Summer means one thing to many St. Louisans: Weekends at the lake! And from Ozark to Mark Twain, Truman to Table Rock, we have plenty of them. But how about something different, something on the other side of the Mississippi, still popular and a quick drive (50 miles) yet less resorty?

With 26,000 acres of water surrounded by 11,000 acres of undeveloped land, Carlyle Lake has what you’re looking for — especially if what you’re looking for are activity-filled days spent outdoors followed by nights around the campfire or in a nearby cabin or cottage. Over the last several years, the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Carlyle have developed miles of trails that connect the lake to the town, creating access to incredible natural scenery as well as to contemporary dining and services.

Here are three ways you can enjoy Carlyle Lake and its attractions.

By Paddle
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The great thing about paddling is that it’s fun for all ages and skill levels — and it counts as cardio. So, pick up a water trail map in the Carlyle Lake Visitor Center and prepare to get wet. The map identifies 11 coves and other features ideal for kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding and provides entry points, paddling distances, difficulty ratings, descriptions and lat-long coordinates.

Paddle the Old River Channel as it was back before Carlyle Lake was built. Slide under the Old Kaskaskia River Channel Pedestrian Bridge here to sightsee for eagles, blue herons, belted kingfishers and their feathered friends. This is a scenic and safe place to practice for beginners.

Launch from the Keyesport Boat Ramp and paddle 6.95 miles for a challenging workout on the way to West Branch Cove. Count on two to three hours to navigate this advanced route, which travels portions of open water.

For a bite to eat, pull up to The Fish House Restaurant, Bike & Kayak Rental at the Dam East Boat Ramp. The restaurant offers locally caught buffalo or catfish, plus sandwiches (and breakfast!). Dam West Pontoon Rentals, Carlyle Sailing Association and Carlyle Lake Rentals also offer kayak rentals.

By Pedal

Spin by forested lakefront, agricultural fields, rehabbed prairie and restored wetlands on the 10.3-mile Carlyle Lake Multi-Use Trail. Surfaces vary from asphalt to concrete to crushed rock, and you’ll pass a number of historical landmarks en route. More than 7 miles of the trail travels over earthen levees, giving users a peaceful, elevated view of the surroundings.

Up for a bigger challenge? Pedal the 65-mile Carlyle Lake Bike Route, which winds all the way around the lake. Although scenic and enjoyable, this ride uses county and township roads without dedicated bike lanes or signage; therefore, it’s not recommended for beginners. But for those experienced riders looking to log some serious miles, this is where to point your front wheel. Pick up a map at the visitor center.

On Foot

In addition to the Carlyle Lake Multi-Use Trail mentioned above, which is used daily by runners and walkers and makes a great place to train for distance races, the 1.3-mile Kaskaskia River Walk is great for a quick outing — or for watching wildlife and wetting a line. Located below the Carlyle Lake Main Dam, it boasts a pedestrian bridge that joins the east and west sides of the Kaskaskia River and also connects to the General Dean Suspension Bridge, built in 1859 and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The lake is bordered by multiple parks and green spaces that offer nature and hiking trails, including the Chipmunk (.5 miles), Little Prairie (.75 miles) and Willow Pond (.25 miles) in the Dam East, Dam West Spillway and Dam West recreation areas. There are also 7 miles of trails at the Eldon Hazlet State Park and a .75-mile trail at South Shore State Park.

Regardless of how you choose to explore Carlyle Lake, you’re sure to enjoy this beautiful natural resource.

Carlyle Lake Visitors Center, 618-594-5253

Carlyle Lake Rentals, 618-973-6188,
Carlyle Sailing Association, 618-594-3622,
Dam West Pontoon Rentals, 618-322-2319,
The Fish House Restaurant, Bike and Kayak Rental 618-304-5273,

Bretz Wildlife Lodge & Winery, 618-594-8830,
The Fish House Restaurant, Bike and Kayak Rental 618-304-5273,
The LuBar & Bistro, 618-594-6333,
Wheelan’s Barbecue Shack, 618-594-2727,
Wheelhouse Grille, 618-594-8000,
The Keyes Restaurant, 618-749-9006

Hazlet Cottages, 618-594-8702,
Keyesport Cabins, 618-749-5413,
Mariner’s Village, 618-594-7666,
Persimmon Lodge, 618-795-9788,
Timmermann House Bed & Breakfast, 618-228-7068,

Gateway Triathlon
Occurs in May with approximately 350 participants in the Dam West Day Use Area. Hosted by 3diciplines

Carlyle Lake Regatta Bicycle Ride
Scheduled for September 18, it uses the Dam West Recreation Area. Hosted by Trailnet.

Sleep Under the Stars
The Army Corps of Engineers operates seven campgrounds with more than 400 campsites and modern conveniences such as electrical hookups, drinking water, restrooms, hot showers and even laundry facilities. Bicycling/running routes are easily accessible from the campgrounds. Visit or call 877-444-6777 for reservations.

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor of Terrain magazine