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15 Top-Rated Lakes in California

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 26, 2022

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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 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. And 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 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.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe

The granite Sierra Nevada Mountains frame the dazzling blue water of Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful lakes in California and one of the most popular lakes in the United States. It's generally characterized by a north and south region, as it spans state borders between California and Nevada.

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

Campgrounds, cabins, and luxurious resorts are 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.

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: Best Resorts in Lake Tahoe

2. Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake and the Shasta Dam
Shasta Lake and the Shasta Dam

Shasta Lake is less than 15 miles north of Redding in Northern California and is the state's largest reservoir. The 30,000-plus acres of Shasta Lake comprise sprawling fingers and river ways that collect behind the massive Shasta Dam. This massive acreage invites 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.

The underground Lake Shasta Caverns is accessible by boat across the water and offers a unique adventure at Shasta Lake. 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
Big Bear Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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

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

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. And hundreds of miles of hiking trails surround the lake, like the Cougar Crest Trail, which overlooks the water and connects to the country-spanning Pacific Crest Trail.

Accommodation: Best Resorts in Big Bear, CA

Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do in Big Bear, CA

4. Mono Lake

Tufa formations on Mono Lake
Tufa formations on Mono Lake

Mono Lake is just outside the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park, near Lee Vining, and features distinctive ancient tufa towers sprouting from the water. These unique geological formations are a result of freshwater springs shooting up through the alkaline lake, causing sediments to combine. One of the best views of this interesting geo-history is found in 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
London Bridge spanning Lake Havasu with hot air balloons

This popular body of water is a 19,000-acre impoundment of the Colorado River straddling the Arizona and California border in the far southeast part of the state. It's surrounded by desert landscapes and 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
Morning Glory Spillway at Lake Berryessa

Lake Berryessa is a massive freshwater reservoir and the largest lake in Napa County, less than two hours north of San Francisco. It's 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. And 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

Folsom Lake
Folsom Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

At the backdoor of the once-booming gold town of Folsom, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this massive reservoir is a result of an 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 water.

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. Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is a popular getaway from Sacramento and less than 30 miles from the capital city.

8. Bass Lake

Bass Lake
Bass Lake

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

The relatively lower elevation of Bass Lake compared to other Sierra Nevada bodies of water makes it 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
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 throughout the area, and 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
Boat launch at Silverwood Lake

Silverwood Lake is one of the most popular lakes in Southern California. It's 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 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 for bald eagle watching.

11. Cachuma Lake

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 garnered 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
Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor is a hidden gem in Northern California. It's 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. And 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.

13. Lake Perris

Lake Perris
Lake Perris | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Lake Perris is a large reservoir in the Inland Empire of Southern California, approximately 11 miles southeast of Riverside and 65 miles east of Los Angeles. It's the southernmost reservoir of the 701-mile California State Water Project, which provides vital hydration for surrounding desert communities.

Alongside its vital water supply, Lake Perris and the surrounding Lake Perris State Recreation Area are hot spots for outdoor travel. The lake covers 1,800 acres at capacity, lending to popular activities like boating, fishing, and swimming. Boating is limited to 200 vessels throughout the year, with advance launch permits recommended during the summer season.

The larger state recreation area encompasses 8,800 acres. This vast expanse lends to other popular activities in the area like hiking, rock climbing, and horse riding. Lake Perris is also home to an expansive campground, with over 400 campsites catering to all types of overnight travel.

14. Donner Lake

Donner Lake
Donner Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Donner Lake is a gem of the Sierra Nevada Mountains most easily accessible from the mountain town of Truckee. It's a popular family lake come summer, with scores of recreation boats enjoying the water. There's a 35-miles-per-hour speed limit on the lake, and as a result, the most common watercraft includes kayaks, sailboats, and Jet Skis.

Several resorts and resort amenities surround the west and north shores of the lake. To the west, Donner Memorial State Park offers campgrounds and a sprawling network of hiking trails. The state park is also home to several opportunities to learn about past pioneers who crossed the mountains here for better lives in California, including the ill-fated Donner Party.

The hiking trails extending from the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center are a great way to experience the lake. The Lakeside Interpretive Trail leads straight to the shoreline, where impressive views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains backdrop the water. Several picnic areas are available along the trail.

15. Lake Arrowhead

Lake Arrowhead Village
Lake Arrowhead Village | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Lake Arrowhead is another aquatic vacation destination in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, also known as the "Alps of Southern California." It's between Silverwood Lake and Big Bear Lake in the same region and shares similar characteristics, including a stunning forest backdrop.

Lake Arrowhead is a resort community catering to all types of vacations. An Arrowhead Lake Association membership is required to launch personal vessels onto the water. Several put-in sites are available upon registering. An alternative option is enjoying a guided ride aboard a Lake Arrowhead Queen Tour Boat.

Spend some time at the Lake Arrowhead Village when visiting. This lakeside retail and community spot has several dining and shopping options, as well as festive events, including a summer concert series. This is also the location for the festive Holidays at the Village during the winter season.

Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do at Lake Arrowhead, CA

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