Few things are as relaxing as time spent on the water, whether you’re sending up rooster tails on a wakeboard or water skis, savoring the quiet of an early-morning paddle, reeling in a rainbow trout, or jumping into a chilly alpine lake.
Boat owners putting their craft in the water can get schooled up on regulations regarding permits, inspections, and the California Boater Card. (Need help? Download the free Boat CA app.) It’s also a great idea to brush up on the state’s boating safety guidelines.
If you’re 16 or older and you’re planning to fish, make sure you have a valid California sport-fishing license in your possession. Purchase yours on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.
Here are 16 of California’s most beautiful lakes, listed from north to south:
1. Shasta Lake
Where: 20 miles north of Redding
Shasta Lake is known as California’s boating capital for good reason. It’s all about the numbers: the Golden State’s largest reservoir has 30,000 surface acres of water, 370 miles of shoreline, more than a dozen campgrounds, eight full-service marinas, and six public boat ramps. You can go wakeboarding or waterskiing, fish for 20 different species, or spend a week on a luxurious houseboat. It would take all summer to explore Shasta’s multiple arms, inlets, and coves, but if you have only a few hours, try this two-fer: Purchase a ticket for the Lake Shasta Caverns tour, which includes a scenic boat cruise across the lake.
2. Whiskeytown Lake
Where: 10 miles west of Redding
There’s no better way to beat the summer heat than tooling around Whiskeytown Lake’s 3,200 surface acresof crystal-clear water in a sailboat, kayak, motorboat, paddleboard, or windsurfer. Whiskeytown is a man-made reservoir, but it has the heart of a natural lake. Explore its meandering coves and inlets, then pull up on an island for a picnic, or hop out on the shoreline for a swim. Two marinas—Oak Bottom and Brandy Creek—offer motor boat and watercraft rentals. If you’re new to paddling, sign up for a free ranger-led kayak or stand-up paddleboard tour, offered twice daily in summer. Nine campgrounds near the lake offer spots to pitch your tent or park your RV.
3. Donner Lake
Where: 3 miles west of Truckee
With its classic alpine style, 3-mile-long Donner Lake is an ideal spot for old-fashioned family fun. Some lucky people own cabins on the lakeshore, but for the rest of us, there’s swimming at Donner Lake’s West End Beach and hiking and camping at Donner Memorial State Park. Rent a motorboat, paddleboard, canoe, or kayak at Donner Lake Watersports, nab a burger at 1970s-era Donner Lake Kitchen, and be sure to visit the Emigrant Trail Museum, which tells the stories of the pioneers who crossed the Sierra Nevada and the Native Americans who dwelled here. Save time for a detour to nearby Truckee to explore its downtown filled with restaurants, breweries, and boutiques.
4. Lake Tahoe
Where: 100 miles northeast of Sacramento
Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, Lake Tahoe is a bucket-list essential. The 22-mile-long lake can fill a record book with its statistics—it’s the world’s 10th deepest lake, the second deepest in the U.S., and it boasts 72 miles of shoreline. Each of Tahoe’s lakeside towns—including South Lake Tahoe, Kings Beach, and Tahoe City—has marinas that rent motor boats and personal watercraft, and outfitters offering paddleboard and kayak rentals and tours. (Check out Tahoe Adventure Company’s guided full-moon paddles and Tahoe City Kayak & Paddleboard’s sunset kayak tours.) Or kick back and let a licensed captain do the driving: Cruise the lake aboard the historic paddlewheeler The Tahoe Gal, the 70-foot classic yacht Lake Tahoe Bleu Wave, or Sail Tahoe Blue’s 40-foot sailboat.
5. Clear Lake
Where: 60 miles north of Santa Rosa
California’s largest natural freshwater lake spans 68 square miles and is surrounded by oak woodlands and Lake County’s bounty of vineyards and tasting rooms. Spend the morning fishing for largemouth bass—Clear Lake has a well-earned reputation as the “Bass Capital of the West”—or send up big spray as you water-ski across the 43,000-acre lake. (Rent a ski boat at Disney’s Boat Rentals.) In the afternoon, explore quaint towns like Kelseyville and Lakeport, or visit local wineries to sip Sauvignon Blanc. Sunset is the perfect time for kayaking or canoeing on the lake before retiring to one of four campgrounds at Clear Lake State Park.
6. Lake Berryessa
Where: 25 miles north of Napa
Less than an hour from Napa Valley’s wineries, you can swim in solar-heated water at Lake Berryessa. Hugged by the oak-dotted Vaca Mountains, the 23-mile-long lake has quiet coves for kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, swimmers, and sunbathers, and the water warms up to a pleasant 75 degrees in summer. For high-velocity boating, head to the main body of the lake to rev your engine and churn up a big wake. Rent a Jet Ski, Waverunner, or wakeboard or water-ski boat from Lake Berryessa Boat & Jet Ski Rentals, Markley Cove Resort, or Pleasure Cove Marina.
7. Folsom Lake
Where: 25 miles northeast of Sacramento
For a beach experience that doesn’t require traveling to the coast, plop down on the sand at Folsom Lake’s Granite Bay, just 15 minutes from Folsom’s inviting downtown. The reservoir’s temperature is just right for summertime swimming, but bring a beach umbrella if you’re planning to read a book. Folsom has 75 miles of shoreline but very little shade. To get out on the lake, rent a pontoon boat or Jet Ski from Folsom Lake Marinaor Granite Bay Rentals. And if you want to get some exercise, the paved, 32-mile-long American River Parkway connects Folsom Lake with Sacramento.
8. Bass Lake
Where: 50 miles north of Fresno
Bass Lake has star quality. The 4-mile-long, pine-rimmed bathtub has been featured in dozens of Hollywood films, most famously the 1988 comedy The Great Outdoors. Because the lake’s elevation is only 3,500 feet, the water warms up to 80 degrees in summer, making it ideal for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and swimming. There’s great fishing, too—bass and kokanee salmon in summer and rainbow trout in spring and fall—and rustic cabins for rent at Miller’s Landing or The Forks Resort. Rent a fishing boat, Jet Ski, or wake-surf boat at Bass Lake Boat Rentals, and plan on at least one meal on the lakeside patio at Ducey’s Bar and Grill. Bonus: Bass Lake is an easy side trip from Yosemite National Park.
9. Lake Sabrina
Where: 20 miles southwest of Bishop
In a rugged canyon west of U.S. 395, blue-toned Lake Sabrina glimmers in the rarified air at 9,128 feet, guarded by the massive peaks of the Sierra crest. The lake’s rugged shoreline is lined with quaking aspens, making it one of California’s most photographed fall-color destinations. Trails skirt along the shore into the John Muir Wilderness, but you’re here for the water, so rent a fishing boat, kayak, or canoe at Lake Sabrina Boat Landing. The landing’s tiny store has an idyllic deck where you can eat a Sabrina Burger served with one heck of a Sierra view. Pro tip: The lake’s name is pronounced “Sa-BRY-nuh,” not “Sa-BREE-nuh.”
10. San Luis Reservoir
Where: 40 miles east of Gilroy
Windsurfers and kite surfers know San Luis Reservoir and adjacent O’Neill Forebay as a mecca for stellar wind-and-wave conditions. At this vast man-made lake, afternoon gusts often reach speeds of 30 miles per hour, so kite surfers can actually “fly” across the whitecaps. In the calmer morning hours, anglers troll the waters in the hope of catching trophy-sized striped bass. If you’re just looking to beat the summer heat, go for a swim at North Beach, or rent a Waverunner or power boat at O’Neill Forebay Rentals (or put in your own boat at one of four public launches). On cool winter and spring days, hike the Lone Oak Trail along the grassy, flower-dotted shoreline.
11. Lake Nacimiento
Where: 18 miles northwest of Paso Robles
This sunbaked Central Coast region is famous for wineries and vineyards, but you can quench your thirst for water sports at Lake Nacimiento. Nicknamed “The Dragon” for its tangle of waterways, coves, and tributaries, this reservoir is large enough for all forms of watery fun—paddleboarding, waterskiing, wakeboarding, wake surfing, and more. You can even find a quiet cove to wet a fishing line or paddle a kayak, or spread out a shoreline picnic and take a dip. Lake Nacimiento Resort rents a huge fleet of boats and watercraft and offers lodging, campsites, and meals at the Dragon Lake Grill.
12. Cachuma Lake
Where: 25 miles northwest of Santa Barbara
Cachuma Lake is an oasis nestled in the chaparral-clad hills between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. You can’t swim in this sprawling reservoir because it’s a domestic water supply, but Cachuma is a great spot to fish for largemouth bass or trout. (Rent kayaks or patio boats at the marina.) Many visitors come to Cachuma simply for a camping or glamping getaway in a lakeshore yurt or cabin. Pack along your binoculars and stop in to the Neal Taylor Nature Center to sign up for the weekly “wildlife cruise” around the lake, and make time to visit nearby Los Olivos and Solvang, where you’ll find a wealth of vineyards, bakeries, and come-hither shops.
13. Pyramid Lake
Where: 26 miles north of Santa Clarita
Named for a pyramid-shaped rock carved out by engineers building the original Highway 99, Pyramid Lakeprovides water storage for Los Angeles and offers boat-in access to secluded beaches. Get the big picture on this massive, 700-foot-deep reservoir at the Vista del Lago Visitor Center. Step out on the viewing deck and check out the exhibits on the California Aqueduct, the state’s world-famous water delivery system. Below the visitor center is Vaquero Beach, a wide sandy stretch for swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding (rentals are available). For more adventure, rent a pontoon boat at Emigrant Landing. Cruise over to one of the lake’s small islands, tie up at the courtesy dock, and set up a picnic on the beach.
14. Big Bear Lake
Where: 60 miles northeast of Ontario
In summer, Big Bear’s 6,750-foot elevation offers cool benefits. The deep blue lake has a half-dozen marinas and a pine-rimmed shoreline laced with shady hiking and biking trails. Rent a kayak and paddle around Big Bear Lake’s tranquil coves, or go for a cruise on the Miss Liberty Paddlewheel Tour Boat or Big Bear Pirate Ship. Hike up Castle Rock Trail for close encounters with massive granite boulders and peek-a-boo lake views, then cool off with a swim at China Island. Big Bear’s friendly mountain community offers dozens of lodging and camping choices, plus inviting shops and restaurants in The Village at Big Bear Lake.
15. Lake Elsinore
Where: 35 miles south of Riverside
At 3,000 acres, Lake Elsinore is Southern California’s largest freshwater lake. Its massive size endears it to water-skiers, wakeboarders, and personal watercraft riders, who can drive fast and nobody minds. The lake’s main body has an “unlimited” speed zone, so rent a boat at Lake Elsinore Marina or Launch Pointe and step on the gas. For an even bigger adrenaline rush, consider jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and skydiving over Lake Elsinore. Vacationers seeking calmer pursuits can hang out on the lake’s perimeter, where a no-wake zone invites kayakers, paddleboarders, swimmers, and anglers.
16. Lake Murray
Where: 12 miles northeast of San Diego
If you’ve watched A River Runs Through It more times than you care to admit, it’s time to try fly-fishing. Every Sunday morning at Lake Murray, the San Diego Fly Fishers Club hosts free fly-fishing lessons. Don’t have a fly rod? No worries—the certified instructors will lend you gear. La Mesa’s neighborhood reservoir is also a place where you can walk, jog, or ride a bike on the paved shoreline path, hang out and have a picnic, or cruise around in a kayak, rowboat, pedal boat, or motorized fishing boat (rentals are available). There’s no swimming here, though—Lake Murray is a domestic water supply—but check out other San Diego lakes for more options.