The best lake camping in California to enjoy being near the water, no matter where you are in the Golden State.
Everyone loves lakes. Throughout history, we’ve found ourselves drawn to lakes as places of nourishment, safety, and beauty.
And today’s harried desk jockeys (yes, I count myself in that category) are no different.
When the weekend hits, I want to find a gorgeous place to rest my eyes that’s not a screen. Ideally, I want to swim and play in the water too.
That’s why I’ve created an ultimate list of the best lake camping in the Golden State.
I’ve located the choicest recreation spots from north to south and provided links to the best camping options nearby.
Here’s to enjoying a slower pace of life for a weekend near the water!
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy stunning views of Mt Shasta in the distance.
Location: Northern California
Best nearby campground: Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort
Lake Siskiyou is sometimes called the jewel of Northern California (and for good reason).
This gorgeous lake in the north of the Golden State is surrounded by pine forests and framed by snow-capped Mount Shasta.
And the Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort is the best option for camping on Lake Siskiyou.
This two-star hotel on the water offers cabins, homes, and tent and RV spots. The resort is open from April 1st-November 1st every year.
One thing to look forward to on Lake Siskiyou is the water sports. Fishing, boating, and kayaking are allowed, plus the resort offers a boat ramp and kayak rentals.
Why it’s worth camping here: It’s California’s largest reservoir, with 360 miles of shoreline.
Location: Northern California
Best nearby campgrounds: Bailey Cove Campground, Shasta Lake RV Resort-Campground
Lake Shasta is an artificial lake that was created in the 1940s when the Shasta Dam was erected.
Today, Lake Shasta is the largest reservoir in California and a famous Bay Area getaway.
Shasta has four narrow “arms,” each fed by a different river. Due to the lake’s serpentine shape, there are many hundreds of miles of shoreline and lake camping spots galore.
Lake Shasta camping has something for everyone: boat-in camping, RV campgrounds, traditional campsites, and dispersed areas.
Plus, Shasta Lake, Trinity Lake, and Whiskeytown Lake are all great base camps to explore nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Trinity Lake is another reservoir. It’s almost directly west of Shasta Lake in the Shasta Trinity National Forest and is best known for access to the Trinity River and the Trinity Alps.
This lake has excellent water-skiing conditions and is a popular location for house boating and fishing.
The nearby Trinity River is popular for rafting and kayaking, and the towering Trinity Alps offer endless hiking trails.
There are lots of excellent lakeside camping sites at Trinity Lake.
Alpine View Campground is a Forest Service-run campground perfect for kids and older folks who need accessible campsites and well-maintained trails.
Otherwise, Pinewood Cove Resort is another popular option on the southwest arm of the lake.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is just south of Shasta Lake and Trinity Lake, about 14 miles west of Redding, CA.
This large lake near Shasta Trinity National Forest is one of the few in NorCal that offers year-round camping options.
Popular hiking trails near Whiskeytown are Brandy Creek Falls, Crystal Creek Falls, and the Papoose Pass Trail.
And Whiskeytown Lake camping comes in a few flavors.
The Oak Bottom-Brandy Creek Marina is *the* place to stay. It offers a year-round tent campground and RV park, showers, water sports rentals, and guided fishing.
If you’re looking for a quieter experience, check out the Peltier Bridge Primitive Campground, which offers a less-developed ambiance and access to good fly fishing.
As the crow flies, Lake Almanor is almost halfway between Shasta Lake and Tahoe.
Many lakes in mountain country are too cold for swimming, but the summer temperatures at Lake Almanor make this an excellent place to swim.
Lake Almanor has 52 miles of shoreline and is very close to Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lassen National Forest, which boasts over 300 campsites.
The most popular Lake Almanor camping spot is the North Shore Campground, which is spotlessly clean.
It offers lakeside RV and tent camping, plus cabin rentals, a general store, a lending library, and a playground.
Rocky Point Campground is another popular option. It’s on the lake’s southern end and offers traditional tent and RV options set amongst pine trees.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy gorgeous scenery off the beaten path.
Location: Northern California
Best nearby campgrounds: Gold Lake Campground
To reach Gold Lake, you’ll need to detour off the main highways and onto the Gold Lake Highway northwest of Tahoe. This lake is known for its gorgeous scenery and clear water.
Gold Lake is in Plumas National Forest and is part of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, which includes 20 other nearby lakes.
Gold Lake Campground is the best place to camp at Gold Lake. This Lakes Basin campground offers drive-up, boat-in, and walk-up campsites.
Dogs are allowed in the campground but keep in mind that bears are active here.
In other words, it’s essential to keep your good boi leashed at all times, with his food away if he’s not eating it.
Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Golden State, is north of the Bay Area and just two hours northwest of Sacramento.
This giant body of water is well-developed, with many recreational activities and amenities.
Several professional bass fishing organizations have named Clear Lake the best bass fishing spot in the US.
And even if fishing isn’t your thing, there are lots of swimming beaches here too.
There are endless Clear Lake camping options.
Clear Lake State Park alone maintains lots of hiking trails and has four campgrounds: Cole Creek, Kelsey Creek, Lower Bayview, and Upper Bayview.
Kelsey Creek is the only campground with camping spots near the lake and the only campground open year-round.
Another popular camping option is Clear Lake Campground, a “vintage” campground situated on Cache Creek, the outlet to Clear Lake.
Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is one of the few options for lake camping in Central California. Folsom Lake is northeast of Sacramento and is operated by the state park system.
This lake is popular for swimming, sailing, and crew races, plus it has a 32-mile paved bike path that connects it with Old Sacramento.
The best Folsom Lake camping spots are at Beals Point Campground (open all year) and the Peninsula Campground (open from April 1st to October 1st).
Each campground can accommodate tents and RVs.
Why it’s worth camping here: Learn about infamous pioneer history.
Location: Sierra Nevada
Best nearby campgrounds: Donner Memorial State Park
Donner Lake is for you if you’re interested in waterfront camping with a dash of true-life historical horror.
This lake is west of Truckee, CA in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The lake gets its name from the infamous Donner pioneer party traveling to California from the east.
You can visit the Donner Memorial State Museum, within walking distance from the lake, to learn more about the ill-fated party.
The only lake camping spots are in Donner Memorial State Park. The state park features three campgrounds near the lake, open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The Splitrock Campground is the closest campground to the lakefront.
Donner Lake is also open for boating, and the public boat ramp is on the lake’s northwest side.
Without a doubt, the best lake camping in California can be found at Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe is the biggest alpine lake in the US and the second-deepest lake, after Crater Lake in Oregon. This stunning turquoise-blue gem is a premier vacation spot for a reason.
This lake is popular with boaters, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and swimmers, plus the area surrounding the lake has mountain biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
There are lots of excellent lakeside camping options near Lake Tahoe.
On the western shore of the lake, D.L. Bliss State Park has five campgrounds, including Beach Camp.
We stayed in a non-beach campsite at D.L. Bliss State Park last summer, and it was still amazing, within walking distance to the water and a good swim beach.
Emerald Bay is another uber-popular camping spot in Tahoe. Emerald Bay is a bay within Lake Tahoe and a genuinely stunning oasis unto itself.
Check out Eagle Point Campground for amazing views of the water.
Want to learn more about Tahoe? Read our detailed guides to North vs South Lake Tahoe, best Lake Tahoe beaches, where to stay in Lake Tahoe, best Lake Tahoe hikes, things to do in Lake Tahoe, and winter in Lake Tahoe.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy a quiet lakefront with summer ranger programs.
Location: Sierra Nevada
Best nearby campgrounds: Pine Martin Campground
While Tahoe is known for crowds, Lake Alpine offers California lake camping in a quieter, but no less beautiful, surrounding.
Lake Alpine is off Highway 4 between Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, near the small town of Bear Valley in Stanislaus National Forest.
The best lake spots near Lake Alpine are in the Pine Martin Campground, run by the Forest Service.
This campground accommodates tents, RVs, and boats and offers standard accessories like picnic tables and fire rings, but it’s closed in the winter.
This is a great place for a camping trip with slightly older kids with camping experience. Campfire ranger programs, guided hikes, and other kids’ activities are offered in the summer.
Why it’s worth camping here: It’s one of the oldest lakes in North America (and Bigfoot might live there??)
Location: Sierra Nevada
Best nearby campgrounds: Mono Vista RV Park, Inyo National Forest dispersed camping.
If you’re searching for California lake camping, Mono Lake may not be for you because there isn’t a ton of camping directly adjacent to the lake.
That said, Mono Lake is worth mentioning because it’s pretty different from most other California lakes.
Mono Lake is one million years old, making it one of North America’s oldest lakes. It doesn’t have an outlet, which means the water quality is saltier than most other inland lakes.
The weird history of the lake has created alien-like tufa towers, which may or may not be a Bigfoot hiding place.
Look online for “Mono Lake bigfoot,” and you’ll see a blurry video of…something. I’ll leave it at that.
Mono Lake camping options are sparse. Check out one of the best RV parks in the area, the Mono Vista RV Park in Lee Vining, CA, for RV spots between April 1st and November 1st.
You can also opt for dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest.
June Lake is a popular lakeside community on the eastern side of the Sierra mountains, south of Mono Lake.
This lake starts the scenic June Lake Loop, which drives by Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and the biggest lake, Grant Lake.
June Lake and the June Lake Loop offer tons of quaint, aspen-lined hiking trails, and June Lake has lots of cute places to eat.
There are tons of June Lake camping options, too. The June Lake Campground is a popular option near the downtown area.
Silver Lake Campground is likewise quite popular and right on the shore of Silver Lake, adjacent to the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Finally, Reversed Creek Campground is just across the road from Silver Lake. This is a small and shady campground that’s an easy distance to June Lake.
South of Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes offers some of the best lake camping in the state, IMO.
Mammoth Lakes (aka the “Lakes Basin Region,” not to be confused with the Lakes Basin Recreation Area up north) is south of June Lake.
It’s located in the eastern Sierra Nevada and includes 11 serene lakes.
One of my favorite things about Mammoth Lakes is its convenient public transport.
For instance, the Pacific Crest Trail skirts the Reds Meadow Campground on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes.
And there’s a free shuttle between the campground to town and even to the nearby Devil’s Postpile National Monument.
Three popular lakeside campgrounds are the Lake Mary Campground, Lake George Campground, and the Twin Lakes Campground.
Inyo National Forest manages each, and all three fill up fast.
Other popular lakes in the area are Horseshoe Lake, TJ Lake, Deer Lakes, and Crystal Lake.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy sheer, stunning mountain views!
Location: Sierra Nevada
Best nearby campgrounds: Convict Lake Campground
Convict Lake is another lake that’s south of Mammoth Lakes along Highway 395.
You can drive up to Convict Lake, and there’s a lovely paved walking path along one edge of the lake.
The backdrop for this lake is several jagged peaks that rise sharply from the water’s edge. It’s a beautiful spot for photography.
It also comes with a lurid legend of some convicts that escaped prison in Carson City and had a shootout with the law when they became boxed in by the mountains.
The best campground at Convict Lake is Convict Lake Campground. You can reserve the campground in advance, but it also offers first-come, first-served spots.
The campground has a dump station, flush toilets, and hot showers.
If you’re looking for California lake camping near Yosemite, check out Bass Lake.
Bass Lake is just outside Oakhurst, CA in the Sierra National Forest, about a 20-minute drive from Yosemite’s south entrance.
This lake is a great home base to explore the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, just inside Yosemite’s south entrance.
Bass Lake offers a variety of camping options. Cedar Bluff Campground is situated close to the lake and is an ideal setup for groups.
Lupine Campground, next to Cedar Bluff, is a bit further back from the lake, and the sites have better privacy. The parking pads at Lupine are almost all big enough to fit a boat trailer, too.
Lake Isabella is under an hour east of Bakersfield and about two and a half hours south of Sequoia National Park.
Located in Sequoia National Forest, where the Upper Kern River lets out, this lake is a popular getaway for Central Valley and Los Angeles residents.
Lake Isabella is an artificial lake with over 11,000 acres of water available for recreation.
There are eight campgrounds and three marinas around the edge of Lake Isabella, including six group areas.
Sequoia National Forest runs these eight campgrounds, which include Boulder Gulch, Camp 9 Lakeside, Camp 9 Lakeside Group, French Gulch Group, Hungry Gulch, Live Oak, Paradise Cove, Pioneer Point, and Tillie Creek.
The most popular of these are Boulder Gulch and Paradise Cove. Each campground fits tents and RVs.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy local wine culture in nearby Paso Robles.
Location: Central Coast
Best nearby campgrounds: Lake Nacimiento Resort
Lake Nacimiento is just north of Paso Robles.
While many think of Napa and Sonoma when it comes to California wine country, Paso Robles holds its own with many locally celebrated wineries.
You can camp on the edge of Lake Nacimiento, an artificial lake, at any of the seven campgrounds operated by Lake Nacimiento Resort.
Each of the campgrounds are just a short distance from the lake.
The Lake Nacimiento Resort also offers all kinds of water sports rentals as well as event catering.
Why it’s worth camping here: Summer water temperatures are excellent.
Location: Central Coast
Best nearby campgrounds: Lopez Lake Campground
Lopez Lake is southeast of San Luis Obispo and my choice for the best camping near good lake swimming spots in California.
This lake has 22 miles of shoreline and a summer water temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you’re done swimming in Lopez Lake, enjoy the natural beauty. The area surrounding the lake is home to 175 species of plants and over 150 bird species.
There are equestrian and mountain biking trails, zip lines, and more traditional activities like hiking and boating.
Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area is just north of San Bernardino in Angeles National Forest.
This is a popular summer location between April and October, and the lake may close when it hits capacity.
The state parks association operates Silverwood Lake camping.
There are four campgrounds on the southern edge of the lake: Miller Canyon Group Campground, New Mesa Campground, Old Mesa Campground, and a Group Camping Area.
Old Mesa Campground is the most popular and can accommodate trailers up to 31 feet long and tents.
Big Bear Lake
Why it’s worth camping here: It’s the best lake camping in Southern California.
Location: Southern California
Best nearby campgrounds: Holcomb Valley Campground, Serrano Campground, Pine Knot Campground
Some of the best Southern California lake camping can be found at Big Bear Lake.
Big Bear Lake is located in the San Bernardino National Forest mountains, surrounded by plush resorts and ski mountains.
This is one of the few California lakes I’ve seen where you can have an RV delivered to your campsite–no stressful hauling involved!
While there are plenty of non-camping accommodations in the Big Bear area, remember that most of the popular campgrounds (e.g., Serrano Campground, Holcomb Valley Campground, etc.) are run by the National Forest.
Serrano Campground and others nearby are well-maintained, have standard camping equipment (e.g., fire rings, etc.), and book up fast.
Plan several months in advance for your best chance at a Big Bear Lake camping spot.
Why it’s worth camping here: Enjoy excellent largemouth bass and rainbow trout fishing.
Location: Southern California
Best nearby campgrounds: Dixon Lake Campground
Last but not least on my list of California lake campgrounds is Dixon Lake. Dixon Lake is the most southerly of my lake picks; it’s just outside Escondido in Southern California.
Dixon Lake is a reservoir known for its superb largemouth bass fishing. Plus, park managers stock the lake with rainbow trout in the winter, which draws anglers from all around.
The only option for Dixon Lake camping is the Dixon Lake Campground.
Thankfully, this is a clean and well-run campground, and the reservations are only $5 each, which is staggeringly cheap. The campground fits RVs and tents.
Best Backcountry Lake Camping in California
The Lake Ediza trip is 13.5 miles roundtrip and begins at the Agnew Meadows trailhead outside Mammoth Lakes.
This is a difficult hike and not recommended for beginners, but the rewards are worth it. Views of alpine meadows and granite peaks are the reason to do this hike.
Cathedral Lake in Yosemite is a difficult, eight-and-a-half-mile roundtrip hike. This hike is in Tuolumne Meadows at 10,000 feet, so be prepared for possible elevation sickness.
Big Pine Lakes Trail
The Big Pine Lakes Trail near Big Pine, California is a challenging but rewarding 15.2-mile trail in the eastern Sierra.
The route takes you to the gorgeous Kings Canyon National Park boundary and ends with the beautiful blue Big Pine Lakes.
FAQs About California Lake Camping
What is the most popular lake campground in California?
Undoubtedly, the most famous lake in California is Lake Tahoe. The most popular lake campground in Tahoe is Fallen Leaf Campground, followed closely by DL Bliss State Park.
Is there any free camping around lakes in California?
Yes, dispersed camping, which is camping outside of a traditional campground, is often free.
Free doesn’t mean “rule free,” however. Check out this guide to learn about dispersed camping on Forest Service land.
Also, check out the FreeRoam app, which provides a map and tips on free camping areas.
What is the best lake for RV camping in California?
The best lake for RV camping in California is Big Bear Lake because they have a service that delivers an RV to your site and then takes it away when you leave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith is a biologist and writer based in California’s Sierra Nevada. She has lived in six states as a biologist, so her intel on hiking and camping is *chef’s kiss* next level. One of her earliest camping memories was being too scared to find a bathroom at night on a family camping trip. Thankfully, she’s come a long way since then and she can help you get there too!
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