Our family is constantly on a mission to find the best lakes in California. We love a summer visit to Lake Tahoe, but we also enjoy seeking out some of the state’s quieter options away from the crowds.
California has no shortage of amazing lakes for families to visit. We’re always on the lookout for a lake that offers plenty of opportunities for recreation and adventure, while also giving us a sense of relaxation and getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
We’ve scoped out many of these lakes as a family since our return to California, but there are many more on our constantly growing must-visit list.
Things are changing fast – make sure to double-check what’s open before your trip. And be sure to follow all local guidelines to keep yourself and others safe!
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FINDING THE BEST LAKES IN CALIFORNIA
California is home to more than 3,000 lakes and reservoirs, so you’re sure to find a lovely lake nearby no matter which part of the state you are visiting.
Many of the resorts that have sprung up around some of California’s best lakes have put year-round recreation front and center. Others, like Yosemite’s Tenaya Lake, remain quietly protected by their National Park status. Still more are in remote areas, with locals enjoying their hidden gems.
No matter the region, every lake in California that we’ve explored has helped us create some wonderful family memories. Whether you’re looking to get out on a boat, want to introduce your kids to fishing, or just feel like splashing around a swimming beach, you’re sure to find a lake that you love in the following list of the best lakes in California.
We hope you enjoy our picks! They are grouped by California region as follows: Southern California, San Joaquin Valley, Sierra Nevada, Wine Country, Greater Sacramento, Gold Country, and the Shasta Cascades. At the end of this article, you’ll find a map of all the lakes color-coded by region.
Let us know if we’ve missed your favorite California lake in the comments below!
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
BIG BEAR LAKE
Big Bear is one of Southern California’s favorite mountain lakes. Its location, beautiful scenery, and range of recreation opportunities make it a popular day trip or weekend getaway from LA, San Diego, and Palm Springs.
Adventurous families can seek out amusement park-style activities like the Magic Mountain Alpine Slide, Southern California’s only bobsled experience. If you’re looking to unwind and recharge, canoeing or kayaking along the lake to Boulder Bay might be more your speed.
When it’s time for a swim, McDill Swim Beach is ideal for families with young children. You’ll find a lifeguard on duty, a snack bar, and close and convenient public restrooms.
Perfectly situated in the San Bernardino National Forest, Lake Arrowhead is known as the “The Alps of Southern California.”
An easy escape from L.A., Lake Arrowhead offers mountain recreation all year long. There are miles of trails surrounding the lake, and of course, the lake itself. A popular activity is touring the lake on the Lake Arrowhead Queen paddleboat.
If you have young children, make a stop at Lollipop Park amusement park. Families with older kids will enjoy the SkyPark at Santa’s Village. In addition to a full slate of outdoor activities from zip lines to fly fishing, SkyPark is set on 230-acres of natural forest with meadowlands, ponds, and an apple orchard.
The biggest downside to Lake Arrowhead is that it isn’t very easy to access the lake. Stay somewhere like the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa which has private beach access on site.
Cachuma Lake Recreation Area is set on 9,000 acres of wilderness between the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley and San Rafael Mountains. If camping within easy reach of Santa Barbara and Solvang appeals to your family, reserve a campsite, cabin, or yurt here.
Wake up to spectacular views of the lake, enjoy a guided nature cruise on a pontoon boat, or rent a kayak at the Cachuma Marina to explore at your own pace. The lake is well-stocked with trout and would make an excellent spot for a family fishing lesson from a boat or the shore.
Cachuma is a no-body-contact reservoir, so swimming and water skiing are not allowed. The Goleta Beach Park is only 30 minutes away if you want to take a dip. Nearby Solvang makes for a fun weekend getaway. There is plenty to do and the area is midway between LA and the Bay Area.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY
At an elevation of 5,300 feet and surrounded by the Sierra National Forest’s thick pine trees, Shaver Lake is a popular summer escape for people living in the heat of San Joaquin Valley.
The land around Shaver Lake is owned by Southern California Edison which also manages many of the recreation activities nearby. One of the most popular places to stay is Camp Edison. It has a reputation for being loud and crowded, but it has easy lake access.
We weren’t able to get a Camp Edison day pass during our visit, so we followed local advice and continued to Sierra Marina. After paying $10 for a day-use pass, you turn off onto Roads 1, 2, and 3 which lead down to the lake. Road 3 involved a little off-roading, but it made for quite an adventure! Our family had a blast introducing the kids to fishing and simply splashing around the lake for the day. Click here for more on our long weekend at Shaver Lake.
Looking out from the lakeshore, it’s clear that the best way to enjoy Shaver Lake is to actually get on the lake. It’s a popular spot for boating and jet skis and is more fast-paced than its neighbor, Huntington Lake.
About 40 minutes east of Shaver Lake you’ll find Huntington Lake, another popular recreation area for folks looking to escape the Fresno heat.
This beautiful High Sierra lake offers plenty of opportunities to make memories with a range of popular recreation options. But what makes Huntington really stand out is sailing.
Huntington Lake is one of California’s premier sailing lakes. In the summer, hot air from the San Joaquin Valley expands and rises, forcing the cooler air above the lake into the surrounding mountains. The result is a thermal effect that produces consistent afternoon winds that are perfect for sailing. It’s no wonder that this lake is home to the High Sierra Regatta!
Consider a stay at the rustic Lakeview Cottages, located just a few hundred feet from the lakeshore.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN THE SIERRA NEVADA
Though it has an eyebrow-raising name, many call Convict Lake one of the most beautiful lakes in California. Surrounded by the steep backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, the lake was originally carved out by glaciers. At 140 feet deep in some places, it’s one of the deepest lakes in the area. To top it all off, the water is famously crystal clear.
Convict Lake offers great trout fishing, especially near its two annual fishing derbies: “Round Up at the Lake” in the spring and “Ambush at the Lake” in the fall. Families can hike the three-mile trail Convict Lake Loop that circles the lake or rent boats and kayaks for fun on the water. Swimming is allowed if you can brave the cold!
This is a great lake to visit in the fall if you like to enjoy both foliage and fishing.
MAMMOTH LAKES BASIN
With over a dozen lakes, five well-appointed campgrounds, and over 50 miles of hiking trails, Mammoth Lakes Basin is a perfect getaway for active families. Anchored by the resort town of Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, the Lakes Basin offers a natural playground for outdoor adventures.
Located on the edge of one of the earth’s largest volcanic calderas, you’ll find a landscape of granite domes, craters, lava tubes, warm creeks, and natural hot spring pools with the spectacular Sierra Nevada running through it all.
With all of the options nearby, one of the biggest challenges is where to start! Horseshoe Lake is a great option for families, with a picnic-friendly beach and launches for kayaks and paddleboards. Motorized boats are not allowed in Horseshoe Lake, which makes the area safe for swimming. If you like to hike to your swimming destination, the shorter hikes to McLeod Lake and Crystal Lake are good options as well.
To top it all off, Yosemite National Park, Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls National Monument, Bodie State Historic Park, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and Mt. Whitney are all accessible day trips from town.
A few miles north of Mammoth Lakes Basin you’ll find the June Lake Loop. Known for its fall beauty, this lake is known as the “Eastern Sierra’s Original Resort Community” is lovely all year round. June Lake is anchored by a downtown village with several lodges and restaurants.
The lake itself is served by two marinas with boat rentals and launches. Families enjoy relaxing and splashing at the popular swimming beach at the northeast end of the lake, accessible through the Oh Ridge Campground. The shore is shallow, making it perfect for swimming, relaxing on rafts and floats, or even launching a kayak.
June Lake is one of four lakes on the scenic June Lake Loop, which also passes through Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake. Take your time and visit them all. The region is known for world-class trout fishing, gorgeous hiking, rock climbing, photography, and of course a wide range of water sports and activities.
If you’re looking to get the kids started on fishing, this is the area for you. Any child under the age of 16 can fish for free throughout the June Lake Loop during trout season.
Though Mono Lake is fairly close to neighboring lakes in the Eastern Sierra, it has a completely different character. Mono Lake is an ancient saline lake that formed nearly a million years ago. It is home to brine shrimp, millions of birds, and unusual rock formations known as tufa towers.
If you have a budding biologist or geologist in your group, join one of the free naturalist tours to learn the stories behind one of California’s most unusual places.
Given the unique habitat formed by the lake, you might be surprised to find that swimming in the lake is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. Mono Lake is warm and 2.5 times as salty as the ocean. This means that you don’t have to go very far before you can float in the water effortlessly. If you’re one of those muscular types who sinks in the water, this is the place for you. Make sure to bring some goggles or a snorkeling mask. You’ll want to watch the brine shrimp in action below the water’s surface and to keep the salt out of your eyes!
Just 17 miles from the southern gate of Yosemite National Park, Bass Lake was named as one of “The West’s Best Lakes” by Sunset Magazine. Visitors enjoy fishing, hiking, and playing in the fairly shallow warm water. If you’re an eighties kid like me, you’ll find inspiration for a Bass Lake visit in John Candy’s “The Great Outdoors.”
There are recreation options to please the whole family at Bass lake. Spend a day at one of several swimming beaches, rent a boat or kayak at one of four full-service marinas, explore the nearby trails, try your hand at fishing or bird watching, explore the area on a family bike ride, or simply enjoy a summer ice cream cone by the lake.
The popular Spring Cove Campground is an easy walk to Rocky Point Cove, a day-use beach and picnic area. Three resorts, Ducey’s on the Lake, Pines Resort, and Bass Lake Lodge, also offer a range of accommodations.
If you’re stressed by summer crowds in Yosemite National Park, take the scenic drive on Tioga Road to Tenaya Lake. Many say this is the most beautiful of all the lakes in Yosemite, with crystal clear water bordered on three sides by granite peaks and domes.
On the east side of Tenaya Lake, there is a beach perfect for relaxing, swimming, kayaking, or boating. Kids will appreciate this downtime after a day or two of hiking and sightseeing throughout the park.
Visitors can also hike the lake’s western edge for postcard-perfect views. Families will want to do this later in the season as some inlet crossings are necessary.
Ah, Lake Tahoe. This spectacular lake usually tops any “best of” list when it comes to California. The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe spans the border of both California and Nevada. In terms of volume, Lake Tahoe holds more water than any US lake outside of the Great Lakes. It’s also deeper than every US lake after Oregon’s Crater Lake.
One of the most popular and well-known lakes in California, there’s never a bad time to visit. Regardless of when you go, it’s almost impossible to run out of things to do in or around Lake Tahoe. On the lake itself, you can rent a boat, kayak, paddleboard, parasail, or take a cruise on the Tahoe Gal to name a just few options.
There’s also plenty of fun to be had on the shore. Sand Harbor is one of Tahoe’s most beautiful beaches. It used to be a pain to access, with the small parking lot filling up by 9 am. Now you can walk or bike there using the new 3 mile East Shore Trail that runs from Incline Village. Other popular family beaches are Commons Beach in Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe’s Baldwin Beach.
When you’re ready to step away from the lake, take Heavenly’s Scenic Gondola Ride up 2.4 miles to an observation deck for gorgeous views. If you’re looking to spend a summer day on the mountain, continue to the hiking trails at the top. There are trails here for every skill level, all with knockout views of the lake below.
Just 20 miles west of Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake is a beautiful destination in its own right without the Tahoe scene. If you are looking for a relaxing family lake vacation, Donner Lake could be a perfect fit for you.
Donner sits in an idyllic location with gorgeous views of the surrounding Sierra Nevadas. You’ll find public docks, beaches, and great hiking. Spend the day exploring the lake with a jet ski or hydrobike from Donner Lake Watersports and Marina. You can also rent the usual kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or boat here too!
Visitors to Donner Lake enjoy exploring the nearby town of Truckee. One of the most popular activities for visitors is rafting the Truckee River. This leisurely self-guided float down a Class I river is a perfect adventure for all ages and experience levels. Even dogs are welcome to join!
On a more serious note, visitors can also visit the Pioneer Monument which honors the tragic Donner Party, a group of pioneers who were trapped by an early heavy snowfall at what is now Donner Lake in 1846.
Continue up to Donner Pass for a lovely aerial view of the lake.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN WINE COUNTRY
This is a perfect stop for a family-friendly getaway in Sonoma County. With 50 miles of shoreline, families have plenty of space to enjoy hiking, swimming, or fishing.
Boat and equipment rentals on Lake Sonoma include family-friendly options like pontoons, wave runners, water skis, and wakeboards. There are also trails for all skill levels. When you need a break from the water, hike, bike, or horseback ride through the scenic Lake Sonoma Recreation Area.
A popular viewpoint is the South Lake Trailhead off Stewarts Point-Skaggs Spring Road. Grab some delicious local food at the Dry Creek General Store for a perfect picnic with spectacular Lake Sonoma views.
Lake Berryessa is one of California’s largest freshwater lakes. It’s known for its warm water, which can reach 75 degrees in the summer.
Family-friendly Lake Berryessa offers something for everyone. Those seeking more action will enjoy water skiing, wakeboarding, tubing, and other water sports. Those looking for a quieter experience can relax in the lake’s quiet coves perfect for kayaking, swimming, and fishing.
If you’re looking for a unique stay, you can rent a houseboat on Lake Berryessa and never leave the lake! This is definitely on our summer vacation bucket list for when the boys are better swimmers and can take advantage of a houseboat water slide.
When you need a break from the lake, explore the family-friendly side of Napa Valley. Kids can get up close and personal with farm animals on Connolly Ranch, sip grape juice while exploring Castello di Amorosa’s medieval-inspired Tuscan castle, and even marvel at the region’s own Old Faithful Geyser.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN GREATER SACRAMENTO
And the winner for the most unique campsite goes to Lake Oroville! Where else can you boat to a floating campsite right in the middle of the lake?? Each floating campsite comes with a table, sink, propane BBQ grill, bathroom, covered living area, and a sun deck space for tents.
Lake Oroville also offers boat-in campgrounds, equestrian campgrounds, and of course, standard campgrounds with easy access to park marinas. It’s also a popular location for house boating, should you like your floating campsite with a bit more luxury.
The history of the lake is mind-boggling on its own. In 1967 it was built as the tallest dam in the country. That’s right, even taller than Hoover Dam. When filled to its maximum elevation, Lake Oroville has 15,500 surface acres for recreation and 167 miles of shoreline. However, the lake levels fluctuate quite a bit each year. Check before you go, as it is a very different experience during a drought.
When you need a break from the lake, Feather Falls on Fall River is a popular excursion. It’s particularly beautiful in the spring, as is the nearby North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN GOLD COUNTRY
PINE MOUNTAIN LAKE
I’m always surprised to find how few people have heard of this little gem. Pine Mountain Lake is a family-friendly gated community in Groveland, about 25 miles from Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance. The community is private, but you can access the lake and other community amenities with a $40 entrance pass. The pass is good for 7 days.
This is a great place to simply rent a lake house and relax. Some of the lakefront homes have access to their own docks and beaches. There are also three swimming beaches, picnic sites, playgrounds, and fishing areas along the 6 miles of shoreline.
Not sure where to settle in for the day? A pontoon boat water taxi shuttle operates between the beaches and Fisherman’s Cove throughout the summer.
For more on Pine Mountain Lake, check out our full post about things to do in and around one of our favorite lake getaways.
This is one of those summer destinations that families visit generation after generation. Slightly off the beaten track in the heart of the Stanislaus National Forest, Pinecrest is a wonderful spot to enjoy the quiet serenity of mountain life.
The Pinecrest Lake Marina offers motorboats, paddle boats, kayaks, sailboats, and pontoon rentals. During the day, families can relax on the sandy swimming beach, hike into the backcountry, or explore on horseback. At night, Pinecrest Theater shows movies under the stars lakeside.
Fishing takes center stage during the summer. There are over 800 miles of lakes, rivers, and streams where you can find your dinner. Odds are in your favor as the lake is restocked weekly throughout the season.
BEST CALIFORNIA LAKES IN THE SHASTA CASCADES
Lake Almanor is another surprisingly hidden gem. This lake is perfect for families looking for a unique outdoor escape away from the Yosemite and Tahoe crowds.
Almanor is a man-made reservoir with 52 miles of coastline full of family-friendly activities. This is a great spot to rent a lake house and spend time on the water fishing, water skiing, and swimming in the protected area off Almanor Beach.
Lassen Peak is visible from Lake Almanor and makes a particularly stunning impression at sunset. With Lassen Volcanic National Park a 45-minute drive away, day trips to Lassen are a popular activity for visitors.
Manzanita Lake is one of the most popular campsites and destinations in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Motorboats aren’t allowed on the lake, but you can kayak, canoe, catacraft, or paddleboard here. Rent watercraft at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store Marina, the only one in the park.
In addition to swimming and boating, Manzanita Lake is known for fly fishing. It’s managed as a catch and release fishery with only barbless hooks allowed. If fly fishing is something you’d like to try, this could be a great place to get the whole family involved.
Families also enjoy hiking the Manzanita Lake Loop trail where you can find picture-perfect views of Lassen Peak. This flat 1-mile loop is especially popular at sunset.
It goes without saying that camping at Manzanita Lake is a great jumping-off point for exploring the fascinating Lassen National Park. Check out our list of the Top 20 Things to Do at Lassen with Kids here.
Butte Lake is not included on many of California’s must-see lists, but we had a wonderful experience camping there. I read that there wasn’t much for kids to do before our trip, but I have to disagree. There aren’t as many amenities at Butte Lake as there are near Manzanita, but we wanted a quiet outdoor getaway for our family and that’s exactly what we found.
Butte Lake was formed when the Fantastic Lava Beds spilled from nearby Cinder Cone’s last eruption creating a natural dam between what is now Butte Lake and Snag Lake. Those lava beds are visible throughout the lake, which is exciting for kids that are fascinated by volcanoes like ours.
A hiking trail from the main lot follows along the Eastern shore. You can stop and have a picnic, wander on the trails, or splash along the shore. We did this after hiking Cinder Cone and I was so relaxed that I actually fell asleep!
Though we only stayed on the shore, I’ve also heard that paddling Butte Lake is an awesome experience given that the water is crystal clear all the way down. You can camp nearby in the Butte Lake Campground. Reserve spots B1 – B3 for views of the lake from your site.
Tailor-made for making family memories, Lake Siskiyou is an hour north of Redding in the Shasta Cascades region. This getaway has warm water for swimming, miles of shoreline for exploring, and plenty of trout for fishing.
The Lake Siskiyou Resort is a popular destination for families. Pitch your tent and spend your days watching the kids play on the beach and bounce around on the inflatable Splash Zone. The lake’s warm shallow water makes for all-day lake fun.
When you’re ready to get on the water, you can select your preferred watercraft from the Resort’s marina. A kayak ride will take you away from the popular swimming beach when you need some quiet.