15 Best Lakes in California

By Janet Benoir – October 18, 2023

In the beautiful state of California, you will find a plethora of stunning lakes that offer scenic natural attractions. Whether you’re in Northern California visiting iconic lakes such as Lake Shasta and Lake Tahoe, or escaping the summer heat in Southern California at Silverhead and Big Bear Lake, these picturesque bodies of water are accessible from all major cities in the Golden State.

Throughout California, an array of reservoirs and freshwater lakes support various recreational activities. Resort destinations like Lake Berryessa and Lake Almanor combine boating, swimming, and vacationing, while lakes like Cachuma Lake in Santa Ynez Valley are renowned for prize-winning bass fishing. Some lakes offer unique geological attractions like Mono Lake, while others are popular for water sports such as jet skiing.

Lake Tahoe

Surrounded by the stunning granite Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a gorgeous body of water that spans across the borders of California and Nevada. Its beauty makes it one of the most popular and captivating lakes in the United States. The lake is typically separated into two regions: the north and south areas.

Don Ramey Logan, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lake Tahoe is a hub for various boating activities, whether you prefer motorized or non-motorized options. Several outfitters and marinas around the lake offer boat rentals, scenic lake cruises, and more. While summertime is perfect for enjoying the water, the breathtaking views can still be appreciated during all seasons. For entertainment and nightlife, head to the southeastern shore where you’ll find tourist hotspots such as Stateline and South Lake Tahoe.

Big Bear Lake

In the heart of San Bernardino National Forest, less than 100 miles away from Los Angeles, you’ll discover Big Bear Lake – a gem amidst Southern California landscapes. Nestled among pine trees and standing at over 6,700 feet elevation, this snow-fed lake is a sought-after boating destination throughout the summer months.

H.G. Judd, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Big Bear Lake is acclaimed as one of the top boating lakes in Southern California. Lining its seven-mile stretch, marinas such as Pleasure Point Marina offer numerous boat rental options, from stand-up paddleboards to pontoon boats. Additionally, Big Bear Lake is a popular swimming spot – with Boulder Bay Park, situated on the southwest shore, boasting one of the area’s largest swimming beaches.

Mammoth Lakes Basin

Located just five minutes away from the town of Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the Mammoth Lakes Basin presents a breathtaking array of alpine waters. You can easily access lakes such as Lake Mary and Horseshoe Lake by car, while you need to take hiking trails to reach numerous smaller lakes spread across the basin.

inkknife_2000, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the Mammoth Lakes Basin, you’ll find plenty of recreational activities, such as hiking, fishing, and swimming. The basin offers both primitive and developed camping options, and a popular overnight destination is the Tamarack Lodge and Resort, situated on the shores of Twin Lakes.

Mono Lake

At Mono Lake, situated near the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park, you can witness fascinating tufa towers protruding from the water. These distinct formations occur due to freshwater springs seeping through the alkaline lake, leading to a mixture of sediments. To experience a breathtaking view of this geo-history, visit the South Tufa Area.

Ron Reiring, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll find that the lake’s alkalinity creates a unique buoyancy, allowing a remarkable experience while swimming or boating. Known for its distinctive aquatic life, brine shrimp flourish in the lake by consuming the native green algae. These thriving brine shrimp populations are a magnet for migratory birds, transforming Mono Lake into an exceptional destination for bird-watching enthusiasts.

Lake Arrowhead

Lake Arrowhead, situated in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, is often referred to as the “Alps of Southern California.” Located between Silverwood Lake and Big Bear Lake, it boasts a breathtaking forest setting similar to its neighboring regions.

shadowhound, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a resort community, Lake Arrowhead caters to a variety of vacation styles. If you prefer, you can take a guided Lake Arrowhead Queen Tour Boat ride. Don’t forget to explore the Lake Arrowhead Village, a lakeside retail hub with numerous dining and shopping choices, as well as seasonal events such as the summer concert series.

Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu, a 19,000-acre reservoir of the Colorado River, is located between Arizona and California in the southeastern part of the state. The lake is surrounded by desert landscapes and offers various recreational activities, such as motorized boating, bass fishing, and swimming from the shore.

Kjkolb, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

On the eastern shoreline, you can find several campgrounds and boat-access campsites. In addition, Lake Havasu City, a nearby community, offers modern accommodations and is home to the famous London Bridge that spans across the water.

Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake, located less than 15 miles north of Redding in Northern California, is the largest reservoir in the state. With over 30,000 acres, it consists of a vast network of fingers and river ways held by the impressive Shasta Dam. This expansive area makes it perfect for various types of exploration. Motorized boating is a dominant activity with options ranging from Jet Skis to houseboats available for enjoying the water.

Oleg Alexandrov, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Many marinas and resorts around the lake offer boat rentals and ramps for easy access. Shasta Lake’s numerous hidden coves are perfect for anchoring and taking a refreshing swim. Due to its colossal scale, you can reach Shasta Lake from multiple regions. Notably developed areas include the Sacramento Arm and the McCloud Arm. To experience a unique adventure, visit the underground Lake Shasta Caverns.

Bass Lake

At Sierra National Forest, about an hour away from Fresno, you’ll find Bass Lake, a great destination for various water activities. The lake is five miles long, making it ideal for motorized boating. Several sheltered coves provide excellent places to swim, fish, and use paddle boats. Additionally, establishments like Forks Resort and Millers Landing offer boat rentals and comfortable accommodations.

Public Domain

The lower elevation of Bass Lake, in comparison to other bodies of water in the Sierra Nevada, allows for a warmer experience throughout the season. Day hiking is a popular pursuit, with hundreds of miles of hiking trails available. The U.S. Forest Service operates five campgrounds near the shoreline, suitable for both tent and RV camping, further enhancing your Bass Lake experience.

Lake Berryessa

Lake Berryessa, located in Napa County, is the largest freshwater reservoir in the area, situated less than two hours north of San Francisco. This lake is a hotspot for various water activities, such as boating, jet skiing, and water sports. Additionally, numerous secluded coves and sandy beaches make it an excellent location for non-motorized boating, fishing, and swimming. Given the hot summer temperatures of Napa Valley, Lake Berryessa is a delightful place to cool off.

Haha169, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Embracing 165 miles of shoreline, the southwest shore features the 2.6-mile Smittle Creek Trail, which connects the Oak Shores and Smittle Creek Day Use areas – ideal family-friendly spots with public beaches and shoreline fishing. Pleasure Cove Marina, on the southern end of the lake, offers boat rentals, and several campgrounds are scattered along the lakeside.

Folsom Lake

Folsom Lake is a vast reservoir formed by damming the American River. The surrounding Folsom Lake State Recreation Area ensures plenty of recreational activities with extensive hiking trails, campgrounds, and numerous access points to the shoreline. The lake is a boater’s paradise, attracting motorboats and Jet Skis enthusiasts who enjoy skimming across its impressive expanse.

UncleVinny, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For a more tranquil, non-motorized boating experience, consider heading to nearby Lake Natoma situated within the state recreation area. With a strict five miles per hour speed limit across its entire 500-acre area, Lake Natoma discourages motorized boats, providing a serene environment for kayaking and canoeing. Folsom Lake State Recreation Area serves as a popular escape, especially for those residing in Sacramento, as it’s conveniently located less than 30 miles from the capital city.

Donner Lake

Donner Lake, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, can be easily reached from the nearby town of Truckee. This family-friendly destination attracts numerous recreational boaters during the summer season. With a 35-mph speed limit, you’ll find kayaks, sailboats, and Jet Skis as the most prevalent watercraft. Resorts and amenities are available along the western and northern shores of the lake for your enjoyment.

J.smith, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Adjacent to the lake, Donner Memorial State Park features campgrounds and an extensive network of hiking trails. The park also offers a chance to learn about early settlers who traversed these mountains in search of a better life in California, such as the unfortunate Donner Party. To truly appreciate Donner Lake, take a hike from the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center.

Cachuma Lake

Located in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, just a short 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara, Cachuma Lake’s beauty is accentuated by the surrounding mountains. As a domestic water source, direct contact with the lake’s water is prohibited. However, you can still appreciate the breathtaking shoreline, the nearby oak forests, and the extensive Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, which offers a variety of hiking trails, campgrounds, and picnic spots.

Jw4nvc, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Although activities like water skiing, jet skiing, and swimming are not permitted at Cachuma Lake, you can access the water with both personal and rented watercraft. The lake’s marina offers gas, supplies, and a wide range of rental boats. Known as one of the top fishing destinations in California, Cachuma Lake’s marina also provides comprehensive fishing maps and one-day permits for enthusiasts.

Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor, located in Northern California, is a beautiful man-made lake boasting 52 miles of shoreline. This tranquil haven, situated in the breathtaking Shasta Cascade region, offers you ample outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and fishing. Additionally, you’ll find boating becoming more and more popular, especially during early mornings when the lake’s surface is calm and serene.

Public Domain

In close proximity to Lake Almanor, the charming city of Chester welcomes tourists and serves as an entry point to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Chester provides a variety of lodging options, enabling easy access to both the lake and the park’s geothermal features. Moreover, you can find RV parks, campgrounds, and rental cabins lining the shore of Lake Almanor, further enhancing your experience in this picturesque region.

Silverwood Lake

Silverwood Lake, nestled in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, is a cherished destination, less than 90 miles from Los Angeles. This scenic lake attracts visitors for various activities such as boating, fishing, and swimming, particularly between April and October when the surrounding state recreation area often reaches capacity.

inkknife_2000, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For a convenient stay, the Mesa Campground at the southern end provides over 130 campsites for tent and RV camping close to the water. Nearby, two day-use areas offer public swimming beaches supervised by lifeguards. While summer is the peak season, winter also draws enthusiasts for a unique opportunity to spot bald eagles in the area.

Lake Perris

Lake Perris, a sizable reservoir, can be found within Southern California’s Inland Empire, not too far from Riverside and Los Angeles. As a crucial part of the extensive 701-mile California State Water Project, it not only quenches the thirst of nearby desert communities but also serves as a popular outdoor travel destination.

Balikiman, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Within the 1,800-acre Lake Perris and the encompassing 8,800-acre Lake Perris State Recreation Area, you have ample opportunities to enjoy an array of activities. Take advantage of the vast water space for boating, fishing, and swimming, but be aware that there is a 200-vessel limit, so securing a launch permit in advance is highly recommended during the summer months.