From the sunbaked deserts in the south to the snowy and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north, California probably encompasses more distinct landscapes and climates than any other state.
It’s also full of lakes, and though some like Lake Shasta and Lake Tahoe are household names, many visitors are surprised to learn that there are hundreds of lakes in California. Some of the most scenic and popular ones are in the arid southern and central regions that receive little annual rainfall.
Keep in mind when making travel plans that much of California has been experiencing one of the most severe droughts in decades, and that water levels may be well below normal. Below are our picks for the most beautiful lakes in California.
Located just north of Redding along California’s Interstate 5, Shasta Lake is one of the state’s most beautiful and popular destinations. It’s surrounded by dramatic mountains that remain stark and barren for much of the year, creating a vivid contrast with the lake’s clear water and the blue sky overhead.
Summer activities include fishing, boating, camping, and waterskiing, and for winter sports enthusiasts, there are ski resorts nearby – as well as an abundance of state and national parks offering areas for mountaineering, cross-country skiing, hunting and snowshoeing.
If you’re just passing through, the views from I-5 can be magnificent. If you’d like to make a brief stop or two to get a few shots, there are plenty of pull-offs with nearly unobstructed lake views.
Just west of Redding, inside Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Whiskeytown Lake isn’t as well-known with visitors as Shasta Lake. However, it’s popular with locals for its natural beauty, convenient location, and the fun party atmosphere that seems to take up residence there during the summer months.
If rowdy crowds aren’t your scene, don’t despair; the parkland around the lake is usually relatively quiet by comparison. It includes four amazing waterfalls, nearly 80 miles of trails, and old mining sites left over from the gold rush in the 1800s.
The pine-covered mountains descending into the lake and the impressive dam at the south end provide plenty of fantastic photo opportunities as well.
Named after the ill-fated group of pioneers who spent a harrowing winter trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Donner Lake is just across the border from Reno, Nevada, along Interstate 80. Though the winters along the I-80 corridor are harsh, like most northern California Lakes, Donner and its perfect summer weather are like magnets to those looking to escape the state’s sweltering lowland deserts.
Donner Lake is small by California Lake standards, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in scenery. It’s beautiful year-round, but particularly so in winter, when the surrounding pine-treed and bare rock mountains are covered with snow, giving the whole area a distinctly Alaskan feel.
Located in the San Bernardino National Forest, Big Bear Lake is a manmade reservoir between Los Angeles, Barstow and Twentynine Palms that’s a favorite year-round destination for city dwellers.
Due mainly to its elevation in the San Bernardino Mountains, it sports a pleasant climate and gets a fair amount of snow each year.
Approaching Big Bear Lake along Highway 18, one of the first sights you’ll see is of the popular Boulder Bay Park. As the name implies, it is comprised of large boulders and rock formations on the shore and jutting from the water.
No matter when you visit and what part of the lake you choose to explore, you’ll be stunned at the area’s natural beauty.
Out of nearly all California’s amazing lakes, Lake Sonoma is one of the closest to the Pacific coast, giving visitors the opportunity to take in a variety of sights and landscapes in a short amount of time.
It’s just northwest of the town of Healdsburg along US Route 101 and offers guests a full range of recreation activities, including camping, boating, swimming, and fishing.
During the spring and early summer months, many of the surrounding mountains turn a lush green, making for dramatic photo opportunities. For those interested in capturing the meshing of the natural and manmade worlds, the Warm Springs Dam and bridge are a must see. Sonoma Lake is also considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the region.
Located on the border between Arizona and California, Lake Havasu is a distinctly desert lake that was formed when the Parker Dam was built across the Colorado River in 1938. For those out of state visitors who find the landscape and vistas in the American southwest fascinating and alluring, Lake Havasu would be a great place to visit.
The beautiful mixture of palm trees, barren mountains, and shimmering water under the uniquely blue California sky is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Lake Havasu is a mecca for retired RV enthusiasts known as snowbirds, who flock to the area every winter to escape the harsh Midwest and east coast winters. Its proximity to Las Vegas, Flagstaff, and Grand Canyon National Park offer great day-trip options as well.
Lake Oroville is a manmade reservoir that was originally formed when the Oroville Dam construction project was completed in 1969, which restricted the flow of the Feather River sufficiently to create the lake.
It’s located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California’s Butte County, within the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area.
With gently sloping mountains and hills surrounding the lake, it’s easy to find unobstructed views from one shore to the other. The dam and Bidwell Bar Suspension Bridge are notable landmarks that are worth seeing too. It’s a little-known fact that the dam is the tallest in the country. The lake is a regional hotspot for bass fisherman as well.
Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest, Lake Almanor is nestled into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, making it one of the state’s most beautiful and remote destinations. Located between Interstate 5 and US Route 395, west of the town of Susanville, it’s not the easiest of the lakes on the list to get to, but it’s full of rewards for those who don’t mind straying off the beaten path.
Without question, the lake’s most scenic icon is Mount Lassen, which looms tall on the horizon to the north. Covered with snow for much of the year, the views are straight from a postcard. The lake has more than 50 miles of shoreline; its amenities include a marina, restaurants, and campsites.
Especially with trout fisherman and travelers dreaming of quaint mountain towns, northern California’s June Lake is a particularly popular destination. Due to its high altitude, the summers are mild and even cool by southern California standards, but during the winter, the conditions can be downright treacherous.
The town and lake are an easy drive east of Yosemite National Park, giving vacationers the opportunity to see many of the region’s most notable areas easily and efficiently. Though they’re magnificent year-round, the views of the lake and town are especially beautiful in fall, when the deciduous trees’ leaves turn their vibrant autumn colors.
Even in a state full of stunning scenery like California, Mammoth Lakes has a reputation for standing out. Previous visitors have noted that its alluring mix of towering mountains, pine forests, clear waters, and traditional alpine lodges all combine to create the kind of place they never thought really existed.
Like June Lake, it’s close to Yosemite National Park, though once you’ve seen the town and lake, you may not want to leave. Keep in mind that idyllic locales like Mammoth Lakes draw visitors from near and far all year long, so if it’s on your itinerary, plan ahead and book your lodgings well in advance.
2. Lake Tahoe Where to Stay
Probably the most famous of all of California’s lakes, Lake Tahoe is also one of the ritziest and draws well-to-do travelers from all over the world. It’s located just off Interstate 80 on the border between California and Nevada in the vast and impressive Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Full of amazingly clear water and framed by forested pine mountains and the cobalt sky, Lake Tahoe presents photo opportunities that are second to none. For those who like to stay active, it’s full of outdoor recreation activities all year long.
It’s important to note that the weather and road conditions around Lake Tahoe can be extreme in the winter, so for those who’d rather not chance driving on ice and snow, consider flying directly into Tahoe.
For those who plan on visiting a number of California’s lakes on their trip, Mono Lake may stand out the most for its uniqueness and otherworldly charm.
Located between Yosemite National Park and the Nevada border, Mono Lake is known for its high salt content and constantly evaporating surface water, which creates jagged crystalline formations that protrude from the depths like eerie white fingers pointing skyward.
Mono Lake has a visitor’s center that’s worth a look. Though it’s not the world’s best spot for watersports, its scenery is second to none and depending on when you go; it may seem like you’ve got the whole place to yourself.