Ethel Thayer and her retired English professor husband, Norman Thayer, Jr., arrive at their New England summer cottage, nestled in the woods next to a lake called Golden Pond. While Norman is a curmudgeon and exaggerates his senility, Ethel has a youthful spirit and is delighted by their holiday. She scolds Norman for his obsession with death. As the couple paddles in a canoe on the lake, Ethel spots two loons and interprets their call as a welcome, but Norman feigns disinterest. Sometime later, Norman grudgingly agrees to pick wild strawberries for Ethel; however, he becomes disoriented in the woods and returns home empty-handed. Meanwhile, postman Charlie Martin delivers the couple’s mail by motorboat, and Ethel insists he stay for coffee. Ethel reads a letter from her divorced daughter, Chelsea Thayer Wayne, announcing that she and her dentist boyfriend, Bill Ray, will be visiting the cottage to celebrate Norman’s eightieth birthday on their way to Europe. Norman is indifferent and preoccupies himself with the newspaper. When Charlie leaves, Norman admits fear that he is losing his wits, but Ethel consoles her husband, saying he is her “knight is shining armor.” Sometime later, on the evening of Norman’s birthday, Chelsea arrives. She refers to her father formally, by his first name, and Norman criticizes his thin daughter for being overweight. The Thayers are surprised that Chelsea is accompanied by thirteen-year-old Billy Ray, the surly son of Bill. Chelsea is shocked to see how much her father has aged. When Chelsea ducks out of the house to avoid her father, Bill remains with the old man and tries to be cordial. Speaking peevishly with his daughter’s suitor, Norman responds sarcastically when Bill asks for permission to sleep in the same room with Chelsea, but Bill refuses to be intimidated. Meanwhile, Ethel and Chelsea swim naked in the lake, laughing about old times. As Bill joins Chelsea outside, Ethel returns to the cottage and asks Norman to do a favor for his daughter; Chelsea has asked them to look after Billy while she and Bill travel in Europe. Sometime later, Chelsea laments her difficult relationship with Norman, and Ethel observes that her daughter has a chip on her shoulder. She warns that life passes too quickly to harbor bad feelings. In time, Chelsea and Bill leave for Europe. Billy is hostile to being left behind, but Norman wins the boy over. He takes Billy on fishing excursions and teaches him to perform a back flip dive off the dock. As days pass, Norman takes Billy fishing at a secret inlet on Golden Pond called Purgatory Cove and tells the boy about his nemesis, a large trout named “Walter” that has eluded him for years. Ethel surprises the men by tracking them down to deliver lunch. As she boats away, Norman is delighted to reel in an enormous rainbow trout, but insists it is not Walter. However, Norman’s spirits darken that evening when he nearly burns down the cottage after leaving the fireplace unattended. He blames Billy for the incident, and the boy’s feelings are hurt, but Ethel reminds Billy that Norman means well, despite his cantankerous demeanor. The following day, Billy is thrilled to motorboat across the Golden Pond on his own. Back at the cottage, Norman astonishes Ethel by stealing a kiss. In the evening, Norman and Billy fish for Walter and the boy helps his elderly friend navigate through a bed of rocks into Purgatory Cove. When they reach their destination and cast lines, Norman accidentally calls the boy “Chelsea,” and Billy admits he is going to miss Norman’s company. Just then, Billy hooks a large fish, but when Norman nets the catch they realize it is a dead loon. When Billy asks if Norman is afraid of dying, the old man dismisses him and insists they boat home. With Billy at the helm, Norman directs the boy through the rocks, but suddenly orders him to reverse. Panicked, Billy mistakenly gears the boat forward at full speed and Norman is thrown from the vessel as it collides with a nearby boulder. With his head bloodied, Norman comes to the surface and calls for Chelsea. Billy jumps into the water to save the old man and the two cling to a rock. Meanwhile, Ethel drives to the home of Charlie, the mailman, terrified by Norman and Billy’s disappearance. Charlie motorboats to Purgatory Cove, but insists no one would be crazy enough to navigate through the rocks. Knowing her husband’s stubbornness, Ethel forces Charlie to proceed into the cove as she scans the lake with a flashlight. Calling Norman’s name, Ethel sees the two and dives into the water to save them. One week later, back at the cottage, Norman and Billy pretend to immerse themselves in a jigsaw puzzle while Ethel goes to search the woods for mushrooms. When they sneak away to fish, Ethel calls them “juvenile delinquents” and they promise to stay close to home. While they fish in a rowboat, Chelsea returns home and startles her mother, who sings aloud while picking flowers. Ethel tells her daughter about Billy’s close relationship with Norman and their boating accident. Announcing her new marriage to Bill, Chelsea explains that the doctor returned to California for work. She is jealous of Billy’s connection to Norman and complains that her father is a “selfish son-of-a-bitch,” but Ethel hits her across the face. Meanwhile, Billy hooks a large fish, and Norman declares they have finally caught the “son-of-a-bitch,” Walter. Back on shore, Ethel encourages Chelsea to make amends with her father. As Norman and Billy pull toward the dock, Chelsea greets Billy and he announces their victory over Walter. However, Norman let the fish go. Billy rushes inside the cottage to share the news with Ethel, and Chelsea asks her father if they can be friends. Despite Norman’s petulance, he is happy to hear about his daughter’s new marriage. When he announces with pride that Billy has mastered the back flip, Chelsea concedes that she was always “too fat” to successfully follow her father’s instructions. Although Norman protests, Chelsea swims to the dock and makes the dive as Norman cheers his daughter’s courage. Sometime later, Chelsea and Billy pack their rental car to leave Golden Pond. Norman gives Billy a fishing rod, then places a second-place medal that he won at Princeton University around Chelsea’s neck. She calls him “dad” for the first time and they embrace. Later still, Norman and Ethel close the house for the winter and Norman suffers heart pains. Ethel gives her husband medication and attempts to phone the operator, but is unable to get through. Ethel fears Norman is dying, but he insists he feels better. As she helps him to his feet, Norman spots two loons on Golden Pond and declares that the birds have come to say goodbye.