Everyone's heard about Shasta Lake or Lake Tahoe or Big Bear Lake -- all prime destinations for California vacationers -- but the state is blessed to have many other great vacation lakes as well. They're in almost every region of the state, but we have chosen three lakes in particular that offer a special combination of clear, inviting water, spectacular scenery and lakefront charm.
The Plumas County region of North Central California was, for us, a real eye-opener. This county is centered roughly between Red Bluff to the northwest, and Reno, Nevada, to the southeast, and is a wonderland of mountain and lake scenery with historic villages dotting the scenic country roads. None of the towns is a real city, and all seem to retain much of the character and charm of their early settlement days. If you enjoy sometimes thick forests and verdant valleys with mountain views around nearly every turn, this is your kind of place.
At the northwest edge of the county is Lake Almanor - not the only lake in the county by any means, but the largest and most popular because of its relative proximity to Interstate 5 - about 80 miles from Red Bluff. Chester is the largest town in the area and does have a few restaurants and whatever tourist services you'll need. But Lake Almanor is not really about the town - it's about the miles and miles of blue water surrounded by forests with snow-covered Lassen Peak never too far out of view.
Many vacationers come up for weeks at a time, especially in summer when the 4,500-foot elevation is a cool relief from the heat of the San Joaquin Valley. The lake's 75-degree summertime temperatures make it ideal for all forms of water recreation yet, surprisingly, the crowds had not yet arrived when we visited in late June.
We found affordable lodging in Chester at the Best Western Rose Quartz Inn, the newest hotel in town which was more modern and comfortable than you find with most accommodations in small mountain towns. The oversized rooms were unusually spacious and included in the modest room rate was a hot buffet breakfast. If you stay at the Rose Quartz Inn, ask for the suite with the stars on the ceiling - by day it's an ordinary ceiling, but by night the ceiling comes alive with stars that match the constellations you would see looking at the real sky. Your kids will love it.
There are numerous access points on Lake Almanor so it's not hard finding beaches where you can explore the shoreline and soak up more of those gorgeous views. Campgrounds and parks are available and it's also possible to find lakefront accommodations whether it be a vacation home rental or a no-frills resort. There are no big luxury hotels on Almanor.
Lake Almanor is the perfect jumping off point for an exploration of Plumas County, where it's easy to find churning rivers, remote streams and waterfalls along with hiking trails that will take you through scenic canyons and make you feel you are truly off the beaten path.
We took the approximate half-hour drive from Chester up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, a steady climb on roads that take you high along mountain ledges on the way to the mountain peak that is so visible from all of western Plumas County. It almost seems like Yellowstone National Park with its sulfur springs and steam vents, its well-marked trails and the breathtaking views to the valley below. Lassen is the southernmost volcano in the Cascade mountain range and there is no shortage of lava formations and cinder cones, all presented in a tapestry of huge conifer trees and small lakes.
For more information on Lake Almanor, phone 800-350-4838 or visit www.chester-lakealmanor.com.
On one of our swings 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.
Chief among those 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.
Since we were traveling with a four-year-old, 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 air-conditioned cottage was like a small apartment, maybe 1950's 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. A few steps from our cottage was the boat launch, dock and swimming area.
We'd heard good things about Clear Lake and discovered that, as advertised, the lake and its surroundings are beautiful. 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. We noticed that parks are abundant throughout the region. And, for those who enjoy visiting wineries, this region has several that are all within easy driving distance of the lake.
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.
For more information on Clear Lake, phone 800-525-3743 or visit www.lakecounty.com.
One place we consider a real "discovery" is Shaver Lake, a little more than an hour's drive northeast from Fresno. The change in scenery during that short trip is dramatic, taking you from the flat farmlands near Fresno through wooded, rolling foothills and then up nearly 6,000 feet into the pine forests that surround this idyllic lake. Central Valley residents have long known that Shaver Lake is a great spot to experience the Sierras; now - judging from the area's real estate boom - people from all over California have started to catch on.
Shaver Lake is tucked between Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and hints at the same natural beauty found in the parks. The difference is that Shaver remains largely undiscovered and therefore not quite as prone to seasonal traffic congestion. Shaver is ideal for vacationers who want the experience of visiting a small mountain village with just a couple of general stores and a handful of restaurants serving home-style grub. Only about 3,000 people live in the entire area.
We contacted Vacation Rental Specials to rent the "Whalen Log Cabin," a million-dollar home with two bedrooms, a loft, 1.75 baths, dishwasher, cable TV, DVD and a washer and dryer. A huge deck is the perfect place to barbecue or watch the sun set over the mountains. Out back there are plenty of pine trees reminding guests that, yes, this is the mountains and, in fact, the edge of the wilderness.
The Shaver Lake area is proving popular with active vacationers. With 23 miles of shoreline, Shaver Lake has plenty of activities to choose from including fishing, boating, water skiing, windsurfing, hiking and, in winter, all the winter sports including downhill skiing at a nearby ski area.
In our case, we were just looking for a quiet few days "away from it all" where we could do a little hiking and soak up the local culture down in Shaver Lake's stores and restaurants. The fireplace back at our vacation home also helped set the mood for this "cabin-in-the-woods" experience - instead of watching television like we might normally do at home, we put some games on the spacious floor in front of the crackling fire and thoroughly enjoyed a family respite from everyday life in the city.
For more information on cabin rentals at Shaver Lake, call 1-800-730-8688 or visit www.goshaverlake.com.
Photos: Beautiful Lake Almanor; flowers on mountain near Mt. Lassen; Seabreeze cottages on Clear Lake; Shaver Lake
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Los Angeles, Beach Boys hometown, Huntington Beach and Getty Museum.