Home Travel 14 Top Lakes in California

14 Top Lakes in California

by Atlanta Business Journal

To experience California is to get outdoors and breathe it in. California lakes number in the thousands and stretch across some of the state’s most exquisite landscapes. While many of these lakes offer the same Sunday-style activities of fishing, boating and swimming, the very best lakes in California also offer a story. Whether the water is saltier than the ocean or Woody Guthrie sang about it, the lakes on this list are truly awesome and a step beyond scenic. Read on to explore the fourteen most scenic lakes in California.

Big Bear Lake

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Located in the San Bernardino National Forest and about 100 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is an incorporated city in California and a year-round tourism hub. The lake, situated at an altitude of 6,759 feet, stretches for 7 miles and is surrounded by the clean scent of Ponderosa pines. However, as peaceful as that sounds, Big Bear is one of the most action-packed lakes in California. Warm weather activities include fishing tournaments, water sports rentals, mountain biking trails, zip lining, rock climbing, golfing, a go-kart track and a zoo. Or, visit in the fall to take part in Big Bear’s festive, nine-week celebration of Oktoberfest from September through mid-November. Big Bear Mountain Resort offers Southern California’s best skiing and snowboarding, while various snow tubing options are available November through March Big Bear Mountain Resort is the area’s most prominent lodging option, but lakeside accommodations also include cabins, rentals, bed and breakfasts and more. If anyone in your family complains that a lakeside vacation sounds dull, past travelers say Big Bear Lake offers a surefire counterpoint.

Convict Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Convict Lake’s namesake and its views are both dramatic; a shootout of escaped Carson City convicts in 1871 led to the renaming of both mountains and the lake where it took place. Although the name evokes criminality, the only misconduct that Convict Lake is actually guilty of is being criminally underrated. Carved from glaciers and 140 feet deep in some places, this nearly 170-acre lake sits against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 11 miles southwest of Mammoth Lakes off U.S. Highway 395. Today, Convict Lake serves as a haven for trout anglers and hikers. Visitors can stay at the Convict Lake Resort, which offers 28 cabins and three lodges, all of which are pet-friendly and fully equipped with modern perks, including free Wi-Fi access.

Shasta Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Considered by many travelers to be one of the best lakes in Northern California, Shasta is a 30,000-acre reservoir, making it the state’s largest reservoir. Snowcapped Mount Shasta looms over the lake, an ever-present landmark, as visitors fish and explore this Sacramento River-fed lake. It’s worth the time to visit the Shasta Dam, the second-largest concrete dam in the country and the site where Woody Guthrie reportedly penned the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land.” Take a boat tour of the lake’s fascinating underground cave system if you’re looking for even more Shasta Lake history. Hundreds of miles of shoreline and quiet coves mean that Shasta Lake is perfect for anchoring overnight. The thing to do here is rent a houseboat, but if you’d rather keep your feet on land, Inn at Shasta Lake promises a secluded stay nearby in nature.

Folsom Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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The now-defunct Folsom Powerhouse was once considered the greatest electrical plant on the continent, providing power to Sacramento residents from 1895 to 1952. Now, the area has been repurposed into the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, which is located about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the recreation area offers cyclists a 32-mile bike path that connects the lake with other Sacramento County parks. Camping, fishing, and horseback riding are common activities along Folsom Lake. Time your visit for late April or early May, when the lupine flowers ‘super bloom’ is in effect, covering the park in stunning shades of purple. The recreation area’s Granite Bay Main Beach section offers picnic sites that can comfortably accommodate 100 people with tables, barbecues and flush toilets. If you choose not to camp at Folsom Lake, several popular hotel chains are located not far away. Or, consider the Lake Natoma Inn, which is located along the American River and about 3 miles south of Folsom Lake.

Lake Hemet

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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If you find yourself near the San Jacinto Mountains, be sure to stop by Lake Hemet. The San Bernardino National Forest grounds, where Lake Hemet is nestled, cost $5 per day to enter. Anglers appreciate small boats available for daily rental so they can cast for a catch wherever they want. Eagles are also occasionally spotted in the sky, according to recent visitors, so bring binoculars for bird watching. Committed outdoors enthusiasts also frequent Lake Hemet, as the area is one of the most popular camping spots in Southern California with several different types of campsites. Campers receive complimentary access to the Splashing Eagle Swim Zone in the summer, which consists of a large beach and swimming area where life vests are provided. While Lake Hemet and Palm Springs appear adjacent on a map, the two are actually about 47 miles apart when driving. So, if you’re not staying on Hemet’s campgrounds, consider heading 9 miles north to the Idyllwild Inn, which offers midcentury modern cabins to rent.

Donner Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Made famous by the Donner Party, a group of early pioneers who were stranded here during the winter of 1846-1847, Donner Lake is a freshwater lake about 6,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Modern visitors to the lake, which sits about 100 miles northeast of Sacramento via Interstate 80, can expect kinder conditions. Traveler-favorite pastimes include boating, fishing, water-skiing, and picnicking and can be enjoyed in the warmer months. Snow brings opportunities for alpine activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Donner Lake boasts a family-resort atmosphere, and there are many vacation rentals in the area. If you’re after a couple’s getaway, consider the Tahoe Mountain Resorts Lodging Old Greenwood in the town of Truckee. Vehicle access to Donner Memorial State Park requires a $5 (October-April) or $10 (May-September) fee.

June Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Picture swimming in cool, blue waters with a clear sky above and the powdery white-and-gray Sierra Nevada filling your peripheries — welcome to June Lake. If you’d rather spend your time on the water rather than in it, fishing enthusiasts can land a “Sierra Grand Slam,” catching all four varieties of the lake’s trout in one day. One of the largest natural lakes in the area, June Lake covers 320 acres, and past visitors say it becomes particularly eye-catching in the autumn when the leaves turn. Its epic landscape might look familiar; it’s the backdrop to various car commercials. Also known as the June Lake Loop, this region along the Mono Basin is sometimes called Eastern Sierra’s original resort community, so there is no shortage of lodging options. Book a reservation at the in-town Double Eagle Resort and Spa to massage away all your lakeside exploits.

Mono Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Like something out of a sci-fi film, Mono is a natural lake with otherworldly spires of calcium carbonate called tufa towers. These formations are due to the lake’s salinity levels, three times that of the ocean. Still, life finds a way to thrive in and around the alkaline waters, and Mono Lake is home to countless brine shrimp and more than 80 species of migratory birds. Formed an estimated 750,000 years ago, California’s Mono Lake is considered one of the oldest lakes in North America. Visitors are welcome to hike, boat, camp and even swim at the lake. (Due to its salt content, past visitors say that swimming will be more akin to floating.) Head to Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, which maintains an easy 1-mile interpretive trail and an accessible boardwalk along the north shore. Be sure to bring your best camera to snap the changing reflections of the tufa towers on the lake’s surface. Lee Vining is the closest town to Mono Lake; check out the Yosemite Gateway Motel, where accommodations come with expansive lake views. The town is small, so if you want to widen your search, consider accommodations in the Mammoth Lakes region, 30 miles to the south.

Pyramid Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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About 57 miles north of Los Angeles, lake-seekers can scratch their itch with a visit to Pyramid Lake in the Angeles and Los Padres National Forests. This 180,000-acre reservoir was built in 1972 in the northwest region of Las Angeles County and named after a nearby pyramid-shaped rock carved out by engineers building the highway. There is a $12 fee to park your vehicle, but after a day of hiking, fishing or swimming, you’ll be sure to forget all about it. A handful of day-use areas on the lake are accessible by boat only, giving even more seclusion for a Pyramid picnic session. The Vista del Lago Visitor Center is free to access, and it features kid-friendly interactive exhibits about the California State Water Project in addition to its panoramic lake views. For Angelenos or sightseers looking to stay overnight near Pyramid Lake, Santa Clarita is about 26 miles south.

Lake Havasu

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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On the Arizona-California border, this distinctive lake straddles both states, and its western shore touches the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation in California. Past travelers recommend checking out the nearby Havasu Lake City, which shares a name with the lake and offers a boisterous atmosphere. Adding to its quirks, Lake Havasu features a London Bridge, or rather a bridge that used to stretch across the River Thames but was purchased in 1968 and brought over to the Arizona desert. The London Bridge has now been in operation for more than 50 years, connecting Lake Havasu City to an island on the Colorado River. Boating is the best way to explore this unique, 45-mile-long reservoir, and overnight houseboat rentals are even available for anyone willing to splurge.

Lake Cachuma

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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If you’re looking for a lake in the Santa Ynez Valley, bookmark Lake Cachuma. It’s a great day trip from Santa Barbara, fewer than 25 miles south, and a wonderful way to break up a California wine-tasting weekend. The 9,000-acre Cachuma Lake Recreation Area also features the San Rafael Mountains in the background and the Danish community of Solvang, about 12 miles away. Although temperatures are typically mild here, no swimming is allowed in this lake. Instead, visitors can fish or explore the 42 miles of Lake Cachuma’s shoreline by kayak or canoe. Or you can book a two-hour eagle and wildlife cruise hosted by a naturalist. Many visitors were impressed by the views of the lake from higher ground (and the accompanying world-class sunsets), which are easily accessible via the Sweetwater Trail, a roughly 5-mile out-and-back hike. If you’re roughing it, the recreation area offers eight cabins on-site that sleep up to six. Otherwise, Santa Barbara is known for its lavish lodgings like the Hotel Californian or The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara.

Tioga Lake

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Tucked near the Tuolumne Meadows at the east entrance to Yosemite National Park is Tioga Lake. A stone’s throw from Mono Lake, Tioga is a glacial lake rich with wildlife and wildflower- or leaf-peeping opportunities, depending on the time of year. Plan for potential altitude sickness before you visit; Tioga is one of the country’s highest lakes accessible by car, at 9,700 feet above sea level. Thirteen campsites are available to book seasonally at the Tioga Lake Campground. If you’d rather not gamble with a tent, book a stay at the postcard-pretty Tioga Pass Resort.

Lake Sonoma

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Created by the Warm Springs Dam, Sonoma is one of the many manufactured California lakes. The lake sits off of U.S. Route 101 and offers 50 miles of shoreline in the northern Sonoma region. Camping and day-use areas abound, and fishing and hunting are big sports here. If that seems a bit unpalatable, many visitors take in Sonoma Lake’s jaw-dropping vistas via a hike, a boat, or a horseback tour. The Ranch at Lake Sonoma offers memorable trail rides and craft beer and wine at their property, just a walk from the Sonoma Marina or campground. Located adjacent to the lake, Lake Sonoma’s Warm Springs Recreation Area provides a disc golf course, a dog park and an archery range. Parking within the recreation area costs $5. There is no lodging within the nature preserve (camping sites are available for a fee), but there are plenty of boutique options nearby, like the Gaige House in Glen Ellen, about 40 miles away.

Lake Tahoe

Most breathtaking lakes in California

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Lake Tahoe is synonymous with lake life in the Golden State and is known as the jewel of the Sierras. It’s the biggest lake in California in terms of volume but the second-largest in surface area, behind the Salton Sea. Statistics aside, Lake Tahoe draws people with its natural beauty, including its cobalt-colored water and stunning views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains. The lake’s prime location also makes it easily accessible, straddling the California-Nevada border and sitting between Sacramento, California (about 110 miles southwest), and Reno, Nevada (about 40 miles northeast). Lake Tahoe is such a large tourism destination that it’s formally divided into the quieter North Lake Tahoe and the more bustling South Lake Tahoe. Still, each side boasts a wealth of activities, ranging from every water sport imaginable, including lake cruises, to hiking trails with waterfalls, cycling paths, skiing slopes, impressive golf courses, bird- and bear-watching hideouts, photography tours and even gambling. Enjoy apres-ski eateries in either direction, as well as a multitude of accommodation, from honeymooning bed-and-breakfasts to cabin rentals for multi-generational groups.

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