Photo: Luc Rousseau/Shutterstock

5 Alternatives to the US's 'Most Picturesque' Lake

News Beaches and Islands
by Matador Creators Jun 3, 2024

A new study of Instagram hashtags claims to have found the most picturesque lakes North America — but the conclusions aren’t very scientific.

Home booking website studied Instagram hashtags across the platform and found which lakes were hashtagged the most. The report, released in late May 2024, says that those with the most-used hashtags are “the most picturesque lakes in North America.” The top spot went to Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, followed by four of the five Great Lakes: Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie. (Lake Huron ranked 10th on the list.)

While it’s fun to look at “Top 10” lists, they’re not usually more entertainment than fact. No one can deny that Lake Tahoe is beautiful, but a lake being tagged the most on Instagram doesn’t mean it’s the “most picturesque.” It could mean it’s accessible and easy to photograph, that it’s in a popular spot where people vacation, that there was a successful marketing campaign to push for visitors to use a social media tag, that the name is easy to spell and use as a hashtag, or any of hundreds of other factors that could explain why someone uses a hashtag.

lake tahoe eastern shore

Photo: Lars Bentrup/Shutterstock

Lake Tahoe’s small towns and resorts have struggled with overtourism and crowds in recent years, so if anything, the fact that it’s the most-tagged lake on Instagram could just be further proof that it’s sometimes too crowded. Lake Tahoe clean-up efforts have found thousands of pounds of trash below the surface (among other unexpected items), and ski traffic can shut down roads for hours on busy winter weekends.

That means when you visit Lake Tahoe, you’re unlikely to be the only person taking pictures. #LakeTahoe didn’t rack up more than three million uses for nothing, after all. The towns around the lake rely on tourism, so it’s not to say you shouldn’t go, but you should consider how some of your travel choices could impact both your vacation experience and the people who live there.

If you’re planning a winter trip, you could ski midweek and plan a less-crowded winter adventure on a weekend, or you could base yourself in nearby (but much more peaceful) Hope Valley, and just do a day trip or two to Lake Tahoe. And to save a few bucks on a summer trip, you could stay in nearby Reno, Nevada (about 25 minutes from the lake’s north shore) and do day trips to little-known attractions like hot springs and sprawling deserts.

But maybe the best solution is to spend some of your time at a different Sierra Nevada lake, instead of just Lake Tahoe. There are plenty that are beautiful but not as crowded on summer weekends. Lake Tahoe may be the largest alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but fortunately, it’s not the only one. The Sierra Nevada Network protects roughly 1,200 alpine lakes, but it’s estimated that there are at least 4,000 in the 400-mile-long range. Here are five to check out close to Lake Tahoe.

Convict Lake

convict Lake califonria - lake tahoe alternative

Photo: Reiner in CA/Shutterstock

Convict Lake rarely has much in the way of crowds, probably because it’s overshadowed by its more well-known neighbors, including Tahoe to the north and Mammoth Lakes to the south. But it’s a serene escape, with blue water that reflects the imposing edifice of Mount Morrison. Despite its name, inspired by a 19th-century shootout with escaped convicts, tranquility reigns supreme there. Hikers will find it to be an excellent base camp for trails like the easy Convict Lake Loop (2.5 miles, 180-foot gain) and the more difficult Convict Creek Trail to Mildred Lake (9.5 miles, 2,300-foot gain).

If fishing is your thing, there’s always plenty of shoreline available for anglers to catch rainbow and brown trout in the crystal-clear depths. You can get your fishing license at nearby Convict Lake Resort, which also operates boat rentals and guided horseback riding tours. There’s lots of bouldering nearby if rock climbing is your summer sport of choice, and with the dramatic peaks of the Sierra Nevada as your backdrop, you’re unlikely to ever have a bad sunset. It’s a more rugged beauty than Lake Tahoe, and really shows off the majesty of the eastern side of the mountain range.

Mono Lake

lake tahoe alternative - mono lake

Photo: Luc Rousseau/Shutterstock

Mono (rhymes with “Oh No”) Lake is about two hours south of Lake Tahoe and isn’t your typical mountain lake. It’s a truly otherworldly landscape, with craggy tufa towers jutting from the glassy water. (They’re the remnants of volcanic eruptions). Despite its stark beauty, often described as lunar or moon-like, Mono Lake offers a tranquility absent from its more mainstream counterparts.

Photographers flock to Mono Lake (well, as much as anyone flocks to Mono Lake) for sunrise photo sessions, and campers can almost always find sites at the many nearby campgrounds. The salty water makes it oddly buoyant and a fun place for a swim, and nearby Bodie State Historic Park is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the world. Hikers will have access to a plethora trails, from those in nearby towns like Lee Vining and Bridgeport to many of the less-crowded Yosemite National Park hikes off nearby Tioga Pass Road.

Stampede Reservoir

stampede - lake tahoe alternative

Photo: kenkistler/Shutterstock

If you want an easy place to access water near Tahoe without the crowds, then nearby Stampede Reservoir is a great Lake Tahoe alternative. It’s north of Truckee, CA, about a 40-minute drive from the north shore. While it may not be ringed by mountain peaks thousands of feet tall, it’s easy to access, has plenty of waterfront campgrounds around the south shore, and has calm water and easy entrances and exits for paddling or kayaking. It’s often impossible to find somewhere to park near Lake Tahoe to put in a kayak in the summer, but that’s never a problem at Stampede.

Stampede Reservoir’s short distance from the highway makes it an easy spot for a quick, last-minute lakeside camping trip. It’s also a great day trip from nearby Reno if you just want to chill at a lake for a day, especially if you have kids or pets you may not want playing near the busier roads and parking lots by Tahoe.

Lakes Basin Recreation Area

upper sardine lake lost sierra

Upper Sardine Lake. Photo: Craig Cooper/Shutterstock

Plumas National Forest and the Lakes Basin Recreation Area embody the secluded charm of the Lost Sierra — the region of the Sierra Nevada north of Lake Tahoe known for being less developed and have a more remote feeling. Gold Lake is embraced by rolling hills rather than soaring peaks, and nearby Sardine Lakes look up at gorgeous ridgelines and offer everything from lakeside cabins to gold panning and hiking. The region lacks basically all of the noise, crowds, or traffic jams of more popular neighbors to the south, like Lake Tahoe or nearby Donner Lake.

The Lakes Basin Recreation Area is close to some of the most famous long-distance mountain biking trails in California, like Downieville and Mills Peak. There are dozens of gorgeous and lush hiking trails nearby (many of which will soon be developed into the 600-mile Lost Sierra Trail), and more small B&Bs, charming general stores, and quaint Mom-and-Pop restaurants, bakeries, and ice cream stands within a short drive than you could ever fit into one trip.

Gold Lake Lodge has a handful of rentable cabins, as well as rustic (but furnished) canvas tents, or you can stay in the charming, old-timey town of Graeagle, CA, about 15 minutes north of Gold Lake. You can camp at Sardine Lake Campground or stay in cabins at Sardine Lakes Resort.

Thousand Island Lake

thousand island lake ansel adams wilderness

Photo: Sean McKey/Shutterstock

For something a bit more adventurous, a good Lake Tahoe alternative is Thousand Island Lake, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness between Tahoe and Yosemite. It’s one of the most popular backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada.

Unlike Tahoe, which is dotted with beaches, resorts, and restaurants, Thousand Island is basically untouched, so camping is your only option if you want to stay overnight. If that’s the plan, the camping window is between roughly June and October depending on snow, and you’ll need to get a camping reservation in advance online. The few designated spots fill up quickly, so plan as far in advance as possible. You cannot camp in the Ansel Adams Wilderness without a permit.

The turquoise waters, cradled by the dramatic Ritter Range, shimmer with sunlight during the day and vivid sunsets at night. The main activity is hiking, either as an overnight trip or a long day trip via the Rush Creek Trailhead. During the day, you can swim, relax on the shoreline, hike up to backcountry ski lines, or just enjoy the wildflowers and waterfalls along the way up.

If you’re able to score a camp permit, make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles, carry a bear bin, and observe all campfire and fire bans.

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