15 Best Lakes in California

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
Our travel recommendations are based on our personal experiences and research, written by locals and travel experts with deep familiarity with the destination. When you book a hotel or tour that we link to, we may earn a commission.

California is geographically diverse, with the Sierra Nevada, the Central Valley and the Mojave Desert making up for its main terrain. It is home to some of the largest trees in the world, beautiful wildlife and a long stretch of coastline, as well as being home to over 30,000 lakes and reservoirs.

Some of California’s lakes drain into the ocean, while others are completely landlocked. Some are small, while others span for over 370 square miles. Some are deep and some are shallow, and can be located at sea level or up in the mountains. Regardless, one thing that many lakes in California have in common is that they are stunning. Here is a list of the 15 best lakes in California.

1. Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada

Lake TahoeSource: flickr
Lake Tahoe

Sitting at 1,897 metres above sea level, Lake Tahoe is North America’s largest alpine lake, with a surface area of over 191 square metres. The magnificent lake sits at the border of California and Nevada and is a major tourist attraction thanks to its stunning scenery, as it is surrounded by conifer forest and beautiful beaches.

The lake is over 2 million years old, though it got its shape during the ice age. In the past, the lake was inhabited by the Washoe tribe, though today it is a thriving resort community that is visited by hordes of tourists year round.

In the winter months, Lake Tahoe is famous for its skiing, being home to many ski resorts. In the summertime, the lake turns into a haven for water sports enthusiasts, where parasailing, paddle boarding, kayaking and jet skiing are all offered. Boating is the most popular thing to do on Lake Tahoe, though scuba diving is also popular.

2. Shasta Lake, Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Shasta LakeSource: flickr
Shasta Lake

Sitting within the Whiskeytown–Shasta–Trinity National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake is California’s largest reservoir. It is a total of 12,000 hectares and sits at an elevation of 325 metres, boasting a stunning backdrop of the 4,267-metre high Mount Shasta. It also has over 585kms of shoreline

Shasta Lake is popular amongst boaters thanks to its numerous inlets, with houseboats, fishing boats and patio boats often being seen cruising around the lake. It is also a popular place for water skiing, stand up paddle boarding and fishing.

There are numerous marinas found along the lake’s shorelines that offer mooring and launching. Some also have rental services for visitors that don’t come with their own boat.

3. Mono Lake, Mono County

Night on Mono LakeSource: flickr
Night on Mono Lake

Mono Lake is extremely unique, as it contains three times as much salt as the ocean. It is a beautiful lake that is at least 760,000 years old that developed during the Long Valley eruption. The 18,000 hectare lake is home to brine shrimp, planktonic algae and alkali flies.

The lake is not a place to enjoy activities, but rather scenery. It is exceptionally beautifully, featuring oddly sculptured tufa towers that are often shot by photographers, both pro and amateur.

Mono Lake is so stunning that it has been shot in such films as ‘Fair Wind to Java’ (1953) and Clint Eastwood’s ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973). It was also used for the album cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

4. Lake Havasu, San Bernardino

Lake HavasuSource: flickr
Lake Havasu

Sitting on the Colorado River behind Parker Dam, Lake Havasu is a large reservoir that borders Arizona. It is a 72km long reservoir that boasts 724kms of shoreline, which in the past, was home to a large community of Mojave Indians.

Lake Havasu is a boaters’ paradise, attracting boaters from all over the USA as well as from international destinations. It is a particularly popular spot for fishing, as it is home to numerous species of bass, carp, catfish and sunfish. In fact, it hosts numerous large fishing tournaments.

It is a truly beautiful lake, with the Lake Havasu State Park sitting along the eastern shore and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge sitting along the upper end of the lake.

5. Clear Lake, Lake County

Clear LakeSource: flickr
Clear Lake

Clear Lake is California’s largest freshwater lake, having a surface area of over 100kms. The lake is in the Pacific Coast Range just north of San Francisco and is a popular summertime destination.

Also known as the ‘Bass Capital of the West’, Clear Lake is famous for its fantastic sport fishing. In fact, it was recently rated as the third best bass lake in the United States by Bassmaster Magazine.

The water in the lake is quite warm, making it a popular spot for water sports enthusiasts. Wakeboarding, water skiing, sailing and swimming are all popular things to do in the lake. It also boasts over 160kms of shoreline that is home to over 10 free boat launch ramps.

6. Lake Oroville, Butte County

Lake OrovilleSource: flickr
Lake Oroville

Lake Oroville is located in Northern California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, resulting in some picturesque scenery. It is a lovely lake that spans for over 3,900 square miles, making it the second-largest reservoir in the state.

Lake Oroville sits in the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, making it a popular place for tourists. Fishing, boating, swimming and water-skiing are all activities frequently enjoyed in the lake, while its 269kms of shoreline are great for horseback riding, picnicking and camping.

In the past, the lake was home to the Konkow Maidu tribe. This changed in 1935 when the state built the 235-metre high Oroville Dam, which was once the largest dam in the world. Another addition to the lake is the large hatchery that raises chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

7. Lake Almanor, Plumas County

Lake AlmanorSource: flickr
Lake Almanor

Formed by the 40-metre high Canyon Dam, Lake Almanor is a large reservoir that is surrounded by campgrounds, beaches, residential developments and the Lassen National Forest.

It sits at over 1,300 metres above sea level and has a total depth of 27 metres, making it a great spot for water sports like water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, sailing and wakeboarding. It is also a favourite spot for boaters, having adequate, well-equipped marinas along its 88kms of shoreline.

The east side of the lake is dominated by the Lake Almanor Country Club community, while the Lassen National Forest sits at the southern shore of the lake. The north is home to wetlands that house such wildlife as Canada geese, heron, bald eagles and teal ducks.

8. Convict Lake, Mono County

Convict LakeSource: flickr
Convict Lake

Known for its spectacular mountainous surroundings, Convict Lake is a stunning lake that sits in the Sherwin Range of the Sierra Nevada, around 2,390 metres above sea level. It is not a large lake, as it is just 1.4kms long and 0.6kms wide, but it is a beautiful one.

Convict Lake is famous for its fishing, being home to schools of rainbow trout and sucker fish. In fact, the in the summertime it attracts so many recreational fishers that it is stocked every week with rainbow trout that is supplied by a local hatchery. The lake is also a haven for hikers, as it has a hiking trail around it that is nearly 5kms long.

People may recognise Convict Lake from scenes from the movies ‘How the West was Won’ and ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’, or from Nature Valley granola bars advertisements.

9. Donner Lake, Nevada County

Donner LakeSource: flickr
Donner Lake

Donner Lake is a 3.4 square kilometre freshwater lake that sits on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada not too far from Lake Tahoe. The historic Lincoln Route skirts the northern shoreline of the lake, with spectacular views being seen from the Donner Pass.

The lake’s deepest point is 100 metres, making it home to a large amount of lake trout. There are also plenty of brown and rainbow trout living in the lake, as well as kokanee salmon. This makes it a popular spot for fishing, with a public boat ramp being found at the northwest corner of the lake.

In addition to fishing, Donner Lake is also a great place for swimming, wind surfing and water skiing, as is surrounded by plenty of camping grounds. Its scenery is also one of its main draws, with a dense forest surrounding it that is backed by towering mountains.

10. Silverwood Lake, San Bernardino

Silverwood LakeSource: flickr
Silverwood Lake

Located just 90-minutes away from Los Angeles, Silverwood Lake is an extremely popular lake thanks to its hiking trails, great beaches, water sports and designated boating areas. It also happens to sit along the famous Pacific Crest Trail.

Silverwood Lake is extremely beautiful, as it is surrounded by barren peaks, forested hillsides and the San Bernardino Mountains. It sits on the East Branch of the California Aqueduct and is a major water source for its surrounding area.

Silverwood Lake sits at an elevation of around 1,023 metres above sea level and spans for nearly 5kms from one corner to the other. Its 20 plus kilometres of shoreline is home to campgrounds, beaches and a marina.

11. Lake Sonoma, Sanoma County

Lake SonomaSource: flickr
Lake Sonoma

Lake Sonoma is an impressive lake that sits in the Coastal Mountains just north of Santa Rosa. The 1,092 hectare lake features 80kms of shoreline and a spectacular backdrop of the mountains.

The lake is extremely popular, attracting outdoor lovers from all over the state, the country and beyond. It is a great place for boating, swimming, fishing and kayaking, as well as hiking, picnicking, horseback riding and camping. In fact, there are hundreds of campsites scattered all around the lake.

Lake Sonoma is home to the Milt Brandt Visitor Center, the Warm Springs Recreation Area and the Congressman Don Clausen Fish Hatchery, as well as the Warm Springs Dam.

12. Honey Lake, Lassen County

Honey LakeSource: westernlandforsale
Honey Lake

Sitting in Northern California’s the Honey Lake Valley, Honey Lake houses the Honey Lake Wildlife Area; a 3,100 hectare area that is a California Department of Fish and Game protected area.

The wetlands surrounding Honey Lake is home to deer, antelope, Canada geese, bald eagles and a number of bird species. In addition to hunting, it is also a good place for hiking, picnicking, bird-watching and camping.

The lake is quite beautiful, though it is its surrounding wetlands and wildlife that makes it one of the top lakes in the state.

13. Lake Cachuma, Santa Barbara County

Lake CachumaSource: flickr
Lake Cachuma

Lake Cachuma is an artificial lake that sits along the Santa Ynez River. The 1,300 hectare lake was created when the Bradbury Dam was built in 1953.

Today the lake is a popular recreational spot, particularly for people living in the greater Santa Barbara area. It is part of the Santa Barbara County Park, where canoeing, kayaking, paddle boating and rowing are popular. The park also has camping sites as well as offering yurt and cabin rentals.

No body-to-water contact is allowed at Lake Cachuma, but swimmers will be pleased to find a swimming pool at the Cachuma Lake Recreation area. There are also hiking trails and a nature centre, while activities like campfires and fishing clinics are provided throughout the year.

14. Pyramid Lake, Los Angeles County

Pyramid LakeSource: flickr
Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake was formed by Pyramid Dam in the eastern San Emigdio Mountains at an elevation of around 785 metres. The reservoir was named after the pyramid shaped rock that engineers carved to build the nearby US Route 99. The rock sits right in front of the dam.

The lake is located between the Los Padres National Forest and the Angeles National Forest, boasting some spectacular scenery. The Vista del Lago Visitor Center overlooks the lake, which displays information about water conservation, usage and transportation of the West Branch California Aqueduct system.

Boating, water-skiing and jet skiing are all offered at Pyramid Lake. There are also some relaxing picnic spots, some of which are only accessible by boat. It is also possible to go fishing, with largemouth bass, striped bass, blue gill and trout all inhabiting the lake.

15. New Melones Lake, Calaveras and Tuolumne County

New Melones LakeSource: flickr
New Melones Lake

New Melones Lake is a 5,100 hectare reservoir that sits in foothills of the central Sierra Nevada just outside of the gold rush town of Sonora. Its surroundings are quite picturesque, made up of mountains and forested hills, while both the Parrott’s Ferry and Highway 49 Bridge run across it, offering great views for passers-by.

New Melones Lake is 12kms long and 4kms wide, sitting at an elevation of 331 metres. It is a great place for wakeboarding, water-skiing and jet skiing, and calmer activities like kayaking, rafting and canoeing. It is also a fantastic lake for fishing, with trout, catfish and crappies being prevalent.

The New Melones Visitor Center and Museum sits along the 160kms shoreline that surrounds the lake. Inside, guests will find information about the local culture and history, as well as about the natural history of the area.

15 Best Lakes in California:

  • Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada
  • Shasta Lake, Shasta-Trinity National Forest
  • Mono Lake, Mono County
  • Lake Havasu, San Bernardino
  • Clear Lake, Lake County
  • Lake Oroville, Butte County
  • Lake Almanor, Plumas County
  • Convict Lake, Mono County
  • Donner Lake, Nevada County
  • Silverwood Lake, San Bernardino
  • Lake Sonoma, Sanoma County
  • Honey Lake, Lassen County
  • Lake Cachuma, Santa Barbara County
  • Pyramid Lake, Los Angeles County
  • New Melones Lake, Calaveras and Tuolumne County