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The California Rivers and Lakes to Add to Your Spring Itinerary

The California Rivers and Lakes to Add to Your Spring Itinerary

Take advantage of the springtime temperatures and escape to the best lakes and rivers in California. Pack the bags and head out now.


6 min read

May 05, 2021

While the Golden State’s 800-plus miles of coastline tend to steal the spotlight, California’s rivers and lakes make idyllic springtime vacation destinations. Surrounded by rugged mountain peaks and lush forests, the state’s various rivers and lakes always delight visitors with unexpected panoramas. So, take advantage of the warm temperatures and make the most of rain-free days before the scorching summer weather takes hold. 

The Best Rivers to Explore This Season

Originally called the Hupa by the Yurok, the Trinity River is known for its prolific runs of anadromous fish, notably Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Trinity River 

The Trinity River in California is a major tributary of the Klamath River and begins in the Trinity Alps before meeting up with the Klamath at Weitchpec. The river’s 203 miles are split between 120 miles of recreational space, 39 miles of scenic expanse, and 44 miles of wilderness. The river is known for its salmon and steelhead fishery resources, but it's a hot spot for adventurers, too. Prepare to encounter rapids in the springtime, or wait until summer to appreciate the beauty as you leisurely float down the river.

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South Yuba River

The South Yuba River is iconic for its smooth granite mounds, emerald pools, and cascading white water rapids. The California river is also known for its location during the Gold Rush, so 20 miles of the roughly 65-mile-long river is designated as a California state park and is a popular swimming destination. The Yuba River in California also happens to be one of the best spots in the state for river camping. While mostly primitive and lacking in modern amenities, the Yuba River campgrounds offer you a chance to reconnect with nature and catch a break from daily life.

Flowing north around 200 miles to the Pacific Ocean, the Eel River and its tributaries form the third largest watershed entirely in California.

Eel River

Despite its name, the Eel River in California does not actually contain any eels. However, that doesn’t mean this California river isn’t rich in marine life. The state’s third largest watershed hosts countless fun adventures and boasts breathtaking scenery you can’t miss. Aside from fishing, you’ll love exploring the three forks of the Eel River while hiking, kayaking, and swimming. 

Incredible rivers for white water rafting in California

As the longest branch of the American River, the North Fork rises at Mountain Meadow Lake near Granite Chief in the Tahoe National Forest.

North Fork American River

Make the American River your next river-rafting destination. Spanning 88 miles, the North Fork is the longest segment of the American River in California, fed by the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada. Wildflowers, forests, and stunning cliffs make this waterway unique, and the rushing rapids make it a worthwhile destination for thrill-seekers.

The famous river is also known for being the spot where gold was discovered during the 19th century Gold Rush Era. So, if river rafting in Sacramento isn’t a big enough draw, then its history should definitely help.

Draining the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Central California, the Kings River originates in and around Kings Canyon National Park.

Kings River

Whether you’re looking for the perfect picnic spots, campgrounds, whitewater rafting, or fly-fishing, Kings River is the place you’ve been dreaming of. Nestled in one of the deepest river gorges on the continent, this river flows through Kings Canyon National Park and the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests for 81 miles, offering unparalleled scenery. Head over to this beautiful California river and take advantage of the rafting opportunities sans crowds while you still can.

Klamath River 

As California’s second largest and second longest river, the 286-mile-long Klamath River is a spectacle to see. The Klamath River in California is known for its fishing opportunities (which include steelhead, king salmon, and silver salmon), jet boat rides, and endless recreation—so there’s always something new to explore. This Northern California river rafting hotspot offers excursions that’ll exceed your expectations. Lower Klamath is perfect for beginner paddlers, while more experienced rafters will love the upper part of the river.

The Best Lakes in California for Vacation

One of the purest large lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe is the ideal place to go boating, kayaking, hiking, and even skiing in the winter.

Lake Tahoe

Tucked along the California-Nevada border, surrounded by the picturesque South Lake Tahoe and dozens of world-class ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is one of the best lakes in the Golden State. Gaze at the snow-capped mountains, stand-up paddleboard around the lake, or hike in the nearby wilderness to make the most of your spring vacation. Since it’s freezing, Lake Tahoe isn't one of the best swimming lakes in California, but with summer right around the corner, see if you can run out to the clear waters and wade in one of the most beautiful lakes in California.

Lake Berryessa

Situated east of the charming town of Calistoga, Lake Berryessa is the largest lake in Napa County, but it gains its fame from its mysterious, spiraling hole. Exploring this beautiful lake in California is a great Napa road trip activity for those who don’t drink. Rent a houseboat, admire the wildlife, and sit beneath the oak trees to see why this serene locale is a California favorite. 

Soak in the picturesque panoramas of Shasta Lake, Shasta Dam, and Mount Shasta all from one spot in Northern California.

Shasta Lake

Lake Shasta is always a good getaway. Considered one of the most beautiful lakes in Northern California, Shasta offers beautiful hotels and motels, and superb lakeside campgrounds. Spend your days cruising around on a boat, fishing, camping, and appreciating California’s largest reservoir. Then, take a tour of Shasta Dam—the second largest cement dam in the U.S.—before heading up to the peak of Mount Shasta to take in the views.

The best lakes to live on in California

The man-made Lake Arrowhead covers approximately 784 acres and features more than 14 miles of shoreline.

Lake Arrowhead 

Located high in the San Bernardino Mountains, just outside of Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead has something for everyone. There are numerous things to do—from boating and sailing, to canoeing and kayaking, to fishing and horseback riding—so it’s nearly impossible to be bored in this secluded oasis. Whether you spend your time backpacking, bicycling, or photographing the colorful wilderness, this is one springtime vacation you’ll never forget.

Mammoth Lakes

Undoubtedly one of the best lakes in Northern California, this lake is a dream. With a location near Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes makes the perfect weekend getaway year-round. From family-fun indoor activities, to kayaking excursions on the lake, to snowboarding in the mountains, there are activities here for every mood—especially during spring, when you can ski and fish in the course of an afternoon. Mammoth Lakes is home to some of the most beautiful lakes in Northern California, so don’t miss your chance to splash around. 

The best swimming lakes in California

Escape to Northern California's idyllic Lake Siskiyou on a hot summer day for an awesome family-friendly getaway.

Lake Siskiyou 

The crystal clear waters of Lake Siskiyou are tough to resist on a hot summer day. Fed by mountain streams, Lake Siskiyou is a top-notch spot for a getaway. Book a cabin in Redding and spend your days swimming, kayaking, and lounging. Fishing enthusiasts will be glad to hear that Lake Siskiyou is rich in rainbow trout, lake trout, and smallmouth bass. There’s truly something for everyone here, which is why Lake Siskiyou is one of the best lakes in California.

Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu’s name comes from the Mojave word for the color blue. And as expected, the beautiful California lake’s waters are as blue as it gets. There’s a large designated swimming area at Lake Havasu State Park, complete with white sandy shores. Besides being one of the best swimming lakes in California, Havasu also boasts numerous campgrounds, many of which even have RV sites. Spend your days swimming, fishing, paddling, and soaking up the sun as you explore this beautiful lake in California.

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