Best Lakes in California
Top Attractions and Fishing Data
Besides being the US cinema homeland, California is also rich in nature and wildlife. Lakes in California are scattered along its most prominent rivers and provide swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities for locals and tourists alike.
Keep reading to learn about the top lakes in California, their surface areas, and how they could enrich your summer vacation!
Lake Tahoe: The Second Deepest US Lake
Lake Tahoe carries the “Outstanding National Resource Water” title under the Clean Water Act and, as such, is one of California’s most-treasured nature spots. It lies in the Sierra Nevada foothills and spreads over 192 square miles. You can find its name in books of renowned writers, including Mark Twain, who once referred to it as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
Lake Tahoe is most recognized for its see-through waters, surrounding nature, and tiny rock formations dating two million years ago. Spreading over two states – California and Nevada – as many as three million people yearly make it their point to visit the Jewel of the Sierra at least once.
- Lake surface area: 192 square miles;
- Lake depth: 1,645 feet;
- Elevation: 6,223 feet (natural rim)
Sierra Nevada Mountains
The first thing to stop you in your tracks at Lake Tahoe is the peeking Sierra Nevada Mountains overshadowing the azure waters. California’s three most famous national parks, including Yosemite National Park, are nestled here.
At the park, visitors can’t help but gawk at the Yosemite Falls cascading amongst the surrounding greenery at 2,425 feet. The hiking trails allow you to admire the beauty via a 7.6-mile round-trip.
In the area, visitors will stumble upon lodging, where they can kick their feet up for a while, have a warm meal, and swim in any of the neighboring water bodies.
Shasta Lake: An Adrenaline Junkie’s Paradise
Shasta Lake is an artificial lake in Northern California created by constructing the Shasta Dam by impounding the Sacramento River. Despite its shallow water level, it has remained a top attraction for tourists who like to lodge in nature and participate in water-based activities.
Shasta Lake is a must-see for any traveling recreationist. It offers hiking trails, bicycling, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and plenty more.
- Lake surface area: 47 square miles;
- Lake depth: 517 feet;
- Elevation: 1,067 feet.
Lake Shasta Caverns
Dating 250 million years, the Shasta Caverns are a geological phenomenon and a sight for sore eyes. This collection of caves lets visitors explore the magnificent limestone rock formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites.
If you’re particularly fond of precious and semi-precious stones, you’ll be thrilled to participate in a day of gem mining! Visitors can dig up sapphire, ruby, emeralds, and quartz stones, discover some fossils, and peek into history.
After a hard day of mining, it’s time to relax with a picnic and a snack bar, where visitors can grab a refreshing drink and a souvenir or two.
Mono Lake: A Thriving Saltwater Ecosystem
Mono County is home to Mono Lake, an alkaline lake stretching along the Great Basin and the frosty Sierra Nevada, north of Mammoth Lakes. Thanks to the protruding tufa towers overlooking the crystalline water, you’ll recognize it immediately. The lake has become a breeding ground for creatures that thrive in saline water, such as alkali flies and brine shrimp.
But limestone formations and oddly-looking organisms aren’t the only reason to visit Mono Lake. Most visitors stop by the lake to watch the migratory birds have a brine shrimp feast. Plus, its breathtaking beauty makes it a photographer’s dream location – your Instagram nature feed will never have looked better!
- Lake surface area: 69.5 square miles;
- Lake depth: 159 feet;
- Elevation: 6,383 feet.
The Panum Crater comprises the Mono-Inyo family of Craters – a volcanic cone in Southern California and a top-visited tourist location. Besides being a historical beauty, it also homes plenty of silica, a.k.a. quartz!
Visitors can hike along the Rim and Plug Trail, which is 2 -2.5 half miles long. You can also collect rocks and even stumble upon a precious stone – you never know!
Lake Havasu: A Sandy Beach Haven
Lake Havasu exists today thanks to the Parker Dam, built in 1938. This Lake Havasu City landmark is most popular because it offers a magnificent view of the London Bridge that overtowers it. It lies in the Colorado River tri-state area.
Today, Lake Havasu City is among the most well-liked vacation spots in Arizona and provides various recreational opportunities for large friend groups and solo travelers. Besides admiring the sky-blue waters, you can take a stroll down the Lake Havasu shoreline, bike, or participate in golf on championship courses.
Lake Havasu will accommodate all your tourist needs if you’re big on renting houseboats. You can rent boats or paddle boats, kayaks, and jet skis, as well as purchase any water sports gear you require. Later you can enjoy the lakeside in one of the eateries along the shoreline or have a cocktail or two at one of the waterfront bars.
In addition, Lake Havasu offers some of the most pristine-looking sand in all of California, with beaches spanning over 400 miles. Visitors can sit down, relax, and cool off in the clear water.
- Lake surface area: 30 square miles;
- Lake depth: 90 feet;
- Elevation: 448 feet.
Lake Havasu State Park
If you’re in for a relaxing lakeside resort accommodation, Lake Havasu State Park is the place to be. It is a highly visited area at the Arizona and California border, rich in greenery and sandy beaches. It is the perfect spot for a vacation if you want to go for a swim and avoid scalding hot temperatures.
Visitors can drive by and take in some panoramic views, set up camp, or rent a hotel room by the lakeside. Food, drinks, and swimming gear are available in the surrounding eateries and shops.
Big Bear Lake: A Year-Round Tourist Attraction
Big Bear Lake, located in the heart of southern California, is one of the most popular artificial southern California lakes. It originally existed to provide water for the Redlands citrus farms and eventually became a tourist hub.
Today, the lake offers year-round entertainment, which means you can visit during winter, participate in skiing, and come back in the summer for some deserved cooling off. There are ski resorts nearby for some wintertime enjoyment!
- Lake surface area: 12,096 square miles;
- Lake depth: 72 feet;
- Elevation: 6,752 feet
San Bernardino National Forest
Big Bear Lake is so famous because the beauty of the San Bernardino mountains surrounds it! The Alpine mountains that tower over the waters allow visitors year-round hiking and an idyllic day in nature.
It is a safekeeping ground for Big Bear’s abundant ecosystem, including various trees, minerals, livestock, and wildlife. The national forest also serves for watershed protection.
As for tourism, the San Bernardino National Forest offers sightseeing, hiking, horseback riding, off-road driving, and plenty more. Plus, the area is highly inclusive and accommodating for individuals with specific needs and pet owners.
Folsom Lake: A Hidden Retreat in the Sierra Foothills
Among the beautiful lakes of California is Folsom Lake – home to popular freshwater fish species, including rainbow trout, catfish, and bass. The lake is based in the Sierra Nevada foothills and is easily accessible via Highway 50 or I-80.
If fishing’s not your thing, Folsom is also one of California’s most sought-after swimming lakes. You can relax at the beach, take in the sun, or jump into the water for a complete chillout session.
The lake and surrounding area provide hiking, running, biking, boating, and camping options. Besides more chilled-back options, visitors can also participate in water-based activities like water skiing or jumping on the back of a horse for a wild ride.
- Lake surface area: 30.15 square miles;
- Lake depth: 250 feet;
- Elevation: 466 feet.
Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park
A visit to the Folsom Powerhouse may not sound like the best time, but what if we told you it’s a top historic site? Tourists can observe the Folsom Powerhouse, which many used to call “the greatest operable electrical facility on the American continent.” Fun fact: it produced 11,000 volts of energy for Sacramento for a century!
Folsom Lake State Recreation Area
The Folsom Recreation Area houses all sorts of lake entertainment, including recreational activities at Lake Natoma. Natoma is a tiny lake in the recreation area rich with fish wildlife – largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, bluegill, and walleye.
Besides stellar fishing conditions and opportunities, visitors can participate in crew competitions and other water sports downstream from Folsom Lake.
Lake Sonoma: A Vineyard Oasis
With the Warm Springs Dam construction came Lake Sonoma – a reservoir with 50 miles of shoreline and an area abundant with entertainment activities. The lake offers a 2,700-acre surface area where visitors can swim, kayak, fish, or indulge in the vista. Of course, the reservoir also has a practical purpose – to prevent floods and provide irrigation!
This striking beauty is surrounded by mountaintops, the highest of which is Pritchett Peaks, whose natural beauty you shouldn’t miss. In addition, the vineyards scattered around the area are enough to draw in thousands of visitors yearly who are on the quest to find the best Californian wine.
- Lake surface area: 4.22 square miles;
- Lake depth: 140 feet;
- Elevation: 200 feet.
Bodega Head and Coleman Valley Road
If this all sounds intriguing to you, wait ’til you hear about the natural wonders encircling the lake, such as the Bodega Head – a rocky headland with abundant hiking trails and picturesque views. From there, you can go on a drive through the Coleman Valley Road, towered by beautiful old trees and roaming livestock.
Lake Oroville: A Top-Notch Fishing Spot
Lake Oroville rings a bell thanks to the Oroville Dam – one of the tallest in California at 900 feet and dating back to 1967. While many visit the reservoir to take in the beauty of the Dam, it’s undeniable that the lake has plenty more to offer: hiking, camping, water sports, horse riding – you name it!
Anglers make up the majority of the visitor demographic seeking to reel in some finger-licking fish, such as various bass fish, catfish, chinook, and more. You can fish year round but require a fishing permit from the authorities, which you can quickly obtain within the lake area.
- Lake surface area: 25 square miles;
- Lake depth: 722 feet;
- Elevation: 901 feet.
Feather Falls Scenic Trail
If you’re looking to shelter yourself from the bustling city – Feather Falls is the place to go. This scenic trail is most conveniently accessible from the upper path to the right – around 4.5 miles in length. If you want to make an entire loop, it’ll take you a good couple of hours, but the view will be worth it!
Donner Lake: A Trout Paradise
Donner Lake is a notable swimming lake in Northeastern California with a 238-feet maximum depth. While its beauty is out of the discussion, visitors never miss out on fishing here because of the large trout population. Other excellent ways to spend time at the lake include swimming, kayaking, taking a cruise, or hiking through the nearby mounts.
If you’re the type of person to get lost in the beauty of the surrounding nature, the Rainbow Bridge provides the best view of Donner Lake. It is also the very spot visitors go to on the Fourth of July to witness the fireworks firsthand.
- Lake surface area: 1.31 square miles;
- Lake depth: 238 feet;
- Elevation: 5,936 feet.
Donner Memorial State Park
Those visiting Donner Lake should undoubtedly pass by the Donner Memorial State Park – an all-embracing area for hiking, picnicking, camping, fishing, boating, and water-skiing. The views are pretty as a picture, and the visitor center lets tourists check out historical artifacts and admire the Pioneer Monument. Near the museum, visitors can slow down, unwind, and set up a campfire.
Lake Almanor: A Water-Sports Hotspot
Lake Almanor is a freshwater lake in Plumas County, south of Lassen Volcanic. It is admired for its sheer waters, surrounding pine trees, and scenic views of snowy mountaintops. Visitors usually partake in water sports here, as the temperatures in the summer reach 75 degrees.
If you’re not a fan of vehicles and are looking for a hiking opportunity – the Lake Almanor Recreation Trail provides a 19-mile round trip via numerous points. The trail will take you through a Mixed coniferous forest overlooking Lake Almanor and abundant with wildlife.
- Lake surface area: 43 square miles;
- Lake depth: 90 feet;
- Elevation: 4,505 feet.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic is the most visited national park in California, freckled with volcanoes, fumaroles, and lakes. Here’s an interesting fact – you can see all four existing volcano types right in the park: shield, plug dome, Cinder Cone, and Composite. We suggest you stop by Bumpass Hell – a hydrothermal area with steaming hot water that bubbles.
Lake Berryessa: The Most Abundant Wildlife
Lake Berryessa is a beautiful lake and one of the most visited Northern California lakes with spectacular scenery. It is one of California’s most widespread water bodies and is perfect for summer vacations, as the area reaches 75 degrees. Anglers will find both warm and cold-water fish species here: bass, catfish, trout, crappie, and bluegill.
The area is perfect for wildlife exploration, and you’ll most likely spot eagles, songbirds, and deer. You can take one of the several hiking trails spread over 2,000 acres for some bird watching or quality photography.
- Lake surface area: 32 square miles;
- Lake depth: 275 feet;
- Elevation: 443 feet.
Lake Berryessa Glory Hole
Not a leisurely spot, the so-called Glory Hole at Lake Berryessa is a natural phenomenon worth mentioning. The lake’s construction process in the 50s involved creating a spillway to release excess water. This spillway reaches 75 feet in diameter and is essentially a protruding concrete funnel. The moment water starts coming out; it creates a swirl – something you’ll most likely witness once in a lifetime!
Lake Cachuma: A Thriving Boating Business
Stunning scenery first comes to mind when describing the gorgeous Lake Cachuma. Deemed as one of California’s top boating lakes, Cachuma’s tourism thrives on boat rentals and recreational areas with all-inclusive accommodation. Visitors share fond memories of spending time at nearby camping sites with family and enjoying a fish feast.
Tourists can sign up for a complete tour of the lake and its surrounding nature, observe the wildlife, and spot some migrating birds. The cabins offer a public pool where you can relax and take your mind off work duties with a refreshing cocktail.
- Lake surface area: 4.84 square miles;
- Lake depth: 151 feet;
- Elevation: 753 feet.
If you want to go sightseeing near Lake Cachuma, you may want to check out the Bradbury Dam in central Santa Ynez Valley, built in the 50s. We recommend going during wintertime, as the Santa Ynez River dries up during summer and is not as impressive. Nonetheless, you won’t regret checking out the area, as you’ll be able to indulge in the breathtaking landscape.
Other Popular Lakes in California
We addressed some of the most notable lakes in California – but truth be told, we’ve only scratched the surface.
If you’re looking to explore less visited areas, the lakes below are ideal for your next summer or winter getaway:
- Convict Lake (Mono County);
- Silverwood Lake (San Bernardino County);
- Clear Lake (Lake County);
- June Lake (Mono County);
- Honey Lake (Honey Lake Valley);
- Pyramid Lake (Washoe County).
Visiting lakes in California has its merits. Besides enjoying the flourishing nature, tourists can participate in hiking, camping, fishing, water sports, and sunbathing. If you want to schedule your trip, one of the above lakes is a promising start.