South Lake Tahoe Keys in Summer on Sunny Day with Clear Waters

The Largest Lakes in California

Whether you’re looking for beautiful clear swimming water or unique rock formations and wetland creatures, the lakes in California will not disappoint. Home to some of the oldest lakes in North America, California’s largest lakes are worth admiring. Of course, everyone is familiar with the famous Lake Tahoe, but places like Shasta Lake and Mono Lake offer just as many fun things to see and do. Even if you’re just in the mood to go on a hike with waterside views, these seven massive lakes are perfect.

Salton Sea

Salton Sea in Southern California.

The Salton Sea, despite its misleading name, is a landlocked lake in California’s Riverside County. The lake has a surface area spanning nearly 320 square miles and reaches 43 feet at its deepest point, making it the largest lake in California. In addition to size, the Salton Sea is also known for its unusually high salt content. According to The Salton Sea Authority, the lake's salinity levels are so high that most underwater species can’t survive there. But high salt levels aren’t the only issues California’s largest lake is facing. In recent years the lake has been consistently shrinking due to, in part, a decrease in agricultural runoff that normally helps fill the lake.

Although the Salton Sea isn’t suitable for swimming, there are plenty of nearby activities to enjoy. Visitors can enjoy the beach, hiking trails, picnic areas, and museums at Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Or, head to the nearby International Banana Museum for a unique experience.

Lake Tahoe

Beautiful day at Lake Tahoe.

The second-largest lake in California has much more to offer regarding recreational fun. The famous Lake Tahoe has a surface area of 191 square miles and an average depth of 1,000 feet. This deep, clear lake is ideal for swimming, boating, and paddling activities. Those looking to spend a day in and around the lake can check out Emerald Bay State Park where they will find hiking trails leading to the lake, waterfalls, campsites, and charming picnic areas. For travelers who are only interested in swimming and lounging in the sun, beaches such as Pope Beach and Kiva Beach are excellent options. Kiva Beach also allows dogs, for anyone traveling with their furry companions. 

Goose Lake

View across Goose Lake in Northern California in fall.

Goose Lake is a beautiful body of water situated on the California/Oregon border. The lake, which is surrounded by mountains and semi-arid plains, has a surface area of nearly 150 square miles and is the third-largest lake in the state. Those hoping to enjoy Goose Lake can do so at Goose Lake State Recreation Area, which is also located on the border of California and Oregon. Here, visitors can enjoy remote camping, lake views, and an abundance of local wildlife. Those looking to extend their adventure can travel to the nearby Modoc National Forest for an afternoon of obsidian mining. 

Honey Lake

Honey Lake near Susanville California.

Honey Lake is an 86-square-mile body of water located in the scenic Great Basin Desert. The large lake sits inside of Honey Lake State Wildlife Area and is a wonderful spot for activities including wildlife viewing and warm-water fishing. Several migratory birds rely on the lake and surrounding wetlands to survive, so birdwatching is also a popular activity here. On a typical day, bird enthusiasts could see everything from tundra swans to pheasants while exploring the area. It’s important to note that Honey Lake’s size is subject to change with the seasons. During periods of particularly high heat or drought, the lake may dry up, almost entirely. But if you arrive to see a dry lake, don’t worry, there are a handful of nearby sites also worth exploring including the Western Pacific Railroad Museum and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Mono Lake

Tufa rock formations in the Mono Lake, California.

Mono Lake is a sizable body of water with a surface area hovering around 70 square miles and a maximum depth of 159 feet. That said, size and depth are probably the least interesting things about Mono Lake. The ancient lake is believed to be over 1 million years old and features beautiful rock formations called tufa. Tufa is formed by a chemical reaction underwater and can grow up to 30 feet tall. Typically tufa stays underwater, but due to a drop in lake levels, travelers can see tufa towering high above the water at Mono Lake.

According to the California State Parks website, salts and minerals from the Eastern Sierra streams have, over time, made Mono Lake two and a half times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline. But don’t worry, these salty waters are still ideal for activities including swimming, boating, and even skiing in the winter months. Those looking for more outdoor adventures can check out the hiking trails at Mt Warren or head to the nearby Mono Lake Vista Point for some breathtaking views and photography opportunities.

Clear Lake

Clear Lake, California. Editorial credit: Aneta Waberska /

Much like Mono Lake mentioned above, Clear Lake in Lake County, California is a beautiful, ancient body of water. Although there is some debate over which lake is older, both Mono Lake and Clear Lake are among the oldest in North America. With a surface area stretching 68 square miles, the two lakes are also quite similar in size. Those hoping to visit Clear Lake can do so at Clear Lake State Park. Here, visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities including visiting the museum, hiking, biking, geocaching, swimming, scuba diving, wildlife viewing, and guided tours. The lake is also a great spot for fishing and has been dubbed the nation’s number one bass fishing lake.

Shasta Lake

Aerial shot of Lake Shasta in Northern CA.

Shasta Lake, sometimes called Lake Shasta, is a man-made reservoir in Shasta County, California. The lake has a surface area of nearly 50 square miles and at its deepest point reaches 517 feet. Those looking for a good lake vacation will find plenty of things to see and do both on and off the water here. Starting with the lake itself, visitors can enjoy activities including boating, water skiing, swimming, and fishing. After some in-water fun, venture to the nearby Lake Shasta Caverns where visitors can tour underground caves filled with beautiful Calcite formations. The Shasta-Trinity National Forest that surrounds the lake also offers visitors chances for hiking, biking, camping, and wildlife viewing.

In Conclusion

California boasts an impressive array of large lakes, each offering unique attractions. Mono Lake's iconic above-water tufa formations contrast with Lake Tahoe's extensive recreational opportunities, highlighting the state's diverse natural beauty. Whether you're exploring the ancient geological wonders of Clear Lake or experiencing the serenity of Shasta Lake's scenic vistas, California's largest lakes promise unforgettable experiences. Discover the Golden State's rich aquatic landscapes and cultural significance, where every lake tells a story of environmental resilience and human enjoyment amid stunning surroundings.


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