Monday, July 25, 2011

Loon Lake perfect for summer paddling

Say you could combine the sparkling waters of Lake Tahoe with the rugged beauty of Yosemite granite, on a more modest scale. Then make Sierra summer crowds vanish into thin air. VoilĂ , you’ve just created Loon Lake, a kayaker’s mountain retreat.  

One of many "rock gardens" in Loon Lake 

At an elevation of 6,400 feet, Loon Lake Reservoir lies in the Eldorado National Forest, near the edge of Desolation Wilderness. A bit more than two hours’ drive from Sacramento. Not too hard to find, but far enough off the beaten path to keep traffic manageable, both on and off the water. Put ‘er on my “A” list of paddling places, for sure.

Loon Lake was created in the 1960s by the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District for a network of mountain hydro power plants. Most of that infrastructure is hidden underground and under water. What’s plainly visible is an incredibly beautiful and secluded area for kayaking, camping, and hiking.

Last Saturday, Loon looked – and paddled – a lot bigger than its officially listed 3.5-mile length.  That’s because it features so many nooks and crannies, coves and mini-islands. Also, this record water season has raised the lake level to its highest point in years. That’s what the locals told us, and ‘twas easily confirmed. Many trees partially submerged, some fire pits under a couple feet of water or more. 

Think you've seen boulders? Now these are bold boulders
If we hit Loon at a special time, we surely appreciated it. Not since a trip to Tahoe in June have I seen such sparkling blue waters. And the granite boulders that surrounded us at every turn – all shapes and sizes, mostly big. Make that huge. Let’s go with enormous. It was as if we’d fallen into the mythical playpen of ancient giants who used boulders as toys, then tossed them aside on a whim. 

Even the underwater rock formations were awesome. They glowed in the reflection of bright Sierra sunlight like surreal counter-cloudscapes or huge white water creatures. If this sounds both fascinating and a bit eerie, well, you’re in the right neighborhood.

Delicate "shooting stars" add a softer touch
We pulled up at the lake’s main launch ramp/parking lot at mid-morning. The lot was mostly empty until later in the day. It was an easy haul down the sandy bank for a beach launch. Within minutes, it seemed that we practically had the lake to ourselves, thanks to the dozens of craggy outcroppings both in and out of the water. The rocky shoreline was dotted with conifers, many of which just sprouted out of – or through – tons of granite. And there was the occasional bright bouquet of “shooting star” wildflowers.

Our impressive yet dismissive national symbol 
We worked our way along the shoreline and soon encountered a young bald eagle. It studied us dismissively, as if to say, “I’m the symbol of national pride and dignity, you pathetic paddlers, and I’ll sit right here until your species solves that debt ceiling thing.” Checked back a while later and it was still there. I think it was serious.

We got occasional glimpses of hikers on the trails above, while a few boaters and paddlers pulled over to bask on the rocks lakeside. At our first stop in a small cove, we met a young couple who had canoed in two nights earlier and were just leaving. They found the perfect primitive campsite with a raised, level area for a tent, a tiny, rock-scape path and “dining table” that they decorated with a tiny spray of wildflowers, and a raised fire pit just off the beach.

Could it have been more perfect? Well, yes. They told us the skeeters were relentless in the evenings, even with a full-on dose of DEET.  Take note, campers, or wait and hope for an early fall cold snap.

Human artistry atop natural sculpture (click photo to zoom in) 
Many places to stop and enjoy small details (below)

Not all of the rocky wonders were natural, or quite so immense. Every now and then, we noticed that some aspiring rock artist had created his or her own miniature monument to whimsy. Couldn’t resist adding a touch myself.

Nor could we resist making a couple more stops as we weaved in and around a maze of coves and “islands,” some of which were really just single, massive boulders.

We had been warned about afternoon wind at Lake Loon, and it  arrived right on schedule about 1:30 p.m. Fortunately, the breeze was fairly light on this day, but a bit of chop livened up the return paddling on our round trip of about seven miles.

Sailors settling in for the weekend -- nice idea, but beware the skeeters

For an excellent description of Loon Lake’s recreational features, check SMUD’s Web site which includes maps. (Take the Ice House Road exit off Highway 50, about 22 miles east of Placerville.)  Free, hard copy maps of the lake area are also available at the launch ramp parking lot.

For advance trip planning, SMUD also has monthly data on temperature and reservoir levels for the Crystal Basin Recreation Area.

Day use parking costs $7. The lot is well-paved and maintained, adjacent picnic tables are nicely shaded. Last Saturday, the only negative comment I heard about Lake Loon’s facilities came after one of our party went to the launch area toilets – and found them very stinky.

© 2011 Glenn Brank