Sometimes overlooked because of the state's spectacular Pacific coastline, California's freshwater lakes offer plenty of getaway and vacation opportunities for the state's residents. One longtime favorite is Clear Lake, just a couple hours drive of the San Francisco Bay area.
A friend visited Clear Lake not too long ago and came back raving about the area's unexpected scenic and natural beauty — so we had to investigate. On one particular swing through Northern California, we dropped in on Clear Lake, staying at a small, unpretentious waterfront resort that brought back childhood memories of vacationing at lakefront resorts in Central Washington state. It was like vacationing in a simpler place at a simpler time.
At 43,000 acres, Clear Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in California, and some say it may be the oldest lake in North America. The lake is the centerpiece for several communities in the Lake County area, including Lakeport, Clearlake, Kelseyville, Glenhaven and several others. Taken together, these communities and several parks in the area offer a wide range of family vacation activities that form the basis for an excellent Northern California vacation.
Chief among those activities are boating, fishing and swimming, three main reasons people stay at the Seabreeze Resort in Glenhaven, headquarters for our brief stay in the Clear Lake area. Owner Steve Nash happened on the resort many years ago as he was looking to buy a waterfront house. His accountant advised him that the income from the resort would go a long way toward helping to pay for his new waterfront home, and so Nash — who had never operated any sort of lodging facility — took the plunge.
Today, Nash divides his time between Clear Lake and San Diego, where he lives during winter months. But every year, April through October, it's back to Clear Lake and the round-the-clock chores of managing the resort. With only one housekeeper for help, Nash is up at dawn each day, working to well past sundown. But, as we discovered, he always finds time to chat and joke around with his guests — many of whom have been returning to the small resort for many years.
Since we were traveling with a grade-schooler, we were booked into the "family wing" of the resort — some housekeeping units a little further from the water and from the guests in the waterfront adult wing. Our cottage was like a small apartment, maybe 1950s vintage, but nicely remodeled and cheerfully decorated. A full kitchen was included, as well as a living room, bath and a bedroom with two queen beds. Thankfully, on this summer visit, the unit was air conditioned.
Just outside our cottage was a grassy area, lounge chairs and several individual barbecues. Nearby was Steve's fragrant flower garden — which he obviously takes great care in maintaining — and then a few steps further was the boat launch, dock and swimming area. In short, the Seabreeze offered everything you need for a restful lakefront stay or a base of operations for your boating holiday.
But we were visiting Clear Lake to explore. Just why was everyone raving about this lake?
The first thing we discovered was that, as advertised, the lake and its surroundings are beautiful -- just ideal for a California vacation. The blue-water lake is in the middle of a hilly, mostly treed landscape that is especially interesting when approaching from the east. We also noticed that this lake is big. On the map it looked like it would be fairly easy to circumnavigate since there were highways, roadways and towns and villages on almost every part of the lake. Once we were driving, however, it soon became apparent our trip around the lake was going to take us at least a half day.
Along the way we stopped in several little lakeside towns, including the largest city, Clearlake, which is the largest population center in a region that only has about 12,000 year-round residents. Each town is different, but all share the beauty of Clear Lake and recreation opportunities are never far away.
Along most shores of the lake you'll find a combination of private residences and small motels and inns like the Seabreeze. We did note, however, there is a large timeshare resort on the northwest shore.
We noticed that parks are abundant throughout the region. Many are located on the more than 100 miles of shoreline but, in addition to camping and watersports, several parks offer other features. For example, the Anderson Marsh State Park is known for nature walks and birdwatching, while the Middletown Trailside Nature Preserve offers the "EcoArts Lake County Scupture Walk" conducted on 107 acres of natural park. The area's history is highlighted at the Anderson Marsh State Historic Park.
There are plenty of other opportunities to learn about the history of Clear Lake, including two county museums, the Lake County Museum in Lakeport and the Lower Lake Historical Schoolhouse Museum in Lower Lake. Learn about the stars at the Taylor Planetarium and Observatory in Kelseyville.
For those who enjoy visiting California wineries, this region has several that are all within easy driving distance of the lake.
No matter which shoreline, there seemed to be plenty of anglers taking advantage of what the locals say is the best bass fishing in the West. The bass fishing is so good that several professional bass fishing organizations have designated Clear Lake as the best bass lake in the country. But it's not just bass -- catfish, blackfish, Sacramento perch, hitch, crappie and bluegill are all caught at Clear Lake.
We didn't sample the fishing, but we did enjoy swimming near the dock at the Seabreeze and firing up the barbecue right outside of our cottage. Our midweek visit was quiet and restful — and like a step back into the days of Ward and June Cleaver when family vacations just seemed a lot simpler.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Clear Lake is about two hours northeast of San Francisco and can be reached by driving north on Highway 101 and then east on Highway 175. From inland cities, you can drive north on I-5 and west on Highway 20.
WHAT: Clear Lake is known as one of the best recreation lakes in California, partly because of its size and services, and partly because it is easily accessible from Northern California population centers. Look for special vacation packages during the shoulder months before and after the main summer season.
WHEN: Any time of the year, but the typical lake recreation "season" runs from April through October. If you're into cheap vacations, rates are especially reasonable in the off-season.
WHY: Clear Lake offers a throwback to a simpler time with fewer crowds and quiet little beach resorts dotting its shoreline. Lake County offers a tremendous number and variety of parks and recreation, so there are many choices.
HOW: More information on Clear Lake and Lake County are available at:
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Clear Lake is your kind of California vacation, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Shaver Lake, houseboat vacations and Laughlin, Nevada. Also, be sure to check out this informative blog on houseboats.
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