California undoubtedly has more diverse landscapes and climates than any other state, ranging from sun-drenched deserts in the south to the icy and rocky Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north.
It’s also full of lakes, and while some, such as Lake Shasta and Lake Tahoe, are well-known, many people are shocked to realise that California has hundreds of them. The arid southern and central regions, which receive minimal annual rainfall, have some of the most scenic and popular ones.
When planning your trip, keep in mind that part of California has been hit by one of the worst droughts in decades, and water levels may be substantially below normal. The most beautiful lakes in California are listed here.
1: Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is probably the most well-known of all of California’s lakes, as well as one of the most ritzy, attracting well-heeled visitors from all over the world. It’s in the massive and majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, just off Interstate 80 on the California-Nevada border.
Lake Tahoe, with its extraordinarily pure water with a backdrop of forested pine mountains and a cobalt sky, offers unparalleled photo opportunity. It’s full with outdoor recreation activities all year for folks who like to be active.
It’s worth noting that the weather and road conditions around Lake Tahoe may be extreme in the winter, so if you don’t want to risk driving on ice and snow, fly straight into Tahoe.
2: Lake Sonoma
Lake Sonoma is one of California’s most beautiful lakes, and it’s one of the closest to the Pacific coast, allowing visitors to see a range of vistas and landscapes in a short amount of time.
It’s located along US Route 101 just northwest of Healdsburg and offers a wide range of recreational opportunities, including camping, boating, swimming, and fishing.
Many of the neighbouring mountains turn a lush green colour in the spring and early summer, making for striking photo opportunity. The Warm Springs Dam and bridge are a must-see for anybody interested in capturing the natural and built worlds colliding. Sonoma Lake is also known for having some of the best bass fishing in the area. Also read, Banff National Park.
3: Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake, located in the San Bernardino National Forest between Los Angeles, Barstow, and Twentynine Palms, is a popular year-round getaway for city inhabitants.
It has a good temperature and receives a decent quantity of snow each year, owing to its elevation in the San Bernardino Mountains.
One of the first things you’ll see as you approach Big Bear Lake on Highway 18 is the popular Boulder Bay Park. It is made up of enormous boulders and rock formations on the shore and jutting out into the water, as the name implies.
You’ll be awestruck by the area’s natural splendour no matter when you visit or which portion of the lake you choose to explore.
4: Donner Lake
Donner Lake is located just across the border from Reno, Nevada, along Interstate 80, and is named after an ill-fated group of pioneers who spent a traumatic winter imprisoned in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though the winters in the I-80 corridor, like those of other northern California lakes, are harsh, Donner and its ideal summer weather attract visitors seeking to escape the state’s oppressive lowland deserts. Also read, Mesa Verde National Park.
Donner Lake is a little lake by California Lake standards, but it makes up for it in splendour. It’s lovely all year, but especially so in the winter, when the neighbouring pine-treed and bare rock mountains are blanketed in snow, giving the entire area an Alaskan vibe.
5: Lake Almanor
Lake Almanor is situated into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest, making it one of the state’s most beautiful and secluded attractions. It’s not the easiest of the lakes on the list to get there, but it’s full of benefits for those who don’t mind venturing off the usual route. It’s located between Interstate 5 and US Route 395, west of Susanville.
Mount Lassen, which rises large on the horizon to the north, is without a doubt the lake’s most picturesque landmark. The views, which are covered in snow for much of the year, are postcard-perfect. There are more than 50 miles of shoreline on the lake, as well as a marina, restaurants, and campgrounds.
6: Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu, on the Arizona-California border, is a uniquely arid lake that was constructed in 1938 when the Parker Dam was built over the Colorado River. Lake Havasu is a terrific destination to come for out-of-state visitors that find the terrain and perspectives of the American southwest fascinating and alluring. Also read, Shenandoah National Park.
The stunning combination of palm trees, bare mountains, and glistening water set against the distinctively blue California sky is quite breathtaking.
Snowbirds, or retired RV enthusiasts, flock to Lake Havasu every winter to escape the severe Midwest and east coast winters. Its proximity to Las Vegas, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon National Park makes it ideal for day trips.
7: Mammoth Lakes
Even in a state like California, where breathtaking beauty abounds, Mammoth Lakes has a reputation for sticking out. Its appealing blend of towering mountains, pine trees, clear lakes, and classic alpine lodges, according to previous guests, creates the kind of setting they never imagined existed. Also read, Mount Rainier National Park.
It’s close to Yosemite National Park, like June Lake, but you might not want to leave once you’ve visited the town and lake. Keep in mind that gorgeous destinations like Mammoth Lakes attract travellers from all over the world all year, so plan early and book your accommodations well in advance if it’s on your schedule.
8: Mono Lake
Mono Lake may stand out the most for its uniqueness and otherworldly charm to visitors who intend on visiting a number of California’s lakes throughout their vacation.
Mono Lake is notable for its high salt content and rapidly evaporating surface water, which generates jagged crystalline formations that extend from the depths like ghostly white fingers reaching skyward. It is located between Yosemite National Park and the Nevada border.
A visitor’s centre at Mono Lake is well worth a visit. Though it isn’t the best area for watersports in the world, the scenery is breathtaking, and depending on when you visit, you may feel as if you have the entire place to yourself.
9: Shasta Lake
Shasta Lake is one of California’s most picturesque and popular locations, located just north of Redding along Interstate 5. The lake is surrounded by spectacular mountains that are austere and barren for much of the year, creating a strong contrast with the clean water and beautiful sky above.
Summer activities include fishing, boating, camping, and waterskiing, while winter sports fans will find ski resorts nearby, as well as a plethora of state and national parks with mountaineering, cross-country skiing, hunting, and snowshoeing opportunities. Also read, North Cascades National Park.
The vistas from I-5 can be spectacular if you’re only passing through. There are lots of pull-offs with practically unobstructed lake views if you want to make a quick stop for a few photos.
10: Whiskeytown Lake
Whiskeytown Lake, located west of Redding in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, isn’t as well-known among visitors as Shasta Lake. Locals, on the other hand, love it for its natural beauty, handy location, and the exciting party vibe that appears to settle in throughout the summer.
If noisy crowds aren’t your thing, don’t worry; the parkland surrounding the lake is usually much quieter. It features four spectacular waterfalls, approximately 80 miles of trails, and abandoned gold mine sites from the 1800s gold rush.
The pine-covered mountains that slope into the lake, as well as the spectacular dam on the south end, provide excellent photo opportunities.