By late May, the number of trucks hauling boats increases on Rawhide and Jacksonville roads in Tuolumne County. These are not the main roads to the boat ramps at New Melones or Don Pedro reservoirs, but they are time-saving routes taken by many who frequent these lakes. All summer, and especially on the weekends, huge swaths of water with long twisting arms and secluded coves teem with motorboats, pontoons, houseboats and personal watercraft across the Mother Lode.
Both Don Pedro and New Melones are conveniently located for people in Tuolumne County, and for those who visit from Merced to Sacramento. New Melones emanates from the Stanislaus River, spreading in a fat-topped T shape just 9 miles from Sonora. A mere 4 miles away as the crow flies, Don Pedro weaves and sprawls 22 miles through oak-studded foothills in a southwest direction from the Tuolumne River. New Melones is the fourth-largest reservoir in California, and Don Pedro is the sixth; both have dramatic bridges spanning sections of water, offering spectacular vistas.
I happen to live walking distance from New Melones on the southern shoreline, and hike there on a daily basis, mostly near Bear Creek Cove. The fishermen are there year round. Most Saturdays, I watch my neighbor leave at dawn, pulling his fishing boat, headed for the Tuttletown ramp off Highway 49.
Operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, New Melones has six launches around the lake, each with parking for trucks and trailers. The lake also features one full-service marina in the Glory Hole Recreation Area, accessed near Angels Camp, which provides slip rentals, boat, houseboat and personal watercraft rentals, fuel and a convenience store.
Don Pedro Lake is owned by the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts, and the 160 miles of shoreline are under the supervision of the Don Pedro Recreation Agency. Suntex Marinas operates two facilities – the Lake Don Pedro Marina and Moccasin Point Marina – providing everything visitors need for boating and water sports. Three multilane launch ramps provide easy access to the water.
During my early morning walks at New Melones, fishermen and I enjoy breaching fish that slosh with iridescence and resounding splashes. I take great pleasure in sighting birds of all kinds: great blue herons, ospreys, eagles, sandpipers, Canadian geese, grebes and numerous songbirds. Once as I paddled a canoe quietly up the Woods Creek channel on Lake Don Pedro and my friend and I spotted a great blue heron feeding her young high up in a blue oak. We stopped rowing to watch and listen as the hungry babies squabbled from the nest in branches that hung over the water.
The body of water draws the birds as well as animals. I’ve seen foxes, bobcats, coyotes, a bear and, of course, deer.
“We often see wildlife on the banks of the lake,” said Lynn Martin, about her frequent boat trips on Don Pedro. “One time, we were in a cove and saw a little fawn separated from its mother. It was making a sad crying noise. We floated around for a long time watching it try to get up the bank to its mother who was frantically pacing. It finally figured out to go to the end of the bank where it was less steep, and the union with the mom was endearing. Not sure what we thought we were going to do if it didn’t get up there, but we stayed until all was well.”
Martin rents a slip for her Malibu ski boat at the Moccasin Point Marina on Lake Don Pedro.
“We berth there because it is close to home. We can fix a sandwich, throw some drinks in a cooler and be in the boat in half an hour. The service is really good. They are always friendly and accommodating.”
Havi Stewart’s family owns a houseboat that’s parked at Lake Don Pedro.
“As far back as I can remember, we’ve had a big Fourth of July party on our houseboat,” said 19-year-old Havi. “My parents like to host, so we always have guests, usually a mix of ages. We’ve had so many people on the boat it started tipping.”
The Stewarts’ houseboat features a jumping tower.
“Ours is the highest on the lake because we got in before they made the 30-foot rule,” explained Havi. “We often have people from other boats swim over and ask to try it. Once these three grown men asked, but they all wimped out when they got up there. My sister, who was 7 at the time, climbed up and jumped off. It was pretty funny.”
“We have a ski boat,” Havi continued, “and we used to have Jet Skis, too, but we sold them. Our main thing now is wake-surfing and playing with water toys. We do this thing called multi-surfing that is super cool.”
Over the years, I, along with visitors and residents, have found all manner of recreational entertainment on these reservoirs. I’ve watched the Presides meteor showers resting on floaties in Bear Cove at 4 a.m., and kayaked with my grandson from the Stevenot launch near the New Melones Visitors Center. I’ve watched July 4 fireworks from the Don Pedro Dam, and swam with my children in the cove near Fleming Meadows Campground. Moreover, some of the best sunsets in the county are seen from area lakes, especially late in the summer. Don Pedro and New Melones are terrific places to enjoy water sports and play, fishing, wildlife and the uncontested comfort of being near a body of water.
Calaveras County shares several county lines that run through area lakes. The southern and northern borders feature New Melones and Pardee and Camanche reservoirs, respectively. Hundreds of campsites offer nearby respite after days spent waterskiing and wakeboarding, boating, fishing and swimming (except at Pardee Reservoir, where no body contact with the water is allowed because it’s served to East Bay Municipal Utility District customers).
Up along Ebbett’s Pass – and south of Highway 4 – reservoirs promise bites from hungry fish at Utica, Union and Spicer reservoirs, but access can be tricky this summer because of damaged Forest Service roads. Fishing boats are allowed. You can stop by the Hathaway Pines U.S. Forest Service office to make sure which roads are ready for your summertime explorations. You can also inquire about campsites throughout the Stanislaus National Forest – especially the Calaveras Ranger District – at the Hathaway Pines Forest Service station.
Below the summit of Ebbett’s Pass, Lake Alpine is a high-country jewel that features a nice walking trail around much of the lake and campsites dotted around the area. Because it’s in the upcountry, temperatures are usually cooler, and fishing is popular here. Boats are allowed on the lake (and can be launched for free), but there is a maximum 10 mph speed limit on the water.
The Lake Alpine Lodge features a store, restaurant and cabins and tents, and also rents kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, rowboats and even motorboats.
A rarely appreciated hike in the Lake Alpine area is the approximately 2-mile round-trip jaunt to Duck Lake, another blue haven in the wilderness.
In the lower elevations of Calaveras, New Hogan Reservoir outside Valley Springs attracts lots of families, both local and visiting, who swim and recreate in the water there. Campgrounds are scattered around this lake, too, and boat launches welcome anglers, water-skiers and personal watercraft captains. A word of caution, however: New Hogan Reservoir does not have a marina, so be wary of your fuel consumption on the lake!
The majority of recreating on the water at Pardee Reservoir is accessed from Amador County at the Pardee Recreation Area, operated by the Rocky Mountain Recreation Co. A marina rents all kinds of boats, including kayaks, canoes and pedal boats (remember, you cannot swim in the lake), and there are swimming pools in the recreation area.
Camanche Reservoir has big marinas accessed from both Calaveras and Amador counties, operated by the Lake Camanche Recreation Co. Campsites – tents and recreational vehicles are welcome – and cottages can be rented around the lake, offering a wide variety of ways to stay near the water. Two marinas rent boat slips, paddleboards, motorboats, kayaks and party barges (Gracie and Samantha).
The Lake Amador Resort outside Ione has been family owned since 1974. The 400-acre lake boasts campgrounds – one with full RV hookups – two 18-hole disc golf courses, a swimming pool, a 1-acre sandy beach with a swim pond and boat launches. This lake is especially popular with fishermen and women because it’s regularly stocked with fish, and has largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, bluegill and more.
Families appreciate the resort’s cafe that serves breakfast and lunch, a beer bar, pool and foosball tables and more.
This is just a sampling of the waterborne fun that’s packed into the Gold Country. As the season heats up, jump in and enjoy everything our reservoirs have to offer.