A Day at the Lake: Six Central Sierra Getaways

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2017 12:48

Dan Mayers, new principal at San Andreas Elementary, enjoys a few quiet hours of summer vacation at New Melones.

The celebration is underway.

Thanks to a drought-busting winter of heavy rain and snow, for the first time in five years there is an abundance of water – the lifeblood of summer recreation in the Mother Lode.

Residents and visitors alike are kicking up their wet-for-a-change heels at any number of brimming and flowing Sierra Nevada and foothill lakes and waterways.

“We’re having a fantastic season,” says Shawn Cowperthwaite, office manager for the New Melones Lake Marina outside Angels Camp. “We’re like busy bees around here.”

“It’s going to be an awesome year on the lakes for boating, fishing and recreation,” says Mackenzie Rodgers of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.

Six lakes are featured here as refreshing getaways:

  • Pinecrest Lake in the Tuolumne County high country
  • New Melones Reservoir in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties
  • Lake Alpine east of Bear Valley in Alpine County
  • Lake Camanche at the juncture of San Joaquin, Calaveras and Amador counties
  • Lake Tabeaud east of Jackson
  • Silver Lake in the high granite of Amador County

There are many others from which to choose, with area visitors centers offering information on a full range of recreational options.

Our featured waters offer similar activities, including boating, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, biking, picnicking, stargazing, wildlife viewing, exploration, photography, painting, and even rock climbing and equestrian camping.

The sizes and settings, however, are very different. Melones (100 miles of shoreline) is vast while Tabeaud (one mile around) is a postage stamp. Camanche is at a low elevation (135 feet above sea level) while Alpine and Silver are way up in the granite (7,306 and 7,287).

Five of the six have developed facilities, and all help produce hydroelectric power. Tabeaud, also a source of drinking water, has only a basic picnic area and prohibits swimming.

All are man-made, with the higher lakes offering more relief from hot summer temperatures.

While everyone is happy to see the drought in the rearview mirror – for a year, at least – snow in the high country did result in later openings and shorter seasons for some high-elevation lake resorts.

Be sure to check with lake operators (contact information below) for current conditions. Phone numbers listed are in the 209 area code unless otherwise noted.

Scenic views greet visitors to Pinecrest Lake

PINECREST LAKE

Long a summer hotspot at 5,600 feet, Pinecrest is more vacation hub than secluded mountain getaway. Among its many attractions is the renowned Pinecrest National Recreation Trail, a four-mile hike around the lake.

What is now Pinecrest was part of the Walker River Trail in the 1840s and ’50s, when Sonora Pass was a route used by pioneers coming to California.

“They knew once they got here they were safe, and they had crossed all the big passes they needed to cross,” says Lori Cashman of Pinecrest Lake Resort.

“I just think it’s a great family spot,” says Lynn Souza, owner of Rich and Sal’s Sport Shop on the lakeshore. “It’s so accessible.”

Getting there From Sonora, drive 30 miles east on Highway 108, then turn right and follow Pinecrest Lake Road for about a mile.

Hours/Cost Day-use areas, 6am-10pm. No launching or day-use fees except for group picnic sites during peak season, May 15-Sept. 15 ($60 at recreation.gov).

Fishing/Boating Angler access by boat, marina fishing pier and shore. Rainbow trout stocked weekly during summer; brown trout, catfish and kokanee salmon also present. Fish cleaning station available. Launch ramp at marina. Paddleboats, kayaks, party boats, sailboats, small motorboats available for rent. Lake drawn down in off-season.

Camping Pinecrest Campground $26 per night, reservations 1-877-444-6777, recreation.gov; Meadowview Campground $23, first-come, first-served, no reservations. Cabin rentals $95 to $520 per night, pinecrestvacationrentals.com, pinecrestlakeresort.com, vrbo.com, airbnb.com.

Wheelchair access Paved pathways in day-use areas. Restrooms accessible. Cement pad east of main beach aids disabled anglers.

Dogs Not allowed in day-use area between Pinecrest Lake Road/Pinecrest Avenue, lake, launch ramp and fishing pier; leashed dogs allowed on around-the-lake trail.

Contact Stanislaus National Forest Summit District, 965-3434, fs.usda.gov/recmain/stanislaus/recreation; marina, 965-3333, pinecrestlakeresort.com.

Dan Mayers casts a line at New Melones

NEW MELONES LAKE

With an Interagency Senior Pass, it’s a bargain for adults 62 and older to enjoy the state’s fourth-largest reservoir. This $10 lifetime pass allows free entry to federal day-use areas for up to four people in a vehicle and cuts fees, such as boat launching, in half.

Passes are on sale at the New Melones Visitor Center (directions below). The price jumps to $80 in the fall, “so get it now,” encourages a Visitor Center volunteer. Other federal passes and New Melones Lake passes are also available.

Melones has plenty of elbow room despite receiving 800,000 annual visitors, and “is popular with boaters who like to spread out and explore long, twisting arms or dip into secluded bays,” reports californiasgreatlakes.com. Elevation at the Visitor Center is 1,100 feet.

A monument to stagecoach robber Black Bart stands on the west side of the lake, accessible only by boat and two-mile hike, says Sam Sosa, a natural resource specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Who placed the tribute and when is unknown. The inscription begins, “Here on Funk Hill, near Reynolds Ferry …”

The marker commemorates the first and last Wells Fargo robberies by the notorious bandit (real name, Charles Boles) on July 26, 1875 and Nov. 3, 1883.

But that historic marker is just the beginning. “There are so many places to explore,” Sosa says.

Getting there Start at the Visitor Center, where you’ll find information and maps. From Sonora, drive nine miles north on Highway 49, turn right on Melones Court just before the bridge, then right onto Studhorse Flat Road.

Hours/Cost Access gates to the Glory Hole and Tuttletown recreation areas, the lake’s main access points, are open 4am-11pm. Day use $8; boat launching $10 (includes the day-use fee). No charge for canoes and kayaks launched at unpaved ramp near Visitor Center (regular fees apply at paved launch areas).

Fishing/Boating Trophy fisheries for bass, trout, catfish, crappie and kokanee salmon by boat and from shore at launch ramps and day-use areas. Paved launch ramps at Angels Arm, Glory Hole and Tuttletown. Marina rents kayaks, fishing boats, ski boats, houseboats and more.

Camping Standard campsite fee $22 per night (includes day-use fee); walk-in $18; group sites $125-$150. Reservations 1-877-444-6777, recreation.gov.

Wheelchair access Improved areas adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Fishing access at Tuttletown’s middle launch ramp.

Dogs Allowed on leash.

Contact Visitor Center, 536-9543, usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/planning-visit/visitor.html; New Melones Lake Marina, 785-3300, newmeloneslakemarina.com.

Trail at Lake Alpine

LAKE ALPINE

In the 1860s, merchants used Bactrian (two-hump) camels to carry mining and other supplies through the area to the desert-like environs east of the Sierra, relates Barbara Balen, a retired Forest Service historian.

Today’s visitors will see no camels but will find much to enjoy. Grandparents and grandchildren love Lake Alpine’s “fish prints” interpretive program offered by the Forest Service, while swimmers can explore granite islands and hikers can walk around the lake or to Inspiration Point, Emigrant Trail or Osborne Hill.

“It’s easily accessible off Highway 4, and it’s close to facilities,” says Randy Bowersox with the Northern California Power Agency. “You can get the high alpine experience and not be too far out.”

Getting there From Angels Camp, drive 48 miles northeast on Highway 4.

Hours/Cost Always accessible. No launching or day-use fees.

Fishing/Boating Rainbow trout are planted regularly during summer to mix with wild holdovers. Free Forest Service launch ramp. Motorboats not allowed at night. Motorboats, rowboats, canoes and kayaks available for rent at Lake Alpine Resort.

Camping Lake Alpine Campground $25 per night, cash or check, first-come, first-served; developed campgrounds (Silvertip, Pine Marten, Silver Valley, Backpackers, Lodgepole Overflow) also $25 per night, first-come, first-served. America the Beautiful passes reduce fee to $15 per night. Cabin rentals at bearvalleyvacationrentals.com, 753-2334, or vrbo.com, 1-888-640-7927.

Wheelchair access First 1.5 miles of around-the-lake trail are paved. Restrooms accessible.

Dogs Allowed on leash.

Contact Calaveras Ranger District, 795-1381, fs.usda.gov/stanislaus; Lake Alpine Resort, 753-6350, lakealpineresort.com.

LAKE CAMANCHE

Three communities – Lancha Plana, Poverty Bar and Camanche – were inundated when the reservoir was filled in 1963. Today the upper lake east of the narrows caters to fishing, with boating activities restricted.

“A lot of people like to barbecue and picnic, or go across the lake to a secluded area and just enjoy the day,” says gate attendant Jessica Wagner.

Off the water, visitors can hike 29 miles of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail, including the new 2.4-mile John Bull Loop.

Getting there North Shore in Ione: From Jackson, drive 10 miles west on Highway 88, turn left on Buena Vista Rd., right on Jackson Valley Rd., left on Camanche Rd. South Shore in Valley Springs: From San Andreas, drive 12 miles west on Highway 12, turn right on Burson Rd./Camanche Parkway South, then right on Pattison Rd.

Hours/Cost Day use 5am to one hour after sunset; gate hours 5am- 11pm. Day use $12.50; boat launching $10, vehicle and boat $17 (includes day use); fishing $6; dogs $5.50 each; trail use $3. Veterans discount, 20 percent.

Fishing/Boating Bass, crappie, kokanee salmon and rainbow trout thrive amid old mine tailings and other “structures” on the lake bottom. Eight-lane launch ramps on north and south shores. Fishing and patio boats, kayaks and paddleboards available to rent. Sailing, kayaking, canoeing popular on upper lake.

Camping Basic campsites (some alcohol-free) start at $28 per night. Five campgrounds on North Shore, 11 on South Shore, including equestrian. Cottages start at $170. For reservations, 1-866-763-5121, ext. 3; lakecamancheresort.com.

Wheelchair access Improved areas ADA compliant. Some accessibility to hiking trails, including James Bar Trail.

Dogs Must be leashed, prohibited on equestrian trails.

Contact North Shore Marina, 1-866-763-5121, ext. 7; South Shore Marina, 1-866-763-5121, ext. 8, lakecamancheresort.com; East Bay Municipal Utilities District, 1-866-403-2683, ebmud.com.

Geese on Lake Tabeaud

LAKE TABEAUD 

Though the lake’s name is French and pronounced like taboo, which means forbidden, there’s nothing sinister involved. Only a 16-minute drive from Jackson, Tabeaud (1,975 feet) can be a picnic destination.

For those with more time, Lake Tabeaud Loop is a 4.7-mile, lightly trafficked trail featuring a forest setting and is good for all skill levels. “It’s very accessible for a short getaway,” says Maureen Funk, executive director of the Amador Council of Tourism.

Getting there From Jackson, drive a half-mile east on Highway 88, turn right on Clinton Road, then drive east for seven miles (Clinton joins Tabeaud Road).

Hours/Cost Sunrise to sunset. Free for launching and day use (no facilities aside from picnic area).

Fishing/Boating Rainbow trout planted once or twice per year. Kayaks and canoes welcome. Motorboats and swimming not allowed. Lake supplies drinking water to Jackson, Sutter Creek, Amador City, Ione and Plymouth.

Wheelchair access Limited access for shore fishing.

Dogs Must be leashed.

Contact Amador Council of Tourism, 267-9249, touramador.com/lake-tabeaud.

SILVER LAKE

This area was the realm of celebrity pioneers, having been visited by John C. Fremont and vaunted scout Kit Carson – for whom nearby Carson Pass is named – in 1843-’44.

Dating to 1876, Silver is the oldest of the lakes featured. Many day hikes begin there, and fishermen love Sandy Cove, Ferguson Point and Treasure Island.

Today it’s simply a gorgeous high-country destination.

“The scenery is fantastic,” says Rick Hopson, Amador District Ranger on the El Dorado National Forest. “They have very nice facilities, and visitors have access to the wilderness.”

Getting there From Jackson, drive 53 miles northeast on Highway 88.

Hours/Cost Always accessible. Vehicles $10; boats, $9 (50-percent senior discount).

Fishing/Boating Boat and shore anglers seek rainbow, brown and mackinaw trout. Nearby streams offer fly fishing. Launch ramps at either end of lake. Canoes, kayaks and motorboats for rent at Kit Carson Lodge or Plasse’s Resort.

Camping Silver Lake East $24, reservations 1-877-444-6777, recreation.gov; Silver Lake West $30, no reservations; Plasse’s Resort starts at $31, tent, RV and horse sites (contact info below).

Wheelchair access Some shore fishing access if lake is full, picnic areas and adjacent restrooms accessible, dock staff helps disabled individuals access boats.

Dogs Must be leashed.

Contact Amador District, 295-4251, fs.usda.gov/eldorado; El Dorado Irrigation District, 1-530-295-6824, eid.org; Kit Carson Lodge, 258-8500, kitcarsonlodge.com; Plasse’s Resort, 258-8814, plassesresort.com.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2017 12:48
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