Doggin’ America's Best Lakes

Lake George - New York.
The strategic position of Lake George, so named by its European discoverer Father Isaac Jogues in 1609, between Lake Champlain and the Hudson Riverlong made it of prime military importance. Fort William Henry, looming on a bluff above the southern shore, was constructed in 1755 and served as the backdrop for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Battle plans eventually gave way to vacation plans with the arrival of many of America’s wealthiest men who built summer retreats around Lake George.

The most spectacular - and grueling - hike in the Lake George region is the Tongue Mountain Range Loop. The range is a five-mile peninsula that thrusts down the middle of the lake. The loop tags the summit of five named mountains and several unnamed knobs on the eastern side of the peninsula before returning along lake level on the western edge. The mountains never reach 2000 feet in height but the ascents and decents make it seem like climbing across the back of a stegosaurus. There are steep, rocky drops - nothing that a dog can’t handle - but canine hikers are best served by taking the loop clockwise. 

Views from the lightly forested ridges are splendid up and down the lake, including memorable looks at some of Lake George’s 365 islands, many clustered in the Narrows caused by the peninsula. Your destination is the very Tip of the Tongue, where the mountain range dips into Lake George. Here, wide rock perches make ideal diving boards for a well deserved doggie dip. In the background will be the venerable Sagamore Hotel across Northwest Bay. The loop is closed with a 4.8-mile return trip along the sometimes-steep shoreline. The total distance for this invigorating exploration is about 13 miles. Bring plenty of water for the dog as there is none aside from the lake.

The tallest mountains surrounding Lake George are on the eastern shore. Trails to Buck Mountain (2,330 feet), Black Mountain (the highest at 2,646 feet) and others make good use of old bridle paths and logging roads and are technically easy for a dog to climb. Fires have visited most of the bare rock summits clearing views from the spruce and oak-beech forests. Mossy hemlocks proliferate on the damper lower slopes. The Black Mountain Loop, best tackled by canine hikers in a counter-clockwise direction so a tricky pick-your-way trail is encountered moving downhill, is enlivened by a series of valley ponds and beaver marshes.

Lake Coeur D’Alene - Idaho.
By 1878 enough miners and homesteaders had filtered into the Coeur d’Alene Mountains that the United States government constructed Fort Sherman at the mouth of the Spokane River on Lake Coeur d’Alene. By the time the military outpost shuttered in 1901, tourism was entrenched along the lake. So many vacationers arrived by steamship that Lake Coeur d’Alene was America’s busiest inland port west of the Mississippi River. Several times the lake, whose literal translation from French is the meaningless “heart of the awl,” has placed highly on lists of the world’s most beautiful lakes.

The best place to enjoy the shoreline of Lake Coeur d’Alene are the downtown parks. Manicured City Park features paved trails, including the 24-mile North Idaho Centennial Trail. The eastern terminus of this multi-use trail is on the north shore of the lake and traces the Spokane River heading west into Washington. At the south end of 3rd Street Tubbs Hill Park offers several miles of canine hiking in 120 acres. A 2.2-mile interpretive trail follows the perimeter of Tubbs Hill. No vehicles are allowed on these trails.

On the eastern shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene are several trails overlooking Beauty Bay. The easiest is Beauty Bay USFS trail #257 at a picnic area off Highway 97. The half-mile loop trail climbs gently through the trees to the most photographed spot on the lake. Hearty canine hikers can access a 15-mile Forest Service Trail here as well, with a 3-mile day hike option. From the campground at Beauty Bay Creek Caribou Ridge Trail #79 grinds up four switchbacks to the top of Mount Coeur d’Alene. There is an elevation gain of more than 2,300 feet on this 4.6-mile-climb through the timber with glimpses of the lake along the way before reaching extensive views of Beauty Bay from the lookout at the 4,439-foot summit.

Along Caribou Ridge is a good place to hunt for huckleberries, the state fruit of Idaho. Huckleberries are wild blueberries common in coniferous forests, solitary plump, dark fruit dangling from bushes that can grow head-high. Idaho’s bluish fruit is the black huckleberry that is most productive at elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. Sweet and ripe in early summer, huckleberries are a favorite of bears.

The must-do hike for dog owners on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene is the Mineral Ridge National Recreation Trail. Prospecting began on this slope in the 1890s with lead-zinc being the big draw. Construction on the 3.3-mile interpretive trail began in 1963 and two decades later it was designated a National Recreation Trail. The dirt trail switches up 660 feet to the 2,800-foot summit through lush stands of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir and past old mining pit excavations. Views can be had of Wolf Lodge Bay and Beauty Bay and spur trails can add a few miles to your exploration of Mineral Ridge.

Lake Itasca - Minnesota.
In 1832, Anishinabe Indian guide Ozawindib led explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, ending a years-long search for the true headwaters of America's mightiest river. Or was it? Finally in the late 1800s, Jacob V. Brower, historian, anthropologist and land surveyor, came to the region to settle the dispute of the actual location of the Mississippi Headwaters. Brower 's work not only definitively established the soure but his tireless efforts to preserve the area led to the creation of Minnesota's first state park on April 20, 1891.

The trail to the source of the Mississippi River from the Visitor Center is really just a few bounds for your dog and after the novelty of stepping across the great river and crowds have worn thin, step away and take your dog down the North Arm of Lake Itasca on the mile-long Schoolcraft Trail. The most substantive canine hiking in the park is south of the lake where a multitude of trails skirt sparkling lakes and trip through piney woodlands. One way to craft your dog's hiking day at Itasca is to drive the ten-mile Wilderness Drive and hike the numerous nature and interpretive trails.

Lake Tahoe - Nevada/California.
The Washoe Indians named the lake, with 72 miles of shoreline, “big water.” Native legend maintained that the Great Spirit gave a young man a branch of leaves to help him elude the pursuing Evil Spirit. Each time the man dropped a leaf from the branch it would create a pool of water the Evil Spirit would be forced to race around. In the heat of the chase, however, the young man became frightened and dropped the entire branch in one spot - creating Lake Tahoe.

At its deepest point the floor of Lake Tahoe is 1,645 feet beneath the surface, making it America’s third deepest lake. At 6,229 feet above sea level, Tahoe is one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. The glacial water is so clear - 97% pure - that if you dropped a meatbone over the edge of a boat your dog could watch it drop for 70 feet.

The Tahoe Rim Trail, a footpath completely around Lake Tahoe, was the inspiration of United States Forest Service oficer Glenn Hampton. He built a coalition of support that would attract more than 10,000 volunteers working 200,000 hours before the 165-mile trail was completed in 2001. The Tahoe Rim Trail visits two states, six counties, three national forests, state parkland and three wilderness areas. It stands as one of the largest volunteer projects ever completed in the United States.

The lowest point of the ridge-running route is 6,300 feet at Tahoe City and the trail reaches its apex at Relay Peak where the summit is tagged at 10,333 feet. Dogs are welcome to enjoy hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail; the going is often on soft, sandy terrain as you pass through lush forests and playful meadows. If you hike the entire trail you become eligible for the “165-Mile Club.” These long-distance hikers receive a patch from the Tahoe Rim Trail Association but no word yet on laurels for your dog’s completing the trail.

Winnemucca Lake: This trail goes through Carson Pass, pioneered by hunter and trapper Christopher “Kit” Carson. When his team made the first successful winter crossing of the Sierras in 1844, the gap at 8,754 feet was called simply “The Pass.” Gold-seekers who came several years later started calling this passageway “Carson Pass” even though the pioneers probably went through the mountains a mile or so to the south. The hike through Carson Pass tags a string of jeweled alpine lakes, the most popular being emerald green Winnemucca Lake. The trail is a delight for humans and dogs alike - wide and sandy with no severe climbs for more than a mile. This is the Lake Tahoe hike to take for wildflower lovers in summer - LupineMules Ear and Indian Paintbrush color the ground. Canine hikers in search of a more spirited walk can continue past Winnemucca Lake. Another mile down the trail - and 400 feet higher - is Round Top Lake and behind it Round Top Mountain is waiting to be climbed. The scenery is some of the best in the Northern High Sierra.

Prey Meadows/Skunk Harbor: Part of this easy-going canine hike reveals an old railroad grade built in the 1870s to supply lumber to the Virginia City building boom. The path forks but is short enough that canine hikers will want to take both routes. The left fork takes you into Prey Meadows with waves of springtime wildflowers; to the right is Skunk Harbor, a twinkling cove on the Tahoe shore. Along the way come glimpses of Lake Tahoe through thick pine and fir trees. If the meadows and mountains look familiar it is because this is where Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright rode for years on Bonanza.

Tallac Historic Site: The southwest shore of Lake Tahoe was a favorite playground to the wealthy and the Tallac Historic Site features three separate rustic estates built from the 1890s through the 1920s. One belonged to Lucky Baldwin, a California real estate investor who operated “the greatest casino in America” here at his Tallac Resort. The Forest
Service acquired the area between 1969 and 1971, and has been restoring and renovating ever since. Pine-scented paths meander around the three estates and poke out to Kiva Beach on the lake, a free beach. Your dog is welcome to trot easily through charming buildings and gardens, man-made ponds and an arboretum. The Tallac Historic Site is linked by a short trail to the Lake Tahoe Visitor Center where dogs are welcome to enjoy a variety of short nature trails. The Rainbow Trail is the feature trail, an interpretive 1/2-mile loop that illuminates the importance of marshes and meadows to the unrivaled clarity of Lake Tahoe. The Forest Tree Trail focuses on the life cycle of the Jeffrey Pine, the dominant tree in the Lake Tahoe basin. Across the road is the Trail of the Washoe, dedicated to life of Tahoe’s original settlers.

Mt. Tallac Trail: Mt. Tallac is the monarch of the Lake Tahoe shoreline, rising over 3,000 feet above the water. Many trails lead to its summit and the Mt. Tallac Trail is one of the best day hikes at Tahoe. The first half of the 5-mile climb is moderately paced until you reach smallish Cathedral Lake, ideal for a doggie dip. Then the going gets rougher as you grind your way up the front face of the 9,735-foot peak. Once on top there won’t be much that escapes your view. Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, the Desolation Wilderness and even the casinos across the state line in Nevada all reveal themselves on Mt. Tallac. Mt. Tallac is in the Desolation Wilderness that requires access by permit. Permits for day
hikers can be obtained at the trailhead. 

Cascade Falls Trail: This is a short out-and-back trail of less than one mile that leads to memorable views of 200-foot Cascade Falls. The trail gains scarcely 100 feet of elevation and can get crowded so you will need to keep your dog under close control. The trail itself picks its way among rocks and Jeffrey pines as it clings to the mountain slope.
Cascade Lake below and Lake Tahoe in the distance are in almost constant view. The final steps as you near the falls are across open granite slopes that can be slippery under paw. Across the road from the campground is Inspiration Point, with views of Emerald Bay that have been called the most photographed in America. Below on the shore at the head of the bay is the estate of Vikingsholm. A trail leads down to the Viking castle on the beach but you will have to take it without your dog. All the trails around Emerald Bay, including the short but demanding Eagle Falls hike, are extremely popular and recommended only for well-behaved dogs.

Mount Rose Wilderness: Mount Rose is the most heavily used of the three wilderness areas around Lake Tahoe. The centerpiece trail is a 6-mile, 2,000-foot ascent to the summit of Mount Rose. This trip is for experienced canine hikers since the paw-friendly hard-packed sand trail gives way in the last two miles to rough shale that can give sharp,
uncertain footing to a dog. From the top of 10,776-foot Mount Rose there are long vistas of Lake Tahoe, the Truckee Meadows and, on clear days, Pyramid Lake beyond Reno. Other trails exploring the canyons and ridges of the high country of the Carson Range are at Mount Rose. The Jones/Whites Creek Loop Trail covers 8 miles and the 2-mile Hunter Creek
explores the northern section of the wilderness. The 3-mile Thomas Creek Trailleads canine hikers to small lakes and lively meadows in the interior of the park. A pleasant leg-stretcher for canine hikers at Mount Rose is the 1.3-mile Mount Rose Meadows Interpretive Trail. The easy loop is paved for full access but bikes and horses are not allowed. It trips through rushing streams and rough granite boulders along the way to the alpine meadow that is awash in wildflowers after the snowmelt. 

Crater Lake - Oregon.
The trails at America’s deepest and bluest lake are off-limits to your dog in Crater Lake National Park. Only one trail actually leads down to the water so your dog won’t really miss the experience of swimming in its crystalline waters anyway if she is confined to parking areas and pull-offs around the lake.

Lake Champlain - Vermont/New York.
The year 2009 marks 400 years since explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed onto the lake that bears his name and claimed the area for France. It was no small claim. Lake Champlain is America’s sixth largest freshwater lake in the Lower 48. It stretches for over 100 miles to form a natural boundary between Vermont and New York State.

Lake Champlain is over 400 feet deep in places - deep enough to spawn legends of its own sea monster. The Iroquois people who lived here for centuries called the creature Tatoskok. Hundreds of documented sightings later, he is known as “Champ.” Champ is described as being thick of body with a longish neck and elongated tail and anywhere from 15 to 50 feet long.

Unfortunately, when visitng Lake Champlain with your dog you are as likely to see Champ as a beach that allows dogs. Your dog is almost universally banned from public beaches in New York and Vermont. So it will require a bit of imagination to enjoy Lake Champlain with your dog - but travelers with dogs are used to that. Here’s a clockwise look at a sampling of parks for your dog, starting on the southern shores...

Crown Point State Historic Site - New York.
Save for an occasional short portage, it is almost possible to travel from Montreal to New York City by canoe, thanks in large part to those 100+miles of water passage through Lake Champlain. The most important of these portages was the two-mile land link between the southern tip of Lake Champlain and Lake George. Whoever controlled this portage controlled the vital highway through the heart of Colonial America. The French built the first fort here in 1758 and dealt the British Army one of its worst defeats ever in North America in defending it. The British returned a year later to overwhelm what they called Fort Ticonderoga. During the American Revolution the British and Americans tussled over Ticonderoga even as its stone walls were being plundered for local building material.

Your dog is also not allowed on Fort Ticonderoga grounds today but a bit further north you dog can explore the Crown Point State Historic Site. At Crown Point the lake narrows to only 400 yards and both the British and French constructed forts here. Ruins of both forts remain as they always have been. The area is practically devoid of trees affording long views of the lake from the ramparts and tops of tremendous earthworks. There is plenty of grass for your dog to romp on. An interpretive footpath of almost three miles leads around the forts and into the interior of two magnificent remains of Georgian-style stone barracks.

Coon Mountain Preserve - New York.
Coon Mountain, with a handful of small rocky summits, has been a local landmark on the western shore of Lake Champlain since settlers arrived. The first colonizer of the towns of WillsboroEssex and Westport, William Gilliland, perished on the mountaintop in February 1796 after becoming disoriented in the snow. Local lore tells of the Coon Mountain panther that cried like a damsel in distress, luring men into the deep woods where it would spring on its victim. Many dogs were lost to the panther in attempts to hunt it. When it was finally shot in mid-pounce it fell into one of the small pocket ponds on the summit and was never found.

Local teenage volunteers carved a one-mile nature trail to the top of Coon Mountain. This is a relatively easy purchase of spectacular views of Lake Champlain and the surrounding valley. Limited parking increases the odds you will be enjoying those views only with your dog.  

Ethan Allen Homestead - Vermont.
Ethan Allen strode across the early Vermont landscape like the folk hero he has become: settling the frontier, helping found the state, executing daring exploits in the battle for American Independence. He spent his final years on this quiet homestead outside of Burlington on the Winooski River.

There are some four miles of hiking for your dog in fields and light woods around the park, much of it within barking distance of the river. Access to the easy-flowing water is possible for a refreshing doggie dip.

Waterfront Park - Vermont.
Burlington is the largest town on Lake Champlain and one of the prettiest anywhere. Waterfront Park isn’t large - about three blocks long and less than a block wide but there are grassy lawns for a game of fetch and it is a great place to enjoy a sunset with your dog. 

Snake Mountain Wildlife Management Area - Vermont.
Snake Mountain is a prominent feature of the Champlain Valley, looming above the surrounding level countryside from an elevation of 1,287 feet. A resort hotel operated on the summit in the 1800s, promoting the panoramic views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The hotel closed in 1925 and later burned to the ground.

Now owned mostly by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, a three-mile trail along an abandoned carriage road takes visitors to the summit of Snake Mountain. This is a very hikeable route for any dog, passing through mixed hardwoods and a rare bog covered with sphagnum moss.

Mount Independence State Historic Site - Vermont.
After the Americans overran a lightly manned Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, they quickly moved to defend Ticonderoga’s weak northern exposure. Across Lake Champlain - only 1,300 yards at this point - General Philip Schuyler ordered the clearing of timber and the construction of a sister fort. The horseshoe-shaped battery, protected by steep cliffs, was named Mount Independence following the arrival of a copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 18, 1776. A floating bridge connected the fortified complex.

During 1777, Mount Independence was even better fortified than famous Ticonderoga. But even together the forts were no match for British invaders. On July 5 both posts were evacuated. British and German forces remained at Mount Independence until November, when they burned and destroyed the site after the British surrender at Saratoga.

Mount Independence remains an archaeological site with four interpretive trails winding through 400 acres of foundations and ruins. Among the ruins are a general hospital, barracks and a blockhouse. Your dog is welcome to explore this striking promontory on the shore of Lake Champlain. 

Great Dismal Swamp - Virginia/North Carolina.
Without the benefit of glacial activity, Virginia is home to only two natural lakes - one is the mysterious Mountain Lake, the only natural lake in the southern Appalachian Mountains and the other is Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp. In 1665, William Drummond, governor of North Carolina Colony, discovered the lake that bears his name.

How dismal is the Great Dismal Swamp? Unlike elsewhere in Tidewater Virginiathere was no need for English settlers to force the Indian tribes off the land - they had left already.

George Washington was one of the first to take an interest in the money-making possibilities of the swamp. He visited in 1763 and subsequently organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company to drain and log portions of the swamp. Over the next 200 years all of the cypress and Atlantic white cedar forests would be logged at least once.

The Great Dismal Swamp covers over 600 square miles although much of it has been reclaimed for farmland. In 1973 the Union Camp Corporation donated 49,100 acres of land to The Nature Conservancy. This land was then conveyed to the Department of the Interior, and a national wildlife refuge - now twice the original size -was officially established through The Dismal Swamp Act of 1974.

If you are looking for a place to disappear with your dog on a hike for hours, this is it. During its logging years, over 140 miles of roads were constructed through the Dismal Swamp. The best place to launch your adventure is the parking lot at the end of Jericho Lane, off Route 642. Your dog will find more amenities for hikers at Great Dismal Swamp than is normally found at national wildlife refuges. Hiking here is on firm sand/dirt roads, level and easy everywhere. Shade is at a premium on hot days so pack plenty of water for your outing. You can create a hiking loop from the several ditches that join at Jericho Lane.

A 4.5-mile hike along the Washington Ditch will get your dog to the 3,100-acre watery playground of Lake Drummond or you can drive there from Route 17 on the eastern border of the refuge. The refuge has also developed an interpretive trail at the site of Washington’s former camp, Dismal Town. An extensive boardwalk, nearly a mile long with a couple of spurs, snakes through the heart of the swamp. 

Lake Bonneville - Utah/Nevada/Idaho.
Lake Bonneville isn’t there anymore - at least the water. The prehistoric lake dried up about 17,000 years ago when the climate changed. Until then, however, Lake Bonneville was as large as Lake Michigan is today, and much deeper. What it left behind, however, will be of interest to canine adventurers.

The most conspicuous remnant of Lake Bonneville is the Great Salt Lake, shallow and eight times saltier than sea water. So salty is the water that only two things live in the lake - brine shrimp and algae the shrimp feed on. Only the Dead Sea holds saltier water than the Great Salt Lake, the biggest lake in the American West. 

Antelope Island is the largest of the Great Salt Lake’s 10 islands. The ancestral antelopes for which John Fremont and Kit Carson named the island in 1843 disappeared but were reintroduced to the 28,022-acre park in 1993. But the animal stars of the park are the bison, first shipped here in 1893 and now 600 strong. Sheep also grazed here for decades, supporting the busiest sheering operation west of the Mississippi River. The first state lands on the island were purchased in 1969 and the entire island became a state park in 1987.

At the heart of the 20-mile hiking system on Antelope Island is the White Rock Bay Loop, over 9 miles of long ascents and descents from the shoreline. Like most of the canine hiking in the park, the trail is open all the way and gets hot in the summer. There is no fresh water available so bring plenty to keep your dog refreshed. The trail is often paw-friendly sand.

A quicker way to see the island is the Buffalo Trail, a one-mile round trip that features benches to stop and gaze around the native vegatation of the Great Basin. For extended views get on the Mountain View Trail that provides hours of easy canine hiking. A popular hike on Antelope Island is to the summit of 6,596-foot Frary Peak, named for George and Alice who homesteaded here. The entire Wasatch Front Range comes into view at the top but your dog will never see it. No dogs are allowed on Frary.

Everyone will want to include a quarter-mile trail to Beacon Knob on the day hiking agenda. This trail high point serves up panoramas of the Wasatch Front Range across the water. To get close to the Great Salt Lake the Lakeside Trail is a 3-mile out-and-back shadow on the shore. 

Visiting the Great Salt Lake, you can be overwhelmed by the stench of the air -the result of billions of decaying organisms that have died after being washed from freshwater streams into the briny water. The smell is confined mostly to the eastern shore (where the micro-biotic slaughter occurs), however, and, canine hikers can usually expect fresh, salty air on Antelope Island

Just to the west of the Great Salt Lake is another one-of-a-kind natural phenomenon: the 30,000 acres of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The salt flats are a world famous destination for lovers of speed but not so much for dog owners. There are no facilities or services on the flats unless you visit during a racing day.

The best place for your dog to sample the Bonneville Salt Flats is from a rest stop on westbound Interstate-80. Here you can hike as you like on the barren, featureless ancient lake bed.

A bit south of the Great Salt Lake, deposits left by a Lake Bonneville feeder stream, the Sevier River, have been whipped around by prevailing winds to create Little Sahara, one of the largest dune fields in the American West. Today there are nearly 60,000 acres of towering sand dunes and sagebush flats that have become known as Utah's greatest sand play area.

The Little Sahara Recreation Area is a magnet for off-highway vehicles who roar in and out of dune bowls and up sand mountains as high as 700 feet. There are no designated trails out in the dunes so there is a chance you can encounter a motorized vehicle just about anywhere you hike, unless you make it across the dunes to Rockwell Natural Area which is a vehicle-free zone. But if you avoid popular holiday weekends there is a good chance to experience a solitary dune hike with your dog somewhere in the 124-square mile system of giant, free-moving sand dunes. If your dog tires of trotting through deep sand there are networks of dirt trails to be had here as well.