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12 Top-Rated Lakes in California

Written by Brad Lane
Jan 27, 2020

Among the many stunning outdoor spaces across the state, the most beautiful lakes in California sparkle with scenic natural attractions. From lakes in Northern California, including Lake Shasta and Lake Tahoe, to Southern California lakes that beat the summer heat, like Silverhead and Big Bear Lake, a great body of water is easy to reach from all of California's major cities.

The numerous reservoirs and freshwater lakes of California support a wide range of recreation. Boating lakes, swimming lakes, and the best lakes for a vacation combine into one at resort destinations like Lake Berryessa or Lake Almanor. While many lakes in California support a healthy fishing habit, Cachuma Lake in the Santa Ynez Valley is regarded as one of the best lakes to fish thanks to its prize-winning bass.

Other lakes like Mono Lake offer unique geological attractions, and places like Folsom Lake are popular with Jet Skis and other water sports. Many of the nicest lakes in California deliver with land-based activities, too, like the hundreds of miles of hiking trails that surround Bass Lake just north of Fresno. Don't own a boat? Boat rentals are also available at many of the best lakes in California.

Plan your activities on and by the water with our list of the best lakes in California.

1. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

One of the most beautiful lakes in California, the dazzling blue water of Lake Tahoe is framed by granite Sierra Nevada Mountains. Spanning state borders between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is also generally characterized by a north and south region.

Campgrounds, cabins, and luxurious resorts are found close to the shores of North Lake Tahoe and Tahoe South, and the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail circles the entire lake basin.

Lake Tahoe is popular with motorized and non-motorized boating. Numerous outfitters and marinas around the lake offer boat rentals and other activities like scenic lake cruises.

Lake Tahoe is also home to one of the best state parks in California, and Emerald Bay State Park delivers with a view that inspires repeat visits. One of the best hikes around Lake Tahoe, the Rubicon Trail connects Emerald Bay with the neighboring D.L. Bliss State Park, which also offers camping and lakeside attractions.

While the summer is the best time to enjoy the water of Lake Tahoe, the shoulder seasons and winter also offer stunning views of the aquatic environment.

Nightlife and entertainment surround the shores of the lake, particularly at tourist spots on the southeast shore like the resort cities of Stateline and South Lake Tahoe.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake and the Shasta Dam

Less than 15 miles north of Redding in Northern California, Shasta Lake is the state's largest reservoir. Comprised of sprawling fingers and riverways that collect behind the massive Shasta Dam, the 30,000-plus acres of Shasta Lake invite all types of exploring. Motorized boating reigns as one of the most popular activities on the water, with vessels ranging from Jet Skis to houseboats.

Numerous local marinas and resorts provide boat rentals and boat ramps at Shasta Lake, and plenty of secret coves across the lake offer prime spots to anchor and take a swim. Due to its sprawling nature, Shasta Lake is accessed from many different regions. Some of the most developed stretches of water include the Sacramento Arm and the McCloud Arm.

A unique adventure at Shasta Lake, the underground Lake Shasta Caverns is accessible by boat across the water. A guided tour is the only way to see the caves, and each tour begins with a 10-minute boat ride across the McCloud Arm of the lake. No crawling or climbing is involved throughout the guided tours of the caverns, but an extensive number of steps are traversed along the way.

3. Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

In the San Bernardino National Forest, less than 100 miles from Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake breaks the typical conventions of Southern California landscapes. Surrounded by pine trees at an elevation of over 6,700 feet, and adjacent to a city with the same name, Big Bear Lake is a snow-fed recreation spot that is popular with all types of boating throughout the summer.

It's one of the best boating lakes in Southern California, and numerous marinas like Pleasure Point Marina line the seven-mile Big Bear Lake. Boat rentals at these marinas include stand up paddleboards and pontoon boats.

A unique way to experience the water and history of Big Bear Lake is to hop aboard the historic Miss Liberty Skipperliner for a 90-minute guided tour offered by Pine Knot Marina.

Big Bear Lake is also a popular swimming lake, with numerous public beaches lining the shore. Boulder Bay Park, on the southwest shore, features one of the largest swimming beaches. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails surround Big Bear Lake, like the Cougar Crest Trail, which overlooks the water and connects to the country-spanning Pacific Crest Trail.

4. Mono Lake

Tufa formations on Mono Lake

Just outside the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park near Lee Vining, Mono Lake features distinctive ancient tufa towers sprouting from the water. These unique geological formations are created when freshwater springs shoot up through the alkaline lake and cause sediments to combine. One of the best views of this interesting geo-history is found at the South Tufa Area.

The alkaline levels of the lake add a unique sense of buoyancy to activities like swimming and boating. The aquatic wildlife is unique in Mono Lake, also, with brine shrimp thriving on the native green algae. The abundant brine shrimp at Mono Lake attracts numerous migratory birds to the area, which also makes Mono Lake a premiere destination for bird-watching.

5. Lake Havasu

London Bridge spanning Lake Havasu with hot air balloons

Straddling the Arizona and California border in the far southeast part of the state, this popular body of water is a 19,000-acre impoundment of the Colorado River. Surrounded by desert landscapes, Lake Havasu is popular for motorized boating, bass fishing, and swimming from the shore.

Numerous campgrounds and boat-access campsites line the eastern shoreline of Lake Havasu, and the adjacent community of Lake Havasu City provides modern accommodations and an iconic London Bridge that spans the water.

6. Lake Berryessa

Morning Glory Spillway at Lake Berryessa

Less than two hours north of San Francisco, Lake Berryessa is a massive freshwater reservoir and the largest lake in Napa County. Popular for boating, jet skiing, and water sports, numerous secluded coves and sandy beaches also make Lake Berryessa a playground for non-motorized boating, fishing, and swimming. The hot summer temperatures of Napa Valley also make Lake Berryessa a fun place to beat the heat.

On the southwest shore, the 2.6-mile Smittle Creek Trail connects the Oak Shores and Smittle Creek Day Use areas. These day-use areas are popular family spots, with public beaches and shoreline fishing available. Boat rentals are available at Pleasure Cove Marina on the far southern end of the lake, and several campgrounds are located along the 165 miles of shoreline.

The scenery of Lake Berryessa, surrounded by golden hills of oak and manzanita, is worth the visit just to stand on the shore. Another attraction worth seeing is the Morning Glory Spillway at Lake Berryessa. This unique water management system acts like a massive drain plug and creates a whirlpool in the middle of the water when the reservoir is getting too high.

7. Folsom Lake

Clear waters of Folsom Lake

At the backdoor of the once-booming gold town of Folsom, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this massive reservoir was created by the impoundment of the American River. The encompassing Folsom Lake State Recreation Area surrounds the water and provides hiking trails, campgrounds, and several places to access the shoreline. It's one of the best boating lakes, and it's common to see motorboats and Jet Skis skimming across the lake.

For those looking for non-motorized boating endeavors, the neighboring Lake Natoma within the state recreation area is the place to go. The speed limit across the entire 500-square-acres of Lake Natoma is five miles per hour, which usually detracts motorized boats from accessing the water. A popular getaway from Sacramento, Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is less than 30 miles from the capital city.

8. Bass Lake

Bass Lake

In the Sierra National Forest, an hour north of Fresno, Bass Lake is a popular destination for all types of water activity. The five-mile length of Bass Lake appeals to motorized boaters, and several sheltered coves offer great spots to swim, fish, and paddle a boat. Lakeside institutions like the Forks Resort and Millers Landing at Bass Lake offer boat rentals and cozy places to stay.

The relatively lower elevation of Bass Lake compared to other Sierra Nevada bodies of water makes Bass Lake warmer throughout the season. Day hiking is a popular activity at Bass Lake, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails span the forest. The U.S. Forest Service also operates five campgrounds close to the shore for tent and RV camping.

9. Mammoth Lakes Basin

Fisherman in the Mammoth Lakes Basin

Five minutes from the Sierra Nevada Mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, home to Mammoth Mountain ski and snowboard resort, the Mammoth Lakes Basin offers a surreal collection of alpine water. Lakes like Lake Mary and Horseshoe Lake are accessible by vehicle, while smaller lakes in the basin are only accessible by hiking trails. More than a dozen lakes are spread throughout the entire area.

Popular activities in the Mammoth Lakes Basin include hiking, fishing, and taking quick dips in the water. Primitive and developed campgrounds are found throughout the area. On the shores of Twin Lakes, in Mammoth Lakes Basin, Tamarack Lodge and Resort is a popular place to spend the night.

10. Silverwood Lake

Boat launch at Silverwood Lake

One of the most popular lakes in Southern California, Silverwood Lake is in the San Bernardino Mountains and less than 90 miles from Los Angeles. Like Big Bear Lake in the same mountainous region, Silverwood Lake is a popular destination for boating, fishing, and swimming. The lake is so popular that the surrounding state recreation area often reaches capacity during the busy season between April and October.

The Mesa Campground at the southern end of Silverwood Lake has over 130 campsites for tent and RV camping close to the water. Two day-use areas are also found on the southern end of the lake and feature public swimming beaches with lifeguards on duty. It's a popular destination in the summer, and the winter season also draws a small crowd to Silverwood Lake for bald eagle watching.

11. Cachuma Lake

Cachuma Lake

In the scenic Santa Ynez Valley, a half-hour drive from Santa Barbara, the mountains surrounding Cachuma Lake add to the lake's rugged beauty. Cachuma Lake is a domestic water supply, which means body contact is not allowed with the water. This does not prevent visitors from enjoying the scenic shoreline and surrounding oak forests, and the encompassing Cachuma Lake Recreation Area is filled with hiking trails, campgrounds, and picnic areas.

While activities like water skiing, jet skiing, and swimming are not allowed on Cachuma Lake, personal and rented watercraft can still access the water. A marina on the lake features gas, supplies, and a full fleet of rental boats.

Cachuma Lake has garnished a reputation as one of the best lakes in California for fishing, and the marina also provides detailed fishing maps and one-day permits.

12. Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor

A hidden gem in Northern California, Lake Almanor is a man-made lake with 52 miles of shoreline. Nestled into the scenic Shasta Cascade region of northeastern California, the Lake Almanor Basin is filled with hiking, camping, and fishing opportunities. Boating is increasingly popular on Lake Almanor, particularly in the early morning when the surface is smooth as glass.

Lake Almanor and the adjacent tourist-friendly city of Chester are a gateway to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Numerous lodging options in Chester lend easy access to both Lake Almanor and the steaming attractions of Lassen. RV parks, campgrounds, and rental cabins also line the shore of Lake Almanor.

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