The Best Lake Camping in the West

I’ve spent the last decade working seasonal jobs exploring the West, and while my bank account has hovered in the triple digits, it’s been worth it,  partly because I’ve camped in ridiculously beautiful places. Along the way I’ve stayed at a few incredible lakes. I’m sure there are many just as good or better, but I chose these winners because they’re the best I’ve seen for swimming, hiking, and paddling adventures.

Wonder Lake Campground, Denali National Park, Alaska

—Best for Photography, Wildlife & Mountain Views—

Ride a Bluebird bus 85 miles into the park interior. Hop off at Wonder Lake Campground. Take your pick of the 28 campsites at the southern edge of Wonder Lake. The sites are scattered across the tundra, and each has a face-full of the biggest mountain in North America at 20,322 feet, Mt. McKinley, a.k.a. Denali. I lived in a cabin by Wonder Lake for a summer and learned to bring my camera and binoculars everywhere I went. Light from the midnight sun is perfect for photos, and I’ve seen grizzlies, caribou, moose, red fox, gray wolves, lynx, loons, and huge V’s of migrating cranes in the area. Prime visiting months are typically August or early September. The blueberries are ripe, the mosquitos are few, and once night returns, you can see the Northern Lights over the Alaska Range.

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Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

—Best for Backpacking & Swimming—

The 211-mile John Muir Trail travels through the heart of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park. Along the way are beautiful alpine lakes nestled beneath granite peaks. Do yourself a favor and hike this entire trail. You can climb Mt. Whitney, hike through ancient groves of red pine, visit Yosemite, and camp at Thousand Island Lake. It looks like a swimmer’s paradise. You can swim from island to island exploring. Marmots whistled at us from the rocks, deer grazed by our tent, and an epic mountain sunset made us feel like the luckiest people on earth.

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Bowman Lake Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

—Best for Scenery & Pioneer Vibe—

A long ways down a dusty, washboard road is a pioneer town on the edge of Glacier National Park. Entering Polebridge, Montana takes visitors back in time. There’s no electricity, but their oft-photographed Mercantile runs a generator long enough to power a top notch bakery. There are 48 campsites tucked away beneath the pines. The glacial lake has snowcapped mountains rising from it, and it’s very peaceful in this remote section of the park. Instead of swimming, we spent the 4th in Polebridge. The bluegrass band Broken Valley Roadshow got folks dancing, a tiny parade waved the Stars and Stripes, and travelers from around the world gathered on the porch of the Polebridge Mercantile.

Lost Creek Campground, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

—Best for Photography & Swimming—

There’s blue, and then there’s Crater Lake blue. You have got to see it to believe it. Over 2,000-feet deep, with no streams flowing into or out of it, Crater Lake has some of the bluest, clearest, and purest water in the world. I couldn’t help but utter the common refrain, “It’s bluer than I expected,” the first time I saw it. The Lost Creek Campground is your best bet for tent-camping access. It’s first-come, first-served, and there are only 16 sites, so get there early. Be sure to hike the two-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail down to the lake. You’ll work up a sweat and be ready for a swim in the icy blue depths.

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Swan Lake Canoe Trail, Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

—Best for Canoeing, Adventure & Wilderness—

The Kenai Wildlife Refuge is a lesser-known Boundary Waters. Rent a canoe from Alaska Canoe & Campground in Sterling, Alaska. Then head out on the Swan Lake Canoe Trail. We chose a route that connects eleven lakes through a series of short portages, and then exits on the winding Moose River. The best camp on our four-day trip was on a 30-foot-wide island in Gativa Lake. We strung a tarp between two paper birch filled with yellow leaves. A moose waded the shoreline across from us at dusk, a pair of loons burst into a series of echoing howls, and we got a fire roaring to combat the damp chill. The boreal lakes have an enchanting, north-country presence that forms a lasting impression. 

Images courtesy of Tim Gibbins and CyclingSimply

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