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Best Lakes in California

Alpine lakes, mountains, and deep forests oh my! The state of California knows how to do lakes right. Here is my personal curated list of the 10 best lakes in California.

There is hardly any place on earth that rivals the majestic mountain views, geological wonders, and crystal clear lakes of the golden state. California, here we come!

1. Lake Tahoe

Best lakes in California: Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe, California

Lake Tahoe sits at the top of this list because it is one of the most popular recreational areas in all of the United States. Located in Northern California on the fault basin in the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is what Instagram dreams are made of.

It is expansive and impressive. In fact, it is the next largest lake by volume right behind the Great Lakes.

Lake Tahoe is classified as an alpine lake due to its high altitude and it is the largest alpine lake in all of North America. With that high altitude comes all of the mountain views that Tahoe is known for. It is truly one of the most beautiful lakes out there.

The crystal clear waters make it particularly perfect for all sorts of water sports including paddleboards and kayaking. For added amenities, visit South Lake Tahoe.

The sheer size and miles of shoreline also make it a boater's dream. Do not forget your camera.

2. Lake Arrowhead

Best lakes in California: Lake Arrowhead
Lake Arrowhead, California

Lake Arrowhead is known as the Alps of Southern California. It is located in the San Bernardino Mountains and is a gorgeous freshwater lake with deep blue waters.

Its proximity to Los Angeles makes it a favorite getaway and popular destination for the stars, with everyone from camping to luxury real estate along the shoreline.

Lake Arrowhead can accommodate nearly any type of water sport including motorboats, pontoon boats, water skiing, houseboats, jet skis, kayaks, and more. If you are looking to rent, there are numerous boat rental outfits.

There is also a lot to explore around the lake including unique shops and restaurants in Arrowhead Village and hiking trails along the Pacific Coast Trail. The Lake Arrowhead recreation area does not disappoint. It is one of the best lakes in California and North America!

3. Shasta Lake

Best lakes in California: Shasta Lake
Shasta Lake, California

Shasta Lake (also known as Lake Shasta) is one of those California lakes that is actually a reservoir and it's the state's largest reservoir.

It is located in Shasta County and provides flood control for the Sacramento Valley. Don't let that function fool you though— Lake Shasta is a beautiful lake and premier destination for houseboat rentals.

It also offers great bass fishing, crappie, catfish, and sturgeon. There are also a number of marinas and resorts available around the lake for all your lakeside needs.

And last, but not least. Can we talk about the view? Shasta Lake has nothing short of a postcard view of Mount Shasta that will take your breath away.

4. Big Bear Lake

Best lakes in California: Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake, California

Big Bear Lake is another lake located in the gorgeous San Bernardino Mountain range. It is located alongside a small city that shares the same name.

Big Bear Lake is 22 miles of shoreline with numerous marinas that make it easy to access to enjoy your favorite water sports.

Big Bear Lake is an alpine lake that can be visited year-round. In the summer, take advantage of boating, jet skiing, picnicking lakeside, or watching for bald eagles.

In the winter, take in world-class skiing at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts.

The Big Bear Lake recreation area also has some amazing hikes. You can even see 8,200-foot panoramic views of the lake from Snow Summit's Scenic Sky Chair after the snow melts.

5. Manzanita Lake

Best lakes in California: Manzanita Lake
Manzanita Lake, California

Manzanita Lake is located near the park entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park and below Lassen Peak.

Manzanita Lake is a favorite spot for photographers looking to capture some epic reflections from one of the world's largest lava dome volcanoes.

The lake has warm temperatures and is a great spot for some camping, swimming, and kayak rentals.

6. Mono Lake

Best lakes in California: Mono Lake
Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake is a very unique desert lake known for its unusual rock formations, known as tufa towers. Mono Lake has very high levels of salt and a landscape that almost seems otherworldly.

Some activities you can enjoy on Mono Lake include hiking, photography tours, canoe tours, and field seminars for those looking to learn more about the Mono Basin.

The tufa towers are also nesting sites for predatory birds like osprey and owls, making for excellent bird watching.

7. Lake Almanor

Best lakes in California: Lake Almanor
Lake Almanor, California

Lake Almanor is a large reservoir located in northeastern California surrounding Lassen Volcanic National Park.

This is a lake for all of you geology buffs! The views and geological history of the volcanic range are truly unique and breathtaking.

Lake Almanor's 52 miles of shoreline also offers a wide variety of recreational options. The water has a warm temperature that makes it perfect for swimming, wakeboarding, kayaking, fishing, and more.

The southern shore of the lake is along the stunning Lassen National Forest, where you can sight black bears, bobcats, and bald eagles.

8. Lake Berryessa

Best lakes in California: Lake Berryessa
Lake Berryessa, California

Lake Berryessa is located in the beautiful Napa Valley and is the largest lake in the valley. Lake Berryessa has a ton of recreational options including kayaking, jet-skiing, pontoon boat rentals, wakeboarding, and pretty much anything you can do on the water.

There are also a large number of camping options throughout the Lake Berryessa recreational areas. The lake itself is 26 miles long and only 3 miles wide offering breathtaking views of the Napa Valley.

It is the perfect day trip for visitors to wine country, or as a stand-alone destination.

In the summertime, the lake warms up to about 75 degrees, making it more than ideal for swimming and water sports.

9. Mirror Lake

Best lakes in California: Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake, California

Located in the beautiful Yosemite National Park, Mirror Lake delivers on its name. It is an ancient glacier lake from the end of the last ice age and offers near-perfect reflections on its glassy surface.

You can easily hike the 2 miles of shoreline with views of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, Mount Watkins, Washington Column, North Dome, and Tenaya Creek.

If you're a fan of trail biking, you can like the whole trail, less the last 1/4 mile, where there are bike racks.

Whether hiking or biking at Mirror Lake, be mindful of wildlife. Yosemite is a large protected habitat for many creatures including bobcats, coyotes, bald eagles.

10. Lake Sonoma

Best lakes in California: Lake Sonoma
Lake Sonoma, California

Lake Sonoma is perfectly nestled in the foothills of Sonoma Country and is surrounded by gorgeous vineyards.

Lake Sonoma is a large reservoir with sweeping views, offering 50 miles of shoreline. It is a full-service recreational area and resort area with boat rentals, camping, horseback riding, camping, and more.

There are also a number of hotels, unique Airbnb experiences to be had here.

Honorable Mentions

Some honorable mentions that did not make the top 10, but are definitely worth a visit include:

  1. Lake Havasu
  2. Lake Oroville
  3. Silverwood Lake
  4. Bass Lake
  5. Cachuma Lake
  6. Convict Lake
  7. Donner Lake
  8. Folsom Lake

Bottom Line

California is a geographically diverse recreation area, offering unique lakes for all types of water sports and adventures. From alpine lakes with mountain views to hazy summer days on the lakes of wine country to rugged adventures in state parks and national parks, there is a California lake to satisfy your wanderlust.

We hope you enjoyed our list of the 10 Best Lakes in California.

Deb Sauve
About Deb Sauvé

Deb is a Canadian outdoor enthusiast, journalist, and photographer. Raised in rural Northern Ontario, Deb is no stranger to extreme environments, remote fishing spots, and great lakes boating.

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