What does a weekend at the lake look like to you? Do you imagine a serene lake, dotted with sailboats under a sunny blue sky. Or picture yourself tearing around on a jet ski by day and partying on a lakeside bar patio all night? Reeling in large-mouth bass, or teaching your kids how to build a sand castle? Well, you’re in luck, because there are as many styles of lakeside vacation as there are neon lights in Branson. Here are the top picks for your summer getaway.
Lake Of The Ozarks
Lake Ozark/Osage Beach, MO
(800) 386-5253

Still the queen of St. Louis area lakes, the Lake of the Ozarks offers more than a thousand miles of shore. The Bagnell Dam Strip area, near Lake Ozark and Osage Beach, seems dated now. Branson has stolen its thunder. Lake Ozark/Osage Beach lacks the Vegas-style shows on offer in Branson, but it still has bumper boats, skee ball. go-karts, fudge and tie-dye stores galore, plus great restaurants and party bars. The lake was always the main feature, and it’s still serene and gorgeous. Perfect for fishing, boating, golfing, horseback riding, and jet-skiing, with over 50 marinas on hand to rent equipment.

Branson, MO
(800) 785-1610

Branson has become the undisputed epicenter of Midwestern lake tourism. It’s strip throbs with neon lights and country music, offering one stage show after another. Luxury hotels, golf courses, and outlet malls attract the upscale crowd, while Elvis impersonators and wholesome comedy shows bring busloads of seniors. Families opt for Silver Dollar City, and outdoorsy folks can hike, fish, parasail, or ride horses in the lush landscape that surrounds the lake. The Branson website will help you plan your activities and find lakeside lodging.

Table Rock Lake
Stone County, MO
(800) 595-0393

If the neon lights of Branson aren’t your cup of tea, you can enjoy Table Rock Lake from a different spot on its nearly 500 miles of shoreline. Away from the glitter and noise, the lake is peaceful and you can enjoy the stars at night. Boat rental, fishing, and relaxing are all popular activities. For a change of pace, do some hiking in Table Rock State Park or drive to Silver Dollar City for an afternoon. FlipKey has a generous listing of lake houses for rent at Table Rock.

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Carlyle Lake
Carlyle, IL
(618) 594-2484

On the Illinois side of the Mississippi, everyone heads to Carlyle Lake for their boating and fishing fun. The 26,000 acre manmade lake is the largest the state has to offer. Carlyle has always been popular with the sailboat crowd, although power craft can be seen here, too. Fishermen are thick on both the lake and the shore, drawn by the hordes of catfish, bass, and bluegill. It’s not a good lake for swimming, so families often opt for lodging with swimming pools. The Lake’s website can guide you to lodging.

Trout Lodge 
Potosi, MO
(314) 241-9622

If you have young children, there is no better lake vacation than the YMCA’s Trout Lodge in Potosi. It’s an all-inclusive resort for families, with a big lodge and an idyllic private lake surrounded by woodland paradise. Kids and parents can ride bikes, paddle “funyaks,” swim, slide, sail, and more all day long. Choose from a smorgasbord of planned activities every day, like arts & crafts, storytelling, or marshmallow roasts. For an extra charge, you can ride horses or challenge yourselves to the zip line or climbing wall. The dining room has a separate child-size buffet with dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and other kid favorites. Stay in the lodge unless you like rustic accommodations or have a large group, then opt for a cabin.

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Lauren Haas was the founder and publisher of The St. Louis Area Family Gazette magazine. Now, Lauren is a full-time freelance writer who travels the world, using St. Louis as her base. Visit her blog at http://www.thesoulofajourney.com.