Squam vs. Winnipesaukee: Which lake is better for campers?
New Hampshire’s two biggest lakes couldn’t be more different. But both have plenty of attractive options for camping.
My family recently faced an age-old New England question: Squam or Winnipesaukee? New Hampshire’s two largest lakes both have plenty to offer for a summer retreat: boating, fishing, swimming, and ample trails for hiking. But Squam Lake has 60.5 miles of shoreline to Lake Winnipesaukee’s 240 miles, and just 30 or so islands to Winnipesaukee’s more than 300. Winnipesaukee goes big in other aspects: the size of its boats and its McMansion “cottages,” the intensity of its nightlife, rumors of a lake monster. Winnipesaukee is a bit What About Bob?, fast-paced and a little oblivious; Squam has that On Golden Pond peaceful reserve.
I wanted to find a place where we could pitch a tent, teach the kids to build a fire, enjoy kayaking, and have some screen-free entertainment options. Both lakes have options, and naturally their own camping personalities, too. Squam’s family-friendly campgrounds tend toward quieter, more rustic options; Winnipesaukee’s offer more choices, including lakeside RV camping and even a site near the bustling boardwalk at Weirs Beach in Laconia.
You’ll see a lot more trees and rocky shores on Squam than on Winnipesaukee, since building regulations in the five towns that border Squam keep the lake houses (often called “camps” by the families that own them) mostly out of sight. Speed limits for boats are also lower on Squam, and ski craft and houseboats are prohibited.
There are multiple campgrounds around Squam Lake, but to really get away from it all, I focused on the three run by Squam Lakes Association. Two of these are on islands in the lake, Moon and Bowman, which have just a few campsites each, are accessible only by kayak, canoe, or other motor-free craft, and have only toilets as far as amenities go. The other campsite, Chamberlain Reynolds Memorial Forest, can be reached by a roughly 25-minute hike from a parking lot, or by paddling in. Sign-ups for the season, which started May 1, start early in the year, with priority going to association members, but there are still some dates available for this summer.
Campgrounds on Winnipesaukee offer access to more activities, as well as amenities like showers, restrooms, and laundry. I focused on two: Long Island Bridge Campground and Paugus Bay Campground. Long Island Bridge, on the northeastern shore of Winnipesaukee, has lots of choices: you can pick a cabin, pitch your tent, park your car, or plant your RV for a week or two. The campground also has fields, basketball and volleyball courts, a pond, play areas, and paths to explore, all in a protected cove on the shores of the lake. On the opposite side of Winnipesaukee and close to Weirs Beach and all its amusements is Paugus Bay. Camping there makes it easy to see a film at the Weirs Drive-In Theater, which started its 70th year in April, or eat fried dough and play at the arcades on the Weirs Beach boardwalk.
Family camp is another option, one that comes with the luxury of supervised activities for kids, and family-style meals parents don’t have to prepare. Two of the oldest and most traditional in the area are the Rockywold Deephaven Camps on Squam’s northwestern shore, and Three Mile Island Camp on Winnipesaukee. Rockywold Deephaven, established in 1897, uses ice harvested directly from the lake and has camp traditions like scavenger hunts, island picnics, capture the flag, and ferry trips to Squam’s Church Island, which hosts nondenominational services each Sunday throughout the summer. The Three Mile Island camp is built on 43 acres in the middle of one of Winnipesaukee’s long northern stretches of water, and is owned and run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Lodging is in cabins, some with their own docks, some with adjacent tent platforms, and hearkens back to its founding in 1900 — bathroom facilities include outhouses and “sun” showers (there is a main house with electricity and running water). There are horseshoe pits and tennis and volleyball courts, and the AMC offers weekly conservation talks, a variety of outdoor programs (campers can volunteer to organize an activity, too), and canoe, kayak, sunfish, and sailing boat rentals.
It’s a tough call either way. Moultonborough borders both lakes, and I called Jo Hayden, whose family has owned and run the Moultonborough Old Country Store for 48 years. She sees vacationers and locals from both lakes all summer long, and says both offer “something for all ages” and the chance to create the kinds of memories that turn into tradition.
This year, we’ll head to Squam to “build some character” ( as my father would say) in a more rustic setting. But in summers to come, we’ll look forward to enjoying both lakes.
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