Geography of U.S. Lakes

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The United States is home to geographical wonders and diverse vistas, from the rolling tundras of Alaska to the Everglades of Florida. Each state has its own popular spots, from river bends to mountaintops.

One of the most popular geographic features of many states are the lakes, home to abundant wildlife, stunning views, recreational opportunities, and the water we use for agriculture, drinking water, and transportation. 

The diverse topography of the United States extends to its freshwater resources. The United States borders the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total area, the Great Lakes. Within its borders, the United States is home to a vast wealth of lakes.

From the land of 10,000 lakes to a state with no naturally occurring lakes, here is more information about the fresh and saltwater bodies that define states throughout the country. 

What state has the most natural lakes?

Contrary to popular belief, Minnesota isn’t the state with the most naturally occurring lakes. Although it is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the state of Alaska holds the record for sheer number of natural lakes by number.

Alaska is the state with the most naturally formed lakes, containing 3,197 lakes and over 3 million unnamed lakes. Many of the lakes are unnamed because of the size of Alaska and the remote nature of much of the state.

A satellite view of Alaska showing the location of Iliamna Lake.  Photo: NASA, 2013.
A satellite view of Alaska showing the location of Iliamna Lake. Photo: NASA, 2013.

Alaska’s largest lake is Lake Iliamna (also referred to as Iliamna Lake), which is the second largest freshwater lake in the United States behind Lake Superior and has an area of 1,115 square miles.

Minnesota has 15,291 named natural lakes and a total of 2.6 million acres of lakes across the state. Wisconsin comes in with the third highest number of natural lakes, with 6,044 named natural lakes. Finally, Michigan has 11,000 naturally formed lakes. 

Only five natural lakes exist in Hawaii, all of which are quite small, but stream impoundment has resulted in the creation of 266 freshwater reservoirs ranging in size from a few acres to 400 acres.

Are there any states with no lakes?

The only state in the US with no natural lakes is Maryland. Although Maryland has rivers and other freshwater ponds, no natural body of water is large enough to qualify as a lake.

The state’s largest lakes are artificially made and include Lake Habee and Deep Creek Lake, which is Maryland’s largest inland body of water. 

The states of Delaware and Texas have only one natural lake occurring in the state. Delaware has Silver Lake and Texas shares Lake Caddo with neighboring Louisiana. One explanation for the lack of lakes in these locations is that they were never glaciated in the past, whereas the majority of water-rich states were covered with glaciers during different times in the past.

What states stock their lakes with flying fish?

Visiting some remote lakes in the state of Utah could net you a surprise- fish falling from the sky. Releasing fish from airplanes is one way that environmental managers are able to stock remote lakes with fish, as they are unable to access these lakes from a road system.

Fish are released into these lakes during their ‘fingerling’ stage, or when they are about three inches long. Their weight allows them to fall gracefully from the sky and enter the water safely. Special planes are outfitted with water tanks containing the fish, which are released in their new homes in quite the spectacular manner. 

What is the deepest lake in the United States?

The deepest lake in the United States is Crater Lake in Oregon. Crater Lake was formed in the caldera of Mount Mazama when the volcano collapsed following an eruption about 7,700 years ago. Rain and snowmelt filled the caldera over the course of about 250 years. Ongoing volcanic activity heats the water deep in Crater Lake and formed a cinder cone island known as Wizard Island, visible in the lake. 

Crater Lake from the air viewed from the southwest. Wizard Island is the conical mound in the lake and Mount Scott is the peak beyond the lake.
Crater Lake from the air viewed from the southwest. Wizard Island is the conical mound in the lake and Mount Scott is the peak beyond the lake. Photo: Mike Doukas, USGS, 2005. Public domain.

Crater Lake is 1,943 feet deep and is the 9th deepest lake in the world. The Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty could be stacked at the lake’s deepest point, and over 100 feet of water would still cover Lady Liberty’s torch. 

The United State’s second deepest lake is Lake Tahoe, which is 1,644 feet deep. Lake Tahoe is the 16th deepest lake in the world. 

What is the largest alpine lake in the US?

In addition to being the second deepest lake in the US, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake. Lake Tahoe is located 6,225 feet above sea level, and is also considered to be the clearest lake in the United States. It’s no wonder that this lake attracts plenty of visitors throughout the year to recreate along the shorelines and on the lake itself. 

View of Lake Tahoe from Emerald Bay. Photo: NASA/JPL.
View of Lake Tahoe from Emerald Bay. Photo: NASA/JPL

What state has the largest saltwater lake?

The largest saltwater lake in the United States is located in Utah. The Great Salt Lake is fed by the Bear, Jordan, and Weber Rivers, but has no outlet.

The lake is more saline than the ocean and fluctuates in size and depth based on the inflow from the rivers that feed it, in addition to evaporation rates. The Great Salt Lake can be between 15-35 feet deep, and was 2,400 square miles at its largest. The lake’s size decreased to approximately 950 square miles in the 1960s. 

Photo of the Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Looking down and across the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photo: Michael Freeman, USGS. Public domain.

The Great Salt Lake is home to brine shrimp and other wildlife, including numerous species of birds and bison. 

What is the largest lake in the US?

The largest lake in the United States is the largest of the Great Lakes- Lake Superior. Lake Superior borders Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada.

The lake covers 31,700 square miles and is a naturally occurring lake. Lake Superior is joined by Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. 

Ice span on Lake Superior, February 14, 2020. Suomi NPP satellite, NASA.
Ice span on Lake Superior, February 14, 2020. Suomi NPP satellite, NASA.

What’s so special about the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes span more than 750 miles from west to east. The Great Lakes are made up of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. These lakes contain 84% of the surface freshwater in North America, and about 21% of the world’s surface fresh water. 

Lake Superior, the largest lake in the United States, holds the same amount of water as Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and four Lake Eries. The largest freshwater sand dunes in the United States are located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Numerous other wildlife refuges and natural phenomena make this part of the world a recreational destination.

NASA’s Terra satellite image of the Great Lakes. Acquired: September 26, 2014. Source: NASA.
NASA’s Terra satellite image of the Great Lakes. Acquired: September 26, 2014. Source: NASA.

The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world. Lake MIchigan is the only one of the Great Lakes located entirely in US territory. More than 40 million people in the US and Canada rely on the water from the Great Lakes for their drinking water. 

What is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi?

Flathead Lake, Montana is the largest naturally occurring freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Flathead Lake is situated within the Rocky Mountain Trench, a depression.

The islands, shorelines, and surrounding uplands of Flathead Lake provide as overwintering and nesting habitats for native and migratory species such as the bald eagle, Canada goose, terns, and sandhill cranes.

Photo taken from the International Space Station showing Flathead Lake in Montana.
Photo taken from the International Space Station showing Flathead Lake in Montana.

The town of Kalispell is nearby, along with the stunning lakes and vistas of Glacier National Park. With these destinations nearby, it’s no wonder that Flathead Lake captures the attention of thousands of visitors every year. 

The State with the Most Manmade Lakes

Reservoirs make up the majority of Oklahoma’s lakes. Oklahoma has the most reservoirs of any state, with over 200.

Aerial view of the Shawnee Reservoir in Oklahoma.
Shawnee Reservoir in Oklahoma. Photo: Shelby L. Hunter, USGS. Public domain.

References

Environmental Protection Agency. Facts and Figures About the Great Lakes. (2021, April 6) Accessed July 8th, 2021. Available at https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/facts-and-figures-about-great-lakes

National Park Service. (n.d.). Crater Lake: The World’s Deepest Lakes. Accessed July 4th, 2021. Available at https://www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/upload/World-s-Deepest-Lakes-2017-508.pdf

Reger, J. (n.d.). Maryland’s lakes and reservoirs: FAQ. MGS Online, Maryland Geological Survey’s Internet Home. https://www.mgs.md.gov/geology/maryland_lakes_and_reservoirs.html

Schmidt, S. (2019, June 2). Flathead lake, Montana. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145122/flathead-lake-montana

Water resources – Division of mining, land, and water. (n.d.). https://dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/water/

Wildlife & habitat – Caddo lake – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2013, January 3). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Caddo_Lake/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html

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