There’s nothing like a trip to one of the best lakes in California. From alpine escapes to million-year-old geologic wonders, there’s no shortage of incredible lakes to experience.
I grew up lake hopping around California each summer with my family, our jet skis, and our friends’ boats. I spent countless hours wakeboarding, swimming, and jetskiing in California’s lakes. From my experience, I can confirm that planning a lake visit is one of the best things to do in California.
To help you out in deciding where to go, I’ve put together this epic list of the best California lakes.
Table of Contents
- 13 Best Lakes in California
- FAQs About Lakes in California
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13 Best Lakes in California
The biggest alpine lake in North America nestled in the Eastern Sierras of northeast California.
Lake Tahoe is arguably the most breathtaking lake in the state, and is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Northern California. Surrounded by thick alpine forests, the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains provide an impressive backdrop for Lake Tahoe.
Straddling the border of northeastern California and western Nevada, Lake Tahoe is best accessed via Sacramento, only a 2-hour drive. The precipitous amount of recreational activities in the area makes it the perfect destination for outdoorsy travelers.
My favorite things to do in Lake Tahoe are swimming, paddleboarding, and kayaking but fishing and boating are also wildly popular at Lake Tahoe. Emerald Bay Cove is one of the most scenic locations on the lake. Rent a boat and head straight for this enclosed slice of paradise.
The quirky spirit of Mount Shasta includes its glacial run-off lake and the majestic 14,000-foot mountain.
Known to the locals as a spiritual oasis, Lake Shasta and Mount Shasta town are unlike any other California destination. Located in Northern California 3 ½ hours north of San Francisco, Shasta Lake is far less crowded than other popular lakes in California.
The biggest draw to this large body of water is its location and the lofty Mount Shasta mountain’s 14,179-foot summit in the background. The lake is filled with glacial run-off from the mountain’s Whitney Glacier, so swim with caution and be prepared to be chilly.
Because the water is so cold, the main lake activities at Lake Shasta are fishing and going for a cruise around the lake. Be sure to also check out the picnic tables and easy hiking trails around the Shasta Lake perimeter. This destination is a must-see and was even voted by Travel Lemming one of the best places to visit in 2023.
Experience a geologic masterpiece at this Lee Vining state park.
Located just outside of Mammoth Lakes CA, Mono Lake resembles an otherworldly landscape and feels like a world removed from California. This ancient lake is one of the oldest lakes in Northern California and dates to around one million years.
The most prominent features of Mono Lake are the randomly-spaced, protruding rock features. Similar to cave stalagmites, the limestone formations are known as tufa towers and take thousands of years to form. The alien landscape and geological wonder of Mono Lake beckon visitors to its saline banks each year.
You will find camping, boating, swimming, and other fun things to do in Mammoth Lakes along the lake. Mono Lake is also a bird-watching haven, with protected Osprey populations in the state park. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars next time you visit this miraculous lake.
Big Bear Lake
A San Bernardino National Forest lake that is surrounded by thick forest foliage.
One of the most popular mountain towns in California, Big Bear is also home to one of the most frequently visited lakes, Big Bear Lake. The resort town sees visitors passing through on the Pacific Crest Trail, avid winter skiers, and day trippers from Los Angeles who want to experience an alternative lifestyle for an afternoon or two.
Big Bear Lake is 3 hours from Downtown Los Angeles with plenty of cozy cabin rental options and grand, all-inclusive resorts.
The most popular activities in Big Bear Lake are kayaking and fishing on Big Bear Lake as well as hiking through the San Bernardino National Forest trails to great panoramic viewpoints of the lake with 360-degree views.
The public beaches and party reputation of this lake keep lake-goers coming back for more.
Famously known as a party lake, Lake Havasu teeters on the border of eastern California and western Arizona. It is one of the best lakes in California for hiking, biking, fishing, boating, golfing, shopping, and more.
The best part about Lake Havasu? You don’t even need a boat to enjoy its sandy beaches! Visitors from all over the west coast lounge on the public beaches of Lake Havasu State Park and work on their sunny California tan.
Located near the famous London Bridge, Lake Havasu also hosts various campsites so you can enjoy an entire weekend lounging on the lakeside. If hotels are more your style, then Lake Havasu City offers plenty of accommodation options.
Big Pine Lakes
One of California’s most stunning hidden gems, a hiking circuit around 7 alpine lakes.
California’s Big Pine Lakes are my absolute favorite. I’ve visited these high-altitude beauties more times than I can remember and will conjure up any excuse possible to make another trip.
Located in Big Pine California just before Lone Pine and Bishop, these alpine lakes should be high on everyone’s California road trip itinerary. This is a lesser-known California destination in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which helps retain its appeal.
There are seven beautiful lakes to hike to in the Big Pine Lakes area and several beautiful California camping locations along the way. The hiking trails even take ambitious adventurers to the famous Palisades Glacier, a 16-mile round-trip hike.
👉 Pro Tip: There are plenty of backcountry camping spots available along the hike that are only accessible with a permit. Reserve yours ahead of time at Recreation.gov, especially if you plan on hiking to the Palisades Glacier.
Relax on the soothing lake waters surrounded by rolling vineyard hills.
The beautiful coastal foothills of Sonoma CA encompass the enchanting Lake Sonoma. In an area known for its wineries, Lake Sonoma is surrounded by stunning vineyards and rolling valley hills.
Bring a bottle of the county’s top local wine and cruise around the bay next time you’re in Northern California. With over 50 miles of shoreline, Sonoma Lake is one of the best lakes in California with plenty of beach access and room for everyone.
You will find boat rentals, patio lounging, and a deli at the Sonoma Lake Marina. The entrance fee is $15 and there is a fuel station inside of the lake’s boundaries, along with boat services, picnic areas, and plenty of beach access points.
If you are looking for more activities, you can always check out the many fun things to do in Sonoma County.
A quaint recreational lake within minutes of Yosemite National Park.
Located only minutes from the Yosemite National Park entrance, Bass Lake is the perfect location to stop for water sports while on a trip to Yosemite. Although smaller than surrounding lakes, Bass Lake is a more romantic, private location for water skiing and fishing.
My favorite way to experience Bass Lake is by spending the day on the lake with my family and our rented pontoon boats. There’s no better way to relax than with an adult beverage on the smooth lake waters.
There are big villas right on the lake that are available for rent. This is the perfect place to relax after hitting the hiking trails in Yosemite National Park.
Escape the tourist crowds by exploring an alpine lake off the beaten path.
Situated at an elevation of 6,000 feet, Donner Lake is one of the top lakes in California near the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Its somewhat hidden location in the thick of the forest has prevented Donner Lake from becoming overly populated.
There are plentiful hiking trails around the perimeter of the lake as well as trails to high viewpoints with incredible views of Donner Lake. This is one of the most beautiful lakes in California because of the surrounding alpine forest.
The lake is just north of Lake Tahoe and provides a quiet escape from the busy peak season in Tahoe. Located inside Donner Memorial State Park, Donner Lake requires only a small fee for parking. All of the other amenities like beach access, picnic tables, and restrooms are free of charge.
One of the most convenient lakes in California, easily accessible from Los Angeles.
I grew up spending most weekends and summer vacation days at Silverwood Lake. Located just off the I-15 freeway, Silverwood is the perfect day recreation lake to practice your wakeboarding or water skiing skills. There are a few campsites around the beautiful lake, a good option for multi-day lake goers.
Silverwood Lake is surrounded by the San Bernardino Mountains and its stunning scenery makes it one of the best lakes in California. The peak visitor season is in April-October so if you wish to visit during this time, weekdays are your best option to avoid long boat launch lines and the maximum capacity closure.
👉 Don’t Forget to Pack: The Southern California sun is no joke. Make sure to bring strong sunscreen to stay protected against sunburns.
A Mono County drive-up lake with dramatic Sierra Mountains in the background.
Convict Lake finds its home in the Mammoth Lakes region of Northern California, just off the scenic 395 highway. The dramatic Sierra Nevada Mountains define the lake and the abundance of freshwater trout draws many fishermen to its banks.
This drive-to lake is encircled by a three-mile-long access trail around the gorgeous lake. The jagged peak of the 12,241-foot Mount Morrison stands out as the lake’s backdrop and gives it its stunning character.
The lake was originally carved out by glaciers and is one of the deepest lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin. Brave and enduring visitors take a cold plunge into the lake’s icy waters but most pedestrians visit the lake for a quick photo or to catch an evening dinner.
A huge dam reservoir in Southern California that caters to tent and RV campers.
Pyramid Lake is one of a few Southern California lakes that was formed by a dam. This reservoir is a vast recreation area with plenty of room for many skiers, wakeboarders, and jet skiers.
Emigrant Landing is the biggest recreation area at Pyramid Lake and has a marina with boat rentals, a multi-boat launch ramp, a beach, and picnic areas. There are 90 tent and RV sites at the Los Alamos campground with amenities such as potable water, toilets, a dump station, volleyball courts, and a camp store.
The gate hours are from 6 am-7 pm and the entrance fee is $15 per vehicle and $16 per watercraft/trailer. This is a good Southern California lake for folks traveling north up the I-5 freeway from Los Angeles.
A popular fishing spot in California with a scenic 16-mile drive around the perimeter of the Mammoth Lakes Basin.
The June Lake waters can be found just outside of Mammoth Lakes CA, one of the best places to visit in California. The quiet forested area is a hidden California gem and is yet to be overpopulated and overrun by tourists.
The small resort town offers visitors rustic cabin lodges but I prefer to drive my motorhome to June Lake and stay at one of the convenient RV parks in the area. Entrance to the lake is free and there are lakefront kayak and paddleboard rentals in the area and small beaches for lakeside lounging.
One of the most popular activities in the area is taking a drive around the June Lake Loop. This scenic drive takes you past the perimeter of June Lake and past Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake. This drive is the best way to get to know the area.
👉 Don’t Forget to Pack: June Lake is one of the most scenic places to go for a swim in Northern California. Don’t forget to bring your bathing suit so you can experience the best of the lake.
FAQs About Lakes in California
What is the cleanest lake in California?
Lake Tahoe is one of the cleanest lakes in California. Due to its grand size and location in the remote Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a clean, swimmable lake in California.
What are California’s main lakes?
What is the most visited lake in California?
Lake Tahoe receives the most visitors per year. This area also boasts a ski resort and beautiful granite peaks accompanying hiking trails. The many outdoor activities in the area are a big draw to Lake Tahoe City and the large alpine lake is a great place to lounge or fish when in the area.
What is California’s largest lake?
Clear Lake is California’s largest natural lake. The Salton Sea is California’s largest man-made lake and is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.
Thanks for reading my guide to the best lakes in California! There are recreational lakes near most California metropolitan areas, offering visitors a unique aquatic experience. Have fun exploring California’s lakes and give our best beaches in Southern California guide a look for more maritime fun.
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