It probably comes as no surprise to you, given our brand name and our backpacking-ready products, to learn that we here at Mountain House are big fans of mountain lakes. And we're going to go out on a limb and assume that you Mountain House blog readers are, too. Though the first snows may be piling up in the heights this time of year, there's no reason why we can't start dreaming of blissful backcountry lakes to escape to next summer, right?
Here we've compiled a list of some of the best lakes in North America's high country: from sprawling caldera lakes to little glassy tarns. Keep in mind we're by necessity leaving off literally hundreds of other possibilities - America's mountains are chockablock with beautiful lakes, after all. But these are certainly worthy representatives!
Glacier National Park in the Northern Rocky Mountains has absolutely no shortage of spectacularly beautiful mountain lakes, but right up there among the most impressive has to be Iceberg Lake along the Continental Divide of the Lewis Range. Set at close to 6,100 feet, this ridiculously photogenic water body comes tightly hemmed by grand looming mountains--Iceberg Peak, Mount Wilbur--in a tight, northeast-facing cirque that holds snow and ice long into the summer--including, yes, icebergs rafting about in the lake. (The Blackfeet called it Kokutoi Omahxikimi, or "Ice Lake.") Reach it from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn trailhead and a hike along the impressive Ptarmigan Wall--and watch out for grizzly bears, please.
One of Idaho's most celebrated backcountry destinations, Sawtooth Lake lies nearly 8,500 feet up in the sublime Sawtooth Range. It nestled in the shadow of 10,190-foot Mount Regan--you really can't take a bad picture--and the trek up also delivers views of the slightly lower, and equally beautiful, Alpine Lake (also worth a side-trip visit on your Sawtooth Lake hike).
Yellowstone Lake is the king of North America's mountain lakes: the biggest above 7,000 feet on the continent, a nearly 140-square-mile freshwater "sea" perched in the caldera of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. Edged by geyser basins and framed by the Absarokas and the Red Mountains, Yellowstone Lake--swum by cutthroat (and non-native lake) trout, fished by white pelicans and bald eagles, prowled at its edges by grizzlies--feels positively oceanic, especially if you're caught out on a boat in its big whitecaps.
Here's a beloved, easy-to-reach hiking destination in Rocky Mountain National Park that earns its name honestly, framed as it is by Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Plus, reaching Dream Lake means skirting another stunner--Nymph Lake, a couple of hundred feet lower--and the possibility of looping in the somewhat higher gems of Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha.
Oregon's Crater Lake easily ranks among the most beautiful in the world: a vividly blue, vividly clear, and almost perfectly round high-elevation jewel gleaming in the blasted-open caldera of Mount Mazama in the Cascade Range. Formed in a cataclysmic Mazama eruption some 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake comes bordered by lava cliffs, pumice pinnacles, and overlook peaks and knobs; rising above the lake surface is 6,940-foot Wizard Island as well as the jagged little Phantom Ship. A cross-country ski trip around the Crater Lake rim is one of the Pacific Northwest's standout adventures.
From Columbine and Cyclamen lakes in spectacular glacial stairsteps of Sequoia National Park to the Alger Lakes below Koip Peak Pass east of Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada have a surplus of postcard-perfect alpine lakes. One of the biggest is Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Ritter Range (not far south of the Alger Lakes). Named for its preponderance of rocky islets, Thousand Island Lake is an impressively proportioned example of a glacial tarn framed gloriously by the huge tooth of Banner Peak.
The scenic highlight of Upper Michigan's Porcupine Mountains, and among the most breathtaking landscapes in the entire Midwest, Lake of the Clouds--drained to nearby Lake Superior via the Carp River--comes embraced by old-growth Northwoods forest and magnificently overlooked by a sharp escarpment of ancient basalt.
This lake amid the highlands of Baxter State Park, just a stone's throw from Mount Katahdin, distills a whole lot of Maine's scenic essence into its gorgeous setting. There's a good chance your Maine experience along Wassataquoik Lake's shores or on its fish-rich waters will be further enhanced by the appearance of a moose or two.
Not to be confused with the much bigger lake in the Porkies, this cluster of high tarns--more ponds than lakes--sit at 5,000-odd feet between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington in the highest country in the Northeast: the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. The scenery's dreamy, and you can savor it at sunset and sunrise with an overnight stay in the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
Among the highest-elevation lakes in the country and Hawaii's only genuine alpine lake, Lake Waiau has a striking moonscape perch at 13,020 feet on the high flanks of the great shield volcano Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Having shriveled almost to nothing in 2013, Lake Waiau--which means "swirling water of a current" in native Hawaiian and which holds significant cultural significance--has regained its stature lately thanks to rejuvenating rainfalls.
If you're in the mood for lakeshore sightseeing with a bit more developed amenities at your disposal, you'll find some of the best lake resorts in the country have magnificent mountain backdrops: from Lake Tahoe at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Chelan arcing out of the North Cascades of Washington, and Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle to Lake Santeetlah in North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest and Lake George nestled against the New York Adirondacks.
When you're not kicking back at a resort and instead backpacking, it's absolutely critical to practice Leave No Trace principles when "lake-bagging" in the high country. Alpine lakeshores, as well as the marshlands, meadows, tundra, and parkland that often surround them, are fragile places indeed in the face of heavy boot traffic. Many popular lake basins have backpacking quotas or are closed to camping entirely. Often the most responsible thing to do is eschew camping directly along the lake (even if it's allowed) and choose a more durable, less-trammeled site (such as a grove of subalpine forest) in the vicinity.
Feel free to share and celebrate your own favorite mountain lake(s) in the comments. And here's wishing you many a Mountain House feast within reach of many a stunning high-country lakeshore!