Picking only 10 of the best boating destinations in a country as big as the US is like telling someone to choose only 10 foods to eat for the rest of their lives—however, as difficult as it was, we came up with a list of perennial favorites where sailors, power cruisers, anglers and watersports buffs flock to for seasonal or year-round boating.
Check out our list of the best boating locations below—in no particular order—and if you manage to go boating in even just one the following destinations, we promise you’ll be a happy boater for sure.
Top 10 Boating Destinations
- San Juan Islands
- San Francisco
- Lake Havasu
- Lake Champlain
- Isle Royale National Park
- Mackinac Island
- Newport, Rhode Island
- Chesapeake Bay
- South Florida
- Northwest Florida
1. San Juan Islands
For island hopping in relatively protected waters, head to the Pacific Northwest. Instead of palm trees and tropical fishes, you’ll find pine forests and killer whales. The sea life here is amazing as is the seafood and each island and town has a charm all its own.
Highlights include Roche and Friday islands and Haro Strait where dolphins play every day. A visit to the Rosario Mansion and its old timey music room on Orcas Island is a must.
2. San Francisco
Blustery winds but fairly calm seas inside San Francisco Bay make this a popular destination for sailors, but power boaters love it too. You can explore the far-flung Bay each weekend for a year and still not cover every cove.
3. Lake Havasu
Whether it’s wakeboarding or partying you’re looking for (although due to COVID-19, rafting up is prohibited and you should only boat with members of your household or within your quarantine circle—learn more here), Lake Havasu is the place to be. On the border between Southern California and Arizona, Havasu is a sport boat Mecca but there are plenty of houseboats and pontoon boats as well.
Like a magnet for young boaters, the area seems like an eternal Spring Break celebration.
4. Lake Champlain
In the opposite corner of the country, and this time on the border of Vermont and New York Sate, is Lake Champlain. This “lake” is 125 miles long, stretching all the way up into Canadian waters. Boaters can explore 80 islands and enjoy watersports, fishing and cruising to historical sites on the lake’s 450 square miles. Given its location, the season is only a few months long but what fun months they can be.
5. Isle Royale National Park
The second largest island in the Great Lakes, Isle Royale can be found on Lake Superior. The park is actually an archipelago of 400 islands that is open May to October every year. If you’ll be docking or anchoring overnight, be sure to obtain a permit.
Divers—bring your gear and thick wetsuits as there are hundreds of shipwrecks to explore but the water can be chilly.
6. Mackinac Island
Also in the Great Lakes is the scenic island of Mackinac on Lake Huron. Just over four square miles, the island is a summertime draw. Whether you’re up for a kayak tour or a lunch at the yacht club, Mackinac and its history are steeped in maritime culture that won’t disappoint.
Each year there is also the Chicago Yacht Club’s challenging race up Lake Michigan, a distance of over 300 miles that puts even seasoned sailors to the test.
7. Newport, Rhode Island
Arguably the center of all things sailing related, Newport in Rhode Island is the quintessential boater’s paradise. Possibly the birthplace of the blue blazer yachting set, the area has thousands of coves among historic sites that can keep a boater busy for a lifetime of summer cruising.
Each September, Newport also hosts a distinguished boat show for both power and sail boaters who come to browse boats and dine on lobster rolls.
8. Chesapeake Bay
A little farther south is America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, that’s nearly 200 miles long and anywhere from three to 30 miles wide. Its shoreline is over 11,000 miles and about half of the Bay’s 8,100 square miles of watery surface are in Maryland and half in Virginia.
Historic and urban cruising is popular since boaters can visit Baltimore, St. Michaels and Annapolis without ever leaving these shallow and mostly protected waters. Fishing for rockfish is popular but in general, any kind of boating is fair game.
9. South Florida
Speaking of fishing, the eastern coast of Florida is the hub of center console fishing boats. Whether fishing for tarpon or tuna, the fishing doesn’t get much better from Fort Lauderdale all the way down through the Florida Keys to the Key West.
Those wishing to explore a little farther can take a run to Bimini or down to the Dry Tortugas, or just hang out in the waterways around Miami and enjoy cocktails among the skyscrapers.
10. Northwest Florida
Florida is a year-round boating destination so both coasts deserve attention. A vast watery playground, Tampa Bay on the western coast of the state calls to paddle boarders, kayakers, fishermen and sailors. You can rent a personal watercraft (PWC) or a pontoon boat and explore the vast bay or join one of the many boating clubs in the area.
Whether dock dining, beach camping, wakesurfing or cruising, you won’t soon run out of things to do and if you need a break from the water, you can always visit the Dali museum in downtown St. Petersburg.
This whirlwind coverage of the nation’s top boating spots leaves room for many more highlights, but if you manage to try out some of the above, you’ll have plenty to do for a very long time.