What are the best lakes for camping in California?

California is famous for its natural beauty and mild climate, which makes it a perfect place for nature-lovers. There may be no better place to spend time in the Great Outdoors, but it’s a big state with lots of great locations to choose from. Deciding on a place to go camping in California can be difficult, so we’re here to help. We’ve compiled a list of the best lakes for camping in California so that you can narrow your search.

Trinity Lake

Named for the Trinity River in Northern California, this is an artificial lake created to supply California’s Central Valley with irrigation water. It’s in a remote location surrounded by a mountain range known as the Trinity Alps.

The real beauty of camping here lies in the isolation. Most people head to nearby Lake Shasta, which is much easier to access, so there are smaller crowds at Trinity Lake, and it’s quieter. It’s also a superb fishing spot, with smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, and catfish in abundance.

The Alpine View Campground is a great spot if you have an RV, and even if you don’t it’s got plenty of space for you. There’s a boat ramp nearby for easy lake access, and several hiking trails too. There’s a public restroom, too.

Lake Almanor

On the north fork of the Feather River, Lake Almanor was created by building the Canyon Dam in 1914. It’s a popular lake for all kinds of recreational activities. Water skiing, boating, fishing, and swimming are all common here.

There are campgrounds all around the lakeshore, but the North Shore is not only the most popular, it’s also widely considered the most beautiful part. That’s because it’s less developed, with a large campground (North Shore Campground).

The campground at North Shore has sites for tents and RVs as well as several cabins which can be reserved, which makes it a great place for those who aren’t interested in roughing it. There’s also easy access to the water for fishing and boating.

Clear Lake

Clear Lake is the largest natural lake that lies wholly in the state of California. It’s also the oldest lake in North America, at 2.5 million years old. Huge numbers of largemouth bass have earned the lake the nickname “Bass Capital of the West.”

Naturally, fishing is a hugely popular activity at Clear Lake, but the warm, clear water also makes it ideal for swimming and water skiing. The basin the lake sits in is home to large populations of deer, bear, and mountain lions.

Clear Lake State Park maintains numerous campsites suitable for either tents or RVs all around the lake, and many of them have a great view of the water. Conditions here may be a little more rugged than at some of the other lakes on the list, but that’s part of the appeal.

Donner Lake

Deep in the picturesque Sierra Nevada mountains, Donner Lake is named for the famous Donner Party. The lake has a maximum depth of 238 feet, and the deep water makes it difficult to catch the trout that live there. During the fall and spring, though, they rise to the surface to feed, and the fishing can be incredible.

The eastern shore and some of the southern shore are part of the Donner Memorial State Park, a good area for camping. Fishing, especially for lake trout, is popular here, as well as swimming. The cold water of the mountain lake is especially refreshing in the summer months.

Hiking is also popular here, and even in winter it’s an enjoyable activity because of the scenic views of snow-covered mountain forests. It’s a great place to visit year-round.

Lake Perris

Lake Perris is in Southern California, in the Lake Perris State Recreational Area. It’s an artificial reservoir which is regularly stocked with fish to ensure that it’s always a good fishing spot. It’s also popular with bird watchers, especially for the large numbers of hawks and owls that can be spotted nearby.

The lake is surrounded by hiking trails, and rangers offer guided hikes on many of these. Horseback riding is also a common activity. The lake is a fishing hotspot, but boaters also use it for water skiing and swimming. There are even several areas around the lake that are popular rock-climbing spots.

There are campsites scattered around the lake shore that make it a great spot for camping. Whether you like to hike, swim, fish, or rock climb, there’s something for everyone at Lake Perris.

Big Bear Lake

High in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear Lake is unique because it’s entirely snow fed, with no tributaries feeding it at all. The location makes this lake a study in contrast—aerial photos often show the lake surrounded by pine forests in the mountains, and beyond that, the Mojave Desert can be seen in the background.

Swimming is discouraged in the lake because the water is unusually cold, and there are dangerous underwater obstacles near the shoreline. It’s popular with boaters and water skiers, though. It’s also popular with anglers, with trout, bass, and catfish being common.

The Serrano Campground is a great location to camp by the lake, and the nearest boat dock is less than a mile away, so there’s easy access to the water for anyone who wants it.

Lake Piru

Lake Piru, in the Los Padres National Forest, is certainly a beautiful location, but its chief selling point may be that it’s only an hour’s drive outside of Los Angeles. For those living in LA, it’s one of the most convenient places to go camping.

The Lake Piru Recreation Area along the western shore of the lake is where most of the campsites are. It also has facilities like restrooms, boat ramps, and more. There are 238 campsites, each with water and electric hookups for those who want them—this also means that you can use RVs here.

Swimming has been banned in the lake since 2020, but boating, fishing, and hiking are all still allowed. Many people camp here simply to enjoy the scenery and escape the noise of life in the city.

Lake Tahoe

Easily the most famous lake in California, Lake Tahoe is in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the border between California and Nevada. It’s the largest alpine lake in North America, and it’s the second deepest lake at 1,645 feet. The cold, clear water adds to the incredible scenery of Lake Tahoe.

It’s a major tourist attraction, and its location in the mountains means that winter sports, as well as more typical lake activities, are a huge draw. There are multiple ski resorts nearby, but don’t worry: there’s plenty of camping available too.

Some of the best campsites are at DL Bliss State Park along the California shore. Hiking is an especially popular activity, with numerous trails surrounding the lake and taking you high into the mountains.