Looking for a lakeside camping spot? Here are a few of my favorite Northern California lakes to camp at with or without reservations. Bring your kayaks, floats, and sunscreen for a relaxing weekend in the mountains.
My husband and I live in Sacramento, California, and camping in Northern California is our favorite pastime. We enjoy lake camping because we have kayaks and enjoy paddling around to find private swimming coves and rocks to jump off of. We bought our kayaks a few years ago and now we can't imagine going camping without them!
You can find dispersed camping spots in some of the national forests listed below and also reserve campsites ahead of time. I do want to emphasize that these are our personal experiences, and I hope you take them into account while also conducting additional research to ensure they fit your lifestyle and personal standards. I hope this article inspires you to plan future lake camping trips!
French Meadows Reservoir
This reservoir is tucked away in the Tahoe National Forest and is surrounded by a dense coniferous forest. The majority of the camp sites offer a lake view or are within walking distance of the water. Our campsite at French Meadows Campground had a lake view, and when golden hour arrived, it was breathtaking to watch the sun set over the water and shine through the trees.
We went kayaking on the lake and found some nice spots to jump off rocks and relax on the shore line. I should mention that the beaches are rocky, so bring water shoes to keep your feet comfortable! Although we didn't mind the hilly path from our campsite to launch our kayaks at the lake, it could be inconvenient for others. If you don't want to carry your kayaks down the hill, there's a boat launch not far from the campgrounds.
Our tent campsite was surrounded by large trees, making it ideal for setting up our hammock and enjoying some shaded relaxation during the day.
If you are interested in what camping/kayaking gear we bring with us then head to the bottom of the page. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and the small commission made from each purchase helps run my travel blog.
We stopped by the Placer County Big Trees Grove on our way back to Sacramento, which is a true hidden gem that I highly recommend visiting. A grove of giant Sequoia trees is known as California's most northern and isolated grove. If you want to visit Sequoia National Park but don't want to drive far, you'll enjoy this more local wonder!
Why You Should Camp Here: Tent campsites that are well-spaced and well-maintained, with clean bathrooms. Campground offers a fantastic lake for canoeing and kayaking surrounded by a dense forest. Amazing and one-of-a-kind road trip views along the way!
Pro Tip: Even in lakes, use Reef Safe sunscreen! All freshwater resources must be safeguarded, and no matter where you swim, it will eventually end up in the ocean. Here are some of my favorite environmentally friendly sunscreens to bring to the lake..
This is one of our favorite lake camping spots, and it's funny how we discovered it. We planned to find a first-come, first-served campsite in the general Ice House Reservoir area a few years ago. We decided to keep driving after hours of unsuccessful searching to see if we could find a place to pitch our tent.We continued driving down Ice House Rd. until we arrived at what appeared to be a campground (Red Fir) - despite the fact that it was pitch black and there was only one other parked car (no tent) in the lot - we decided to pitch our tent because we didn't have much of an option. What appeared to be the beginning of a horror film turned out to be quite the story for years to come, as well as a new found love for Loon Lake.
The next morning, we awoke to meet our "new neighbor," who, instead of being a creepy murderer, had a very similar story to us and had discovered this end of the road spot by chance, just like us. We went kayaking on the lake and were amazed at how crystal blue the water was - it reminded us of Lake Tahoe.When we returned to our campsite, we discovered that we had been locked out, along with the people who had actually reserved the campground! We later discovered that this was a group campground, and those who reserved a site were given a lock code that allowed them to enter the grounds. Needless to say, hiking all of our gear out was a great workout! Despite the fact that this silly mishap did not deter us from returning to Loon Lake many times after that!
We've dispersed camped near Loon Lake a few times, and we've also stayed at Loon Lake Campground on the opposite side of the lake. We went camping with another couple, and despite the fact that our campsite was quite small, we still enjoyed being so close to the lake. They've also rebuilt the Northshore campgrounds, which I've heard are very nice but more expensive.
We've seen some incredible sunsets here, and the kayaking is second to none. We prefer to launch our kayaks near the Rubicon Trailhead and explore the lake's west side for some spectacular swimming coves. There's even a cave where you can kayak at your own risk! Spider Lake is a must-see if you're feeling up for an adventurous hike.
You can hike the full 9.4 miles if you look up the Loon Lake to Spider Lake route on All Trails, or you can kayak on Loon Lake and meet up with the route, making it a 4 mile roundtrip journey.
Why You Should Camp Here: Campgrounds offer beautiful views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, pristine water for kayaking, close proximity to the Rubicon Trail, and islands and coves to explore.
Pro Tip: For your kayaking and boating trips, invest in a high-quality waterproof dry bag. A dry bag is an essential addition for keeping all of your gear protected from all types of terrain and weather, whether you're out on the lake or trekking in the rain.
Union Valley Reservoir
At Union Valley Resovoir, there are several campgrounds to choose from, including Camino Cove, Yellow Jacket, Wench Creek, and Sunset. Union Valley is a terrific place to visit since it has nice sandy beaches that are ideal for water sports and fishing. We discovered a dispersed camping location on the lake's southwest side, and the views are spectacular. We went in late May and enjoyed kayaking and waking up to the sight of snow-capped mountains from our campsite, despite the fact that we didn't go in the water (brrr!)
Why You Should Camp Here: Campgrounds offer access to a beautiful, clean lake with sandy beaches, breathtaking mountain views, a plethora of tent site campgrounds, and good for water sports.
Pro Tip: Invest in a pair of hiking sandals for hanging out around camp or when you want to venture off on to some trails. Personally I live in my Birkenstocks while camping - but if you need additional footwear and camp clothing suggestions check out this article.
Bucks Lake is located in Plumas County, at an elevation of 5,200 feet, and has 17 miles of sandy shoreline to enjoy. We went years ago while attending Chico State and discovered a first come, first served campsite at Lower Bucks Lake, though you can book tent sites at Bucks Lake Campground, Haskins Valley, or Sundew.
Why You Should Camp Here: Campgrounds offer lake and river views with opportunities for cliff jumping, fishing, and more!
Pro Tip: You can't have the ultimate lake trip without getting in a float! Whether you choose to float with a group or ride solo - it's the best way to make a splash in the summer!
Ruth Lake is located in Six Rivers National Forest and is surrounded by the South Fork Mountain Range which measures at above 6,000 feet tall. The lake itself is at 2,654 feet elevation so you are engulfed by the large forested mountains. People come to this lake for impeccable fishing (bass, crappie and trout) and partaking in water activities such as boating, canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding.
While most campgrounds in Northern California seem to have sufficient information and photos on the internet or social media- this lake is more obscure than others. We stayed at "Boy Scout Cove Camp" which if you look up online has only 1 review with 1 star (yikes!). Although don't let that scare you off because we went for a group family trip (8 people) - and had an amazing time. Our campsite was tucked beneath the trees and looked out to the lake from our tent. We loved taking our kayaks and snaking through the Hobart Creek just ear shot from our site.
The other campgrounds around the lake include Bailey Canyon Campground, Ruth Rec Campground, Fir Cove Campground and more.
Why You Should Camp Here: Campground offers amazing fishing, spacious campsites, and abundant wildlife.
Pro Tip: Always bring a hammock with you since you never know when the opportunity to relax and swing away the day will present itself.
Utica Reservoir is a small, gorgeous reservoir in Calaveras County that links to its sister lake, Union Reservoir (not to be confused with Union Valley Reservoir, which is described above!). Despite the fact that we have never camped here, my husband spent many years visiting this lake when his family owned a cabin in Bear Valley. The Utica Reservoir was one of the first locations we went on our first date, and it holds a special place in our hearts.
Large granite rocks hug the coast, providing a perfect area to jump into the water and splash around for the day. Bring your kayaks and enjoy the wonderful high alpine air while exploring some of the islands.
We plan on returning soon to do some dispersed camping or book a site at Utica Reservoir Sandy Flat Campground or Rocky Point Campground. On your way up, don't forget to stop by Calaveras Big Trees State Park!
Why You Should Camp Here: Campgrounds offer access to beautiful high alpine scenery with various islands to explore, large rocks to dive from, peaceful.
Pro Tip: Don't forget to document all your water adventures - either with a waterproof phone case or a durable GoPro!
Camping Gear List
Coleman Montana 6-Person Tent: https://amzn.to/3mkjgaZ
Favorland Camping Hammock :https://amzn.to/2Gcyjmx
Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron 3 Skillet Bundle :https://amzn.to/2ZISOy5
Coleman Even-Temp Propane Stove, 3-Burner: https://amzn.to/3kEgvQ7
Cone Coffee Maker: https://amzn.to/32Ubahl
Coleman 12 Cup Percolator: https://amzn.to/3mN1xco
Hydrophobic Sleeping Bag with Advanced Synthetic - https://amzn.to/3q0fIvk
Mr. Heater Buddy Grey Indoor-Safe Portable RV Radiant Heater (4,000-9,000-BTU) - https://amzn.to/3s4B3pl
Perception Kayaks Sound 10.5: https://amzn.to/3wAcMtq
Intex Explorer K2 Kayak, 2-Person Inflatable Kayak Set: https://amzn.to/3a5jiiz
Camera Gear List
Camera Bag - https://amzn.to/2JGVtTV
DJI Mavic Air 2 - https://amzn.to/3geMwxc
Drone Filters - https://amzn.to/2LexIDh
Seagate Portable 2TB External Hard Drive - https://amzn.to/35hCZkD
Nikon z7 - https://amzn.to/2JJxp2N
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