For the past 20 years, my summer just isn’t summer without a family vacation at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire’s largest body of water, which stretches 72 square miles across the center of the state. My family and I visit the area annually, thanks to my mother, who spends the warm-weather months in a lakefront house there.
My kids grew up swimming in clear, spring-fed water; boating along wooded shores to explore narrow inlets and quiet bays; sampling ice cream at (multiple) favorite local stands; riding bumper cars and eating fried dough at a touristy boardwalk; and listening for loons as the sun set behind the hilly landscape, casting a pink glow on a still lake.
If it sounds idyllic, it really is. Especially if you’re a family of doers like mine is, since there’s so much to do on the water — and in the nearby mountains — in the summer months. Annually, we fill our week’s vacation with tons of activity close to the waterfront towns of Laconia, Meredith, and Gilford, where our home base has always been. However, vacationers also flock to Alton in the south, Wolfeboro (“America’s Oldest Summer Resort”) to the east, and Moltonborough to the north.
My suggestions below focus on things to see and do — with and without kids — on the west side of Lake Winnipesaukee, since I know it best. But I’ve got a couple of suggestions at the end of this article in case you’re staying in one of the other scenic areas of the Lakes Region of New Hampshire (or you’re in the mood to explore).
1. Take a Cruise On The M/S Mount Washington
A scenic cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee is a fabulous way to get an overview of just how big, and how beautiful, the tree-lined, island-dotted lake really is.
Narrated daily cruises and evening dinner cruises aboard the majestic, 230-foot M/S Mount Washington depart from a dock at Weirs Beach and each lasts about 2.5 hours. This vessel is big! It holds 1,250 passengers with interior and exterior seating. Shorter tours aboard the smaller M/V Sophie C., a working mailboat that delivers mail to island residents, and M/V Doris E. are also available.
2. Rent Your Own Boat — Or Party Pontoon
If you prefer to do the driving yourself on Lake Winnipesaukee, consider renting a motorboat for fishing, tubing, or simply touring around for as little as half a day or up to a week or more. Many Lake Winnipesaukee boat rental shops also offer personal watercrafts (jet skis), as well as canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, water skis, wakeboards, and inflatable tubes for loads of fun on the water.
My family tends to rent stable pontoon boats that are powerful enough to cut through the water and pull kids (and adventurous adults!) on tubes but also big enough for family and friends to spread out and enjoy cocktail cruises at sunset.
Pro Tip: If you plan on renting a motorboat or jet ski that’s over 25 horsepower, you’ll need a NH Safe Boating Certificate.
3. Ride The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad
For a different view of the lake, and the mountains that surround it on three sides, consider a 1- or 2-hour train ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. Departing from Weirs Beach or Meredith, these trips offer some good old-fashioned fun on a rail system that dates back to the 1800s, when locomotives would make their way through New Hampshire from Boston to Montreal.
4. Hit The Boardwalk And Arcade At Weirs Beach
The spacious, sandy area at Weirs Beach is a wildly popular spot for day trippers, so be prepared for crowds if you dip in this lakefront area to spend a few hours at its bustling boardwalk with The Half Moon Family Fun Center and Penny Arcade.
This is the place to try your hand at skeeball, pinball, video games, and classic arcade games. Many of the games spit out tickets that you can turn in for prizes at the end of the day (or vacation — my kids would always hoard them to get something “big” before it was time to return home to Colorado).
At Weirs Beach you can also ride bumper cars and treat yourself to some homemade fudge, saltwater taffy, or fried dough smothered in melted butter and powdered sugar. This area is home to a retro drive-in movie theater, too!
Pro Tip: If you want even more arcade fun, consider Laconia’s Funspot, which claims to be the largest arcade in the world! It’s got an especially cool array of classic video games to play — think Donkey Kong and Asteroids — as well as a 20-lane bowling alley and 18-hole mini-golf course. Be aware, though, this all-indoor location is ridiculously crowded on a rainy summer day.
5. Find Your Favorite Ice Cream Stand
I say the only way to figure out which spot at Lake Winnipesaukee has the best ice cream is to try them all! I’m partial to the plethora of fresh flavors at Town Docks, where you can order your cup or cone at the window, then perch at a picnic bench with your feet in the sand, watching the boats come and go at the public docks in Meredith.
My kids might argue that the ice cream sundae bar (the Smorgasbord) at Kellerhaus, not far from Weirs Beach, is their favorite. Then there’s Sawyer’s Dairy Bar in Gilford, which also turns out some darn good lobster rolls and hand-cut onion rings.
Pro Tip: If you want a milkshake in New England, you’ll probably be ordering a frappe (pronounced “frap”) off the menu. If you see both a milkshake and a frappe offered, the frappe is the thick one with ice cream in it, while a milkshake is just milk and flavored syrup.
6. Fly Through The Air At Gunstock
Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford caters to skiers and snowboarders in the winter, but in the warm-weather months it becomes quite the adventure playground — for all ages. On my family’s most recent trip to Lake Winnipesaukee, my husband and I took our teens on the zipline tour, and I’m not sure who found it most thrilling — the 50-somethings or the young adults!
One stretch of the ZipTour Zipline features an incredible 1.6 miles of soaring through the air, and the mountain views are phenomenal. They say you can reach up to 70 miles an hour on this zipline, and while I’m certain I didn’t (since you can control the speed yourself), I’d still call it quite exciting.
Other outdoor, adventurous fun you can have at Gunstock in the summer includes an e-bike tour, an off-road Segway tour, and a Mountain Coaster ride. If you just want to kick back and relax while appreciating the pretty landscapes, consider a scenic chair-lift ride.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in zip-lining at Lake Wikkipesaukee or elsewhere, consider these 8 Things To Know Before You Zip-Line For The First Time.
7. Hike Mount Major
I’ll be honest: I liked this hike better when I was about 10 years younger and my joints weren’t so creaky! While most trail guides label this hike as moderate, and it starts out wooded and fairly mellow, it can include a bit of steep rock scrambling if you choose the direct blue route over the lengthier loop routes. However, the views at the top of Lake Winnipesaukee are definitely worth it if you’ve got the energy and stamina!
Pro Tip: The trailhead parking lot just off Route 11 in Alton can be crowded, especially on weekends. Try to do the hike first thing in the morning to avoid crowds — and the hot, humid temperatures in the middle of the summer.
8. Visit Castle In The Clouds
More truth time: I’ve never been to Castle In the Clouds, a historic mansion and estate in Moultonborough. My mom took her grandkids when they were younger, but as I recall, I begged off to relax lakeside, reading in a hammock.
Visitors to Castle in the Clouds can choose to tour the mansion, go horseback riding, or hike the area’s 28 miles of trails. It’s a great place to take in pretty views, have a bite on the patio at the Carriage House Restaurant, enjoy a bit of New England history, and simply stroll about a scenic spot.
9. Explore Wolfeboro’s Main Street
If you’re staying in a vacation rental in Wolfeboro, or at the gorgeous Wolfeboro Inn, a popular Lake Winnipesaukee hotel, consider yourself lucky! You’re in America’s First Summer Resort, so dubbed because John Wentworth, the British colonial governor of New Hampshire, built a mansion in this lakefront town in 1770 (yes, even before America became America).
If you’re overnighting elsewhere, consider a day trip to this quaint town to stroll its Main Street, where you can browse art galleries, gift shops, and clothing stores, and take some time for a meal at a waterfront cafe or one of the many area brewpubs!
For more New Hampshire vacation inspiration, consider: