At 72 square miles, Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest lake in New Hampshire and the third largest lake in New England. It measures approximately 21 miles long and is 9 miles wide at its widest point. Formed by glaciers some 10,000 years ago, Lake “Winnie” sits 500′ above sea level and comprises 253 islands.
A popular tourist attraction since the mid-1800s (the lakeside town of Wolfeboro bills itself as the oldest summer resort in America), Winnipesaukee remains a summer playground for millions of visitors. Thanks to its size, scenic surroundings, excellent marine facilities, lakeside attractions, great fishing and central-New Hampshire location, Winnie sees a phenomenal amount of boating traffic during the summer, and hosts some surprisingly large vessels.
The lake is especially popular among paddlers and trailerboaters, and since it’s located relatively close to the coast, many saltwater anglers also tow their boats here for a taste of sweet water.
Before hitching up your rig and hitting the road, however, be aware that you’ll need to obtain a temporary license in order to operate a powerboat of 25-hp or more in New Hampshire. The license requires passing a safe-boater examination or proof of equivalent certification in another state (see Names & Numbers for more information). Rowers, sailors and paddlers need no such paperwork to enjoy the lake’s many aquatic pleasures, which include fishing, snorkeling, skiing and picnicking on one of the public islands.
Despite its bucolic surroundings, Winnipesaukee poses certain challenges, especially to small-boaters unfamiliar with big-lake conditions. Being a long lake, its exposed waters can get quite choppy, especially in a stiff northwest or southwest wind. The wakes of large boats can also turn the lake’s open waters into a washing machine for kayakers and other small-boaters. Lastly, be aware that the White Mountains to the west tend to create and funnel thunderstorms toward the lake. These storms can approach quickly, catching boaters by surprise, so be sure to check the forecast and keep a weather eye to the west.
Navigating the lake can be confusing for coastal boaters who are more familiar with the freshwater buoy system. On Winnipesaukee, ledges and channels are marked by a system of red and black spar buoys. Red buoys direct you south or west, while black buoys tell you to stay north or east. Be sure you have a compass and a map if new to the lake.
Visiting boaters can launch and keep their vessels at one of the many fine marinas surrounding the lake. The towns of Wolfeboro, Center Harbor, Weirs Beach and Meredith offer plenty of boating facilities, rentals, shops, restaurants and activities, from hiking to mini-golf, waterslides to outdoor concerts. Here’s a brief overview of the first 3 locations.
Weirs Beach is sort of a lakeside Atlantic City, complete with a boardwalk, arcades, a bowling alley and souvenir shops. If it’s sand you seek, Weirs Beach has the largest stretch of it on the lake, and it’s usually packed with sunbathers and swimmers in summer. A popular waterslide towers above the beach and boardwalk. Boaters can also explore Paugus Bay via the inlet adjacent to the beach.
Center Harbor, in the extreme northwestern corner of the lake, allows a 3-hour tie-up at its public dock. There’s a small beach, along with a park where weekly concerts are presented by the Center Harbor Community Band, the oldest community band in the state. Main Street shops offer ice cream, sandwiches and unique gifts made by New Hampshire artisans.
The quaint streets of Wolfeboro are lined with gift shops, ice cream stands and restaurants. On weekends, daytrippers pack the town’s 4 public docks, where visitors can tie up for several hours at no charge. The town also offers a convenient trolley system for getting around.
Wolfeboro is home to the New Hampshire Boat Museum. The museum is filled with Lake Winnipesaukee memorabilia and information on local boatbuilders, fishermen and even waterskiers. The nearby Wright Museum offers a glimpse of area life during the 1920s and ’30s.