There’s no shortage of bodies of water in the U.S. From the tropical Gulf of Mexico to the swell of the Pacific, to the enchantment of the country’s many lake systems, there’s plenty of lakes to keep water-loving Americans entertained. For those who seek something a little more remote, special, and undeveloped, the U.S. also boasts secret lakes surrounded by perfectly preserved environments. Get off the beaten path and discover the five most unique and naturally stunning lakes that have managed to fly under the radar.
1. Hanging Lake, Colorado
Named a National Natural Landmark in 2011, Hanging Lake is definitely worth a day-trip from the nearby town of Glenwood Springs. Hanging Lake was formed by a geological fault, which caused the lake to drop away from the valley above it, suspending it at the top of the steep cliffs of Glenwood Canyon. The aesthetic perfection of this travertine lake, formed by limestone deposits, is completed with the Bridal Veil Falls which spills gently into to the lake from above. A 1.2-mile hike is required to reach Hanging Lake. The trek can be steep and strenuous at times, but the effort is more than worth the reward at the end.
Good to know: Carry on hiking just 200 meters further on the Spouting Rock Trail to see the magnificent waterfall shooting straight out of the cliffside just above Hanging Lake!
2. Mono Lake, California
One of the country’s weirdest and most wonderful lakes is overshadowed by the dominating popularity of Yosemite National Park. Located right on the park’s edge, Mono Lake is not only the oldest lake in the entire U.S., but one of the oldest in the western hemisphere. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this lake has many stand-out features. One of which are the clusters of towering limestone columns that rise from the lake bed giving it an other-worldly vibe. Another interesting aspect is the lake’s high level of saline caused by the lack of outlets and zero access to the open ocean. Despite this, Mono Lake is also an important habitat for roughly 2 million migratory birds which feed on the brine shrimp that thrive in the salty waters.
Good to know: Mono Lake sits in an active volcanic area. The most recent eruption in the volcano chain 350 years ago resulted in Paoha Island, which sits in the middle of Mono. Beautiful, history, and full of mystery, this is one lake that shouldn’t be missed.
3. Hamilton Pool Preserve, Texas
Just 30 miles northwest of Austin is one of the country’s most naturally gorgeous swimming holes. The Hamilton Pool Preserve is a local favorite in the summer when the heat of the city becomes too much. Austinites flock to this small lake that was created when the roof of an underground river collapsed due to thousands of years of erosion. The water from Hamilton Creek (fed by the Pedernales River) spills over the edge of the collapsed dome and forms a 15-meter waterfall which flows into the grotto area below. The pool sits in the bottom of a canyon, surrounded by steep limestone cliffs on either side. The area is also lush with vegetation and wildlife and has been declared a protected nature reserve by Travis County. There are also hiking trails and picnic facilities in the area, making this an ideal nature escape.
Good to know: You must make a reservation online for a morning or afternoon visit. The cost is $11, plus $15 for parking (with a car of up to 8 people).
4. Ross Lake, Washington State
If beating the crowds is your aim, head to the remote Ross Lake in the Northern Cascades region in Whatcom County, Washington. A small portion of the lake crosses the border into Canada, but the majority lies in U.S. territory. This ruggedly gorgeous 23-mile long lake snakes its way along at 1,600 feet above sea level and is framed on all sides by towering mountains. Hike-in and boat-in campsites are available and backcountry camping is allowed with a permit. Visitors to Ross Lake come for the renowned trout fishing, canoeing, kayaking and hiking opportunities.
Good to know: The Ross Lake Resort is a highlight for those who aren’t into roughing it in the campsites. This floating cabin and bunkhouse-style accommodation fits perfectly with its natural surroundings. Lounging on the over-water wooden deck while soaking up all the stunning scenery is pure, pristine bliss for nature lovers.
5. Inks Lake, Texas
Photo by Anne Worner
You’d never expect Texas to be the land of secret lakes, but there’s so many beautiful bodies of water in this state that it was impossible to pick just one. Inks Lake, located inside the state park of the same name, is an excellent choice for a weekend getaway. The lake itself boasts sparkling blue water surrounded by pink granite outcrops of varying heights that beckon to daring cliff jumpers. Fishing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating, and even scuba diving are the popular water activities offered. There are nearly 200 campsites and 22 cabins provided, so you can take your time and explore this area over a few days’ time.
Good to know: The sunsets over the lake are nothing short of spectacular.