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America's best lake vacations

Courtesy of ARAMARK Parks and Destinations

Lake Powell stretches for almost 200 miles into southern Utah and also includes more than 80 side canyons.

Waking to another cloudless morning, you dive off your houseboat into the wild blue of Lake Powell in southern Utah. The water takes the edge off the heat, and you float along, contemplating a lazy day of navigating spectacular red-rock gorges and flooded canyons.

Brian Raub, founder of Lakelubbers.com, says lakes have an inherent advantage over the ocean when it comes to vacations. “You’ll probably prefer the feel of freshwater over salt, and you probably won’t miss seasickness, seaweed or sharks. You can choose your outdoor temperatures; lakes exist at elevations from below sea level to 13,000 feet above.”

Slideshow: See which places are the best for lake vacations

And temperature isn’t your only choice: America offers a lake vacation for every season and activity, and no matter where you live, even in the Southwest desert, chances are there’s one near you. Satellite mapping has yet to yield a precise answer, but the best guess is that there are between three and four million lakes across the U.S., ranging from duck ponds to wonders like Oregon’s Crater Lake.

Minnesota, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, actually counts nearly 12,000—the most among the lower 48 states. Michigan comes in a close second and Florida third, while among smaller states, Maine stands out with nearly 800. But Alaska trumps them all with an estimated 3 million lakes. We’re partial to Lake Clark by Port Alsworth (pop. 159), where wilderness adventures are guaranteed, whether you’re in the mood for kayaking, getting dragged by a dogsled team or spotting grizzly bears and caribou.

While Lake Tahoe is most popular for winter sports and Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago reaches its windsurfing peak in fall, we associate most lakes with summer, as places to cool off and chill out. A recent study by ResortsandLodges.com named lake vacations the most popular summer travel trend of 2012, ahead of beach vacations, romantic getaways and family trips.

“Maybe instead of flying to Paris this year, you’re driving from New York City up to Lake Placid or from St. Louis down to Table Rock Lake,” says Matt Renner of ResortsandLodges.com. “No matter the reason, more and more people are spending their vacations on lakes.”

After all, lakes can inspire quiet reflection, most famously in the case of Henry David Thoreau, who sought out Walden Pond in the backwoods of Massachusetts. “They’re a commons, owned by everyone, where you are free to stake out some space for yourself, slow your life down for a day or a weekend or a couple weeks and take stock of things,” says Jerry Dennis, author of "The Living Great Lakes."

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