Lakes are abundant around the Golden State, whether you are looking for one in the high Sierra Nevada or in a lower elevation conveniently located near a city that will be the ideal day trip. Northern California and Southern California get a lot of attention with natural beauties like Lake Tahoe and Big Bear Lake, but the lakes in Central California should not be overlooked with plenty of scenic bodies of water near Yosemite and beyond. Here are the lakes that should be on your radar when visiting the central region of California.
Where exactly is Central California?
The central region of the state is usually defined as the area that includes the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, part of the Central Coast, and the central California Coast Ranges and the central Sierra Nevada. The following counties are fully within Central California: Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, Madera, Monterrey, San Benito, Fresno, Kings, and Tulare. Some of the main cities are Fresno, Bakersfield, Monterey, and Merced.
When is the best time to visit Central California?
Central California can get hot, especially in locations away from the coast. Yosemite can easily reach the 90s and beyond in the summertime through the early fall. During summer there is the risk of wildfires which have unfortunately been getting worse every year. Going during the shoulder seasons in the late spring or mid-autumn is a great alternative. Winter brings cooler weather and snow up in the mountains, which offers an additional selection of winter outdoor sports like snowshoe hikes with scenic frozen lakeside views.
- check road closures before heading out – especially if you are heading up to lakes in the Sierra Nevada since wildfires or inclement weather can make the roads dangerous to drive. A great resource is Caltrans road information where you can enter your specific highway number.
- check if swimming/water sports are allowed – not all lakes allow human contact with the water source, especially if it’s a reservoir that is currently a water supply.
- bring enough water/food/gas – a lot of these lakes are in remote areas and have limited resources, so make sure to map out beforehand where to get food/gas
- download an offline map – speaking of remote, make sure to have a map that you can access offline in case there is limited cell service. You can always pick up a paper map at a nearby visitor center as a backup.
Location: Mono County
Located off of Highway 395 on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this saline lake is known for its otherworldly tufa towers that dot its surface. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is a popular destination for photography and admiring the tufa towers up close. Stop by the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center on the reserve, before taking the paved interpretive trail to the water’s edge (a dip in the salty water is recommended if the weather permits). Afterward, walk along the sandy looped trail that ends at the parking lot.
The Mono Lake Committee is known for its conservation work surrounding the lake and for preserving this natural wonder for generations to come. To learn more about this unique ecosystem, join one of the committees’ free walks and tours around the lake, as well as paid canoe tours and multi-day field seminars. Check out the events calendar here. Stop by the committees’ Information Center & Bookstore in Lee Vining, where you can find recommendations on things to do around the area.
Nearby destinations: Yosemite National Park
Location: Mono County
Just down Highway 395 is one of the state’s most beautiful lakes and the largest natural freshwater lake in the region. It is a popular place especially in the fall when the trees’ leaves turn golden. Activities include canoeing, kayaking, sailing, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, and hiking around the lake’s perimeter. Head up to the Oh Ridge Campground for spectacular views above the lake with the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the background.
If you want to drive the scenic June Lake Loop, head onto Highway 158 as you’re driving north on Highway 395 and the loop will eventually take you back to the main highway. The entire drive takes around 20 minutes without stops, but plan for much longer if you want to pull over and take in the views. There are two access points to the lake in the Oh Ridge Campground, as well as more access points (including two marinas) if you continue along Highway 158 toward the town of June Lake.
Nearby destinations: the town of June Lake, Mammoth Mountain, and the town of Mammoth Lakes
Location: Mono County
Known for its crystal-clear, turquoise waters, this lake a few miles off of Highway 395 is not to be missed. The area has a storied past, named after the convicts that escaped from the Nevada State Prison in 1871 and resulted in a shootout that involved local law enforcement and community members.
Trout fishing is very popular due to the depth and cold temperature of the water. Rainbow trout is the most abundant, but brown trout and brookie trout varieties can be found as well. Hiking is also popular in the surrounding area under the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, including Convict Lake Loop, a three-mile access trail. Parking is available on either end of the trail, but the south side is recommended since the lot is bigger.
The southeastern edge of the lake has a day-use area with restrooms and picnic areas along the shoreline, where you can bring a packed lunch and watch people fish.
Nearby destinations: town of June Lake, Mammoth Mountain, and the town of Mammoth Lakes, the town of Bishop
Location: Madera County
Located off of Yosemite Forks, this nearly five-mile lake is where you can stay and play in the high Sierra. It is considered a warm water lake, where it can reach up to 80 degrees in the summertime. This area is often referred to as a smaller Lake Tahoe, with its variety of outdoor activities making it a popular year-round destination. Unlike its larger counterpart, it is only 3,400 feet in elevation, so the altitude is not as much of a factor when it comes to planning a trip here.
The lake is home to numerous outdoor activities along its miles of shoreline. It is considered one of the best lakes to catch kokanee salmon (fishing licenses are required for visitors ages 16 and up). There are many trails within the surrounding Sierra National Forest, including Way of the Mono Trail, a 0.6-mile loop with spectacular views. For more of a challenge, the 5-mile Goat Mountain Fire Lookout is a great alternative.
Bass Lake is also home to The Pines Resort, where you can stay in one of their cozy mountain cabins overlooking the lake. Numerous water sports abound, from water skiing to jet skis you can rent and use in the turquoise waters.
Nearby destinations: Yosemite National Park
Location: on the border of Fresno and Madera Counties
This artificial lake was created as part of the Friant Dam in the 1940s to irrigate the southern San Joaquin Valley. The park has a lot of history, including the original Millerton County Courthouse which was built in 1867. The lake is part of the larger Millerton Lake State Recreation Area that is overseen by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
There are a larger variety of outdoor activities to keep visitors busy along the 40 miles of shoreline, including fishing, swimming, and boating. Keep your eyes out for majestic bald eagles that may be circling overhead. There are park ranger-led annual bald eagle boat tours that run from the beginning of January through the middle of March. The tours are three hours and cost $20 per person. There are also campsites within the park available six months in advance.
Nearby destinations: city of Fresno
Location: Santa Barbara County
Situated in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley off Highway 154, this manmade lake is part of the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. It was built in 1953 as part of the construction of the Bradbury Dam by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The lake is considered a domestic water supply, so all water activities that involve human contact with the water are prohibited including swimming, windsurfing, and water skiing. The Cachuma Lake Pools nearby are open during the summer and are $3 on Friday – Sunday, as well as on holidays. All boats must pass a mandatory inspection to prevent the spread of invasive species. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout in the winter and fishing is allowed either by boat or on shore. Within the park, there are five miles of hiking trails to explore.
Popular activities include camping on its shores year-round, especially during winter when the temperatures are mild. Reservations can be made six months in advance for a campsite, RV hookups, yurts, and cabins, as well as group areas. Dogs are welcome. There is a gas station and general store on site.
Nearby destinations: Santa Barbara, Solvang
Location: Tulare County
A manmade lake that was formed by the Terminus Dam in 1962 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is located on the Kaweah River. The source is the Sierra Nevadas and after Lake Kaweah, it flows onto the San Joaquin Valley for irrigation purposes. Another major function of this large reservoir is flood control, and due to this, the water levels remain low throughout most of the year.
There are a lot of activities in and around the lake: boating, fishing, and swimming are a few of the popular outdoor activities offered. The Kaweah Marina is a perfect destination to rent gear, including various boats and paddle boards. Make sure to stop by the Kaweah Heritage Visitor Center which is located in the upper parking lot near the Marina to learn about the history of the dam, as well as view artifacts from the Native American communities who called the area home.
Nearby destinations: Visalia, Sequoia National Park
Three Top Rivers To Visit in Central California
Along with lakes, rivers can provide relief from hot Central California summers and provide prime wildlife viewing opportunities. Here are three that should not be missed.
This river flows through Kings Canyon National Park, and the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, as well as Fresno, Kings, and Tulare counties. It is great for whitewater rafting and offers some of the best fly fishing in its abundant waters. Its waters form King Canyon, one of the biggest river gorges in the county. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway will take you to the eastern portion of the river where you will find hiking trails, areas for dispersed camping, and the Grizzly Falls picnic area.
San Joaquin River
The longest river in Central California, it originates in the high Sierra Nevada, continues through the fertile agricultural landscape of the San Joaquin Valley, and cumulates at the Pacific Ocean near the San Francisco Bay. It is an important source of irrigation and is therefore one of the state’s most dammed and diverted rivers. The San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust is a great site to check out for recreational activities (including river tours and nature walks), conservation efforts, and volunteer opportunities.
A tributary of the San Joaquin River, its the portion that originates in the Sierra Nevada and flows down into the San Joaquin Valley. It is best known for flowing through the southern section of Yosemite National Park. The main fork of the Merced River in Yosemite is a great place to go rafting, fishing, hiking, camping, and even gold-panning in the warmer months. Swimming is also a popular activity during the summertime when you can enter and exit the river via its sandy beaches.