A splashy spot on a rocky beach shaded by pine trees in the crisp mountain air? Some fishing maybe? Kayaking? We’re all in!
By Maryann Jones Thompson
If you clicked on this article looking for some hating on Tahoe, click again. Tahoe is one of the world’s prettiest, tourist-friendly lakes and is 100% worth visiting every chance you get. (Click here to get ROAM’s complete guide to summer in Tahoe!)
BUT, Tahoe tends to monopolize the lake story in California – and there are plenty of smaller and extremely fun lakeside spots sprinkled around the state.
Heading from north to south, here are the lakes that local Californian families return to year after year. Whether for the scenery, the weather, the water, or the activities, one of these spots might just become your new favorite lake.
The Best California Lakes for Families
An hour south of the Oregon border, Lake Siskiyou lies just of Interstate 5 and delivers grand vistas of Mt. Shasta’s volcanic cone. Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort provides simple cabins, RV and tent camping right on the shore. Yes, it is a party spot and can be a bit rowdy and crowded, but your splashing, running and playing kids won’t bother anyone, either. There’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had nearby, including boat rentals, waterfalls, hiking, and a “splash zone” for extra waterside fun.
In the shadow of Mt. Lassen, Summit Lake sparkles in the 6,700-foot sunshine. There are campgrounds on the north and south side, the south being a bit quieter. This idyllic spot in Lassen Volcanic National Park is popular so book your site six months in advance. Read more about these fabulous family shores in our ROAM Report, Nature Bathing in Lassen.
A favorite that far-Northern Californians call a “mini Tahoe,” Lake Almanor is 90 minutes northeast of Chico and was created by damming the North Fork of the Feather River. Its shallow depth and hot weather mean lake water is warmer there than some Sierra lakes. There are several areas to stay, but many families rent a cabin via VRBO or Airbnb and a speed or pontoon boat via one of its marinas to enjoy the deep blue lake and its miles of shoreline. It borders Lassen Volcanic National Park, which puts some incredible hikes and sightseeing within an hour’s drive.
A half-hour from Redding, this reservoir is the third-largest body of water in California and crawls out over four main arms, delivering miles of tree-lined coves to explore. Shasta doesn’t have views of Mt. Shasta like Siskiyou but it does have lots of hot sunny weather and a famed houseboat experience. There’s fishing, swimming, and little cell service to distract you from your relaxing. Read our ROAM Report on the Shasta houseboat experience.
Resting in Tahoe’s shadow is another Sierra spectacle, Donner Lake. Many families prefer Donner to Tahoe for its compact size and smaller crowds. Though it may suffer some damaged brand image from being named after the notoriously unlucky Donner Party, it offers many of the same attractions that its bigger sister does – boating, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, swimming, lakeside cabins, and a short drive to the restaurants and shops of Truckee. And anyone having Tahoe FOMO or wanting to see friends/family staying there can drive to towns around the bigger lake in under an hour. Airbnb or VRBO cabins are the most popular option for families, but there’s also camping at the Donner Memorial State Park.
Here’s another Baby Tahoe: Wright’s Lake is located in the Eldorado National Forest at 7,000 feet in elevation just south of Tahoe near Kyburz off Highway 50. There’s not much to do but camp, hike, fish, and marvel and the wildflowers and birds that populate the lake and its surroundings. We’ve seen bald eagles here! Reservations are not easy to come by but well worth the effort. Ambitious families can hike from here into the Desolation Wilderness and reach Tahoe on foot.
High in the Sierra Nevada Gold Country, Pinecrest Lake has attracted Californian families for more than a century. The lake was formed after damming the Stanislaus River and sits at 5,600 feet in the Stanislaus National Forest between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. The Pinecrest Lake Resort offers motel rooms, cabins, and every type of high-country lakeside entertainment, from pedalboats to outdoor movies to horseback riding. Pinecrest Campground is among California’s most popular budget destinations, with picnicking, bike rentals, and rainbow trout to catch. Again, this ain’t your spot for “peace and quiet;” this is a spot for mountain fun.
The Eastern Sierras are blessed with many incredible lakes, including June Lake, bizarre Mono Lake, and the Mammoths Lakes basin – a set of 12 Alpine lakes near the town. Convict Lake is a favorite spot for families who love hiking and fishing. It has a campground and nicer cabins at the Convict Lake Resort. Lake Mary offers similar activities and camping. From either of these spots, the options for mountain biking, boating, trekking to waterfalls, and horseback riding are incredible.
Growing up in LA, a lot of my friends in outdoorsy families camped at June Lake every year. Now I see why: It’s Alpine setting in the Eastern Sierra Nevada is stunning, the trout fishing is legendary, and the Oh Ridge campground has excellent views. There is a beach for swimming – if you can steel yourself against the chilly water – and nearby mountain biking and hiking options are endless.
Just over the Sierras from June Lake, as the crow flies, Bass Lake is a destination for boating and fishing aficionados and families who use its shore as a base to explore nearby Yosemite and Gold Country spots. There are many rental cabins available to families around the lake and in nearby Oakhurst. There are not many swimming beaches but there are marinas to rent kayaks and watercraft. The lake area is just 30 minutes from Yosemite’s Wawona area and its Mariposa Grove of sequoias.
Between San Simeon and Paso Robles in the Santa Lucia Mountains, this dragon-shaped reservoir is a popular central-state destination for watersports. While you can’t swim or fish, the Lake Nacimiento Resort offers a variety of accommodations along the lake and its marina will rent you a pontoon boat for a day of floating or a speedboat for a day of waterskiing. It’s a pleasant lakeside destination between LA and SF.
Continuing south to the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara, the county parks offer camping and yurts for rent on the shore of Lake Cachuma. If you’ve been scanning this list for a more basic and quiet lakeside spot, this is it. There’s not much to do there but take in the view and enjoy boating and fishing on the lake (no swimming here either.) Nearby, however, you’ve got some nice birdwatching and walking trails, plus the destinations of Santa Barbara, the kitsch of Solvang, the falls of Nojoqui, and – you guessed it! OstrichLand of Buellton.
Here’s the “Tahoe” of Southern California. Of lakes Arrowhead, Gregory, and Silverwood, Big Bear Lake is the largest of the historic San Bernardino Mountain resorts and the spot where some of the last California grizzlies lived. A bit over two hours from LA, Big Bear has a classic downtown and countless activities, restaurants, and neighborhoods around its lake. Cabins are a popular way for Angelenos to spend a summer vacation week or weekend, but camping is also available at the popular Serrano campground. Even if you’re used to Sierra or NorCal spots, you might be impressed at how pretty these SoCal mountain towns and lakes are – Big Bear sits at 6,700 feet! – but they’re much more developed and busy than the state’s less-accessible spots northward.
If you’re sick of all that pine-tree aroma and thin mountain air, head for the Mohave Desert. Lake Havasu is on the Colorado River border between Arizona and California, a good 5-hour drive from downtown LA.
There’s literally no hotter place to be in the summer but if you’ve got a jet ski or speedboat, I’m preaching to the choir. If not, it is a totally different cultural experience to see Havasu in the summer – especially if you can do it on a non-pandemic year and from the airconditioned comfort of a Havasu City hotel room (okay, yes, that’s actually on the Arizona side), say the London Bridge Resort? (yes, that London Bridge.) Seeing it with my sister and cousin when I was 6, I was impressed 😉
This article was updated in May 2021.
Maryann Jones Thompson – August 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
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