California is a fantastic state for holidays, even if you prefer not to visit the major cities. In fact, lakes in Southern California are a popular option – there are about 3000 of them. Some are naturally-formed, others man-made. Some are classified as lakes, while others are referred to as reservoirs.
Whichever the case, many offer recreational activities and pastimes like hiking and boating. In most cases, they are surrounded by extraordinary views of hills and mountains, and, more often than not, contained within a national park or protected area.
Even so, most offer the added bonus of camping or RV accommodation (who doesn’t want to spend a couple of nights and days in the great outdoors?) Then there are the nearby towns and communities who each provide that welcoming atmosphere for their visitors. Sample the local delicacies, dishes, and hospitality to get the full experience, why don’t you?
No article can detail every single lake or California landmark contained within its reach, so let’s just look at 13 of the favorites among visitors.
Table of Contents
- About Southern California
- 13 Lakes in Southern California
- 1. Bass Lake
- 2. Big Bear Lake
- 3. Cachuma Lake
- 4. Folsom Lake
- 5. Lake Almanor
- A Note on Lassen Volcanic National Park
- 6. Lake Elsinore
- A Note on Algae Blooms
- 7. Lake Havasu
- 8. Silverwood Lake
- 9. Convict Lake
- More About Robert Morrison
- 10. Lake Arrowhead Reservoir
- 11. Castaic Lake
- 12. Lake Gregory
- 13. Perris Reservior
- Final Thoughts on Southern California Lakes
A quick note about SoCal. California, as everyone knows is sunny and mostly warm. Southern California does have some mountains, and in winter, those mountains even get some snow. On the other hand, there’s a wonderful coastline to the west, upon which the waves of the great Pacific come to rest.
To the world in general, this part of California means Hollywood, skateboarding and beaches. But yes, there are wonderful lakes, too, and that’s what this article is about. Let’s dive in, so to speak.
13 Lakes in Southern California
Bass Lake, (sometimes referred to as Crane Valley Lake), is five miles long and is very popular with boaters. You could also swim and fish there. Many love to use one of the five campgrounds for multi-day visits, and the Forks resort and Millers Landing offer rentals for boats and accommodation as well.
The lake is in the Sierra National Forest, close to Yosemite National Park, so it’s surrounded by some of California‘s most beautiful natural sights.
Why is it called Crane Valley Lake by some? The lake was formed when the Crane Valley Dam was constructed in 1901. It’s a small-ish lake at just over four miles long and half a mile wide.
Snowy paradise in winter, sun, and swimming in summer. Big Bear Lake sits in the San Bernardino National Forest, and is unique for its unusual landscape, particularly for the Southern California area. For one thing, it’s quite high, elevated at 6 700 feet.
But structures like the Pleasure Point Marina make it one of the most popular boating lakes around the state. At least, it is that in the summer. In winter, because of its elevation, it can be cold.
Nonetheless, it remains a popular swimming destination, too. And there’s always the Miss Liberty, a skipper liner that takes visitors on a tour of the lake, complete with historical facts and stories.
Besides the lake itself, there are a few additional reasons you might want to explore the area. Try the Big Bear Solar Observatory, or the Big Bear Discovery Center, both nearby. The snowy winter activities are found on the south shore, notable Snow Summit, and Bear Mountain.
Big Bear is one of the most well-known lakes in California. In fairness, it is very special, because it isn’t fed from rivers, but rather from snow. It is approximately seven miles long. And for a particularly bear-themed stay at the lake, you may even want to take a look at Mcwhinney The Pooh’s Den for a bit of luxury.
You might enjoy reading my article about California Facts.
Some may think it odd that you cannot swim in Cachuma Lake, located in the Los Padres National Forest. It is officially a lake that serves as a water supply for human use. For that reason, any physical contact with the water is prohibited.
Despite this, the lake is immensely popular, mostly because of its excellent picnic and recreation facilities. You can also still rent boats from the nearby marina and enjoy the lake from within the confines of your vessel.
There are also tents and yurts for rent, and you should pop in at the Neal Taylor Nature Center to learn more about the area.
Perhaps because of some of these rules, Cachuma has an excellent rating as a fishing lake, and you can participate in that activity here, too. You will need a permit, though. The views are also spectacular – the lake is surrounded by San Rafael and Santa Ynes mountain ranges.
Folsom is fairly close to Sacramento – about 25 miles northeast of that city. It’s a low-lying lake at just over 400 feet. The reservoir was formed in 1955.
Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is a fabulous area for hiking. Folsom lake is a constructed reservoir on the American River and provides great boating and motorized watersports. Think skiing and speedboating.
You can opt to rent a house. It’s best to look for accommodation here that’s within walking distance from the lake, like this stately home in Loomis.
Notable also is the abundance of wildlife, with foxes, coyotes, deer, mountain lions, bears, and several other animals regularly seen there.
In the Shasta Cascade region of California in Plumas County, lies the artificial lake known as Lake Almanor. Like many man-made reservoirs in California, Almanor has become a popular getaway for boat enthusiasts, hikers, and weekend holidaymakers.
Cavins, camping, and even RV parks abound around the lake, and there are further accommodation options in Chester nearby. You’ll want to plan on a couple of days at least as you explore the other key attraction in the area, like Lassen Volcanic National Park.
You might like to read my article on the best places for solo travelers in California.
The park was established in 1916. Your kids may be amused to visit Bumpass Hell, just one of several hydrothermal sites within this park, which is known for its volcanic features, trails, and great views.
The park is especially beautiful in the snow-tinged wintertime. It makes for a wonderful contrasting experience, with hot water interspersing the chilly mountain peaks.
Elsinore is a beautiful, completely natural freshwater lake in California’s deep south. It’s six miles long and quite shallow at an average depth of 27 feet, and a max depth of 40 feet or so.
Elsinore is actually the biggest natural fresh lake in California. Swimming, boating, and fishing are favorite activities here for visitors. Despite recent concerns around increased algae blooms in the water, this is a common occurrence in freshwater lakes. Most problems are mitigated by following the guidelines set around lake usage.
The city of Lake Elsinore sits close by, with a large population of 70 000.
Freshwater lakes are sometimes susceptible to natural bacteria and fungi that can become harmful to humans. In most cases, cyanobacteria are the culprit, and during blooms (especially after heavy rainfall) a high concentration can become toxic to humans.
Symptoms can range from mild to very uncomfortable or damaging, depending on whether contact was minimal, by ingestion, and the degree of exposure. In the most serious cases, diarrhoea and vomiting may occur.
The best action is to take note of any advisories issued by the local authorities before swimming or coming into contact with the water.
Right at the edge of the state, on the border with Arizona, and the Colorado River lies this stunning lake, surrounded by the trimmings of London Bridge and Lake Havasu City. You’ll see boats and kayaks on the water regularly, and even the occasional hot air balloon passing by above.
Keep in mind that you can live in the town (there are plenty of options), or you can opt for nearby camping. Interestingly, though, the town is technically in Arizona, but we’ll let that one slip by. Havasu is sizeable at 26 miles long. It’s well known for its abundance of bass and catfish.
Silverwood Lake was formed in 1971, as a result of the Cedar Springs Dam construction. If you’re considering visiting Silverwood Lake (and you should be), bear in mind that during peak season, the area experiences huge crowds.
The lake is immensely popular, and its surrounding attractions do a great job of attracting visitors with many diverse interests. Waterskiing and sports are available in the northern part, while the swimming area in the southern half remains popular, especially with overnighters.
The San Bernadino Mountains provide wonderful views and opportunities to explore nature’s great gifts. Even in winter, bird enthusiasts flock to the area to catch sight of a bald eagle – they are sighted here often.
There’s a fascinating story around how Convict Lake in Mono County got its name. Apparently, a gang of convicts broke out of the Carson City Jail, and “ran for the hills”, so to speak. As was the custom, a posse was formed to track them down, led by Sheriff Robert Morrison.
There was a violent encounter near a river (today known as Convict Creek). Somehow the legend stuck, and when a dam was formed close by, it seemed the logical option for a name. Also, Mount Morrison is within sight of the lake, such is that particular legend.
The lake was formed by glacial movement. It was initially called Monte Diablo (Devil Mountain) by early European settlers. Today visitors can enjoy fishing and hiking in the beautiful surroundings, alongside a permanent tribute to a lawman killed in the line of duty.
The posse member Morrison was memorialized when the local mountain was named after him because he was actually shot and killed during this episode in California history. Robertson had been employed by the Wells Fargo company.
A famous shootout akin to the one at the Ok Corral in Tombstone occurred when escaped convicts Moses Black, Leander Morton, and J. Bedford Roberts were confronted by the posse in 1871. In the shootout, Morrison’s gun allegedly failed, and he was murdered in cold blood by Black.
This awesome reservoir is ideal for those who seek different experiences in different seasons. In winter, there’s the possibility of snow, so snowshoeing and skiing can provide a cozy yet active winter breakout. You’ll want to book one of the many cabins available around the lake for extra comfort.
As mountain lakes go, this San Bernadino gem is one of the best. Do note that actual use of the lake (as in swimming and boating) is limited. This is technically a private lake, for use by the residents of the town.
Nearby, the community of Lake Arrowhead welcomes visitors, too. But you can enjoy the surrounding views, hiking, and skiing in winter, as mentioned.
Castaic Lake has more than 11 000 acres of beautiful land to explore and admire. It is, in fact, the largest reservoir area in the state. Like many planned developments, the lake area is split in terms of activities.
In the north, motorized activities like powerboats and jet skis abound. In the lower half of the lake, swimming and kayaking are the preferred activities.
Active anglers can try for a bass or a catfish, while others can simply go horseback riding or hiking around the shoreline.
The Castaic Lake State Recreation Area is a state park and sits close by the Angeles National Forest, so there’s plenty to see and do in the area.
Lake Gregory, near the town of Crestline, has developed a reputation for being one of California’s favorite swimming lakes. Part of that has to do with the presence of a delightful waterpark – The Rim of the World Waterpark – that features all the best slides, swings, and rides available.
Older folks may find lots to do close by, too. Besides swimming, kayaking and fishing are among the highlights. You could also simply walk – there are lots of hiking trails in these parts. But ultimately, Lake Gregory is known for its beach, and you really can’t outshine a good beach.
Note that private boats are not allowed on the lake. Also, there is a $10 fishing permit fee.
This relatively small lake near Moreno Valley is nonetheless a popular destination for families. Three miles long and two miles wide, there are still speedboats, jet skis, and kayaks in abundance.
There are also plenty of spots to park RVs, set up camps and tents. Try some rock climbing or horseback riding when you’re not in the water swimming. This little lake packs a punch – there’s a lot of value to be had at Perris.
The construction of Perris was completed in 1973. It is notable for the number of hills and mountains that surround it, generally referred to as Lake Perris State Recreation Area. Make a point of stopping in at the Ya’i Heki’ Regional Indian Museum for a superb bonus educational experience.
The temptation to pack a trunk and head out to one of these lakes is very tangible once you read all about them. Probably the best part is that the offerings aren’t limited to summertime, either.
You wouldn’t have thought, for example, that skiing could be part of a California Lake visit. But it is, as is fishing and swimming and simply taking in some of the US’s finest natural wonders.
If you’re looking elsewhere, you might also want to explore Northern California’s hot springs for a water-based holiday. Other than that, there’s no reason why a California lakeside holiday should not be in your plans at some point.
I covered all of the costs involved in producing this article. However, this lakes in Southern California post includes affiliate links. That means if you click through and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. I wanted to make sure you were aware of this.