Erhai Lake, Southwest China, China

Lake Locations:

China - Southwest China -

Also known as:  Er Lake, Yeyuze, Kunming Lake (historic)

Known as the Pearl of the Plateau, Yunnan’s Erhai Lake has been enchanting both native and foreign visitors for thousands of years. Nestled like a shining gem in a tectonic fault on the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan Province, the lake is somewhat crescent or ear-shaped. The name translates as Sea of Ear and has always been the lifeblood of the native Bai population. The lake provides irrigation waters to local small farmers and is a prolific source of fish to provide much of the local diet.

In keeping with the Chinese tradition of naming scenic features – inflowing streams, small islets on the lake, rock formations near the shore, manmade bridges – all have poetic names and often long-standing stories and legends attached. Parks have been created to frame beautiful vantage points overlooking scenic views.

Cangshan Mountain towers above the lake’s western shoreline, offering a jade green backdrop to complete the lovely scene. Eighteen named brooks contribute their waters to Erhai Lake. The mountain, with multiple peaks above 11,480 feet, provides an inviting place to walk among 3000 species of native plants consisting of primarily evergreen trees and bushes. During the spring, rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in riotous profusion across the hillsides, followed by camellias in summer. Flower enthusiasts the world over know Cangshan Mountain for the lovely blooms that are grown there.

Hardy hikers can trek to near the top on a narrow pathway clinging to the mountainside at dizzying heights. Many more take the cable-car gondolas to the top, where they can visit temples, a giant chessboard, and multiple vistas of the lake and valleys far below. Often shrouded in mists, the ever-changing cloud formations and unpredictable weather make for both oft-told local legends and a need for clothing for inclement weather all year long.

Lying along Erhai Lake’s southwestern shoreline, the old City of Dali is the cultural repository of hundreds of years of area history. Located on the old South Silk Road route, Dali has experienced the effects of several differing cultures, the remnants of which appear preserved in the very walls and architecture of the city. Always interesting, Dali has a number of outstanding points of interest that most visitors wish to see.

Dali’s Ancient City was the seat of government during the Ming Dynasty. Portions of the old city walls and gates remain, along with churches and temples, marketplace and hand-crafted artwork produced by the Bai ethnic minority residents. The Dali Municipal Museum, housed in the reconstructed mansion of Du Wenxiu, features examples of stone carving, wood carving, pottery, jade carving, paintings and calligraphies. The museum also holds an important collection of over 120 stone steles (upright slabs or pillars) carved during different dynasties as far back in history as the Song Dynasty.

A short distance from Dali, Butterfly Spring is famous for the hoards of colorful butterflies that appear at the spring when the ‘butterfly tree’ blooms above the pool. An annual festival is held in honor of the butterflies. Zhoucheng Village near Butterfly Spring is a must-visit destination to observe traditional Bai tie-dying of fabric. Here, visitors may be treated to the traditional three-course tea ceremony for greeting visitors. One short sightseeing trip all visitors must make either on foot or by bike is to the Three Pagodas. The Central Pagoda is nearly 1200 years old and one of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China. Although the original temples of the complex were destroyed by earthquakes in the 1920s, the three pagodas are still sound and offer excellent views across Erhai Lake. A series of hallways and rooms carved into the adjacent mountain make for an interesting tour.

Boat tours may be taken on the lake where guides point out legendary spots and allow passengers to observe the traditional fishing methods of the Bai. Many stop at one of the small islands on the lake featuring a temple. Bicycles may be rented in Dali to tour the lake; a roadway circles the lake past several temples, scenic viewpoints and parks. The Erhai Lake Scenic Area holds the Water Moon Pavilion, Kwan-yin Pavilion, the Haishe, Heavenly Mirror Pavilion, Xizhou Mid-sea Pavilion, the Zhuhai Pavilion and Small Putuo Hill. Erhai Park offers lovely gardens overflowing with a profusion of flowers along the shore.

Lodgings are available along the lakefront in a series of small local inns. Dali holds a few modern hotels and other forms of accommodation. Ethnic foods and cafes can be found throughout the city, with many meals featuring fresh-caught fish as the basis for the main course. Erhai Lake has become a popular tour destination, with many tours of the area recommending two full days to see everything of interest. First-time visitors might be well-advised to allow tourist agents to arrange for suitable lodgings as there is little information available on the smaller inns.

The second-largest highland lake in China, Erhai Lake covers over 62,000 acres and has an average depth of 36 feet. The lake is home to a diverse group of carp species, including several that are found only here. These fish are caught by local fishermen using a unique method of training domesticated cormorants to bring the fish to them. Uncommon in much of China, the lake’s waters are still quite clean and clear, but area population is growing. In 1997, an infestation of blue-green algae spurred local officials and scientists to take action to head off future problems, and pollution controls were begun to avert future issues. The algae are gone and efforts are underway to alleviate water quality problems at the first sign of trouble. Continued vigilance will assure that Erhai Lake remains clean and scenic for future generations of both native and visiting populations to enjoy. Come and see the flowers . . .it’s a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

Things to do at Erhai Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Museum

Fish species found at Erhai Lake

  • Carp

Erhai Lake Photo Gallery

Erhai Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 62,080 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 6,470 feet

Average Depth: 36 feet

Water Volume: 2,026,783 acre-feet

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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