Not just in Yosemite National Park, but across the Sierra Nevada range you’ll find pretty lakes for outdoor recreation. Take a swim in bracingly cool waters during the dog days of summer, dangle a fishing line from a boat, learn to paddle a kayak, or just kick back on all-natural beaches and soak up some sun — you really can do it all here. The following are a few of our favorite Sierra Nevada lakes outside Yosemite National Park.
On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe (aka “The Big Blue”) is about a three-hour drive northeast of Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance station. It’s the largest freshwater alpine lake in North America, and only Crater Lake in Oregon is deeper than Lake Tahoe, which measures 1645 feet at its deepest point.
Best known for its ski resorts in winter, Lake Tahoe is a four-seasons outdoor destination. In summer, swimming, boating, hiking, camping, horseback riding, and mountain biking are among the attractions. The entire lakeshore is bordered by the 165-mile multi-use Tahoe Rim Trail.
The south shore of Lake Tahoe is the busiest spot for visitors, especially the bustling town of South Lake Tahoe and the casino resorts on the Nevada side of the border at Stateline. Driving north along the scenic east shore takes you past more state parks and beaches up to Incline Village, another ski resort town, and the chill-out village of Kings Beach on the north shore. The west shore boasts a string of beautiful state parks and beaches, as well as the outdoorsy hubs of Tahoe City and Squaw Valley USA.
Mammoth and June Lakes
At the foot of Mammoth Mountain (elevation 11,059 feet), Mammoth Lakes sees much less tourist traffic than Lake Tahoe. Just over an hour’s drive southeast of Tioga Pass, this four-seasons resort town is an adventure base camp for the entire eastern Sierra Nevada region. Although skiing and mountain biking dominate the scene, Mammoth is also an incredible place for hiking and backpacking to remote lakes.
Farther north toward the town of Lee Vining, the June Lake Loop is a scenic detour that drives into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, passing by lakes favored by fishers, picnickers, hikers, and campers. Note that this loop road is closed during winter, usually from October until May.
Closer to Yosemite National Park, otherworldly Mono Lake sits just outside the small town of Lee Vining on U.S. Highway 395, a 20-minute drive east of the park’s Tioga Pass entrance station. This brackish lake has been brought back from the brink of evaporation by grassroots conservation efforts. It’s famous for its alien-looking tufa tower formations made of calcium carbonate that poke above the surface of the ancient lake.
Mono Lake is also a vital stopover for migratory bird species, as well as for California gulls that nest on the lake’s volcanic islands between April and August each year. Take a nature walk along the south shore, or launch a kayak or canoe into the salty waters. The Scenic Area Visitor Center, just north of the town of Lee Vining, stocks maps and books, has natural-history and art exhibits, and shows a free 20-minute video about the lake.