We asked a group of writers with ties to the New England states to tell us about their favorite lakes and ponds. Is your favorite on the list? (The rules are changing all the time. Be sure to check official websites before venturing out to a lake.) Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Umbagog Lake | New Hampshire and Maine
By Keith O’Brien
In the Summer of COVID-19, after months of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures, we all wish to fill the void by gathering in crowds. And, here in New Hampshire, that would mean heading to Lake Winnipesaukee, the state’s most famous lake with its postcard islands, deep, blue waters, and shoreline villages bustling, in normal times, with tourists from Massachusetts, New York, and beyond.
But there is another New Hampshire lake that is ready-made for our socially distanced times. To get there, you’ll need to drive farther north, well past Wolfeboro, Conway, and even Berlin, dipping into Maine, coming into New Hampshire through the side door, and arriving at your destination just 30 miles from the Canadian border: Umbagog Lake.
An 11-mile lake straddling the Maine-New Hampshire border, Umbagog is a true wilderness. You’ll find no crowds here and no yachts. If you are to travel by boat on Umbagog, it is best to do so by canoe or kayak. The average depth of the lake, after all, is just 10 feet. The accommodations also hark back to a simpler time. Umbagog Lake State Park has 60 campsites—and the ones you’ll truly want, when open, are remote: 33 sites accessible only by water.
State park rangers will ferry you there in a small boat, if you wish, dropping you off on the shoreline of your campsite with your supplies and just two promises. One: They will return to bring you home in a few days or a week, whatever your reservation might be. And two: While you are alone on the shores of Umbagog, you will see wildlife—otters, eagles, moose, and frogs as big as your fist.
But traffic? No. People? Not really. Umbagog has been specializing in social distancing for centuries. Perhaps its moment has finally arrived.
Keith O’Brien is a New York Times best-selling author and a former reporter for The Boston Globe. He lives in New Hampshire.
Lake Willoughby | Vermont
By Ben Hewitt
Perhaps what I like most about Vermont’s Lake Willoughby is how it announces itself long before its deep, crystalline waters come into view. That’s because the 5-mile-long, fjord-like glacial lake is bookended by Mounts Pisgah and Hor, both of which rise steeply from its shores like geologic exclamation marks, visible from dozens of miles away.
Not that Willoughby itself isn’t worthy of admiration: at 320-feet deep, it’s the deepest body of water that’s entirely contained by Vermont’s borders (only Lake Champlain, which shares shores with New York and Quebec, is deeper). On calm days, when the surface remains unrippled by wind, the glacial waters are a deep shade of blue, improbably clear and achingly cold. This may or may not suggest that Lake Willoughby’s water is purer than other lakes in the region, but it sure looks and feels that way.
Or maybe what I like most about Willoughby is how, for nearly two decades, it’s served as a special occasion destination for my family. It’s not the body of water we visit most frequently, not by a long shot; rather, it’s the one we visit when we have the luxury of an unhurried day before us, with time aplenty to load the canoe, a cooler of sandwiches, and our two young sons into the car, and make the hourlong drive to its south shore. Once there, we let the boys shriek and splash, while my wife and I set the boat into the lake, then pause to join our sons for a swim before setting out.
In these moments, I like to look out over that ancient water, imagining its slow journey through time, and the simple miracle of it converging here, at this very moment, around the coltish legs of my children. Then, we step into the canoe and push off.
Ben Hewitt lives and writes in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. He is the author of six books, including “The Town That Food Saved,” and “Home Grown.”
Spring Lake | Rhode Island
By Jamie Coelho
Sure the ocean is beautiful, but the crashing surf can be intimidating to a 6-year-old still learning to swim. Enter the glassy surface of Spring Lake in the bucolic Glendale section of Burrillville, Rhode Island, where a subdued sky leaves a shivering silver reflection on the cool surface of the water.
Before jumping in on a visit last summer, we get sidetracked by the historic penny arcade that lures kids from the beach. The 89-year-old gaming haven houses some of the oldest arcade games in the nation, including 1930s shooting challenges, prize-grabs, and a strength-tester as well as vintage pinball and Skee-Ball machines. My son is just as interested in the old-timey diversions as he is in modern games like whack-a-mole and earns enough of a ticket jackpot to nab a deck of cards printed with the image of hundred dollar bills, plus a few pieces of candy and a tiny toy jumping frog for his 3-year-old sister.
Prizes in hand, we kick off our shoes and head to the sand. Both kids can’t get down to their bathing suits fast enough to run toward a yellow and green painted tortoise waterslide. The calm wake laps up against the shore, emboldening my son to splash about and test the waters. There are no roaring motorboats or whizzing jet skis, just the joyful shrieks of laughter. A teenage lifeguard watches from high on his perch, blowing his whistle at the first sign of horseplay from a few preteens. Before I know it, my son is climbing up one of several 8-foot blue slides and slipping into the shallow water, then bobbing back to the surface. Each time, he asks me to step farther and farther away from the base of the slide to prove his independence. It turns out he’s ready to take the plunge. It’s Mommy who doesn’t want to let go.
Jamie Coelho is an associate editor at Rhode Island Monthly magazine. She publishes articles about restaurants and life in the Ocean State at RIMonthly.com.
Megunticook Lake | Maine
By Kathryn Miles
On the surface, there’s nothing all that extraordinary about Megunticook Lake. It’s not the biggest or deepest or even the most pristine in the state. There are no apocryphal legends of it being formed by lovers’ tears or the ladle of a goddess. And, technically, it’s not really even a lake, but rather a human-made reservoir formed by centuries of grist and gunpowder mills, which dammed Megunticook River beginning in the 17th century. But that just makes Megunticook easier to love — and such a quintessentially Maine experience.
Summer visitors have their choice of freshwater experiences. At the southeastern end of the lake, just a few miles from downtown Camden, is Barrett’s Cove, a public beach and grassy park popular with families. Parking is free; swimming areas are marked; it’s an easy place for all generations to spend a day. Even in the heat of summer, the water here remains crystalline — the kind of place where grubby kids emerge far cleaner than they went in. The beach itself has a hometown vibe: kids still bike in for a dip or to work on their merit badges by inspecting kayaks and paddle boards for invasive aquatic species.
For a less-traveled Megunticook experience, head farther down Route 52 to Fernald’s Neck Preserve, 285 acres of loveliness managed by Coastal Mountains Land Trust. There, nearly 4 miles of trails and boardwalks pass through flowering meadows and primeval hemlock forests before reaching the water’s edge. Along the way, you’ll pass stands of blooming milkweed and aster, then Balance Rock, a massive three-story glacial erratic that appears to defy gravity by leaning off kilter next to the trail.
Once at the water, visitors tend to group on large boulders, sunning themselves or sliding selkie-like into the shallow coves. If you’re stealthy, you’ll come upon hunting great blue herons and lounging painted turtles. And even if they’re all out for lunch, there’s plenty to be gained from simply floating in this delicately fragrant water, watching clouds drift across the neighboring Maiden Cliffs, and relishing the illusion that you are surrounded by millions of miles of untouched wilderness.
Kathryn Miles is the author of four books, including “Quakeland: On the Road To America’s Next Devastating Earthquake.” She lives in Portland, Maine.
Knights Pond | New Hampshire
By Bill Donahue
On scorching summer weekends, the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire is typically chockablock with tourists.
Traffic crawls outside the miniature golf courses, and the aroma of gasoline is everywhere on giant Lake Winnipesaukee, punctuated by the throttle of jet skis.
Sometimes, amid all the clamor, I need Knights Pond. Situated only a mile from the shore of Winnipesaukee, in Alton, New Hampshire, tiny Knights is a haven of silence only accessible via an easy trail through the hemlocks and pines. There are no power boats allowed on this 31-acre body of water, and when I visit on a cloudless summer Sunday, there’s only one other party on hand—a dad and his son fishing from a kayak.
I’m a long-distance swimmer on a mission to swim across Knights. But in a place like this, why hurry? First, I decide, I’ll stroll the 1.7-mile trail that encircles the pond on a mostly wooded 307-acre medley of conservation easements held by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust and the State of New Hampshire.
The path undulates through small shoreline hills at first, the ground underfoot rooty and rocky and softened by rust-colored pine needles. It reaches a doll-sized natural white sand beach, just 20 feet wide, and then jogs right, around sprawling green wetlands. Eventually, it plunges to a bridge over shallow swamp waters dotted with purple flowers. When the trail ends, after a vaguely strenuous push through a scattering of sofa-sized boulders, I’m sweating.
So at last I jump into Knights Pond and swim — across and back, a casual journey of a half, maybe three-quarters of a mile. The water is clear, so I can see the stones on the bottom. Downed tree limbs jut out from the banks, the wood still bright orangey yellow, fresh fallen. The sandy beach, when I reach it, is pleasantly gritty and rough on my toes. I got here, I think, swimming back through the cool water. I’m in nature right now.
Bill Donahue writes for Outside, Backpacker, and The Washington Post Magazine.
Tully Lake | Massachusetts
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
You’d never know it by the piney woods that hug its shores, but Tully Lake is no accident of nature. It was willed into existence when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Tully Valley in 1949 to control flooding on the Millers and Connecticut rivers. Seventeen years later, the basin had filled and Tully Lake opened to the public.
Sometimes it feels like Tully was cast in amber in 1966. The small campground managed by the Trustees of Reservations only allows tents. You can’t even drive to the roughly three dozen sites—you have to load your gear into a rolling cart at the parking lot. Not only are there no behemoth recreational vehicles, power boats on the lake are limited to small outboards, fine for putting between fishing holes. That limit also rules out jet skis. Cell signals are too weak to stream music, let alone video. As a result, a kind of blessed peace prevails. The term “natural resources” assumes new meaning.
At Tully Lake, few distractions stand between you and nature. There’s no sandy beach with a lifeguard, but you can still wade in, mud squeezing between your toes, until the water is shoulder deep and you lean out and begin alternating strokes in a classic crawl. The Trustees rent canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards to campers and day-trippers alike. They’re perfect for paddling around the perimeter and the heavily wooded little islands in the middle, all the while on the lookout for mink, otters, and beavers.
The 4-mile blue-blazed trail around the lake is mostly easy walking, apart from hopping over brooks and scooting under deadfall trees. Walking clockwise from the campground, you’ll hear Doane’s Falls before you reach the first of three cascading cataracts, as previously desultory Lawrence Brook suddenly dives off the hillside, bound downhill toward home: sweet little Tully Lake.
Cambridge-based travel journalists Patricia Harris and David Lyon have chronicled New England experiences in more than two dozen books.
Bolton Lakes | Connecticut
By Jeff Harder
Driving an hour inland to reach the water when Long Island Sound is barely a mile from my house sounds completely unjustifiable. But it’s a holiday weekend: I’ll trade the usual parking-lot congestion and sandy claustrophobia for a calmer, shadier, hassle-free destination, no matter the distance.
That destination is Bolton Lakes, three side-by-side bodies of water straddling four eastern Connecticut towns 20 minutes from Hartford. Once a key power source for 19th-century saw and grist mills, by the time the state took ownership in 1939, a dam and paved road trisected the nearly 350-acre lake system. In theory, you could put a kayak in at the public boat launch on Lower Bolton Lake, hop out and over those two partitions, and paddle the whole trilogy while logging just a few footsteps. (In reality, the dangers of transplanting invasive plant species mean portaging is frowned upon.)
Not long after exiting Interstate 84, my family and I cruise down Hatch Hill Road until the trees recede and water appears on either side of the pavement. At the Middle Bolton Lake boat launch, a man unloads a tackle box from one light pickup in a row of them; native bass and pickerel swim in the middle section’s steely waters. Across the street, the shallower, swampier-looking upper lake—the natural filter for what flows to its siblings downstream—is free of traffic. A few more turns and a $15 out-of-town entry fee, and we’re at Indian Notch Park on Lower Bolton Lake, the trio’s 175-acre big brother.
We set up on a tiny patch of mercifully uncrowded sand in the shade of trees with two-toned trunks as the sun climbs and the air turns redolent with burning briquettes. My 3-year-old son—inexplicably tentative at our home beach on the sound—is all too eager to drag me to splash at the buoyed-in swim area, and then stroll to the adjacent boat launch to gawk at the yogis contorting on paddle boards while my wife keeps sand out of our 12-month-old daughter’s mouth. The ducks are swimming, the geese are fluttering, and the anglers are tossing out lines from their kayaks. I wish I’d brought something to paddle, too. When the next holiday weekend comes, I just might.
Jeff Harder is a freelance writer quarantined in Connecticut.
Correction: This article was updated on 6/2/20 to reflect that Tully Lake is not offering Wi-Fi this year.