

Stay: Enjoy cocktails inside the birdcage elevator at Hotel on North (starting at $179 per night), where you’ll find 45 quirky-luxe rooms in two 19th-century buildings.

9.

Kennebec River

Make It a Weekend

Location: West Forks, Maine
Distance from Boston: 245 miles

Strap on your life vest, snap on your helmet, and get ready for one wet and wild ride. Known for daredevil rapids with names like Magic Falls and Big Mama, this Maine river is prime for a high-octane whitewater-rafting adventure. Of course, you’ll want to enlist an expert to help you navigate the 12-mile stretch; book a one- or two-day journey with the pros at Three Rivers, which also has tubing trips for tamer travelers.

Stay: Combine rafting with rest at the Inn by the River (starting at $89 per night), which partners with Three Rivers and also offers mellower activities such as bird-watching and fishing trips.

best lakes rivers new england

Courtesy Photo

10.

Lake Winnipesaukee

Make It a Weekend

Location: Meredith, New Hampshire
Distance from Boston: 107 miles

When you’re cruising through choppy waters on a board behind a motorboat, there’s only one rule: Don’t fall in. Wakesurfing with the coaches from Wolfeboro-based Lake Life Lessons (pictured) provides the ultimate adrenaline rush. For a slower-paced water experience in this perennial get-out-of-town spot, there’s the M/S Mount Washington, known for its Sunday champagne-brunch cruises.

Stay: Book a lakefront room at the pet-friendly Church Landing (starting at $345 per night), within walking distance of shops and restaurants.


best lakes rivers new england

Photograph by Doug Kerr

I’m looking for…
Wild, Untamed Beauty
For the outdoors enthusiast—bring your hiking boots.

11.

The Kettle Ponds of Wellfleet

Make It a Weekend

Location: Wellfleet, Massachusetts
Distance from Boston: 102 miles

Just beyond Wellfleet’s popular Long Pond lie about 20 glacier-formed freshwater pools so treasured that locals are reluctant to reveal much about them. Larger ponds, such as Gull and Great, have beach areas near main roads, but you need a permit to park your car there (our advice: ride a bike). Dyer and Spectacle, meanwhile, are accessible only via dirt paths. Before venturing deep into the pitch pines, grab a map from the Wellfleet information booth, and keep your eyes peeled for snapping turtles.

Stay: Refresh after a long day spent pond-hopping in one of Salt House Inn’s crisp white rooms (starting at $160 per night).

best lakes rivers new england

Choose your own adventure: tubing in the tranquil waters of Vermont’s Lake Willoughby, or hiking the 20 miles of trails surrounding it. / Courtesy Photo

12.

Lake Willoughby

Make It a Weekend

Location: Westmore, Vermont
Distance from Boston: 207 miles

Turns out, you don’t need to fly across the Atlantic to see a breathtaking fjord—all you have to do is drive up I-93 until you hit the tiny town of Westmore, Vermont (population: 350), home to a crystal-clear lake framed by two mountains. Twenty miles of trails within Willoughby Forest beckon, while the southwest cove area lures braver souls to an (unsanctioned) clothing-optional beach. Find liquid courage at the top-rated Hill Farmstead Brewery, in nearby Greensboro.

Stay: The WilloughVale Inn (starting at $115) boasts Jacuzzi-equipped cottages and serene lake views.

13.

Chapel Brook Falls

Perfect for a Day Trip

Location: Ashfield, Massachusetts
Distance from Boston: 115 miles

Who needs a deep-tissue massage when you can stand underneath the roaring falls of this 173-acre nature wonderland (pictured above) tucked into the highlands of western Massachusetts? The usual itinerary involves an invigorating hike to the top of Pony Mountain or a climb up its 100-foot granite rock face—where you’ll find panoramic views of the Berkshire foothills—followed by a (very chilly) dip below one of the brook’s three waterfalls. For a quieter post-hike cooldown, wander along one of the stream trails to discover more-peaceful wading areas away from the rest of the swimmers.

14.

Gulf Hagas

Make It a Weekend

Location: Katahdin Iron Works Township, Maine
Distance from Boston: 270 miles

So you’re peering down a monstrous ravine roughly 100 miles from civilization. Are you terrified or thrilled? If your answer is the latter, it’s time to discover Gulf Hagas, a.k.a. the “Grand Canyon of Maine.” Featuring a 400-foot-deep gorge that snakes through the western branch of the Pleasant River, the area is part of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. Explore waterfalls and swimming holes on an 8-mile loop, and if you get lonely, you can always say hi to the odd moose.

Stay: Park yourself close to the action at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s rustic Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins (starting at $147 per person per night for nonmembers).

Courtesy Photo

15.

Rattlesnake Pool

Make It a Weekend

Location: Stoneham, Maine
Distance from Boston: 158 miles

Located on private land, but open to the public, this small, lush, emerald-green lagoon shrouded by trees just might be Maine’s most alluring swimming spot—and its best-kept secret. The adventure begins off Route 113 in the Evans Notch area, where you can choose one of two paths: Take a detour off the Stone House Trail for a more-moderate hike, or begin at White Cairn Trail and summit the 1,781-foot Blueberry Mountain first. It’ll make a dip in the chilly pool, fed by gentle waterfalls, feel even more refreshing.

Stay: Hit the links—or the tennis courts—at the nearby Bethel Inn Resort (starting at $159 per night).