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The 20 Best Lakes in California You Need to See

The 20 Best Lakes in California You Need to See

California has some of the most beautiful lakes in the country. From the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe to the incredible lakes of southern California. We put together this list of the 20 best lakes in California. 

Whether you’re looking to take your boat out, do some jet-skiing, or wakeboarding, or even camping, these are the perfect destinations. Some of the best campgrounds and hiking trails surround these lakes. So there is plenty to do even when you not out on the water.

Best Lakes in California

The northern part of the state is home to some of the top-rated lakes including Shasta Lake, which is a popular destination for house boating, water skiing, camping, and fishing. The southern California lakes are just as beautiful too.

Any of these lakes would make for a great adventure. Explore these amazing lakes with our list of the best lakes in California.

1. Lake Tahoe

A view of the beautiful blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

Located in the Sierra Nevada between California and the state of Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. It has over 72 miles of shoreline and two-thirds of the shoreline is within California. Lake Tahoe is also the second deepest lake in the United States. 

It is a popular tourist attraction in the winter and summer. In the late spring and early fall, visitors come to Lake Tahoe to enjoy the beautiful clear blue waters and outdoor activities.

Restaurants and marinas line the shoreline of the lake. You will find some great on-the-water activities available including parasailing, jet ski rentals, boat rentals, paddle boarding, kayaking, and fishing. Surrounding the lake, there is zip-lining, gondola rides, and even a mountain coaster. 

The lake and nearby towns are referred to as South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe. The South Shore has some popular locations such as Zepher Cove Beach, DL Bliss State Park, and Emerald Bay. The south end of the lake is known for its sandy beaches, crowds, and bigger cities.

North Lake Tahoe has smaller towns and is quieter and more laid back. It is also the location of some “hidden beaches” that you can access by hiking such as Secret Cove, Skunk Harbor, and Chimney Beach. 

In the lush pine forest shores of both North and South Lake Tahoe, there are endless biking and hiking trails including the famous Rubicon Trail, Cascade Falls Trail, and the 4-mile round trip Eagle Lake Trail that offers beautiful views of the lake and Eagle Lake Falls. 

2. Silverwood Lake

Silverwood lake in the distance.

About 30 miles north of San Bernadino, Silverwood Lake is a large reservoir and state recreation area. The lake has 13 miles of shoreline and is a popular place for boating, fishing, and camping. 

Mesa Campground sits right next to the lake and offers tent sites as well as full hookups for RVs. If you are looking to camp with a group then you might want to check out Miller Canyon Group sites. 

There are also some boat ramps, but since the area can get so busy they do limit boats to 125 per day. It is recommended to get there early if you are boating, or just enjoying the lake for the day as parking can fill up fast. 

Some popular swimming beaches in the area are Cleghorn Swim Beach and Silverwood Lake Swim Beach. In addition to swimming, the lake is a great destination for kayaking, paddle boarding, and wakeboarding. It is the perfect place to cool off since the temperatures average 90 to 100 degrees from June to September. 

In the area surrounding the lake, there are over 13 miles of trails. The Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the recreation area. With everything Silverwood Lake has to offer, it’s easy to see why this is one of the best lakes in California. 

3. Mono Lake

Mono lake with tufa formations in California.

On the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada just outside Yosemite National Park is Mono Lake. It is over 1 million years old. It is the oldest lake in North America and a popular destination for birdwatchers and photographers. 

The brine shrimp attract birds, making it a great place for birdwatching. There are also some hiking trails, beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, and opportunities for kayaking. 

Mono Lake is known for its shimmering blue waters and its distinctive tufa mineral towers that have formed through the years of freshwater springs bubbling up through the alkaline waters. The lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean and contains brine shrimp. 

The easiest location to access the lake is from County Park right off Highway 395. There is a picnic area and an easy trail with a boardwalk that takes you right to Mono Lake.

Navy Beach is a great location near the lake for launching kayaks. South Tufa is another popular spot on the lake because it contains the largest area of tufa groves. 

You can swim in Mono lake, but since the salty water is denser than ocean water, it’s very buoyant. Most people don’t visit this Lake for swimming, but rather to explore this historic lake, see the tufa formations, and get a glimpse of its beautiful blue waters. 

4. Lake Berryessa

Looking down on Lake Berryessa in California.

Lake Berryessa is tucked between the mountains east of Napa Valley. It is about an hour’s drive from Napa, CA. The lake features 23 miles of shoreline and there is a 2,000-acre wildlife area along the east side of the lake. 

It is a popular place for watersports, fishing, hiking, photography, and opportunities to view wildlife. There are three marinas on the lake, Pleasure Cove, Markley Cove, and Berryessa Boat and Jet Ski Rentals where you can rent boats, jet skis, houseboats, or cabins. 

There are also two campgrounds on the lake, Steele Canyon Campground and Pleasure Cove Campground. Fishing is popular on Lake Berryessa since the waters hold a variety of fish including Catfish, Largemouth Bass, Kokanee Salmon, Brown Trout, and Rainbow Trout. 

Surrounding the lake there are some great hiking trails. One of the popular trails is Smittle Creek Trail and an easy 2.6-mile trail that leads to the Oak Shores Park. For a bit more of a challenge, the Stebbins Cold Canyon Trail is a four-mile loop that offers some scenic views of the lake from the top of the mountain. 

The North End Trail is an easy hike on the north side of the lake. It is 11 miles long and is a great place to spot some wildlife. There is so much to see and do at Lake Berryessa. This lake is a popular destination for residents of Napa County and visitors looking to explore one of the best lakes in California. 

5. Convict Lake

Blue waters of Lake Convict in California.

A great place to see some turquoise-blue waters and dramatic mountain views. Convict Lake is one of the most photographed lakes in California due to its stunning beauty. 

It is located near the Mammoth Lakes region in eastern California. This lake was originally carved out by glaciers. It got its name from an incident that occurred in the fall of 1871 when a group of escaped convicts from Carson City were found near the lake. 

Today, it is a stunning outdoor location for fishermen, photographers, hikers, boaters, and people looking to spend some time out in nature. Many even say that the is one of the most beautiful lakes in California. 

During the winter this area gets covered in snow since it sits at a 7,500 ft elevation. The best time to visit is from late April until the end of October. This is when the campgrounds and marinas are open for the season. 

There is a campground nearby called Convict Lake Campground that is first come first serve. It even has a few campsites overlooking the lake. Another popular area on the lake is Convict Lake Resort. Here you can rent cabins, boats, paddleboards, and kayaks. 

They also have two-hour guided horseback rides that go along the lake. Make sure you check out the Convict Lake Loop Trail. It is an easy trail that goes around the shoreline of the lake.

6. Don Pedro Reservoir

Don Pedro Reservoir with mountains in the background.

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada is Don Pedro Reservoir. With 160 miles of shoreline, it is the sixth-largest reservoir in California. It borders the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. 

This is one of the best lakes in California for boating and watersports. There is so much to explore out on the water and around the lake. There are two marinas, Moccasin Point Marina, and Lake Don Pedro Marina. They offer boat rentals including houseboats, ski boats, jet skis, and kayaks.

This California lake is well known for its bass tournaments and houseboats. Camping is offered at the three campgrounds in the area. On the west shore is Blue Oaks Campground and Fleming Meadows and on the east shore is the Moccasin Point Campground. There are also dispersed camping areas within the Don Pedo Recreation Area. There are campsites for tents, RV, and some sites have hookups. 

For hikers or bikers, there is the 3.5 mile path called the Blue Oaks Shoreline Trail at the Blue Oaks Campground. There is also the Moccasin Point Lake View Trail which is about a 1-mile round trip and is located at the Moccasin Point boat launch ramp and offers great views of Moccasin Bay. 

7. Perris Reservior

Marina and boats docked at Lake Perris.

About 11 miles south of Riverside, CA is the Lake Perris State Recreation Area. This is another one of the best lakes in California that is a popular destination for on-the-water recreation. 

There are endless ways that you could enjoy this lake. The area provides places for hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, and camping. Since this lake is close to some major cities it can get very crowded in the summer. 

There are nearby places to rent boats. There is also camping available at the Lake Perris Campground with sites for tents, RVs, and group camping. Lake Perris has some great hiking, biking and horseback riding trails. 

Visitors are welcome to bring their horses. There is a specific Equestrian Day use area and an overnight Equestrian Campground that has corrals. 

A unique spot in the recreation area is Big Rock. It is a popular southern California climbing spot near the lake. It’s 180 feet high and has 34 routes to the top.

The most popular hiking trail in the area is the Lake Perris Loop Trail which is a nine-mile loop that has some beautiful wildflowers in the spring, and some great lake views.

The unique things offered at Perris Lake, and its proximity to Los Angeles and the surrounding cities make this one of the best Lakes in California. 

8. Castaic Lake

A park that sits along side Castaic Lake.

In southern California north of Santa Clarita is the Castaic Lake State Recreation Area. This lake is very large and a popular destination for water-sports, fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, camping, and hiking. 

The lake is made up of two different sections. The lower lake is for non-power boating, kayaking, and swimming. Swimming in the lower lake is only permitted during summer.

The upper lake is for boats, year round swimming, wake-boarding, and fishing. Several state and national world record fish have been caught at the upper lake. 

Castaic Lake is one of the largest reservoirs in the state. You will find some great camping spots right on the lake and a playground for the kids. 

9. Pyramid Lake

Boats driving in the water at Pyramid Lake.

Pyramid Lake is one of the best lakes in California for outdoor recreation and scenic views. It is a reservoir located in the Los Angeles and Los Padres National Forests. It is right off Interstate 5 and about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles. 

This southern California lake is a great place for boating, fishing, jet-skiing, picnicking, and camping. The nearest campground is the Los Alamos Campground which is 2.5 miles away from the lake. 

One unique thing about Pyramid Lake is that some of the day-use areas and picnic spots are only accessible by boat. This would make for a unique and more secluded adventure! The areas accessible by boat only are Spanish Point Bear Trap, Yellow bar, and Serrano. 

Pyramid Lake has boat, kayak, and paddleboard rentals. A maximum limit of boats are allowed on the water at one time, so make sure that you arrive early.

There are two beach areas for day use, Vaquero and Emigrant Landing, which offer picnic areas and swimming spots. At the Vista Del Lago visitor center, there is a beautiful view of the lake. It is the perfect photo spot. 

10. Lake Havasu

London bridge on Lake Havasu.

Sitting right on the border of southern California and Arizona, Havasu Lake is an extremely popular location for water-sports. Over 800,000 visitors come to spend some time at this lake every year. 

It is a 4.5-hour drive from Los Angeles and the closest city to the lake is Havasu City, which is located in Arizona. The lake has over 400 miles of shoreline. It is best known for its fishing tournaments, boating, hiking, water-sports, house boating, camping, and recreational activities. 

Havasu Lake is rated as one of the top 100 bass fishing lakes in America. The most popular location on the lake is the historic London Bridge that was shipped over from England and rebuilt on Lake Havasu in 1971. 

The Lake is home to dozens of events each year and has been featured in many movies and TV shows. There are restaurants, marinas, and places to rent boats, jet skis, house boats, and any other on-the-water activity you can think of. 

There are numerous stretches of sandy beaches and places to camp around the shoreline of the lake. Some popular campgrounds include Cattail Cove State Park, Crazy Horse Campgrounds, and Lake Havasu State Park. 

Most of the camping and cabin rental locations are right near the water. Lake Havasu is one of the best lakes in California. It’s not only beautiful, but you can find everything you will need for a great adventure right there on the lake. 

11. Shasta Lake

A patio boat driving on Lake Shasta.

Northern California is the home to Shasta Lake. This lake is a large reservoir and popular location for house boating and water-sports. Shasta Lake is most known for it’s house boating. It is even referred to as “the house boating capital of the world”.

The lake is located right on Interstate 5 about 15 minutes from the town of Redding CA. Lake Shasta has many inlets and places to explore with over 365 miles of shoreline.

There are many marinas on Lake Shasta for renting boats, jet-skis, and houseboats. Many of the marinas have camping and cabins for rent. Popular marinas include Holiday Harbor, Shasta Marina at Packers Bay, Digger Bay, Bridge Bay, and Silverthorn. 

There are places for dispersed camping as well as designated camping and RV parks along the shores of lake. Some popular campgrounds are Baliey Cove, Mariners Point, Antlers RV, and Shasta Lake Resort. 

Other fun places to explore at this lake are the Shasta Dam, Lake Shasta Caverns, and Little Backbone Creek. There are also many waterfalls at the lake which are only accessible by boat. You could easily spend a week exploring this lake in California and not see all that it has to offer. 

12. Donner Lake

Clear waters of Donner Lake with paddle boarders in the background.

A smaller but beautiful lake located in the Lake Tahoe area. Donner Lake is near the easter side of Donner Pass. This lesser known lake has 8 miles of shoreline and is known for its crystal clear waters.

Donner Lake is located within the Donner Memorial State Park. Two popular marinas on the lake are Donner Lake Marina and Tahoe Donner Beach Club Marina. There are places to rent boats, jet skis, kayaks, and other water-sports activities. 

There are also some cabin and hotel rooms with lake access and views. Within Donner Memorial park at the east end of the lake, there are over 150 campsites and some great hiking trails.

Donner lake is one of the most beautiful and best lakes in California. It’s not one of the biggest but it is an amazing alpine lake that would make for a great adventure. 

13. Lake Oroville

Lots of houseboats docked at Lake Oroville.

In Northern California about 1.5 hours from Sacramento is the reservoir of Lake Oroville. It is a popular northern California destination for water-sports and fishing.

The lake is has several arms which makes it a popular spot for house boating, since you can find a nice spot in one of the arms to park your boat and enjoy the day.

The total shoreline of the lake is 167 miles. There are two marinas where you can rent houseboats, ski boats, and jet skis. A unique thing about Lake Oroville is that you can also rent floating campsites. The floating sites are like a large pontoon boat that includes restrooms, sinks, and a sun deck.

There are also three other traditional campgrounds around the lake. The campgrounds are Bidwell Canyon, Loafer Creek, and Lime Saddle. The Lake Oroville State Recreation Area also has some great hiking trails. The most popular trail is the Kelly Ridge Point which is a 3-mile moderate trail that has some amazing views of the lake.

The 5.5 mile Roy Rogers Trail and the longer 8.3 mile Freeman trail are also popular places to hike. Lake Oroville is the second-largest reservoir in the state, and it’s one of the best lakes in California for its size, recreation activities, and beauty.

14. New Melones Lake

A bridge that crosses New Melones Lake.

Another great lake in California is New Melones Lake, which is located in the central portion of the state about two hours south of Sacramento. New Melones Lake Glory Hole Recreation area is the third-largest reservoir in California.

It is a great place for water-sports and outdoor activities. This is one of the best lakes in California and it is popular its year-round fishing and boating opportunities. 

There are also six short hiking and biking trails located in the recreation area. The most popular of the trails in the 2.5-mile Angels Creek loop trail since it is an easy hike and it offers a nice view of the lake. 

Out on the water, you can rent boats, jet skis, houseboats, party boats, and patio boats. Within the recreation area, there are also over 140 RV and Tent campsites total at the Big Oak and Ironhorse Campgrounds. They also offer interpretive hikes and have spots to play horseshoes. 

15. Folsom Lake

Green trees and Lake Folsom.

Folsom Lake is another one of the best lakes in California. This reservoir is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is about a half-hour drive from Sacramento, CA.

This lake has plenty to do out on the water and within the recreation area. There are boats, kayak, jet-ski, and paddle-board rentals.

Lake Natoma is a nearby lake within the recreation area that is much smaller and is for non-motorized boats only. It is a popular spot for swimming, kayaking, or paddle-boarding. 

A unique thing offered at this lake is a chance to go on a guided 2 hour long horseback ride up Mooney Ridge through the forest and along the lake. The is great for fishing as there is Rainbow Trout, Kokanee Salmon, Bass, and Catfish. 

There are also campsites available at Peninsula Campground, Beals Point Campground, Negro Bar Campsites, and Avery’s Pond Environmental Campsites. If you are looking for walking or hiking trails then you will find it all since there are over 31 trails ranging from 2.8 to 20.2 miles long. 

The 6 mile Johnny Cash Trail is a recent addition and it combines art remembering the singer with an active outdoor experience. It is the perfect trail for biking. Another popular trail is the Lake Natoma Trail that wraps around the smaller lake Natoma. It’s 12 miles long and has some great views of the lake.

16. Cachuma Lake

Cachuma Lake with mountains in the background.

Cachuma Lake is about 30 minutes from Santa Barbara. This lake this very scenic and since it is not as far inland it has mild temperatures. It is beautiful and offers many outdoor recreation activities, but since it is a domestic water supply there is no swimming allowed. 

There is a general store that has boat and kayak rentals. Cachuma Lake is a popular lake for fishing, and is stocked with rainbow trout throughout the year. The Santa Barbara County Parks runs that lake and they have cabin and yurt rentals as well as RV and tent camping sites that are overlooking the clear blue lake. 

The camping areas are nice there is a pool, nature center,general store, disk golf, and trails that run through the campground. It’s easy to see why this lake is one of the best lakes in California since it is the perfect spot to get out into nature, relax, and enjoy some amazing views. 

17. Lake Almanor

Looking at Lake Almanor though the Pine trees.

Lake Almanor is a great summer destination for some time out on the water or for exploring nature. Nestled in the mountains about 3 hours north of Sacramento. This mountain lake is known for its water-sports and picture-perfect mountain views.

The area is cold and gets about 121 inches of snow per year, so if you want to go boating make sure you visit in the summer when it’s warm. On nice days in the summer the average temp is around 85 degrees and you will find that lake full of people enjoying water-sports. 

There are many different marinas, restaurants, cabins, campgrounds, and beach areas that line the 45 miles of shoreline. You can rent boats, jet-skis, kayaks, and more. Another popular spot is the 9.6 mile Lake Almanor Recreation Trail, which you will get to see scenic views of the lake and mountains. It is popular for biking and walking. 

The lake is also located just an hour away from the popular Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lake Almanor is one of the best lakes in California because it is the perfect place to cool off and just get away from the busy city.

18. Big Bear Lake

Small islands with rocks on Big Bear Lake.

Up in the San Bernadino Mountains, about 2 hours east of Los Angeles is Big Bear Lake. Know for picturesque views, watersports, and hiking this is one of the best lakes in California for some outdoor recreation and exploration. 

Sometimes referred to as the jewel of the San Bernadino National Forest the Lake is located right next to the cute town of Big Bear City. There are many different marinas, camping spots, cabins, and RV parks located near or on the waters of the lake. 

Some popular marinas are Big Bear Marina and Pleasure Point Marina where you can rent pontoon boats, fishing boats, jet-skis, and kayaks. There are even some boats that offer tours of the lake.

Lake tours include an old pirate ship called the Time Bandit Pirate Ship, The Cruzer, The Big Bear Queen, Pontoon Boat Tours, and a tour on Miss Liberty Paddle Wheel Boat. 

There are also nearby places to zip-line, restaurants, a summertime alpine slide, as well as many places to hike. A popular hiking and biking trail is the 3.2 mile paved Alpine Pedal Path that goes along the northeast edge of a big bear lake. Many people have even spotted eagles from this trail, it also offers a great views of Big Bear Lake. 

Hikers looking for a bit more of a challenge enjoy the Castle Rock Trail. It is a 2.6 moderate trail up the hillside that is a great chance to see wildlife and ends with a beautiful view overlooking the lake. 

Since Big Bear Lake sits at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the best time to visit the lake is in summer when there is no snow. With so much to see and do right on the lake and in the surrounding town of Big Bear, it’s easy to see why Big Bear Lake is one of the Best Lakes in California. 

19. Lake Sonoma

A bridge that passes over Lake Sonoma.

A popular day trip and weekend getaway in central California is Lake Sonoma. Located in northern Sonoma County about 30 minutes from Lake Sonoma. This lake is not one of the biggest lakes in the state, but its beauty and surrounding views make it one of the best lakes in California. 

Lake Sonoma offers many different recreational opportunities such as hiking, swimming, horseback riding, fishing, boating, archery, and watersports. There are also some unique places to camp including 106 boats in camping sites. There is also the popular Liberty Glen Campground at Lake Sonoma that has RV and tent campsites. 

You will also find over 40 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails surrounding the lake. Some of the best trails that offer scenic views of the lake are the Dry Creek, North Slope, and Bummer trails. You can experience some great views of the mountains and the lake by taking a guided horseback tour from The Ranch at Lake Sonoma. 

Don’t forget to check out the Lake Sonoma Visitor Center and Fish Hachery. Lake Sonoma is one of the best lakes in California due to its beauty and location.

20. Whiskeytown Lake

Clear blue waters of Whiskeytown Lake.

Whiskeytown National Park is the home of the popular Whiskeytown lake. Located in Northern California about 20 minutes from Redding California. This unique lake is smaller than many of the other California lakes with only 36 miles of shoreline, but it is one of the prettiest. 

Whiskeytown Lake is a popular location for boating, swimming, camping, hiking and there are four different waterfalls that you can hike to around the lake. The easiest waterfall to access is Crystal Creek Falls only a 0.3-mile walk down a paved path. 

The tallest waterfall in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is Whiskeytown Falls a 1.7-mile hike that ends at the falls. The hikes to Boulder Creek Falls and Brandy Creek Falls are also two popular places to explore near the park. 

Some popular swimming and camping locations on the Lake are Brandy Creek Beach and Oak Bottom Marina. Oak Bottom is the most popular spot in the park for camping as it offers lakeside tent sites, RV spots, a swimming beach, and a boat launch. You can rent kayaks, paddle-boards, and boats from the marina at Oak Bottom.

Whiskeytown lake is a lesser know lake, but one of the best lakes in California due to its beautiful blue waters, wildlife, waterfalls and hiking trails. This would be the perfect spot to cool off during the summer. 

Close up of California Poppies in a field.
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Norcal

Saturday 6th of March 2021

How bout Tahoe,Convict,Almanor,Whiskeytown, Trinity the rest whatever!!

Norcal

Saturday 6th of March 2021

And you put Whiskey town and Almanor out of the top 5 you guys suck!!!