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15 Best Lakes in California

By | Last Updated : 21st October 2020

California is home to several natural lakes and reservoirs, each having a unique charm of its own. Most of them are surrounded by snowy mountains that transcend their beauty to a different level altogether. While the north surpasses the south in the number of lakes, the latter still has many picturesque water bodies to offer like the Big Bear and Silverwood lakes. If on the lookout for a joyful vacation full of watersports, fishing, and fun, any of the given destinations can surely be your pick.

Lakes in California

Lakes in Northern California

1. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe in Northern California

Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake, lying within the Sierra Nevada Mountain, borders the states of California and Nevada. This serene blue freshwater lake and the snowy landscape around generate a scenic beauty, wooing tourists to the fullest. The lake transforms into a boaters hub in summer, the principal attraction being the wooden boat show held every August. Winter marks the onset of the skiing season, the prominent areas including Heavenly Mountain Resort and Sierra-at-Tahoe. The lake’s northern and southern shores house several beaches providing for a lot of recreational activities.   

Fishing: The most prominent finds here include lake trout, rainbow trout, and kokanee salmon. The popular fishing spots are the Truckee river (flowing out of the lake), Boca and Stampede Reservoirs (in North Lake Tahoe) and Taylor Creek (adjacent to South Lake Tahoe).

Other Activities: Swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba diving,parasailing, motorcycling, hiking, and skiing in the surrounding trails

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2. Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake in Northern California

Shasta Lake, in California’s Shasta County, is the largest of the state’s reservoirs. The presence of Mt. Shasta and Klamath Mountains in the adjacent areas, adds to its panoramic view. The Lake Shasta Caverns (a network of caves) lies close to the Mc Cloud River area, one of the lake’s four arms reached via a 10-minute boat ride. The Whiskeytown–Shasta–Trinity National Recreation Area, where the reservoir remains present, provides many exciting activities.

Fishing: The smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, chinook salmon, and brown trout are some of the commonly found species here, mostly available in spring. The lake’s Mc Cloud arm provides good brown trout catch.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, water-skiing, alongside cross-country skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing in the surrounding trails

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3. Clear Lake

Clear Lake in Northern California

Situated in north-central California’s Lake County, this natural freshwater lake covers a surface area of about 68 sq.mile (180 sq. km).  The surrounding rugged mountains, which remain covered with dense vegetation of oak, redwood and other trees, intensify its beauty to the fullest. One could even take pleasure of wildlife viewing and bird watching as several animals and birds throng the Clear Lake Basin. The Clear Lake State Park lies in the lake’s vicinity.

Fishing: The Bassmaster Magazine ranked it the third-best lake in bass fishing. Other species found here include rainbow trout, crappie, catfish, and bluegill.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, water skiing, jet-skiing, windsurfing, hiking, and camping (in any of the four campgrounds of the Clear Lake State Park)

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4. Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor in California

This vast reservoir located in northeastern California’s Plumas County is indeed the state’s hidden treasure. The Lassen National Forest noteworthy for its decent population of animals, and birds occupy much of its southern shores. Another prominent attraction is the Lassen Volcanic National Park, adjacent to the lake, giving one a spectacular view of the Lassen Peak (known to be an active volcano).

Fishing: Brown trout, and rainbow trout, are mostly available in winter. Other species like king salmon, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass remain present all-year-round. 

Other Activities: Swimming, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, hiking, and camping(on the North Shore Campground)

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5. Donner Lake

Donner Lake in Northern California

This freshwater lake of northeast California lying on Sierra Nevada’s eastern slope is a part of Nevada County’s Truckee town. The Donner Memorial State Park, occupying its eastern and parts of southern shore accounts for several exciting activities in summer and winter. One of the chief attractions is the Donner Lake Triathlon hosted every summer, with running, cycling, and swimming being the main sports.

Fishing: Lake trouts available in spring and fall are the most sought-after catches here. Other species nclude the brown trout, kokanee salmon, and rainbow trout.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, water-skiing, wind-surfing, mountain biking, hiking (in the 2.5-mile trails within the park premises), and camping (in the 154 available campsites at the Donner Memorial State Park)

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6. Lake Oroville

Lake Oroville in Northern California

Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir in the Butte County, was formed during the construction of the Oroville Dam. A part of Sierra Nevada’s western foothills, it is included within the premises of the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The 47-foot tower at the visitor center equipped with two telescopes provides one a clear view of the lake alongside the surrounding areas.

Fishing: Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, brown trout, chinook, white crappie, and mackinaw are the main catches. The majority of the fishing area lies within the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, paddleboarding, water-skiing, hiking, picnicking, camping

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7. Lake Sonoma

Sonoma Lake in Northern California

Situated in the western part of Cloverdale city in California’s Sonoma County, this reservoir has a 2700 acres (11 sq. km) surface area and a 50-mile (80 km) shoreline. The Lake Sonoma Recreation Area present within the lake’s premises hosts several activities.

Fishing: Black bass, channel catfish, rainbow trout, and black crappie dwell here.

Other Activities: Swimming (mostly in the Yorty Creek of Lake Sonoma’s northern shore), boating, biking, hiking, and camping

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8. Folsom Lake

Folsom Lake in Northern California

Folsom Lake, a reservoir in the Sacramento, Placer, and El Dorado counties, lies on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is an ultimate place for all the birdwatchers and wildlife viewers, as gray foxes, coyotes, skunks, wrens, quails, and bushtits inhabit here. The Folsom Lake State Recreation Area houses the Lake Natoma famous for kayaking, sailing, crew racing, and several other aquatic sports.

Fishing: Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, kokanee salmon, and catfish are the common finds here. There is an accessible fishing pier near the lake Notoma region.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, water-skiing, horseback riding, biking, hiking, and camping

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9. Lake Berryessa

Berryessa Lake in Northern California

Situated in Napa County, bordered by the Vaca Mountains, this reservoir formed when the Monticello Dam was constructed. The lake’s eastern shore has a Wildlife Management Area spanning over about 2000 acres (8.1 sq. km).  It protects and houses animals like black-tailed deer, skunk, raccoon, and mountain lion. The Lake Berryessa Recreation Area is an abode to several activities.

Fishing: Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, kokanee salmon, brown trout, rainbow trout, blue gill and spotted bass mostly inhabit here.

Other Activities: Swimming, water-skiing, jet-skiing, boating, bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, and picnicking

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Lakes in Southern California

1. Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake in Southern California

It is a snow-fed lake, nestled in San Bernardino County’s San Bernardino Mountains, close to the Big Bear Lake city. The mountainous terrain alongside the beauteous pine trees surrounding it adds to the lake’s picturesqueness. Fishing is one of the prime activities here. The lake hosts the Jim Memorial May Trout Classic and Big Bear Troutfest in May and October. The San Bernardino National Forest, situated in its vicinity, is a hiker’s paradise offering a host of trails.

Fishing: Trout, catfish, and bass are the common species found here, with the best spots lying in the lake’s northern shore.Summer is the ideal time to fish here.

Other Activities: Swimming is permissible but with restrictions, and the only area equipped with lifeguard facilities is in the Swim Beach near to Meadow Park on the southern shore. Other activities include boating, water-skiing, parasailing, hiking, and camping

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2. Cachuma Lake

Cachuma Lake in Southern California

This reservoir lies in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, created during the Bradbury Dam’s construction. Embraced by the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountains, the glimmering lake would stun one with its scenic beauty. The Cachuma Lake Recreation Area does not fail to entertain tourists with its picnic spots, camping grounds, and hiking trails.

Fishing: Rainbow trout remain available throughout winter. Other species include smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, redear sunfish, bluegill, and catfish.

Other Activities: Swimming, alongside windsurfing and water-skiing, remain prohibited since it is a domestic-water-supply lake. Boating, bird-watching, hiking, and camping are some of the activities here.

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3. Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in Southern California

This reservoir formed during the construction of the Pyramid Dam on the Piru Creek, is another fascinating destination, with its beauty intensified by the San Emigdio Mountains that surrounds it. The lake shows flexibility when it comes to fishing, as anglers can access all of its locations. The Emerald Landing, the largest recreation area here, has several activities to offer visitors.

Fishing: Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, striped bass, and some species of trout thrive in this lake.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, picnicking, hiking, and camping 

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4. Silverwood Lake

Silverwood Lake in Southern California

This reservoir, on West Fork Mojave River in San Bernardino County, was built when the Cedar Springs Dam developed. The Silver Lake State Recreation Area has the famous Pacific Crest Trail going through it, making it a perfect place for hikers.

Fishing: The lake excels in its stock of striped bass, with other varieties being crappie, bluegill, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, and channel catfish

Other Activities: Swimming in the Silverwood Lake Swim Beach area), boating, water-skiing, jet-skiing, bicycling, hiking, and camping

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 Lakes in Central California

1. Mono Lake

Mono Lake in Central California

This saltwater lake in east-central California’s Mono County is a sight to behold with its glistening blue waters and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains embracing it. The tufa towers or the limestone formation along its shores is another thing that one cannot afford to miss. If you are a birdwatcher, this would be an ideal place for you as several migratory birds like the killdeer, sandpipers, and American avocets, throng here mostly in summer.

Fishing: The lake has alkali flies, and brine shrimps but no fish

Other Activities: Swimming, boating (though jet-skis and speedboats are unsuited here due to the lake’s saltiness), bird watching, and hiking in the nearby trails

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2. Lake Convict

Lake Convict in Central California

Lake Convict got its name long back in 1871 after a group of fleeing prisoners took shelter here. Located in the Mono County, surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain’s Sherwin Range, it has the reputation of being California’s clearest lake that one can access easily. The turquoise blue water, in combination with the mountainous terrain, generates a magnificent view. The Convict Lake Campground, adjacent to the lake, has several campsites at its disposal.

Fishing: Brown trout and rainbow trout are commonly available here. Spring and fall are the ideal time to fish since the lake is fully stocked then for its two annual derbies, “Round Up At The Lake,” and “Ambush At the Lake”.

 Other Activities: Swimming, boating, camping, and hiking (along the 3-mile trail passing through the lake)

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Most of the above-mentioned lakes permit dogs on leash excepting Clear Lake and Lake Berryessa.


Best Lakes for Fishing: Clear Lake, Shasta Lake, Lake Almanor

Best Lakes for Swimming: Shasta Lake, Silverwood Lake, Lake Berryessa

Best Lake Camping in California: Lake Almanor, Clear Lake, Donner Lake

Best Lakes to Live on: Lake Tahoe, Big Bear Lake, Donner Lake

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