Juniper Lake is one of those hidden gems of a mountain lake. If you are familiar with the mountain lakes in the Sierra Mountains of California, you’ll know they are renowned for their clarity and brilliant green and blue colors. Kayaking Juniper Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park is no exception at 6800 feet up in elevation. This lake is pretty decently sized and situated in a small valley which protects it from the stronger winds.
Parking: $30 (National Park fee), $10 during the winter. $12 per campsite.
Distance: 4.7 miles (total kayaking potential around lake perimeter)
Dogs: Not allowed
Getting There, Hours, and Parking
Juniper Lake is generally open from July through October, weather permitting. This year, it didn’t open until August due to heavy snowfall. Access is 24/7 on open days.
Entry is dependent on the National Park system, which is $20 for a vehicle. If you have a NPS annual pass or similar, your entry is free. Campsites are $12 each. There is no attendant on duty, so make sure to bring exact change or a check for the envelope. A ranger will be by at multiple points to check your entry status and payment.
The lake is located about 12 miles from the town of Chester. There is no potable water nor food at the lake, so you will want to make sure you have everything you need. The 12 mile drive is mostly over a dirt road which only allows a speed of 15 mph, but you will find the drive much more comfortable at 5-10mph. It took about an hour for this 12 mile drive. There is no reception once you leave town. Offline Maps is recommended.
The drive over rough dirt road is not suitable for buses, motor homes, nor trailers.
Parking is limited to two areas. The campground is first-come, first-served and limited to 18 sites. The second site is an area a bit beyond, which is day use only and holds maybe 8 vehicles.
With a hairy drive out in the middle of no where and very limited spots, maybe 26 vehicles only, this exclusive park is well worth the effort.
View the official NPS page on the campsites here.
Juniper Lake Recreation and Fun
The first time I discovered Juniper Lake last year, I didn’t have my kayaks with me. I was seeking a unique quiet place to camp. I immediately fell in love with the area and its hidden exclusivity and knew I had to return. This year, I came prepared with an adventurous friend, kayaks and plenty of fun snacks and beverages.
Scoring the last available spot to camp over an impromptu trip at the beginning of Labor Day weekend, we hastily got ourselves situated and the untied and read to launch. Being a first-come, first-served area, we made sure our only plans were to have no plans and wing everything. Flying by the seat of our kayaks, we successfully setup a picnic and stretch session. The kayaks were loaded with aluminum cans of beer and some snack foods. I have a personal moral code against bringing glass to places like this in case of breakage.
It was about an hour before sunset, which was the perfect amount of time to tool around the lake. Watching deer run around and listening to the waves lapping at the rocky edge made for a very serene environment. Despite a full campground, the lake’s size allowed for many a quiet spot.
Near the water’s edge, the water was crystal clear and it was easy to see the very bottom. Kayaking out some hundred feet and beyond into the lake, the bottom remained fairly visible, but the colors turned into a brilliant sapphire blue. I imagine depending on the day and the sky, parts of the lake turn emerald green. This lake is quite the gem to swim, kayak, and explore!
Eventually, the sun began to disappear behind the trees, which we observed from the center of the lake. During the last moments of dusk, we paddled back to the campsite and began to make dinner. Our luck with a site to sleep at was incredibly lucky – we were so close to the water’s edge and were able to sit with feet in the water while eating and drinking.
Time flew by and before we knew it, the moon was low in the sky and stars shined brightly upon us. There was only one thing to do in this situation. Night kayaking!!! Oh yeah, baby! Flashlights weren’t even needed with the lit up sky. Can you tell I’m still excited thinking about it? The only necessary item was some water, beer, and willingness to explore. No shortage of any of those items.
There are not too many places where I would feel comfortable night kayaking. Juniper Lake felt incredibly safe. There are no motorized boats, and the lake is small enough to not worry about getting lost or stuck somewhere.
Floating in the lake under the night’s sky and being able to see the moonlit bottom was one of the best experiences of my life. The only way I could have made the night better was if I had brought a giant floating mattress and slept on the lake. That would have been so epic. Next time!
Sleeping so close the water as a light sleeper, I was constantly woken up by deer cautiously hoofing around and stepping into the water. At one point, one of the deer was grazing mere feet from my face. It seemed annoyed by the movement of my sleeping bag when I sat upright to get a better look.
Come morning, minutes before sunrise, the lake was absolutely still. Soft and mellow orange hues filled the sky. The entire lake and its surroundings was a sight to behold. Smoke from nearby campfires gently wafted into the crisp morning air, with the other campers yet to stir. This was yet another golden opportunity to kayak – in the golden hour during sunrise.
With multiple kayaking sessions under the belt, from sunset to midnight to sunrise. From floating in the center of Juniper Lake to multiple landings around the lake to jump on rocks and admire the trees. Juniper Lake made the cut for one of the best lakes to kayak on in Northern California.