LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MISSOURI
"It's a boater's paradise," says Craig Larson of Downers Grove, Illinois, whose family has been coming to Lake of the Ozarks for more than 25 years. Although two of his three children are grown, they still vacation here every summer with 50 to 60 members of the Larsons' water-loving family. With more than 1,100 miles of shoreline, Lake of the Ozarks is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. In addition to secluded coves and gorgeous scenery, the area also boasts an abundance of attractions, such as go-karts, mini golf, indoor and outdoor water parks, and the Main Street Opry Music Show. "You can spend a relaxing day out on the water, go to a nice restaurant for lunch, listen to live music, and then go back out on the lake for water sports," says Catrina Butts, a longtime area resident. "There's always something to do." (800-386-5253; funlake.com)
POPULAR LAKE TOWNS: A chain of small communities rims the lake, but if you're looking for off-the-water fun, head to Lake Ozark or Osage Beach. The towns run together, says Catrina, and offer the most eateries, shops, and boat rentals on the lake. Osage Beach is also home to the 17,000-plus-acre Lake of the Ozarks State Park (573-348-2694; mostateparks.com), where visitors can hike forested trails, take in water views from bluffs, and swim at the two beaches.
FAVORITE FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT CENTER: The Starks of Branson, Missouri, love the water, but like many visitors, they return to Lake of the Ozarks for the fun they find on dry land. For their kids -- 10-year-old Landon and 5-year-old Emily -- the highlight of any visit is a day at Miner Mike's (800-317-2126; minermikes.com), a family entertainment center in Osage Beach with bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, and a roller coaster.
MOST EXCITING DOCKSIDE DINING: Boating is a preferred way to get around at Lake of the Ozarks. "Many of the restaurants have docks with attendants," says Catrina Butts, "so if you're not an experienced boater, you don't have to worry about tying up." She favors The Horny Toad in Lake Ozark (573-365-5500; toadcove.com), a 30,000-square-foot complex that offers much more than good food. "It's got its own boardwalk and a gift shop," she says. "It's humongous."
LAKE POWELL, ARIZONA
If you think a lake couldn't leave you awestruck, you've never been to Lake Powell. Formed in 1965 by the creation of the Glen Canyon Dam, the lake is ringed by a vast series of deep-red sandstone canyons. Cruising its waters, you're surrounded by canyon walls and otherworldly rock formations -- a sight both breathtaking and serene. Like most visitors to this desert oasis, the Gibbons family of Mesa, Arizona, come for the scenery. "Against the rocks, the water is a deep blue," says mom Lisa. "In the morning, before it gets choppy, it's just like glass." When you arrive, you won't find malls or amusement parks -- or much of anything, for that matter. A vacation here is all about the water -- swimming, snorkeling, waterskiing. But don't expect to be bored. "I've spent weeks here with my eighty-year-old grandma and my four-week-old infant and enjoyed every minute," says Lisa. (928-608-6200; nps.gov/glca)
BEST WAY TO EXPERIENCE THE LAKE: Houseboats are the most popular form of lodging at Lake Powell. "You've got everything you'd find in a hotel room, but you're on the water," says Lisa, whose kids loved climbing up to the top of the boat. "We had an ice chest up there and a slide that went right into the water. It was like a floating playground."
SHORE BETS FOR LANDLUBBERS: The nearly 2,000-mile shoreline undulates into countless sandy coves where boaters can anchor and spend a day in near-total seclusion. "My favorite part of our trip," says Barbara Giguere of Shelburne, Massachusetts, "was the one thing we didn't plan -- building sand castles and hanging out on a beach we didn't have to share with anyone else." Cookouts are also popular, and at night you can often see the glimmer of campfires along the shore.
MOST SPECTACULAR SITE: You don't have to travel far to see jaw-dropping scenery at Lake Powell, but Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a natural sandstone arch with a 275-foot span, received the most praise. Although you can't boat to the bridge anymore, guided daylong excursions are available (800-528-6154; lakepowell.com)
Contributor Leslie Garisto Pfaff lives with her family in Nutley, New Jersey.