Beat the Summer Sizzle: Life is Better at Lake Tenkiller - MetroFamily Magazine
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Beat the Summer Sizzle: Life is Better at Lake Tenkiller

by Lindsay Vidrine. Photos provided.

Reading Time: 6 minutes 

Welcome to the rejuvenating world of lake life, where even reluctant teenagers can attest to the transformative power of a nearby escape to Oklahoma’s Lake Tenkiller.

Tenkiller traditions

School may be out for summer, but as the grind of year-round youth activities and camps gets heavy, there’s nothing like a weekend at the lake to recharge. Even my 15-year-old son will tell you: mom mode hits different at the lake. He’s learned over the years that the more time we spend on the water, the more mom tends to say yes to everything from wild tube rides to another s’more.

For our family, there’s no better option than Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma. Our love for this place goes back generations, with my dad discovering lake life while tagging along with a friend as a teenager. One week at Tenkiller was all it took to spark his lifelong obsession with boating and water skiing.

One of my dad’s first major adult purchases was a small ski boat that he promptly stored at Tenkiller despite living several hours away in Oklahoma City. I grew up spending most summer weekends camping and boating on the eastern shores of Tenkiller in the campgrounds of Chicken Creek, Snake Creek and Cookson Bend.

Fast forward several decades (and several boats) later, and I’m still enjoying lake weekends with my husband, son and even my dad, who continues to squeeze in every last moment on the water he can despite now living in Mississippi. My parents moved to a small town six hours from Tenkiller nearly 25 years ago, but dad just couldn’t bear to move his boat or give up the idea of Tenkiller. For good reason.

Discover Lake Tenkiller

Two people riding on a tube in Lake TenkillerNicknamed “Heaven in the Hills,” Tenkiller is nestled in the Cookson Hills and the blue water is so clear you can see your feet as you swim. Those familiar with Oklahoma’s red dirt know this isn’t common for most of our lakes. There’s even a scuba diving park near the dam where you can explore sunken vehicles like a bus, boats and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. Several full-service dive shops around the lake offer gear rental, certification training and intel on the best spots for diving.

Also on the southern end of the lake near the dive park is Tenkiller State Park. Offering 10 campgrounds, it’s easy to find a shaded spot for tent or RV camping. If camping isn’t your thing, the park also offers 38 cabins ranging from one- to three-bedroom options. Activities in the area include two multi-use trails (with one being a 1.5 mile handicap accessible paved trail), a nature trail and the Driftwood Nature Center, which features daily programming Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The lake is fed by the Illinois River and the northern end offers popular river rafting options. Just below the spillway is the Lower Illinois River, one of Oklahoma’s best places to catch trout. Because Tenkiller is so deep, the water temperatures stay cool enough to support year-round trout fishing. Nearby Marval Resort in Gore provides easy access for fishing, plus a variety of camping, lodging and other family-friendly amenities.

My husband is an avid fisherman and loves to visit the Lower Illinois any time of year. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife stocks around 100,000 rainbow trout annually, but during the warmer summer months, striper are also a big draw. Be sure to check the water release schedule on the Southwestern Power Administration (SWPA) website to make sure fishing conditions are safe before heading out.

Top stops & eats

The author's son, husband, father and dog sitting on their boat in Lake TenkillerWhile my husband is content spending most of his lake time fishing, I prefer boat cruises to enjoy the gorgeous rocky bluffs surrounding the shore, water skiing and marina hopping. In every direction, you’ll find recently renovated marinas offering everything from dining to shopping to live music. Beyond the typical wares like gas, ice, or boat and watersport rentals, each on-the-water spot has its own vibe:

Cookson Bend Marina: This tiki-themed bar and outdoor restaurant boasts friendly service and a store that’s well stocked with items from sunscreen to wakeboards. Come hungry and their ultimate fajita nachos will hit the spot!

Pine Cove Marina: This spot is known for Clearwater Café, a wide selection of boat rentals and the lake’s newest RV park, The Cove, which is within walking distance of the marina.

Barnacle Bill’s Marina: After an extensive renovation, the highly anticipated, new two-story restaurant and slushy bar is fully open for the 2024 summer season.

Burnt Cabin: This popular floating restaurant and bar offers spectacular views, tasty menu options and often hosts live music you can enjoy from your boat or the shore. An expanded indoor dining area is new this summer. Their retail store is always fun to peruse for Tenkiller apparel, lake gear and essentials.

Sixshooter, Snake Creek, Strayhorn and Bluewater Bay (in Pettit Bay) all have marinas as well, so you are never far from snacks, gas or rental services.

If you’re looking to feed your family off the water, here are a few more options near my favorite area, Cookson Bend:

Cookson Café: Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., their hearty breakfast options are perfect for fueling up for a day on the water, but they serve a great lunch, too.

The Deck at Cookson Village: This lively dinner spot offers pizza, burgers, cold drinks, yard games and rockin’ live music.

Princess Restaurant: Don’t miss their milkshakes, homemade pie, burgers and fries. Enough said.

Where to stay

As for lodging, you will find a wide range of VRBO and Airbnb vacation rentals, cabins and motels, as well as tent or RV campsites all around the lake. Tenkiller is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so Recreation.gov is a great place to start when looking for campsite information and maps. Their recreation areas also provide day-use passes for public swimming areas, boat launches and picnic tables around the lake.

While not right on the water, you won’t find a more adorable, tucked-away place to stay than The Blue Doors at Tenkiller, near Gore. Their casita-style rentals blend sustainability with Instagram-worthy aesthetics and tons of amenities for the family. In addition, they often host live music on Saturdays from spring until fall.

No matter which part of Lake Tenkiller you explore, be ready for friendly folks, beautiful scenery and the laid-back energy of lake life. It’s the perfect way to unplug and recharge, while also inspiring you to find the best version of yourself. Life is better at Lake Tenkiller.

More Insta-worthy state beaches 

Set a course this summer for these other memorable water destinations in the Sooner State.

NEAR

Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge 

Stinchcomb Wildlife RefugeThis central Oklahoma refuge is perfect for a long day trip that feels like a restorative getaway. Stinchcomb is on the north end of Lake Overholser, and this nature retreat features 1,000 acres of trees, marshes and brush interwoven with trails and the North Canadian River. Take in the sites and explore the surroundings by foot, bike, kayak or canoe.

Visitors can bring their own paddlesport gear or rent it at RIVERSPORT’s Boathouse on the east shore of Lake Overholser. They offer kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards, plus guided group paddling excursions into Stinchcomb (reservations are required). Avoid the summer heat by keeping an eye out for their sunset or full moon paddles scheduled throughout the season.

FAR

Lake Eufaula

Oklahoma may be a land-locked state, but you can find miles of sandy beaches at Lake Eufaula. This is one of the state’s largest lakes, making it easy to access sandy swim areas all around the shoreline. Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp Resort or Lake Eufaula State Park are just two popular spots out of many for camping, lodging or lake access.

If you aren’t familiar with the lake, Green Country Tourism’s website makes it easy to find just the right amenities and activities for your family. For those who don’t want to just hang out on the beach, there’s everything from trophy fishing to golfing nearby. Find out more at greencountryok.com/lakes/eufaula-lake-area.

Editor’s note: Lindsay Vidrine is a native Oklahoman and loves exploring the outdoors with her husband, teenage son and their spunky terrier rescue. Together, they enjoy visiting national and state parks while working their way across nearly all 50 states. Find more road trip inspirations including Oklahoma destinations for families in our Exploring Oklahoma With Children travel section

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