From the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe to the coastal bluffs of Southern California, the Golden State is home to some of the greatest excitement on the water. Its best boating spots have something for everyone, whether you want to observe marine life, hook a fish, dive in, or take in the surrounding scenic beauty from the comfort of your vessel.
But with more than 3,000 lakes and reservoirs and with a coastline that stretches 840 miles, how do you know the best spots to launch your vessel? This post will highlight 10 of the best destinations we love in California.
1. Lake Tahoe
Best Scenic Views
No doubt about it: Lake Tahoe is one of the best boating and sailing lakes in California. Nestled 1,897 meters above sea level and measuring over 191 square meters, this gem is North America’s largest alpine lake. It’s 2 million years old, and its deepest point is over a quarter-mile to the surface.
The Lake straddles the California and Nevada borders and is famous for its spectacular scenery. You’ll love its dazzling blue waters, postcard-perfect shorelines, steep granite cliff sides, and towering mountaintops. Little wonder it attracts 2.7 million visitors every year.
Here, water activities are endless, whether you want to go boating, kayaking, paddle boarding, diving, or swimming at the beach. Other popular pursuits include parasailing, jet skiing, scuba diving, and fishing. The lake also hosts one of the most famous wooden boat shows in the country.
On the mirror-like waters, you’ll also find marinas, fuel docks, boat rentals, launch ramps, and restaurants.
2. Shasta Lake
Coves and Fascinating Underground Cave System
Shasta Lake sits about 15 miles north of Redding in Northern California and is the state’s largest reservoir. When full, the expanse of the lake surface covers 29,500 acres. With its massive acreage, winding arms, and numerous inlets, there’s so much to explore here.
Motorized boating is one of the most popular activities on this lake’s pristine water, with vessels ranging from pleasure cruisers, fishing boats, and houseboats. If higher speeds are more your style, you can hit the glassy smooth waters on a rental ski boat or jet ski.
Plenty of secret coves across the lake offer prime spots to anchor and explore. Snowcapped Mount Shasta creates a stunning backdrop as you sail. For more adventure and some history, take a boat tour of the lake’s fascinating underground cave system.
3. Folsom Lake
Best for Diverse Recreational Activities
25 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you’ll find Folsom Lake. This massive reservoir is a water lover’s playground that draws more than 2 million visitors a year.
On a typical summer day, the lake is dotted with almost anything that floats, from jet skis, canoes, kayaks to paddleboards. This water body isn’t just buzzing with boating activity. The Folsom Lake State Recreation Area also offers hiking, horse riding, and wildlife viewing. Large and smallmouth bass, trout, perch, and catfish are all available for fishing, and there’s a 32-mile bike path.
You’ll find four campgrounds around this inland sea, and the campsites have basic amenities like water, electricity, picnic furniture, restrooms, and a fire ring. If you’re looking for more comfort, several popular hotel chains are located not far away.
Lake Natoma, located downstream from Folsom Lake, is famous for non-motorized boating endeavors and is also part of the Park. Here, motorboats are also welcome but are limited to 5 mph.
4. Big Bear Lake
Cool Climate Year-Round
You can’t have a list of the best California lakes for boating without mentioning Big Bear Lake. This boating and sailing hub is in San Bernardino National Forest, about 100 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. It rests at an altitude of 6,759 feet, stretches 7 miles, and is snow-fed.
This charmer is different than other destinations in the area as it experiences cool temperatures year-round that rarely go over 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, its mountain beauty, rock formations, surroundings of ponderosa pine trees, and endless outdoor recreational opportunities will take your breath away.
Of course, Big Bear Lake doesn’t disappoint when it comes to sailing. You can paddle, boat, wakeboard, tube, jet ski, and fish. Rent a vessel from one of Big Bear Lake’s six marinas and embark on your next adventure.
If you’re into hiking, dock for a day and check out the impressive hiking trails surrounding the lake. Despite its given name, you’re unlikely to encounter a bear here. You’re more likely to spot squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and coyotes.
5. Clear Lake
Best for Fishing
With over 43,000 square acres of water and 100 miles of coastline, Clear Lake is one of the best boating lakes in Southern California. It’s also the largest natural freshwater lake in the Golden state. It got its name from the region’s fresh air.
Anglers fondly refer to it as the Bass Capital of the West, and it has even been ranked as the third-best bass lake in the country. Largemouth bass make up a huge portion of fish caught in the lake, as well as crappie, bluegill, and catfish.
The water in the lake is quite warm, making it a popular spot for water sports enthusiasts. Water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, tubing, and swimming are all favorites of the lake. It hosts sailboat races you won’t want to miss, plus plenty of wine tasting spots nearby.
Just keep in mind that boats larger than 8 feet must be registered and inspected before accessing the waters. It’s a measure that helps prevent the spread of invasive species.
6. Lake Berryessa
Best Swimming Lake to Beat the Heat
Lake Berryessa is a huge freshwater reservoir two hours north of San Francisco. The shoreline is more than 150 miles, and there is a 2,000-acre wildlife area along its eastern side. There are plenty of water activities to be enjoyed, so it’s worth adding it to your list of best lakes to sail in California.
For water-based adventures, engage in house boating, jet skiing, knee-boarding, and tubing. Numerous peaceful coves and sandy beaches also make the lake a hub for non-motorized boating, fishing, and swimming. Make sure you bring your camera to snap a few magical photos.
A free boat launch ramp is situated near the lake’s southwest end, and many more are sprinkled around the coastline. There are also several marinas where you can rent a watercraft. If you want to spend time outside the water, there are hiking trails with opportunities to spot wildlife and birds.
7. Mono Lake
Famous for its Dramatic and Bizarre Tufa Formations
Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near Lee Vining, Mono Lake resembles something out of a sci-fi film. It’s three times saltier than the ocean and has limestone formations scattered throughout. These otherworldly spires, called tufa towers, protrude from the depths and point skyward.
Still, this 70-mile lake supports life, including an abundance of brine shrimp and over 80 species of migratory birds. The jagged crystalline structures are not the only attraction. You get a chance to sail on one of the most unique and remarkable bodies of water you’ll ever visit.
While speedboats or jet skis aren’t recommended due to high salt levels and submerged obstacles, the lake is open to both motorized and non-motorized boating. Human-powered boats like kayaks and canoes are the most exciting way to take in this ancient paradise without disturbing nature.
8. Lake Havasu
Nice Sandy Shoreline
Split along the border of California and Arizona, Lake Havasu is a magnificent oasis in the desert. It’s a 45-mile long reservoir that boasts 450 miles of shoreline. This popular treasure is hauntingly beautiful, thanks to its crystal blue-green waters, sandy beaches, palm trees, and barren mountains.
Boating is the best way to explore this lake that was formed from the Colorado River. It attracts boaters from all over the USA and beyond. Visitors can also enjoy fishing, swimming, and hiking. On its banks, there are a plethora of marinas, launch ramps, and fueling stations.
Overnight houseboat rentals are available for anyone willing to spend the night floating. Numerous restaurants, taverns, and stores also line the shoreline. Want to camp with your family? There are tent and RV camping spots located right on the beach.
9. Bass Lake
Best for Kayaking and Exploring Hiking Trails
Situated in Sierra National Forest, an hour north of Fresno, Bass Lake has a big alpine feel and never disappoints when it comes to water-related fun. This boating haven is approximately five miles long, has blissfully warm waters in summer, and is surrounded by gorgeous pine trees. Littered with sheltered coves, it’s also the perfect place to swim, fish, and paddle.
Boats of any size are also welcome, and popular activities include water skiing, wakeboarding, and house boating. You can also rent pontoon boats, jet skis, kayaks, and more. Just make sure you follow the counter-clockwise rule when sailing. A boat ramp located on the south end of the lake provides free public boat launching facilities.
To support the boating community, there are lakeside institutions like Millers Landing and The Pines Resort. These places have fuel docks, stores, restaurants, swimming pools, spas, restrooms, cabins, vessel rentals, and trailer parking. The U.S. Forest Service also operates five campgrounds close to the shore.
When you aren’t sailing or snagging bass, rainbow trout, or Kokanee salmon, lace up your hiking boots and check out some of the trails that lead into the surrounding Sierra National Forest.
10. Long Beach
Best Sailing Destination on California’s Coast
The California coastline is filled with great opportunities for boaters and especially sailors, but few areas can match Long beach. Located just 30 minutes away, south of Los Angeles, dreamy Long Beach feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of LA. Yet, it’s one of the most action-packed boating destinations in the California.
But what makes it an ideal location to experience the vast Pacific Ocean? It boasts 11 miles of beachfront, white sandy dunes, pristine waters, and a phenomenal skyline. To enjoy the thrill of the open water, hop on a cruise boat and sail to Santa Catalina Island, one of California’s best-kept secrets. It’s just 22 miles from the shore.
You can also take a gondola ride along the charming seaside town of Naples, investigate a retired ocean liner, watch whales and dolphins, fish, or take a refreshing dip. From catamarans to luxurious motor yachts or party boats, there are plenty of rental watercraft to soak in this maritime playground.
Offshore, you can check out historical attractions, discover a Rainbow Harbor aquarium featuring more than 12,000 sea species, or visit one of the multiple parks with walking trails and bike paths. For some downtime, just lay on the sand, soak up the sun and listen to the sounds of the crashing waves.
California has enough boating destinations to satisfy your needs
California lakes and beaches are as astounding and diverse as it gets, making them ideal for exploring in a boat. Even better, the Golden State has year-round sunny weather, which means you can take your boating vacation almost any time of the year.