Carbon (C) cycling in freshwater lakes is intense but poorly integrated into our current understanding of overall C transport from the land to the oceans. We quantified dissolved organic carbon export (DOCX) and compared it with modeled gross DOC mineralization (DOCR) to determine whether hydrologic or within-lake processes dominated DOC cycling in a small headwaters watershed in Minnesota, USA. We also used DOC optical properties to gather information about DOC sources. We then compared our results to a data set of approximately 1500 lakes in the Eastern USA (Eastern Lake Survey, ELS, data set) to place our results in context of lakes more broadly. In the open-basin lakes in our watershed (n = 5), DOCX ranged from 60 to 183 g C m−2 lake area yr−1, whereas DOCR ranged from 15 to 21 g C m−2 lake area yr−1, emphasizing that lateral DOC fluxes dominated. DOCX calculated in our study watershed clustered near the 75th percentile of open-basin lakes in the ELS data set, suggesting that these results were not unusual. In contrast, DOCX in closed-basin lakes (n = 2) was approximately 5 g C m−2 lake area yr−1, whereas DOCR was 37 to 42 g C m−2 lake area yr−1, suggesting that internal C cycling dominated. In the ELS data set, median DOCX was 32 and 12 g C m−2 yr−1in open-basin and closed-basin lakes, respectively. Although not as high as what was observed in our study watershed, DOCX is an important component of lake C flux more generally, particularly in open-basin lakes.