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6 places to go lake swimming in Massachusetts

The Bay State has more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, plenty to keep ‘lake baggers’ busy.

Campers at Nickerson State Park flock to Flax Pond, but it's fine for day-trippers as well. Boat rentals are available too.
Campers at Nickerson State Park flock to Flax Pond, but it's fine for day-trippers as well. Boat rentals are available too.Diane Bair

Attention, lake lovers: “Lake bagging” is trending now. Similar to “peak bagging,” where hikers and mountaineers keep a list of all the summits they’ve conquered, lake baggers are “wild swimmers” who keep track of each body of water they take a dip in, and swim in as many lakes and ponds as possible. Folks do it for fun, friendly competition, or as a personal challenge. The only rules seem to be that you have to swim in an actual named body of water and totally immerse yourself — no dipping a toe into the lake and claiming it as a lake-bag.

We’re not necessarily advocating this activity, but we do love a good freshwater dip on a hot day. Did you know that the Bay State has more than 3,000 lakes and ponds? Not all are open for swimming, but among the swimmable ones are some real beauties — perfect for a day at the lake. Most have picnic tables, hiking trails, and boat rentals so you can add other elements to your itinerary. Here’s a look. Just promise us you won’t do this unless you’re a strong swimmer, and that you follow the DCR’s safety tips, below.

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Lake Cochituate, Natick

The lake is officially a 635-acre great pond, with much of its shoreline contained within Cochituate State Park. It’s located off Route 9 and Route 30 at the intersection of Framingham, Natick, and Wayland. The lake is divided into three major basins, North, Middle, and South ponds, which are connected by navigable (by boat) culverts. Middle Pond is the designated swimming zone, with a roped-off swimming area, and no motorboat traffic. The pond bottom is mostly mud and gravel with some sandy areas (mostly in the southern basin). Water transparency is typically between five and seven feet.

There’s plenty to do at this urban oasis, including a rental concession with rowboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and sailing dinghies. The pond is stocked with trout. Count on picnic tables and restrooms, and plan to spend some time meandering the park’s hiking trails. On a hot day, the lake gets busy, especially on weekends, so plan your visit early or late in the day if you want to avoid crowds, or snag a parking spot ($8 for Mass. residents). Cochituate State Park, 43 Commonwealth Road, Natick. 508-653-9641; www.mass.gov/locations/cochituate-state-park

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One of Cape Cod's numerous kettle ponds, Flax Pond is a popular freshwater swimming hole.
One of Cape Cod's numerous kettle ponds, Flax Pond is a popular freshwater swimming hole.Diane Bair

Flax Pond, Brewster

Flax Pond is one of Cape Cod’s numerous kettle ponds, depressions left behind by retreating glaciers during the Ice Age. This 48-acre natural kettle hole pond is surrounded by 1.4 miles of undeveloped shoreline, protected as part of Nickerson State Park. Transparency is excellent and the bottom is mostly sandy. There’s some boat traffic here, since campers and day-use visitors can launch their boats here, but only electric motors are allowed. There’s also a boat rental concession at the pond with kayaks and canoes. The pond is stocked with trout. Although there are other ponds within the park, Flax is best for swimming, even though the beach area is fairly small. Experienced swimmers tend to head out a bit. The average depth of the pond is 36 feet. Note that there are no lifeguards stationed here. Restrooms are located just off the parking lot. Want to make it a multisport day? Bring bicycles; an 8-mile bike path within the park connects to the 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail. Parking for Mass. residents: $8. Nickerson State Park, 3488 Main St., Brewster (once inside the park, reach Flax Pond via Flax Pond Road). 508-896-3491; www.mass.gov/locations/nickerson-state-park

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People think of mountains when they think "Berkshires," but there are some nice lakes as well. A favorite: Onota Lake in Pittsfield.
People think of mountains when they think "Berkshires," but there are some nice lakes as well. A favorite: Onota Lake in Pittsfield.Diane Bair

Onota Lake, Pittsfield

Looking for a spot to cool off after hiking in the Berkshires? Consider Onota Lake, a 617-acre great pond located just beyond the city limits of Pittsfield, owned and managed by the city. Access the lake at Burbank Park, a city park with picnic groves, a playground, and free parking at the lake’s eastern shore. About 25 percent of the shoreline is protected within the boundary of the park. (There’s a nice lakeside walking path accessible from the park, too.) It’s a pleasant place to pull out a picnic lunch and enjoy distant views of Mount Greylock. This lake does get busy in summer, though, attracting anglers, swimmers, water skiers, and sailors. Want to rent a boat? Try Onota Boat Livery rentals (www.onotaboat.com). The lake is stocked with trout in spring and fall, and there’s a 75-foot fishing pier. Average depth of the lake is 21 feet with a maximum of 66 feet; water is transparent to about 17 feet. Lifeguards are posted in July and August. Restrooms are still closed, alas, but they do have some portable toilets. Valentine Drive, Pittsfield. 413-499-9344; www.cityofpittsfield.org/departments/community_development/open_space_program/onota_lake.php

Lake Quinsigamond, Worcester

Lake Quinsigamond is home to a 2,000-meter rowing course that is considered one of the best in the world. But it’s a great spot for swimmers, too. This 800-acre great pond — about 4 miles long and less than a mile wide in most places — is located in the heart of Worcester County between Worcester and Shrewsbury. The lake comprises two sections: a deep narrow northern basin (where local colleges practice rowing and hold rowing events) plus a shallower southern basin, marked by coves and eight islands. All but one, Drake Island, are privately owned. The southern side connects with Flint Pond, a large, shallow pond in Shrewsbury. The northern basin averages 36 feet and is 90 feet at its deepest, while the southern basin averages 21 feet. The lake’s two swimming beaches are Regatta Point and Lake Park. Lake Quinsigamond State Park sits along the western edge of the lake. This is a great place for families, thanks to lifeguard stations, a picnic grove, and restrooms. Parking, $8. 10 N. Lake Ave., Worcester. 508-755-6880; www.mass.gov/locations/quinsigamond-state-park

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Breakheart Reservation, Saugus

One of the few freshwater swimming spots north of Boston, 640-acre Breakheart Reservation is a cool, leafy respite on a sweltering day. Acres of hardwood trees surround two freshwater lakes, Silver and Pearce, with a backdrop of 200-plus-foot rocky hills. Lifeguard-monitored Pearce Lake is tops for swimming, but plan to make a full day of it here: the reservation is laced with dozens of hiking trails, including a ½-mile trek to Eagle Rock (great views of the lake) and a 3-mile paved loop that’s popular with stroller-pushing parents and kids on bikes. There’s also a playground, bathrooms, and — sometimes — an ice cream truck. Parking is free. 177 Forest St., Saugus. 781-233-0834; www.mass.gov/locations/breakheart-reservation

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Tucked away in north-central Massachusetts, Lake Dennison is surrounded by undeveloped shoreline.
Tucked away in north-central Massachusetts, Lake Dennison is surrounded by undeveloped shoreline.Diane Bair

Lake Dennison State Recreation Area, Winchendon

We discovered this one by accident last summer, while camping at nearby Otter River State Forest in north-central Massachusetts. Otter River has a pond, but Lake Dennison trumps it, with a pretty, 83.5-acre lake surrounded by woodsy, undeveloped shoreline. So inviting! Lake Dennison is a section of the Army Corps of Engineers Birch Hill Flood Control Project, but is managed by the DCR and Otter River State Park staff for recreational use. The lake is clear, slightly brownish-colored, with about 15 feet of visibility and a sandy bottom. The average depth is 8 feet. Restrooms and a picnic area are available.

Beyond the lake, the most striking feature of 121-acre Lake Dennison Recreation Area is the 150-site campground. Some campsites sit near the water’s edge — nice! Things are pretty quiet here, but non-motorized boats are allowed on the lake. Outboard motors larger than 10 horsepower are prohibited. With more than 50 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, this park is a favorite of active types. Trails connect with the Birch Hill Wildlife Management Area, so you can make it a real swim-hike-bike adventure, if you’re so inclined. But even if you just pop in for a swim, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered someplace special. 219 Baldwinville Road, Winchendon, 978-287-1609; www.mass.gov/locations/lake-dennison-recreation-area

Safety tips for natural bodies of water

Provided by the Department of Conservation & Recreation.

Natural bodies of water are more dangerous than they look because there may be

  • steep drop-offs that can take you by surprise.
  • invisible currents that can sweep you away or tire you out.
  • tree limbs, plants, rocks and other obstacles.
  • cold water that can shock your system and impair your ability to react.
  • more distance to reach that island than you think.
  • poor visibility in the water, which can make it hard for you to see where you are and for other people to see you.

Stay safe when visiting any natural body of water:

  • Call 911 immediately if you think someone is drowning.
  • Do not try to rescue someone from the water unless you are trained in water rescue.
  • Ask someone in your group to stay sober, out of the water, and diligent about keeping an eye on the people in the water.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com