There are few better ways to escape California’s long, dry summers than lounging by a cool, clear lake. But if Big Bear and Arrowhead have become too familiar, head four hours north to Bass, Shaver and Huntington, lush mountain lakes in the central Sierra.
These beautiful alpine destinations — each with its own vibe — are a short drive from one another, making a tour of all three doable in less than a week.
These off-the-beaten-path beauties, often overshadowed by Lake Tahoe to the north, are ripe for hiking, kayaking, camping, fishing, boating and a cool late summertime splash or swim. And they are three hours closer to Los Angeles by car.
One thing to know before they you go: The scenic drive between Shaver and Huntington lakes changed dramatically after last year’s Creek fire, which scorched close to 380,000 acres, leaving a hellscape of blackened tree trunks and ashen earth on both sides of California 168.
Luckily, many of the giant pines were spared, as I witnessed on a recent visit, preserving the beautiful views that have long lured boaters, campers and the occasional movie crew. Bass Lake served as the backdrop in John Candy and Dan Aykroyd’s 1988 comedy “The Great Outdoors,” and Shaver showed up in 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”
The water levels in two of the lakes are below capacity because of California’s prolonged drought, but this hasn’t affected outdoor activities as much as it has in other areas, such as Big Bear, which has dwindled to half its capacity, with its swimming beach closed and docks and boat slips beached.
Another bonus: Unlike many lakes in Southern California, these reservoirs are open for swimming as well as boating, with small sandy beaches where visitors can spread towels or enjoy a picnic.
Here’s a look at what each lake has to offer:
Think of Bass as a “mini-Tahoe,” with clear blue waters ringed by pines and cedar. But there’s one key difference: Its lower elevation (3,400 feet) means the water is warmer for swimming, water skiing and wave running.
It’s also a popular destination for boating — Bass Lake was one of the top organic search terms on Google for California travel during the COVID-19 pandemic — but for many Angelenos, like me, it may be a new adventure.
Powerboating isn’t the only activity in this 4½-mile-long lake, 47 miles northeast of Fresno on California 41. (The water levels at Bass Lake are about 12 feet lower than full capacity this summer.)
The lake’s sheltered coves lure fishermen angling for bass, rainbow trout or kokanee salmon, as well as kayakers trying to catch sight of bald eagles, herons and the occasional black bear, like the one I saw one morning paddling in front of my kayak. Kayak and boat rentals can be found at Miller’s Landing and the marina at Pines Resort and Bass Lake Watersports.
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Bass Lake is more developed than Shaver and Huntington but is still picturesque. Dozens of hiking trails surround the lake, including the Way of the Mono Trail, an easy one-mile loop featuring the Indigenous history of the area and spectacular views from the top.
Another advantage: Bass is a little over 30 minutes from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, for those who want to combine lake time with a hike to the park’s Chilnualna Falls or the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias (don’t forget your Yosemite day-use reservation). If you need a little fun out of the sun, Yosemite Axe Throwing is open in nearby Oakhurst.
WHERE TO STAY
Visitors have their choice of several resorts, as well as camping and cabin rentals.
The Pines Resort, 54432 Road 432, Bass Lake; (559) 642-3121. Two-story lakefront suites and chalets as well as an on-site marina for boat rentals and a village with a market, a bar and a few shops.
Miller’s Landing Resort, 37976 Route 222, Wishon; (559) 642-3633. One- and two-bedroom cabins for rent. Boat and kayak rentals at the marina.
The Forks Resort, 39150 Road 222, Bass Lake; (559) 642-3737. Cabins and suites for rent within walking distance of the lake.
WHERE TO EAT
South Gate Brewing Co., 40233 Enterprise Drive, Oakhurst; (559) 692-2739. Many brewpubs in tourist towns aren’t worth the hops in their IPA. Not this one, with its award-winning beer and tasty pub fare.
The Forks Resort restaurant, 39150 Road 222, Bass Lake; (559) 642-3737. A writer for the New Yorker in 2019 proclaimed the Forks Burger one of the best things she had eaten in the previous decade. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the burgers and shakes are truly delicious.
Ducey’s on the Lake, 54432 Road 432, Bass Lake; (559) 642-3121. This wood-paneled restaurant at the Pines Resort serves cocktails and traditional American fare at tables overlooking the lake.
An hour’s drive up California 168 from Bass is Shaver. Boulders and giant sugar and ponderosa pines ring the 22 miles of shoreline as well as a dam that owner Southern California Edison uses to help supply hydroelectric power to Los Angeles.
The lake’s higher elevation — about 5,500 feet — makes it cooler than Bass, a big selling point in July and August. It’s also a bit more rustic, with no large resorts, just campgrounds and private cabins for rent.
Shaver Lake is forecast by Edison to be at 60% of capacity this month. But on a recent visit, the drought appeared to have had little effect on the lake experience. If anything, Shaver, which at full capacity has little in the way of beaches, now provides a bit more room for visitors to spread blankets and enjoy dips in the water.
The area had a close call with the Creek fire, which burned its way to within blocks of Shaver’s main street. Large banners thanking firefighters hang from homes and businesses, and the community has launched a Rebuild Our Sierra campaign to help those in the area who lost so much in the fire.
Boat rentals are available at several points on the lake, including at Sierra Marina and Shaver Lake Marina. Shaver’s quiet coves are also good for kayaking, canoeing and fishing. Inexperienced anglers can hire a charter such as Dick’s Fishing Charters to make sure they catch a fish.
Just stock up before you arrive. There are no supermarkets in the tiny town of Shaver. Those are on the drive up, half an hour away in the town of Prather. Instead, you’ll find a handful of restaurants, two mini-markets, and shops for fishing and camping supplies.
WHERE TO STAY
Camp Edison, 42696 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake; (559) 841-3134, Ext. 6. SCE owns and operates more than 250 RV and tent campsites on the shore of Shaver Lake. Noncamping accommodations can be found at GoShaver.net/lodging
WHERE TO EAT
Seasons Bistro and Tavern, 41830 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake; (559) 841-4108. Elevated yet casual American fare, with a menu that changes — you guessed it — seasonally.
Hungry Hut, 42008 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake; (559) 841-3222. Popular and often crowded outdoor patio with Shaver’s best burgers, fries and shakes.
Shaver Lake Pizza, 41820 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake; (559) 841-7249. Solid thin-crust pizza joint also serves wings, hot sandwiches and beer. Call early; it gets crowded on weekends.
Drive 40 minutes farther up California 168 past miles of blackened tree trunks and you’ll reach Huntington Lake. At 7,000 feet, it’s known for its cool winds and summer sailing regattas.
Of the three lakes, Huntington was most affected by the Creek fire, with flames torching trees and cabins around half the lake.
On my visit, however, the eastern side of the lake near the China Peak ski resort was beautiful, with a couple of day-use areas and campgrounds open as a base for sailing or fishing.
If Shaver is rustic, Huntington is decidedly more so, particularly since the fire, with cabins and one of its resorts closed. Because of the damage, we decided to make it a day trip from our cabin in Shaver. As it turned out, it was one of the best days of our family trip.
Floating in the cool, clear lake — it’s at 99% capacity — watching sailboats and casting a line from an old boat slip made this stop a winner. And it was the only lake in which we easily caught fish.
We didn’t have time to check out the hiking trails that surround the lake, including Rancheria Falls, a steep four-mile hike that pays off with a beautiful waterfall. That’s on our list for when we return.
WHERE TO STAY
Camping is available at Rancheria, Lower Billy Creek, College and Deer Creek campgrounds and can be booked at Recreation.gov.
Cabins and boats are available for rent from Huntington Lake Resort and Marina, 58730 Huntington Lake Road, Lakeshore; (559) 326-6687
Lakeview Cottages, 58374 Huntington Lodge Road, Lakeshore; (559) 553-3550. Cabins for rent on Huntington’s southern shore.
WHERE TO EAT
The Lakeshore Resort and its restaurant are shuttered, but Huntington Lake Resort’s Grill is open for burgers, tacos and other fare.