The geography of California is unlike anywhere else in the nation, and it’s not uncommon for residents to boast that they can sit on a beach at lunch and watch a sunset from a mountaintop for dinner, all in one day.
Throughout the state, California gifts visitors with beautiful lakes that range from recreation hubs like Lake Havasu in the south to famous resort areas like Lake Tahoe in the north. The state is also home to nine national parks and hundreds of state parks with beautiful lakes for fishing, recreation, and relaxation, like Castaic Lake, just north of Los Angeles.
Let’s explore some of the best, most beautiful lakes in California, what to do while you’re visiting, and where to stay during your travels.
The Best Lakes in California to Visit
1. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is an internationally famous lake that boasts the bluest blues and deepest depths of any lake in California and is the largest alpine lake in the state. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, Lake Tahoe straddles the California and Nevada border and is about 200 miles northeast of San Francisco.
Popular activities at Lake Tahoe include water sports and sunbathing on the beaches, especially in the summer. Winter brings skiers, and the trails around the lake are popular with mountain bikers and hikers all year. You don’t even have to get out of your car to marvel at the beauty of Lake Tahoe. Driving around the lake affords plenty of views and opportunities for picture-taking and scenic overlooks.
For your first visit to Lake Tahoe, try a half-day coastal self-guided electric bike tour, which runs along the gorgeous eastern shore trail. If you want to challenge yourself, take your mountain bike to the Flume Trail, which is a moderately challenging 14-mile trail with outstanding views of the lake and mountains stretching from South Lake Tahoe all the way to the north.
Lake Tahoe suits virtually every type of traveler, too, with stays in vacation homes in South Lake Tahoe, as well as resorts and cozy old-fashioned motels along the eastern shore that look like they were plucked right out of a 1950s summer vacation.
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2. Shasta Lake
Shasta Lake is a reservoir in Northern California and is just a few miles north of the city of Redding. Also known as Lake Shasta, the reservoir was created in the 1940s when the Shasta Dam was built and blocked the Sacramento River.
Shasta Lake is the largest man-made reservoir in the state, and it’s a popular destination for house boating, fishing trips, and might be one of the best lakes to live on in California. The views around Shasta Lake are incredible, and the reservoir sits within the Cascade region. Mountains around the lake often feature a dusting of snow well into the spring, so it’s one of the prettiest lakes in California.
If you’re in the area for more than a day and want to see something unique and awe-inspiring, buy a ticket for a tour of Lake Shasta Caverns, which is a privately-owned cave with extra-knowledgeable tour guides and a gift shop with cool rocks and gems.
If you’re in an adventurous mood, you can stay on a houseboat on Shasta Lake, but the Shasta area and Redding to the south also offer an endless supply of comfortable hotels and vacation homes.
Try the guest house with a private hot tub for your winter travels to Lake Shasta or the Fairfield Inn & Suites if you’re traveling with the family and want all the comforts, plus a free breakfast. Redding Regional Airport is a small and convenient option if you’re flying into the area for a visit.
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3. Mammoth Lakes Basin
Mammoth Lakes is a luxury vacation enclave on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains that run up and down the eastern edge of the state. One of the best road trips you can take in California is one that travels along U.S. Route 395, and Mammoth Lakes is the perfect destination after you drive north along the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains.
Mammoth Lakes, or “Mammoth” to those who live in California, is located near some impressive natural formations like the Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Yosemite National Park. The area is quite well known for its ski resorts and winter recreation opportunities that include snowmobiling, snowboarding, skiing, and ice skating.
However, Mammoth Lakes isn’t just a destination for luxury skiing vacations. The summer is a beautiful season for mountain biking, hiking, and swimming, and it’s easier to score a deal on lodging in the summer when local property owners offer lower rates on their cabins, condos, and resort rooms.
Whether you visit in the summer or winter, you’ll find familiar lodging at places like the Quality Inn, as well as gorgeous resort condos at destinations like the Juniper Springs Resort. If you’re not too picky about where you stay, try the town of Bishop for less expensive rates in the busy winter skiing season.
It takes less than an hour to drive from Bishop to Mammoth and you’ll get beautiful views of the Sierra Nevada mountains along the way to one of the most beautiful lakes in California.
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4. Bass Lake
Bass Lake is the ideal destination for anyone traveling to Yosemite National Park since it’s just a few miles away from the park. Bass Lake is surrounded by hundreds of vacation homes, many with direct access to the lake by personal docks. Bass Lake is home to just 600 people year-round, but hundreds of visitors come to the area each year for watersports and skiing.
One of the cool features of the lake is that it possesses several inlets with shallow water and docks where you can store your jet skis, boat rentals, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Paddle around the inlet on a bright sunny summer day or go jet skiing out onto the main thoroughfare for an exciting and fast-paced circuit through one of the best lakes in California.
Bass Lake is one of the best California lakes for traveling with children who are just old enough to enjoy basic water sports, hiking, and outdoor activities. The environment is relaxed, remote, and beautiful, and it’s a perfect destination for a young family who wants some outdoor fun in the summer.
You’ll find several excellent properties around Bass Lake that range from small, cozy vacation homes to large family holiday homes. You’ll want to spend at least a few days at Bass Lake before moving on to your adventures at Yosemite National Park; however, you can also take a day trip into Yosemite from your lodgings at Bass Lake.
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5. Lake Sonoma
Lake Sonoma Recreation Area is a coastal gem in Sonoma County and is one of the newest California lakes, created in the early 1980s with the completion of the Warm Springs Dam. After visiting the top wineries in Sonoma, consider spending an afternoon at the lake for fishing, swimming, or hunting.
The lake is also one of the best lakes in California for hiking, riding, and relaxing by the water. The lake has a boat launch and is also near horseback riding opportunities and companies that offer hot air balloon rides above the lake.
Although you can experience Sonoma County from the air in a hot air balloon, the best way to get to Lake Sonoma is with a car. Most travelers from outside the region will fly into one of the airports in San Francisco or San Jose, but the drive is about 100 miles from San Fran and a little further from San Jose.
There’s also a small regional airport in Santa Rosa, a little closer to Sonoma County, but you might end up stopping in San Francisco on a layover anyway to get to Santa Rosa. If you’re making your way around Sonoma County on a leisurely road trip of the state’s wineries, consider an afternoon at Lake Sonoma to relax.
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6. Donner Lake
Donner Lake sits within Donner Memorial State Park and is just a short drive to the northwest from Lake Tahoe and just a few miles away from the awesome small northern California town of Truckee. Donner Lake and the nearby memorial are named for the famous “Donner Party,” the ill-fated group of 19th-century pioneers who traveled to California in a wagon train and succumbed to the fierce winter of 1846 and 1847.
However, you don’t need to worry that you’ll meet the same fate as the pioneers. Today, the area around Donner Lake is reasonably populated, and there are even some opportunities for staying near the lake in vacation homes. A popular place to stay when visiting lakes in California like Donner Lake or Lake Tahoe is Truckee, which is a quaint western town that’s a popular stop before or after a tour of Lake Tahoe.
Donner Lake is a truly beautiful lake, and the surrounding area is also very picturesque and worth several photographs. If the weather permits, spend a few hours chilling on one of the small docks that line the shoreline. You can also relax on the beach on a sunny day or participate in leisurely recreation activities like kayaking or paddle boarding.
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7. Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu is a huge reservoir that was created by a dam in the Colorado River and sits on the border between California and Arizona. As one of the best boating lakes in California, Havasu is a huge playground for adults who love watersports, speedboats, and general tomfoolery. It’s also a popular venue for house boating, boat rentals, and lake camping.
Visiting Lake Havasu from outside the area is most easily accomplished by flying into the Lake Havasu City Airport and getting an airport transfer. You can also fly into Las Vegas or Phoenix and drive to the lake. You’ll find everything you need for an exciting outdoor adventure when you arrive, from shopping and dining to lodging and tons of watersport opportunities throughout Lake Havasu State Park.
If you’re not staying on your boat during your visit, you’ll probably stay in Lake Havasu City, which is just across the border on the Arizona side of the shore. Some options to think about include the Holiday Inn Express & Suites and or a Lake Havasu City vacation home.
The lake boasts 400 miles of coastline and averages 300 days of sunshine each year, so it’s one of the best lakes in California to spend time water skiing, boating, suntanning, and chilling out with friends. If you’re looking for extreme water sports, Lake Havasu is one of the best destinations in California. Or Arizona, for that matter.
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8. Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake was the home of native Americans for thousands of years before European settlers came to the area to explore and build an outpost. The area was popular with gold miners for decades until the area lured skiers, vacationers, and lake enthusiasts. Today, Big Bear Lake is an incredibly popular destination for Los Angelinos since the drive from L.A. is a few hours at most.
Big Bear Lake makes an ideal holiday, whether it’s a winter wonderland in December or a beautifully sunny day in July. If you’re from Southern California, Big Bear Lake is a “four-season” destination, which means you can book a Lakewood Cabin or vacation home at any time of the year for skiing, mountain biking, hiking trails, or simply relaxing by the lake.
Travelers from outside Southern California can reach Big Bear Lake easiest from Ontario Airport to the south, but it doesn’t take much longer to reach Big Bear if you fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Burbank Airport, or John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
In the summer, Big Bear Lake is very outdoors-oriented, with Snow Summit ski park transforming into a downhill mountain biking destination. The area also has loads of cross-country biking trails, as well as endless miles of hiking in multiple seasons. Once November and December arrive, Big Bear is an excellent SoCal destination for skiing and cozy evenings by the fire.
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9. Lake Arrowhead
Lake Arrowhead is just to the west of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest, and you can easily drive from one lake to the other on a Southern California road trip. If you’re in the area for a few days, they’re two of the best lakes in California for scenery and recreational activities.
Like many other beautiful lakes in California, Lake Arrowhead is the result of a dam that was constructed at the turn of the 20th century in the San Bernardino Mountains. The lake was named for a natural rock formation in the area that resembles an arrowhead.
Today, the lake is known as a small resort town and offers many of the same outdoor activities as Big Bear, like water skiing, fishing, backpacking, and anything that has something to do with the outdoors.
Lake Arrowhead also has a cute, upscale town center that’s ideal for shopping, strolling around, and taking a break from your recreational activities. One of the best ways to experience Lake Arrowhead is by renting a cabin. But some of the lake cabins at Lake Arrowhead aren’t exactly tiny. The luxury lake town excels in providing large cabins with plenty of room to relax.
Try Bracken Fern Manor for your winter escape to Lake Arrowhead, which comes with a ski equipment rental service, ten bedrooms, and ten bathrooms, or the slightly less extravagant Mighty Pines vacation home, a lovely cabin in the woods about 10 minutes to The Village. Lake Arrowhead is the ideal destination when you’re looking for lakes with cabins in California.
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10. Castaic Lake
You can reach Castaic Lake from almost anywhere in Los Angeles County in just a few hours, and usually less than that. Enjoy boating, fishing, hiking trails, camping, and mountain biking at Castaic Lake State Recreation Area, which is just off the 5 freeway north of L.A. The lake is quite popular with Southern California locals and is one of the best lakes in California for vacation outings with the family.
Castaic is an excellent place to take teenagers because the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park is just 10 miles south, next to the freeway in Valencia. Enjoy your outdoor recreation activities at the lake, and then scare yourself silly on the roller coasters at Magic Mountain the next day with your kids.
Not only can you bring your R.V. for your lakeside vacation at Castaic Lake, but you’ll also find all sorts of convenient lodging in the vicinity. From the Rodeway Inn to the Days Inn, there’s always somewhere familiar to stay in the area.
Castaic is also close enough to the rest of Southern California that you don’t necessarily need to stay overnight at or near the lake to enjoy it. If you’re visiting Southern California and want to add a day of outdoor recreation to your touristy activities at the Hollywood Sign and the Santa Monica Pier, it’s an easy 45-minute drive from Downtown or most of Westside LA.
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11. Lake Cachuma
Lake Cachuma is a man-made lake in the northern reaches of Southern California with ample opportunities for camping, fishing, and quiet reflection with nature. The lake feels quite remote, even though it’s not really that far from Santa Barbara, which is just a quick 30-minute drive from the coast.
Lake Cachuma is near the truly unique town of Solvang, which looks like it was plucked right out of Denmark and transported to beautiful sunshine-infused Santa Barbara County. If you’re driving through the area on your way to Lake Cachuma, you definitely need to stop for lunch and shopping in Solvang.
The Swedish Candy Factory is a must-see and features incredible chocolates from local candy makers. Not only can you gear up for your camping trip in Solvang, but the town is a one-of-a-kind destination in the state. Lake Cachuma is a destination to consider when you’re exploring Santa Barbara County, which is north of L.A. County.
Activities to put on your itinerary include a Santa Barbara cupcake and wine tour, some quiet relaxation at Lake Cachuma, and some hiking trails around Santa Maria if you’re game for a drive about an hour north of Lake Cachuma.
If you’d rather enjoy the lake for the day and stay in a hotel rather than camp overnight, try the Historic Santa Maria Inn, a gorgeous hotel with one of the best lobbies you’ll ever see.
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12. Mono Lake
If you’re looking for one of the unique lakes in Northern California, you might try Mono Lake, which is a quick drive north from Mammoth Lakes and to the east of Route 395. Mono Lake is home to the strangest rocks that might make you think you’re on another planet: the Mono Lake tufa formations.
The lake is popular with bird watchers and is a saline lake rather than a freshwater lake. You’ll have to take a gravel road to reach Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, but the road doesn’t require a well-equipped all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Mono Lake offers visitors boating opportunities, but you don’t need a watercraft to enjoy the view. You’ll find picnic areas and a beach area with swimming, as well as loads of signage around the park with interesting details about the area’s history.
Mono Lake is one of the best lakes in California for swimming because the experience is so unique. The lake is saltier than the ocean, and you’ll float quite easily in the dense water. The lake doesn’t have any camping or overnight facilities in the immediate vicinity, so the lake is best seen during a day trip from one of the towns along the 395 or as a stop on a road trip throughout California.
The Lake View Lodge is probably one of the closest places to stay near the park and Mono Lake.
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13. Manzanita Lake
Manzanita Lake is located inside Lassen Volcanic National Park and is one of the northernmost lakes in northern California and to the east of Shasta Lake and the city of Redding. The park has several volcanoes, more than 100 miles of trails, and geothermal areas to explore.
Manzanita Lake is a popular destination for trout fishing and offers some incredible views of the surrounding volcanic mountains. The lake doesn’t allow motorized boats, so your fishing trip will feel quite peaceful.
If you’re not interested in fishing, you might take a walk on the trail that circles the lake. It’s mostly flat and easy to walk for most people with moderate experience on hiking trails. If you’re spending the entire day in the park, you’ll want to hike to Bumpass Hell, which is reachable by a trail that passes mud pots and pools of boiling water. Horseshoe Lake is another beautiful lake in the park that’s worth a visit.
Note that the roads that lead into and around the park are closed whenever snow or inclement weather blocks the roads, so the best time to visit the park is in the late spring, summer, or early fall.
The park is fairly remote, too, and the biggest town with ample places to stay is Redding, which is about 70 miles away. The park also has camping opportunities, but it’s important to make a reservation to secure a spot.
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14. Lake Perris
Lake Perris sits within the Lake Perris State Recreation Area and is southeast of the city of Riverside in Southern California. The lake is very popular with locals who live in Riverside County and San Bernardino County and who own boats that they launch at the lake. The area also has a few companies that specialize in boat rentals and watercraft rentals.
The lake offers some unique activities, like waterfowl hunting days, where part of the lake closes to everyone but hunters who have reservations. Other activities include fishing, hiking trails, swimming, and bicycling. The lake offers camping opportunities for tent campers and travelers with R.V.s.
If you want to stay in a hotel, motel, or vacation home during your visit to Lake Perris, anywhere in Riverside is a suitable location. You can also stay just about anywhere in Southern California and easily reach the lake. It’s a quick day trip from L.A. County, Orange County, and even San Diego County.
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15. Lake Berryessa
If you’re visiting San Fran and want to take a day trip from the city or anywhere in the Bay Area, Lake Berryessa is an excellent choice. Like other lakes created by reservoirs, Lake Berryessa offers loads of recreational opportunities in and around its 150 miles of shoreline.
The lake offers houseboat rentals for overnight stays, and it’s a great destination for birdwatching and wildlife watching. Water sports available at the lake include water skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing, as well as anything else that’s fast and requires some sort of motorized craft.
It’s also one of the best lakes in California for swimming since the water can reach a comfortable and beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. If you’re traveling to the Bay Area and want to expand your tour of San Francisco with a fun, outdoor destination, Lake Berryessa is a great choice.
California is a huge state, and its incredible lakes offer activities for every sort of traveler. You’ll find the “best of” something at every lake you visit. Consider a road trip across the state to visit multiple locations or consider a day trip or camping trip to explore the lake and the surrounding area.
Whether you choose the iconic Lake Tahoe or the raucously fun Lake Havasu, your California lake adventure will provide wonderful memories for you and your family.