To lake or to beach? That is the question for many families, who battle it out each summer—my family among them. My husband, who grew up in the Midwest, is firmly Team Lake, while I, raised on the East Coast, am decidedly an ocean fan. Over time, we’ve discovered a few special places, all within easy driving distance, where both beach and lake lovers can find something to like.
Lakes for Beach Lovers
Enjoy Boardwalk Amusements
Lake Anna, Virginia
Distance from DC: 75 minutes.
Kids clamoring for boardwalk attractions? No worries. Lake Anna has a boardwalk with an arcade, mini golf, a pizza parlor, and an ice-cream shop steps from the water. Canoes and kayaks hug the 200-mile, pine-fringed shoreline. Lake Anna is on the site of a former gold mine established in the 1820s, and today you can pan for gold with a park ranger in secluded coves. Free sunset concerts at the Pavilion at Anna Point Marina are less about party-hearty and more about kids with glow bracelets dashing between grandparents swaying to ’70s rock and sipping craft beer.
Stay: Simple cedar-clad cabins in Lake Anna State Park have water views. Two lodges boast six bedrooms each, perfect for multigenerational groups.
Tygart Lake, West Virginia
Distance from DC: Four hours.
Scuba diving in a lake? In West Virginia? Yes and yes. Tygart Lake is a bit of a hidden gem surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. And the diving is good, especially the underwater cliffs known as Henderson Rocks, a magnet for fish. True, visibility isn’t great near the surface, but once you hit 40 feet, the murk disappears. Best of all, you don’t need a boat to dive, because you can wade into the water on the southwestern end. Bring your mountain bike to explore the trails leading to four waterfalls in nearby Valley Falls State Park, or your road bike to cross the Tygart River on the Philippi Covered Bridge, which was used by soldiers during the Civil War.
Stay: Cabins in Lake Tygart State Park have wood-burning fireplaces and views of the water. Stock the kitchenette at Tygart Valley Bulk Foods, a general store with a deli that sells local honey and jam. When you don’t feel like cooking, stop in at Tygart Lake Lodge, which serves meals all day from 8 am to 7 pm.
Build an Epic Sandcastle
Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
Distance from DC: Three and a half hours.
Bring a pail and shovel to Deep Creek, Maryland’s largest lake: It has two castle-worthy beaches, both with seasonal lifeguards and seriously deep sand. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, the lake has plenty of shade trees steps from the water, providing nature’s perfect picnic awnings. Nearby in Swallow Falls State Park, you can hike to a dramatic waterfall that cascades from a 53-foot cliff. Other diversions: Visit rescued birds of prey at the Discovery Center at Deep Creek Lake State Park, or mount a horse at Circle R Ranch, which offers scenic trail rides through apple orchards alongside rolling streams.
Stay: Luxe oasis Lake Pointe Inn, which has a hammock perched over the lake plus a sauna and steam room, caters exclusively to adults. Family-friendly Wisp is a ski resort that’s just as much fun in summer, when chairlifts offer the finest vantage point to capture water views.
Beaches for Lake Lovers
Hike in Nature, Steps From Shore
Assateague Island, Maryland and Virginia
Distance from DC: Two hours and 40 minutes.
This barrier island with a shoaly coastline is only a 15-minute drive from Ocean City, but it feels a world away. Assateague beaches are bold and beautiful, just like the island’s famed wild horses, believed to have escaped from Spanish shipwrecks in the 1700s. Hike one of three nature trails with storybook names mirroring their magical landscape: Life of the Marsh, a half-mile loop that juts into the water; Life of the Forest, ringed by dense grasses where the ponies graze; and Life of the Dunes, a peaceful path that weaves over the beach.
Stay: Camp right on the sand, where wild horses will likely scamper outside your tent. Note: Mosquitoes and biting flies are also fans of the beach. For a less rustic experience, Refuge Inn, a nearby hotel with a pool, is home to several of the horses that were adopted from the island.
Swim in Calm Waters
Distance from DC: Two and a half hours.
The gentle lapping waves in Lewes belie its proximity to the turbulent Atlantic (which can be found nearby at Cape Henlopen State Park). A compact town beach on the Delaware Bay, with its calm, shallow waters, is perfect for families with young kids. Come low tide, you can putter out to explore little sandbars. Stroll along the fishing pier for views of two historic lighthouses. Two ice-cream shops are in easy walking distance of the shoreline, and the historic boutique-filled town of Lewes is a two-minute drive away.
Stay: Clad in shake shingles, the Inn at Canal Square has some stylish two-story family suites overlooking the water on one side and the town on the other.
Grill and Picnic at Water’s Edge
Buckroe Beach, Virginia
Distance from DC: Three hours.
Unlike many beaches that restrict grilling and picnicking, Buckroe actually encourages cookouts. In addition to a waterfront park where you can bring your own grill, there are three party pavilions, each with picnic tables and a grill. Situated where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Chesapeake Bay, the water here is far less rough than at nearby Virginia Beach, and the sandy shores far less crowded. The long fishing pier, where anglers reel in flounder and rockfish, is also a prime spot to catch a colorful sunset. A ten-minute drive lands you at the Virginia Air & Space Science Center, run by NASA, where you can check out vintage spacecraft and try your hand at flight simulation.
Stay: Both the Landing at Hampton Marina, a modern hotel overlooking the water, and Magnolia House Inn, a Victorian B&B that offers a glimpse into the area’s storied past, are a short drive from the beach and a quick walk to the charming wooden Buckroe Beach carousel, which has been entertaining families since the 1920s.
This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Washingtonian.