California is filled with natural wonders to marvel at, but perhaps the most beautiful of them all are the spectacular lakes. You’ll find them dotted all over the Golden State, from the delights of Lake Tahoe and Shasta Lake in Northern California to Big Bear Lake and Mammoth Lakes in Southern California. There, you can enjoy all types of outdoor activities, from kayaking and wakeboarding to swimming and fishing. As for the best way to experience the West Coast’s most scenic spots, that would have to be by getting in the car and heading off on a road trip.
For those who don’t have their own set of wheels, hiring a vehicle from one of the SIXT car rental branches you’ll find all over California is a great way to hit the road with ease. Whether you’re looking for an alpine adventure or a spot to take the whole family, there’s something to suit every trip. Read on to discover the most beautiful lakes in California.
- Lake Tahoe: One of the most beautiful lakes in California for outdoor sports lovers
- Shasta Lake: One of the best lakes in California for boating enthusiasts
- Donner Lake: One of the best lakes in California for learning about local history
- Mammoth Lakes Basin: One of the loveliest California lakes for family-friendly fun
- June Lake: One of the most beautiful lakes in California during the fall
- Lake Berryessa: One of the best lakes in California for those based in the Bay Area
- Bass Lake: One of the loveliest California lakes for taking a dip
- Big Bear Lake: One of the most beautiful lakes in California to visit from Los Angeles
- Lake Elsinore: One of the best California lakes for those visiting from San Diego
1. Lake Tahoe: One of the most beautiful lakes in California for outdoor sports lovers
- Do not miss: Emerald Bay State Park
- Best period to visit: April to May and September to November
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: 3.5-hour drive away from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
There’s a reason why Lake Tahoe is one of the most famous lakes in California. In the summer, it’s a real haven for outdoor sports fanatics who come to take part in the many fantastic activities on offer here. You can engage in everything from paddle boarding to kayaking in Emerald Bay State Park to simply splashing about in the pristine, turquoise waters.
Thanks to its vast size – it stretches 22 miles long and is the second-deepest lake in America – you’ll never run out of things to do here or areas of the beautiful shoreline to explore. Boating enthusiasts will also love the fact that it’s easy to hire a motor boat from one of the numerous marinas so you can explore the wonders of the lake from the water.
If you’re heading to Lake Tahoe, you’ll want to book a roomy car to make sure you have plenty of space for all your beach gear. Go for one of the spacious BMW SUVs, which you can pick up from the SIXT branch at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
2. Shasta Lake: One of the best lakes in California for boating enthusiasts
- Do not miss: Lake Shasta Caverns
- Best period to visit: April to September
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: 4-hour drive away from San Francisco Airport via I-5
Boasting 30,000 surface acres of water, Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California. It’s also often referred to as the Golden State’s boating capital thanks to the fact that there are eight full-service marinas to choose from and six public boat ramps. One of the most popular things to do here is to hire a houseboat, on which you can drift across the lake’s pristine waters and admire the snow-capped Mount Shasta looming above.
Book a tour to explore the picturesque underground Lake Shasta Caverns, and keep an eye out for bald eagles, which have been known to roam around this area. If camping is your thing, you’ll find more than a dozen campsites to choose from on Lake Shasta’s shores, making it a great spot for a family vacation.
When it comes to picking up your rental car, the closest spot is the SIXT rental branch at San Francisco Airport. If you have packed for a few days, make sure you select a full-size SUV, like a Chevrolet, or a Cadillac.
3. Donner Lake: One of the best lakes in California for learning about local history
- Do not miss: Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum
- Best period to visit: April to May and September to December
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: 3-hour drive away from San Francisco’s Mission District
Not far from Lake Tahoe sits another of the Golden State’s loveliest beauty spots: Donner Lake. By California standards, this is one of the smaller lakes you’ll come across, but it more than makes up for its small stature with its spectacular scenery. Ringed by pine trees and mountains, it’s a true natural paradise, while when the landscape is covered in snow during the winter, it looks just like a Hallmark Christmas card.
During the warmer months, the lake is a hive of activity, with families enjoying sailing, kayaking, and jet skiing on the water. As well as recreational sports, there are also plenty of opportunities to learn about past pioneers who crossed the mountains here, including the unlucky Donner party, who found themselves stranded for a whole winter. Read all about them at Donner Memorial State Park or at the Emigrant Trail Museum.
Pick up your vehicle from the SIXT branch in San Francisco’s Mission District, where you’ll have a full fleet to choose from. To secure your dream car, make sure to book online before you arrive at the branch.
4. Mammoth Lakes Basin: One of the loveliest California lakes for family-friendly fun
- Do not miss: Horseshoe Lake and Lake Mary
- Best period to visit: June to October
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: 6-hour drive from Los Angeles Airport
Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the resort town of Mammoth Lakes is popular all year round. In the winter, people come here to ski and snowboard, but the summer is the best time to experience the beauty of the area’s many lakes. Within the Mammoth Lakes Basin, there are several picturesque lakes to enjoy – some of the larger ones, like Horseshoe Lake and Lake Mary, can be accessed by car, but others can only be reached by hiking trails.
The alpine waters here are some of the clearest and cleanest we’ve ever come across, so it’s a great place for a refreshing swim. Many of the lakes, including Horseshoe Lake, don’t allow motorized boating, so they’re particularly safe for kids. The local resort town of Mammoth Lakes also has loads of great shops and restaurants to enjoy, making this the ideal location for families.
One of the best places to pick up a rental car is from SIXT’s Los Angeles Airport branch. Make sure you choose a big family-friendly model, like a Chrysler minivan, to have plenty of room to fit you and the kids.
5. June Lake: One of the most beautiful lakes in California during the fall
- Do not miss: June Lake Loop
- Best period to visit: April to October
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: Just over 5 hours from Downtown LA
While a visit to June Lake is always lovely no matter what time of year it is, this spot is particularly beautiful in the fall, when the leaves of the trees that surround the lake turn a range of vibrant colors, from flaming orange to deep red. Don’t miss the chance to drive around the June Lake Loop, where you’ll get to see four different lakes, all just as picturesque as the other.
This is also a great place to visit for fishing enthusiasts who love to challenge themselves to land what’s known as the “Sierra Grand Slam”. Try it for yourself and see if you can manage to catch all four varieties of trout that live in the lake. You can also hike or bike around the trails that surround the lake, and at one end you’ll find a beach which leads to a lovely swimming spot.
You’ll be spending plenty of time in the car as you tour the June Lake Loop, so it’s important to make sure you choose the right vehicle. There are plenty of different options to choose from at the SIXT rental branch in Downtown LA, whose fleet includes luxury BMW SUVs and convertibles.
6. Lake Berryessa: One of the best lakes in California for those based in the Bay Area
- Do not miss: Morning Glory Spillway
- Best period to visit: April to May and in the summertime
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: Less than 2 hours from Fisherman’s Wharf
Just a couple hours north of San Francisco sits Lake Berryessa, a vast reservoir that was first created by damming up Putah Creek. The 23-mile-long lake has lots of secluded coves just waiting to be explored, as well as a range of sandy beaches for lounging. Considering the summer temperatures can be scorching here with the water warming up to 75°F, it’s a particularly good place to visit for a spot of sunbathing.
There are plenty of water sports on offer, from jet skiing to boating, as well as fishing and non-motorized boating. Don’t miss the chance to see the Morning Glory Spillway in action – the innovative water management system creates a mini whirlpool in the water when the levels are getting too high.
Pick up your car from the SIXT rental branch at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. A Chrysler minivan, or a Toyota SUV might be your best choices when it comes to visiting Lake Berryessa, as you will be able to store everything you pack and fit some skiing equipment as well.
7. Bass Lake: One of the loveliest California lakes for taking a dip
- Do not miss: Yosemite National Park
- Best period to visit: June-August
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: Around 3 hours from San Jose Airport
You might recognize Bass Lake as the backdrop of a movie – due to its rugged beauty, it’s featured in scores of Hollywood films. Spreading across five miles and lined by picturesque pine trees, this is a particularly popular spot with those who are looking to make a splash and head for a swim or two, as the water here can heat up to a toasty 80°F in the summer.
There are lots of sheltered coves to explore as you take a dip, and the area is also a great spot for fishing – come to catch bass and kokanee salmon in the summer, and rainbow trout in the spring and the fall. Bass Lake is also only a 25-minute drive from Yosemite National Park, so it’s easy to pair the two if you’re looking for a longer vacation.
One of the best places to pick up a rental car is from SIXT’s San Jose Airport branch. Since this is a busy location, make sure you use the SIXT app to book your car before you fly to San Jose.
8. Big Bear Lake: One of the most beautiful lakes in California to visit from Los Angeles
- Do not miss: Big Bear’s Oktoberfest celebrations
- Best period to visit: October to December
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: Around 2 hours from Downtown Los Angeles
Of all the lakes in Southern California, Big Bear Lake is probably the best known. There’s a good reason for that – there’s no shortage of fun activities to keep you occupied here, no matter what time of year you visit. Located less than 100 miles from the City of Angels, this is where Angelenos come to relax and take part in wholesome outdoor pursuits.
During the winter, the Big Bear Mountain resort is home to the best skiing and snowboarding in SoCal, while in the fall you can revel in Big Bear’s Oktoberfest celebrations from September through mid-November. Families flock here in the summer to enjoy the lake’s many attractions, from hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and fishing to rock climbing, zip-lining, and golfing. There’s even a go-kart track to zip around and a zoo to keep the littlest members of the family entertained.
Pick up your vehicle from the SIXT rental branch in Downtown Los Angeles. You can select your car from a big variety of models, ranging from premium BMW sedans to compact Chevrolet SUVs and elite GMC SUVs.
9. Lake Elsinore: One of the best California lakes for those visiting from San Diego
- Do not miss: Waterskiing and wakeboarding in the lake
- Best period to visit: June to September
- Drive time from the closest SIXT branch: Just over an hour from San Diego Airport
For those traveling from the southernmost tip of California, a visit to Lake Elsinore is a great option. Spread across 3,000 acres, it’s known for being the biggest freshwater lake in Southern California. Thanks to its vast size, the lake operates an ‘unlimited’ speed zone – unlike many of the other lakes on this list, which often enforce speed limits on the water – meaning you can zoom around as fast as you’d like when you rent a boat here.
Its massive surface also means it’s very popular with water sports enthusiasts who can crank up the speed while waterskiing and wakeboarding. If that all sounds a little too adrenaline-fueled for your taste, don’t worry – there are also plenty of more tranquil pursuits to engage in. The lake’s perimeters operate a no-wake zone, making them the ideal place to take a dip or go kayaking or paddle boarding.
If you are flying to San Diego, make sure you have already booked your SIXT car rental. Head to the SIXT branch at San Diego Airport to pick up your set of wheels and hit the road.
Now that you know all about some of the most beautiful lakes in California, it’s time to decide which one or two you’d like to visit on your next vacation. There are so many great places to choose from, whether you’re looking for adrenaline-filled water sports, a place to take the whole family, or a peaceful spot to go for a dip and reconnect with nature. Hire a SIXT rental car and you’ll be able to experience the finest natural beauty that the Golden State has to offer with ease. So, what are you waiting for?