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Travel: Lake Escape


Posted on April 18, 2007

Photo courtesy of Craig Laroyd

With two lakes and miles of trails, the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area beckons city-weary nature lovers.

Rarely does my arrival generate this kind of frenzied excitement, this pronounced of a flap. Complete strangers ogled me with wide-eyed speculation and glee and flocked in my direction. The noisy crowd had me surrounded before I could take flight. I was nervous, because these instant and insistent admirers were acting like, well, animals.

Geese can be that way, you know, when they see someone sitting down with a sandwich at a picnic table. I apparently wasn't the only hungry creature that early Friday afternoon at Negro Bar, a delightful spot tucked against a gentle bend of the Lake Natoma shoreline.

My sudden suitors squawked as I steadfastly ate without sharing. Eventually, all but one goose waddled away in pursuit of greener pastures. To the pleading one who remained behind, his orange bill bopping this way and that as his white feathers rustled in the breeze, I presented a wrinkled scrap of soggy lettuce.

Lucky for me, that paltry deed of generosity went unnoticed by the other geese, and I finished my lunch in peace as I gazed across the slender waterway to the woods that rose from the far shore. No houses were in sight, although once I got up and walked along the rocky beach a bit, I saw evidence (rooftops, the Rainbow Bridge) that even though Folsom Lake State Recreation Area allows an escape into nature, civilization and all of its trappings are just a stone's throw away.

The Folsom Lake State Recreation Area snakes its way around Lake Natoma and the much-larger Folsom Lake, permeating three counties: El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento. Encompassing 18,000 acres and containing 94 miles of trails, it is paradise for hikers and bikers, and for those whose pastimes require large bodies of water. Kayaking, canoeing, waterskiing, fishing and merely skipping flat rocks in coves are among the splashy possibilities. You can hang out for a day or even camp here, in rather rustic conditions, if city life has you longing for a little uncomplicated quality time with Mother Nature.

For the next few months, however, don't expect to encounter the solitude I enjoyed on my picnic excursion. According to park superintendent Michael Gross, more than 2 million people visit the park every year, with the peak season being between Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July. The parking lots that seemed ridiculously humongous to me in late February can fill up by 2 p.m. on almost any day in June. So before you go, you should have a plan. In that preparatory spirit, here's a rundown of what Folsom Lake State Recreation Area has to offer.

Find the Right Path

Anyone who has spent much time in the park is likely to have a favorite trail. Park superindent Gross is partial to the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail (known informally to most of us as the American River bike trail) from the Hazel Avenue Bridge to Beals Point. Along this paved path, walkers and bicyclists are treated to what he calls fantastic views of Lake Natoma, Folsom Prison and Folsom Lake.

Slim-tired road bicycles are just the ticket for those hearty souls who use Beals Point as the starting&emdash;or halfway&emdash;point of a 64-mile round trip along the American River that connects Folsom Lake with Discovery Park, just north of downtown Sacramento. Fat tires are in fashion on nine miles of mountain bike trails in the state recreation area, including one stretch on the lake's less-visited eastern shore, from near Salmon Falls Bridge to the Peninsula campground.

Get Your Feet Wet

Granite Beach and Beals Point on Folsom Lake are the park's only two swimming areas with full lifeguard services during the busy season. Each offers snack bars and places to rent inflatable rafts, boogie boards and the like. Swimming also is possible elsewhere in the park, although Gross wants everyone to remember that safety comes first. Anytime there's boat activity, we are always very cautious, especially about people wearing life jackets, he says, adding that about 15 or 20 donated life jackets&emdash;free to use on the honor system&emdash;typically are available during the summer at Folsom Point, Nimbus Flat and Negro Bar.

Boating's a big deal on Folsom Lake. Water skiing and fishing are popular, as is simply getting out on the water on a hot summer's day. People towing their own craft can put in at Brown's Ravine, Folsom Point, Granite Bay, Peninsula or Rattlesnake Bar; there's also a small launch at Beals Point. At Granite Bay, Folsom Lake Boat Rentals can set you up with a 19- to 27-footer, for a half or full day, for $295 to $485. For a wet and wild experience, take lessons offered by Launch Wakeboarding School. Or choose a more refined approach to the water through Inland Sailing Co., which offers sailboat rentals and lessons.

Lake Natoma, the serpentine little sister to big, broad Folsom Lake slightly upstream, is a delight to explore on a canoe or kayak. The Sacramento State Aquatic Center near Nimbus Dam rents single and double kayaks, canoes and other self-propelled watercraft for rates that begin at $9 an hour. About this time last year, my wife and I splashed about in single kayaks there and especially enjoyed seeing scores of ducks and ducklings, purposefully paddling across and along the shores of the slender lake. About five miles long and no wider than some of North America's grand rivers, Lake Natoma plays host to some prestigious rowing competitions, such as the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships and the Pac-10 Rowing Championships the weekend of May 11–12.

Sites and Sights

Due to terrorism concerns, regularly scheduled public tours of Folsom Dam have not been offered for years. (School groups of second- to eighth-graders are exempt from the ban.) You can get a decent, lakeside view of the 1,400-foot-long structure at Beals Point, or watch a video tour in the American River Water Education Center at the dam. The dam, constructed between 1948 and 1956, is said to contain enough concrete to pour a 4-inch-thick, 3-foot-wide sidewalk from San Francisco to New York. As it stands, so to speak, it helps provide downstream flood protection, produces electricity, regulates temperatures for the Nimbus Salmon & Steelhead hatchery and, of course, maintains a multipurpose lake with some 75 miles of shoreline.

The education center stresses water conversation and contains several interactive exhibits. Jointly operated by California State Parks and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, tucked onto the northeast shoreline of Lake Natoma, preserves one of the world's oldest hydroelectric facilities. In fact, a park pamphlet proclaims that the plant, which operated from 1895 to 1952, was the nation's first power system to provide high-voltage alternating current over long-distance transmission lines for major municipal and industrial use. Its juice traveled 22 miles to downtown Sacramento.

Visit the powerhouse Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., or reserve a guided tour in the morning. Dan Winkelman oversees the 20 to 25 docents on friendly patrol here. He also can be found helping with park cleanups on Earth Day and Coastal Cleanup Day, and has a passion for eliminating nonnative plants around the lake. The natural landscape of California is being pushed out by invasive exotic plants from all over the world, he says. I try to take out one: bull thistle. It is an exotic, it's invasive, and a fire hazard. It needs to go.

What we all hope will stay are the varied wildlife, including the geese I encountered at Negro Bar. Quail, wild turkeys, scrub jays and wrens also spread their wings in the park. Bald eagles, ospreys and red-tail hawks, among other birds of prey, also can be seen here. Squirrels, rabbits and deer are frequently spotted, and you also might come across coyotes, opossums, raccoons, skunks or&emdash;rarely&emdash;mountain lions. Park signs also advise hikers to beware of rattlesnakes, ticks and&emdash;a dastardly entrant from the plant kingdom&emdash;poison oak. On a happier note, wildflowers brighten up the springtime and decaying leaves make autumn a time of wondrous colors.

As happened with me, you are likely to observe wildlife when you pause during your visit for a picnic. Tables can be found throughout the park. Negro Bar is one of the more intimate options. A couple of dozen tables are scattered about a small clearing that slopes gently down to a rocky beach that's about 100 yards long and 20 yards wide. Behind the parking lot is a large playing field, a good place to play catch. Negro Bar was established in 1849 by African-American gold prospectors and two years later had a population of 700. When the town of Folsom was established in 1855, Negro Bar officially was gone, and parts of the old settlement are underwater today.

Unless you're so inclined, skip packing your picnic at home and instead purchase deli items from the many chain- and family-owned stores that pepper the park's perimeter. If you're headed for the Granite Bay entrance to Folsom Lake, Dominick's Italian Market & Deli, at 8621 Auburn-Folsom Blvd. in Granite Bay, is a favorite among park employees, according to superintendent Gross. If you're entering the park on the Folsom side, adopt a more do-it-yourself approach by stocking up at the conveniently located Raley's at 25025 Blue Ravine Road.

Cleaning Up the Mess&emdash;
Crystal Barber and her husband live with three Siamese cats, so she knows something about litter. A runner who appreciates the compressed granite trails along Lake Natoma, she's determined to make Folsom Lake State Recreation Area and its many trails as garbage-free as possible. She helps organize park-wide cleanup events in April, on Earth Day, and on Coastal Cleanup Day in September (which this year falls on the 15th), and spearheads other garbage-removal days that entail volunteer work by Eagle Scouts or various companies' employees.

I think people are really surprised with the amount of trash that we pull out of there twice a year, every year, says Barber, 48, a longtime employee of the University of California, Davis. I have met the nicest people down there, especially all of my state park buddies. I think they were a little afraid of me at first, but then they realized if they harnessed my energy for good rather than evil, it would work to their advantage.

We have lots of fun together now. And it feels really good to know that I have made a positive difference in this area, since I plan to live here the rest of my life!                                 
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