Looking to escape the heat and put your feet up next to a refreshing body of water this summer? Lakeside van camping is the way to go. Whether you’re a fan of boating, fishing, swimming, water sports, or simply enjoying the views, there’s no better way to cool down and enjoy summer fun than visiting one of our country’s many beautiful lakes.
From east to west, north to south, we’ve scoured the U.S. to compile this diverse list of lakes. However you choose to vacation—from splashing around at the warm sandy beaches of Lake Erie to taking in serene volcanic vistas at Crater Lake—we’ve got you covered.
Plus, our list is specifically tailored to van lifers. Each lake we’ve included offers great places to van camp, either directly on the lakeshore or a quick walk or drive away. Read on for Rec Van’s top ten lakes for van lifers and the best campgrounds to stay at in each location.
1. Lake Erie, Pennsylvania
Where To Stay: Sara’s Campground
Why We Love It: The swaths of sand surrounding this massive lake (the fourth largest of the Great Lakes) rival some of the best seaside beaches. In fact, the beach at Lake Erie’s Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania has been rated the nation’s “Best Freshwater Beach” by USA Today. Enjoy everything you would on an ocean beach vacation—sunbathing, swimming, sandcastles, and sunsets—minus the harsh coastal elements and van-damaging saltwater.
2. Lake Michigan, Michigan
Where To Stay: Platte River Campground
Why We Love It: Another of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan boasts the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes. Visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to take in this dramatic and unusual landscape. Explore and play in the dunes around the lake, then check out the panoramic views across the lake’s teal waters from atop 450-foot tall sandy bluffs. Rest and recharge for the night nestled among the trees at the National Park Service-managed Platte River Campground.
3. Crater Lake, Oregon
Where To Stay: Mazama Campground
Why We Love It: You know a lake must be special when an entire national park is named after it. Visit Crater Lake National Park to marvel at the collapsed volcano-turned stunning lake. It is the deepest lake in the United States and is entirely filled by rain and snow, making the water very pure. Pay homage to this natural wonder at one (or more) of 30 scenic pullouts where you can check out different views and features of interest. Visitors can also take a boat tour to Wizard Island—a cinder cone out in the lake—and brave a dip in the chilly waters if they dare. At night, the skies come alive with some of the best stargazing in the country.
4. Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Where To Stay: Red Oak Resort RV Park
Why We Love It: Have your cake and eat it too on this multifaceted lake vacation. Enjoy fishing, boating, and watersports along the serpent-shaped Lake of the Ozarks. With tons of dining and entertainment options along the lake, you can eat at a different restaurant for every meal and sample diverse activities including zip-lining, horseback riding, golf, spas, and wineries. To top it all off, you’ll be staying at an RV resort with a swimming pool that’s perfect for lounging and cooling off.
5. Lake Powell, Arizona
Where To Stay: Wahweap RV & Campground
Why We Love It: Many van lifers try to steer clear of the dry heat of the Southwest during the summer, but the refreshing waters of Lake Powell make the temps bearable, and even enjoyable. What really sets this lake apart from others is the surrounding rock formations that make it look like a flooded Grand Canyon. We highly recommend renting a boat for a day or two and exploring the many canyons by water. Must see: a magnificent arch over the water called the Rainbow Bridge. Watching the sunrise or sunset over this dramatic landscape is truly a bucket list item. The campground itself offers powerboat and water toy rentals and is within walking distance from a swimming beach.
6. Flathead Lake, Montana
Where To Stay: Rollins RV Park
Why We Love It: Fans of adventure will enjoy sailing, powerboating, waterskiing, and swimming in the emerald waters of this large lake. Those seeking a more lowkey experience can take in sweeping views of the water and forested mountains at one of 13 public access points to the lake. Each public access point has picnicking facilities where you can enjoy locally-grown fruit like cherries, apples, and plums bought from nearby roadside stands.
7. Lake Tahoe, California
Where to stay: Lake Forest Campground
Why we love it: Lake Tahoe has been a fan favorite vacation destination for decades, and we can see why. This lake is loved for its clear and unusually pure waters (almost bottled water quality!), its outdoor adventure opportunities, and the many creature comforts that have sprung up around the lake, including spas and resorts, fine dining, and even a bit of nightlife. Perfectly located just a few blocks away from Lake Forest Beach and a few miles from Tahoe City, the Lake Forest campground gives you access to it all.
8. Jackson Lake, Wyoming
Where To Stay: Lizard Creek Campground
Why We Love It: This rustic campground on the scenic Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park is perfect for those looking to avoid crowds and get an authentic nature experience. You can hike and explore the park, then cool off with a quick dip in the cold waters of the lake. Besides offering sweeping views over the lake and the northern Teton Mountain Range, the campground location is also an ideal home base for day trips to Yellowstone National Park. Plan to spend at least a few days chasing adventure in this majestic region.
9. Diablo Lake, Washington
Where To Stay: Colonial Creek South Campground
Why We Love It: This turquoise lake is truly something to stop and stare at. The waters get their unique hue from suspended “glacial flour,” or fine rock powder crushed by glaciers upstream. Reconnect with nature and yourself at this peaceful and remote lake, and camp amongst an old-growth forest. The Diablo Lake Overlook is also a must-visit to see—and photograph—the spectacular turquoise and green landscape from afar. For some tips on getting the best shot, check out our guide to travel photography.
10. Lake Manatee, Florida
Where To Stay: Lake Manatee State Park
Why We Love It:This reservoir is a perfect destination for laid-back family fun in the Southeastern U.S.A. The gentle waters of Lake Manatee State Park’s swimming beach will appeal to kids while allowing parents to sit back, relax, and soak in the Florida sun. For the best travel books to get lost in this summer—including one about Florida—check out our list. Boating, fishing, birdwatching, picnicking, and hiking are also on the menu for more active days.
Regardless of which lake vacation floats your boat, look into reserving campgrounds as far in advance as possible to ensure you get a spot. For more of our favorite van life summer destinations, check out our post. For the van to take you there and beyond, visit Rec Van.