No Salty Sailors Here: Six Great American Sailing Lakes

Dinghy sailors will tell you there’s nothing quite like mastering lake sailing, where constant windshifts keep you on your toes, getting doused with spray is a welcome cool-down, and handling your boat just right, especially on the racecourse, is vital...

Dinghy sailors will tell you there’s nothing quite like mastering lake sailing, where constant windshifts keep you on your toes, getting doused with spray is a welcome cool-down, and handling your boat just right, especially on the racecourse, is vital. But lakes also provide beautiful landscapes and unique wildlife in unexpected places—all of which you can appreciate from the comfort of your anchored or beached boat.

We’ve rounded up a few popular locations for non-salty sailors looking for a big adventure on a small body of water. Some of these lakes have famous historical landmarks, others provide serene anchorages replete with wildlife, and all are guaranteed to leave you grinning.

Lake Dillon, Colorado

Lake Dillon Reservoir, built in 1963, supplies water to the city of Denver. The layout was determined by the flooding of surrounding valleys, so three rivers feed into the lake: the Snake River, the Blue River and Ten Mile Creek, as well as two outlets, where the Blue River runs north, and the Roberts Tunnel, which carries water through the Continental Divide.

Anita Jones at Dillon Marina says the winds can be tricky thanks to the surrounding mountains, but are consistent at around 11 knots and typically blowing from west to east. She recommends sailing the Snake River if you’re looking for a challenge, because it’s narrow and the winds are shifty. Blue River is a particular favorite for sailors who like to run down wing-on-wing from the main lake, then tack back up.

Frisco Bay, on the other hand, is full of wondrous islands, such as Fishhook Island or Smuggler’s Cove, a favorite spot for Jenn Shimp of Frisco Bay Marina. “It’s beautiful. It’s tricky to sail into—you have to snake in and meander to get there—but it’s well worth it. You’ll see eagles, osprey, beavers and geese,” she says. There are plenty of day-only moorings to hook up to.

However, she adds that if you play around in Frisco Bay, watch out for what is known locally as the “Bermuda Triangle,” a dead spot between Sentinel Island and Crown Point. Sailors can easily “get stuck in and bob forever if they don’t have enough momentum before hitting the patch of water,” Shimp says.

Beyond that, Heaton Bay and Giberson Bay on the western shore are two popular campsites to nestle into for the night. They’re tent-camping only, full of green scenery, and sheltered. Across the way, Pine Cove is another campsite Shimp recommends. You can’t anchor overnight, so be prepared to get a slip, an overnight mooring or stay at a registered shoreline campsite.

Though many sailors spend time exploring the arms of Lake Dillon, racers head to the main body of Dillon, where Dillon Yacht Club has an active race fleet and hosts several regattas. “There’s nothing like streaming down Dillon with a spinnaker up,” says Shimp. But be prepared for gusts, glassy areas and difficult weather. “When you’re racing, you’re watching the water and your telltales, chasing the puffs and working hard to get the edge on everyone else. It gets technical,” says Shimp. “But if you can sail on Dillon, you can sail anywhere.”

Trailer sailers are naturally popular here, and the Catalina 25 a particular favorite.

Photo Courtesy of Dillon Marina

Lake Tahoe, California

Located between Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe is 1,645ft deep, making it the second deepest lake in the United States, after Crater Lake in Oregon. It offers 72 miles of shoreline and is surrounded by snow-capped peaks year-round despite 85-degree weather at lake level. It’s a scene so stunning that Mark Twain once wrote: “I thought it must be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Because the area receives so much snow (297.5 inches this past year), lakefront communities were historically built with water access in mind, meaning that modern-day launching is easy. There are several protected anchorages to tuck into for the night and a handful of docks offering access to the surrounding country—which is as dramatic as the lake itself. The eastern shore is lined with coves and beautiful boulders while Emerald Bay State Park at Tahoe’s southern end offers excellent scuba diving. The lake is surrounded by hiking trails, including the Flume Trail, which was once used by loggers to float timber down to the area’s many silver mines, and the Tahoe Rim Trail, which you can follow around the entire lake. Along the way, you might spot bears, coyotes, bald eagles, osprey and blue herons among what Rick Raduziner, Port Captain at Tahoe Yacht Club, describes as the surrounding country’s most incredible sight of all, towering red cedars and sugar pines.

During a typical day’s sail, Raduziner says to expect to putz around under motor in the morning, then raise sails in the afternoon when the breeze fills in from the southwest between 8-15 knots. 

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Dow

Seneca Lake, New York

Of the 11 Finger Lakes in northwestern New York State that were carved by receding glaciers approximately 10,000 years ago, Seneca Lake is the sailing hot spot. It’s 38 miles long and the deepest of the bunch, at 618 feet, and has very little boat traffic.

Though Seneca Lake doesn’t get large swells, the weather conditions in the area will still keep you on your toes. According to Tom Alley, squadron education officer for the Seneca Sail & Power Squadron, “the words ‘consistent weather’ never appear together” when describing Seneca Lake. Wind shifts and puffs dominate, especially among the hills at the lake’s southern end. “When the wind is honking, the biggest challenge is getting in and out of the slip without being blown into nearby objects,” he warns. “But with the appropriate sails, it can be an exhilarating ride on relatively flat water.”

Seneca Lake is ideal for day sails or weekend cruises, but there are limited anchorages and overnight destinations. To start, Alley suggests checking out some of the wineries with boat access. “Miles Winery is well worth the trip. Weekend trips to the extreme ends of Seneca—Geneva, New York, in the north and Watkins Glen in the south—are also popular. Lodi State Marine Park, located in the middle of the lake, makes a nice stopping point,” he says. Alley also suggests sailors check out the Navy Barge, a former military facility located in the center of the lake. “One day as we were sailing past, we could hear pinging through our hull, just like in the old submarine war movies,” says Alley.

You can access Seneca Lake from a public ramp in Watkins Glen on the south side for $4 or from a handful of marinas and yacht clubs scattered around the lake. The Finger Lakes Yacht Club offers social and racing events throughout the summer, and while the best sailing happens from mid-April through October, there are a few brave frostbiters in the winter months as well. Denis Kingsley, a member of both the Finger Lakes Yacht Club and the Seneca Lake Sail and Power Squadron, sails Seneca Lake as often as possinble. “It’s a wonderful lake for all types of sailors. Be prepared for a variety of conditions, but the summer is short, so we make the most of it while we can.”

Photo courtesy of Carrie Smalser

Lake Champlain, Vermont

As the sixth largest lake in the United States—120 miles long and 12 miles wide—Lake Champlain has plenty to explore. It’s tucked between New York, Vermont and Canada, and reaches from Whitehall, New York, up to the Richelieu River in Quebec where it joins the St. Lawrence River and, eventually, meets the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the spring and fall bring blustery north- or southwesterly winds, and summer storms can provide excitement and enough experience to prepare you for offshore sailing.

With the Adirondacks to the west and Green Mountains to the east, Lake Champlain offers a beautiful backdrop. “There are dozens of nooks and crannies to explore. I love dropping anchor and taking in the scenery,” says Mark Laud, the executive director of Community Sailing Center, located in Burlington, Vermont.

Locals divide the lake up into five sections: South Lake, Main or “Broad” Lake, Malletts Bay, Inland Sea and Missisquoi Bay. South Lake is narrow, eventually transitioning into a narrow waterway leading to Albany and eventually New York City, while Main Lake is the widest, deepest and most accessible part of Champlain, with several harbors, bays and anchorages that make it perfect for cruisers in search of scenery. There, you can sail or hike near Split Rock Mountain to view its beautiful cliffs, or on the Vermont side, check out Red Rocks Park and Lake Champlain Yacht Club in Shelburne Bay. History buff? Be sure to visit Champlain’s five famous five-trestle bridges, each varying in construction and age. There’s also plenty of opportunity for racing at Royal Savage Yacht Club, and if boatcamping is your style, sail to Valcor Island State Park.

The inner part of Malletts Bay is a popular cruising spot. Near the center is Grand Isle, a group of five islands that played a role in the War of 1812, christening the lake the “birthplace of the U.S. Navy.” To explore Grand Isle and sail to the Canadian side, you’ll motor through the Sandbar Causeway drawbridge. Along the way, don’t forget to birdwatch at Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary near Missisquoi Bay.

Photo Courtesy of Adirondack Coast Visitor’s Bureau

Lake Travis, Texas

Though not often thought of as a sailing hot spot, Texas offers plenty of opportunities to get out on the water, and Lake Travis, located on the Colorado River in Austin, remains especially popular among sailors. It’s 4.5 miles wide and spans 63.5 miles from east to west, with plenty of attractive shoreline and clear water. “Most sailors daysail, but there are beautiful cliffs and sloping limestone beaches that make Lake Travis stunning,” says John Bartlett of Austin’s Bartlett Sails. “Travis is perfect for sail camping, fishing and exploring—it’s quite charming.”

Bartlett adds that with a steady southeast summer breeze at 12-15 knots, beer can races are especially popular. “We set three marks, and the slow boat starts first. They race around the lake, and the top three finishers get cool prizes. It’s a great social event and brings out all types of boats—non-spinnakers, cats, racing dinghies and the like,” he says.

At the same time, sailors have to beware of sudden changes in the weather. Rob Rich, SAIL’s America’s Cup crew-for-a-day winner and avid Lake Travis sailor, says that violent thunderstorms can easily sneak up on sailors. “The winds can kick from 10 knots to 30 knots in a matter of minutes…knowing when and how to reef will be the difference between sailing comfortably and ending up on the rocks.”

Because there are plenty of said rocks—not to mention a growing number of shallows as a result of the long-term drought Texas is currently in the middle of—it pays to talk to the locals before setting out. A chart briefing, for example, is mandatory when renting boats from Austin’s Texas Sailing. “The good news is that people are really friendly and will tell you more than you want to know,” Rich says.

If you plan to stay the night, Rich recommends anchoring using plenty of scope (about 10:1 because of the rocky bottom) and a stern anchor, or anchor with a buddy, in Arkansas Bend, which is centrally located and 13 miles away from the dam. It’s common to sight white-tailed deer, possums and waterfowl. Other “wildlife” can be spotted at Hippie Hollow, Austin’s sole clothing-optional state park.

Currently, the biggest concern for Lake Travis is the severe drought. The lake is losing about 4in of water a week, making public access difficult. However, if a few storms come in, lake levels will rise. Austin Yacht Club has the only functioning launch, but you have to be a member to use it, so sailing rentals, dinghies, beach cats, windsurfers, and kitesurfers, or signing up as crew, has become the way to get out on the water.

Photo courtesy of Rob Rich

Keeping Austin Weird: View from a Local

Austin’s unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s taken seriously by some and scoffed at by others, but it’s precisely this mix of peoples, backgrounds, cultures and politics that have made the town into a small melting pot on the edge of Texas Hill Country.

Lake Travis functions as a reservoir, and due to the drinking water demands of Austinites, high summer temperatures and competing agricultural water-flow demands downriver, its level can easily fluctuate 40 feet vertically in any given year. How’s that for weird? Barring a miracle weather event, the lake’s level will be more than 50 feet below full at the time of this printing, and less than 40 percent of its ideal volume.

In the tradition of “keeping it weird,” the Austin Sailing Society (A.S.S. for short) was founded as an alternative to the standard yacht club. It’s a loosely organized group of cruisers that has no rules, no dues and no official membership. While it prides itself on lack of leadership, it has managed to subsist for over 13 years.

Weather is also unique on Travis. Summer is the least popular time to sail, because of the extreme heat and light winds. Our nickname for severe storms “Texas Thunder-Bumpers” needs no explanation. If you get caught in one, reef and head for a cliff on the rim of the lake, to put as many objects as possible between the top of your mast and the occasional lightning bolt.

–Rob Rich

Lake Harriet, Minnesota

Of the five Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lake Harriet is considered by many to be the “crown jewel.” The 336-acre lake is set in a quiet yet urban part of the Twin Cities, so sailors can just as easily hike the trails surrounding the lake or travel downtown to explore the city. Better yet, motorboats (except for safety boats) are banned here, so you’ll sail in peace. There are also plenty of sailing clubs—many of which are run by volunteers—that offer beginner and intermediate sailing classes as well as racing opportunities. MC Scows are popular here, and you won’t see many boats longer than 25 feet.

In the summer, winds typically blow from the northwest at around 10 knots. It may be a bit chilly in May and October, but “there’s always a 60-70 percent chance of sunshine,” according to Leif Helgeson, treasurer of Twin Cities Sailing Club. Most of the facilities and amenities are located on the north side of the lake, along with a beach. For a perfect itinerary, Helgeson suggests, “Sail northeast, where you’ll find a lovely rose garden, then head west toward the buoy field to check out over 180 beautiful boats that are moored there.” Beware of milfoil—thick patches of aquatic plants—along the eastern shore. After that head toward the south side of the lake for another beach.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board doesn’t allow overnights on Lake Harriet (they close at 2200) and boats larger than 22 feet are prohibited from mooring, but you can wrap up the day with live tunes, movies and free yoga at the Lake Harriet Bandshell every night of the summer. Grab a bite at the Bread & Pickle, an eatery that strives to serve local foods in a zero-waste manner. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for Minne, Lake Harriet’s Loch Ness monster, a 13-foot-tall sculpture created by artist Cameron Gainer in 2009.

Photo Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana

Located just north of New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain offers year-round sailing on its brackish waters, and is especially friendly toward daysailors. Commodore Dick Jones of the Pontchartrain Yacht Club says, “It’s perfect for trailersailers. We don’t have to deal with obstructions or hazards. There are five yacht clubs, plenty of marinas and tons of public ramps on both sides of the lake.”

Summer brings light southeast winds that pick up in the evening, so the best time to find good breeze is in the spring and fall. Though the lake doesn’t have islands, there are several lagoons and bayous along the north and east shores, where dense green foliage grows among national wildlife refuges. Among these are the Big Branch Marsh Wildlife Refuge and Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest urban refuge, where otters, feral hogs, minks and alligators can be found amid 24,000 acres of marsh and hardwood forest.

From the lakefront park in the south side of New Orleans, you can sail across to Mandeville City, raft up and take in the cityscape. Once there, you’re well positioned to explore the Mississippi River, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. “We have tons of sailors from all over the country stopping by enroute to Florida,” says Jones. “You can travel down the Mississippi River or motor through the Rigolets to get to the gulf in three to four hours.” You’ll also see the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world, spanning approximately 24 miles north and south. The bridge has two high points–one fixed, one non-fixed–so if your mast is taller than 48ft, you’ll have to call ahead.

If racing is more your thing, there’s plenty of that as well on Pontchartrain. All of the yacht clubs there host regattas year-round, many of which attract sailors from around the country. The Mardi Gras Regatta and Sugar Bowl Regatta are especially popular, along with the Lake Pontchartrain Racing Circuit, a three-day weekend race at the end of October, and the Leukemia Cup. You see boats of all sizes here, from dinghies and daysailers up to ocean cruisers.

Photo Courtesy of Mary Davis of Lake Pontchartrain Foundation



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