From glacier-fed lakes to gargantuan reservoirs to crystal-blue swimming holes, the Gem State is practically polka-dotted with lakes. Whether you’re miles deep into the backcountry searching for Sharlie the Loch Ness monster or you’re just a mile away from town, the following 10 best lakes in Idaho are truly wondrous to behold.
Aptly named “Idaho’s Crown Jewel,” this ethereal lake is comprised of two bodies of water—upper and lower—connected by a thoroughfare. The ancient lake dates back to the last ice age and provides year-round outdoor recreation on its white-sand beaches, like waterskiing or hiking along the water’s edge. The lake’s mirror-like surface and unique clusters of islands draw visitors from across the country.
Idaho’s largest lake is also the fifth deepest in the U.S. During World War II, submarine researchers tested equipment in the great blue, but today, its waterways and rocky banks are reserved for boaters, fishermen in search of rainbow trout, and swimmers. Lake Pend Oreille is home to both resort communities and untamed forests filled with grizzly bears and grey wolves.
Idaho’s Panhandle snags the third spot on the list with Lake Coeur d’Alene, another geological wonder from the ancient Missoula Floods, where glaciers carved the terrain of the Pacific Northwest. The popular resort destination provides a summer home to movie stars, stand-up paddleboarders, cliff jumpers, and fishermen alike, who are drawn to the deep-blue waters and surrounding forests.
Payette Lake and its sister body of water, Little Payette, have astounded sailors and anglers in search of mackinaws for decades. The fantastic lake and sandy beaches are home to resort communities like McCall, yet protected by conservation efforts at Ponderosa State Park and the Payette National Forest. Locals claim the lake is home to Sharlie, a “Loch Ness” monster first sighted in the 1920s.
Formerly known as Cascade Reservoir, this massive lake is surrounded by the Boise National Forest and is home to world-class ski resorts, including Tamarack Ski Resort, on the western shore of the lake. The reservoir is well-known among fishermen baiting Kokanee salmon.
The Sawtooth National Forest spans across Idaho and Utah, offering more than 1,100 unique alpine lakes. While it would take years to explore them all, start at Redfish Lake, near the headwaters of the raging Salmon River. Crystal-blue waters and sandy beaches attract kayakers, sunbathers, mountain bikers, and outdoor adventurers of all varieties to explore the jagged Sawtooth Mountains.
Silly name aside, Yellow Belly Lake is one of the largest lakes in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, but it isn’t easy to get to. Although overgrown forests and an impossibly rocky road make the drive difficult, this lake has long been a popular Idaho backpacking destination along the Yellow Belly Trailhead. If you’re looking for a nearly private alpine lake, this is a perfect option.
Bear Lake is split proportionally between Idaho and Utah. Dubbed the “Caribbean of the Rockies” due to its phenomenal turquoise waters, the lake is a popular destination for sailing, fishing, raspberry picking, and swimming.
If you’re willing to climb over a boulder field, you’ll discover the brightest (and arguably coldest) lake in Idaho. Hunt Lake is a tiny glacial lake at the edge of a talus field. Visit in July and there will probably be snow on the ground, but the view and completely secluded environment are well worth it. If you’ve got extra gas in your tank (energy, that is) you can hike even further to Fault Lake.
This high mountain lake is just 15 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, and a haven for fishermen, with perhaps the best fly fishing in all of Idaho. Flanked by the Centennial Mountains and the Henrys Lake Mountains, the gorgeous lake valley is a popular destination for boaters (though conditions get rough) and hikers.
Article written by Jordy Bird
Featured photo courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game. Additional images courtesy of Nick Postorino, U.S. Department of the Interior, Stan Petersen, Benmillett, Idaho Fish and Game (image 1, image 2, image 3), Sam Beebe, Jeff Kubina, and Bradley Beck.