Lakes on national forest lands are providing an antidote this weekend for vacationers looking to bust free after two months of restrictions in the face of COVID-19.
The scene at Shasta Lake, California’s No. 1 recreation lake, is likely a template for what’s to come this summer across the Sierra Nevada, Cascade and Shasta-Siskiyou ranges: U.S. Forest Service camps will provide an escape hatch to camp, boat and fish.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest has opened six major campgrounds at the lake, plus four group campgrounds, and six boat ramps for access to 370 miles of shoreline. In addition, seven private resorts with marinas and houseboats, and others in the region with cabin rentals and RV parks, also were opened.
Forest Service signs tell visitors to keep face masks handy, wear them when in proximity to others, avoid clustering and, of course, avoid contact with strangers.
As the summer develops, 800 Forest Service campgrounds in California at lakes, streams and wilderness trailheads look to provide answers for those seeking summer getaways.
Each of the 100 ranger districts at national forests in California is moving forward at its own pace, often in partnership with local counties, with openings in the rural north coming first and the High Sierra and Tahoe region coming last, probably over the next month, said Eli Ilano, forest supervisor for Tahoe National Forest and the coordinator of the national forests’ public information office for its regional COVID Emergency Team.
At Tahoe and other destinations in the High Sierra, the openings could be in line with dates of last year, when snow melt from high snow levels pushed the start of camping season past Memorial Day.
A personal search of campgrounds found roughly 350 lakes that provide campsites that visitors can reach with vehicles. Of these, 190 lakes without boat ramps on national forest land can be ideal destinations for those with SUVs, with your camping gear in the back, perhaps a kayak on top. At popular sites, campground reservations are available and advised through www.recreation.gov.
Shasta Lake — the No. 1 recreation destination for houseboats, boating, water sports, camping and fishing — is the prototype for summer openings. As the week evolved, the Forest Service opened most of its recreation destinations, including most of its campgrounds for access by car, RV and boat. Areas where people might cluster, such as visitor centers, remain closed.
With highs of 94 and 98 forecast for Sunday and Monday at Shasta, the water temperature will likely climb into the 70s, ideal for skiing, wakeboarding and swimming. Many recreation lakes will face similar conditions. Shasta has already been providing fishing for bass and trout that has reached epic levels.
On our visit, in one three-hour stretch from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on the Pit River Arm of the lake, my son Jeremy and I caught and released more than 70 bass — actually far too many to keep a count. We used small plastic grubs and swimbaits on jigheads in areas where last week’s rains murked up the water. If we missed setting the hook, we’d often get follow-up strikes. During this siege, several sturgeon in the 5-foot range jumped several times around the boat, landing with a giant whomp and whirl the size of a washtub.
As the day evolved, the temperature warmed, the fishing slowed to a more typical pace, and we sighted five bald eagles, several deer including bucks with newly sprouted antlers in velvet, turtles soaking in the warm sun on rocks and exposed logs along the shore, and mated pairs of geese with this year’s goslings. As the sun heated up, Jeremy joined them with a leap into the lake.
At Shasta and the other major lakes in national forests in California, summer is arriving.
Major rec lake levels
Sonoma (87% full), Berryessa (86%), Clear (4.35 feet Rumsey; brim is 7.56), Mendocino (79%)
Foothills: Englebright (98%), Pardee (96%), Tulloch (95%), Don Pedro (86%), Oroville (83%), New Melones (78%), McClure (77%), Camanche (69%), New Hogan (60%)
Central Sierra: Tahoe (6,227.8 elevation water level, natural rim at 6,223, max height 6,229.1), Loon (97%), Donner (95%), Union Valley (94%), Bullards Bar (89%), Frenchman (83%), Stampede (82%), Independence (81%), Beardsley (78%), Davis (77%), Ice House (62%)
North: Antelope Lake (101% full), Whiskeytown Lake (99%), Siskiyou (99%), Lewiston (96%), Britton (88%), Shasta (79%), Trinity (77%), Almanor (73%)
Source: Department of Water Resources and associate water districts