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Peaceful Waters and Lively Flows
Photo: Carmel Gallery
Nevada County has a very fortunate water situation. The upper part of the county holds part of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, while the remainder of the county enjoys being in the downstream watershed. Seasonal rain from the Pacific and summer snowmelt make for excellent water quality in abundance. All we have to add is proper stewardship and wise use and we meet all our water needs, from agriculture to recreation, with a healthy flow continuing on down the Yuba River for our fellow Californians in the Sacramento Valley. Wild rivers and clean, high-mountain water are key components of enjoying life in Nevada County. Here are a few spots where you might want to enjoy the water:
LARGER LAKES & RIVERS
These are the larger, open-water lakes in the county, where you will find all of the delightful boating, swimming, fishing and camping that your heart desires. Amenities vary by location.
This is a gorgeous, high mountain lake formed by a natural moraine dam at nearly 6000 feet in elevation, with 980 acres of surface area. Donner Lake is just off Interstate 80 and Donner Memorial State Park wraps around the East and part of the South shore of the Lake. Donner offers not only scenic vistas but also fantastic fishing and boating and a famously historic setting in which to ponder the meaning of life and the attributes of flotation. Fair-weather activities include, camping, picnicking, boating, fishing, water-skiing, wind-surfing hiking and mountain biking. Winter activities include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Every amenity is here for you to enjoy all four seasons and the lively nearby town of Truckee. Also nearby is a little spot called Lake Tahoe.
This lake is manmade, generates hydroelectric power and is owned and operated by PG&E. We hope that sounds uninviting enough to keep droves of people away because it is also a lake of clear blue water spectacularly set in a granite bowl and one of our favorite lakes to visit. We begrudgingly admit there are first-rate camping (vault toilet alert), boating, fishing and relaxing to be had here. You could hike, you could swim. It’s even easy to get to: take Highway 20, turn on Lake Spaulding Road and go a half mile. Tell only your closest friends.
Bowman Lake: Bowman Lake lies in a rugged, rocky basin and is impounded by Bowman Dam on Canyon Creek. It is used for irrigation purposes so at full level it has a surface area of 1.3 square miles but it gets drawn down in late summer. Motor boats are limited to 10 MPH, so this lake is primarily used by fishermen and paddlers. The unpaved roads are rough and there are small but nice campgrounds. You can hike to an 80' high waterfall of cascades just up Canyon Creek. From Highway 20, take Bowman Road north. Drive about 16 miles to the lake. All but the last 4 miles are paved.
Scotts Flat Lake
This lake is full-service for fun and offers camping, picnicking, swimming, fishing and bait and tackle. Boaters are completely taken care of with rentals, gas dock, dry storage and mooring. There is also a store with everything you need, plus hot showers and a playground. Off Highway 20 east of Nevada City, turn onto Scotts Flat Road and follow it to the lake. At 3000 feet, Scotts Flat gets warmer sooner and stays warmer longer than the high elevation lakes in the county. Cannonball! www.scottsflatlake.net
This is the lake for people who want to enjoy themselves in the great outdoors without missing some of the comforts of town- like a restaurant, store and arcade. The full range of boating is happening here: power boats and water skiing, jet skis, windsurfing, sailing and row boats, with a full service marina and launch ramps. 900 acres of lake with 26 miles of shoreline for fishing and swimming, plus 4 campgrounds are available. Rollins Lake is off Highway 174, which runs between Colfax and Grass Valley- directions vary depending on which campground you want.
This is a manmade reservoir of 815 acres, formed by damming the lower Yuba River near the town of Smartsville. All campsites here are boat-in sites and house boating is also very popular. Boats of all types are allowed and many are available to rent. It’s a great place to fish, swim, relax and enjoy yourself. The lake is easy to find- from Highway 20 turn onto Mooney Flat Road (Driftwood Inn is the landmark) and follow signs to the boat ramps or Marina Store. www.englebrightlake.com
New Bullards Bar Reservoir
New Bullards Bar Reservoir: We’re giving this one “Honorary Nevada County Status,” as it is so nearby. This large reservoir is excellent for power boating. The public boat ramp is paved and designed to accommodate the seasonal drawdown. The privately operated marina is on the west shore above the dam. Houseboats are available for rent. Fishing can be exceptional. The south shore of the large, scenic, lake offers some of the best off-season mountain biking and hiking opportunities available. Summers can get warm but the cool, clear lake waters are only moments away. The formal name of the lake is New Bullards Bar Reservoir as this lake was greatly enlarged above the old reservoir. From Nevada City follow Highway 49 west for 24 miles and turn left (west) onto Marysville Road. The North Yuba Ranger Station sits on the north side of the intersection. The dam lies six miles west on Marysville Road. www.bullardsbar.com
Lake Wildwood is a gated community of about 3,000 homes, located between Penn Valley and the Yuba River at Bridgeport. The lovely lake at the center of the community offers boating, fishing and waterskiing with beautiful beaches and parks. There is also a golf course, clubhouse, community center and restaurant, so there is no shortage of amenities. Make a friend or contact a realtor! www.lakewildwood.net
Lake of the Pines
Lake of the Pines is a gated community in western Nevada County which actually has several lakes and ponds that offer a variety of recreational and aesthetic uses to members. The largest are the main lake (232-acres), Hazel Lake (four-acres) and Huck Finn Pond (three-acres). There are seven parks with five-beaches, a boat launch ramp, and a marina with 132-boat slips. Recreational uses include; swimming, fishing, water-skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking / canoeing, sailing, sailboarding and pontoon boating. Realtors are standing by to take your call!
These lakes are generally less visited than the big ones and usually offer the pleasures of walking to a place that offers a quiet space in nature, with good fishing if you are so inclined. Here a just a few selected lakes:
Good for camping, fishing and boating, Faucherie Lake’s dam is on Canyon Creek and its water is used for irrigation, hydroelectric power, drinking water and recreation purposes. At normal levels it has a surface area of 145 acres. It is owned by Nevada Irrigation District.
Fuller Lake and Rucker Lake
Fuller and Rucker lakes, both about 70 acres in size, are located next to one another near Yuba Gap. They are both natural lakes at similar elevation, both beautiful, typically quiet places surrounded by forest. Fuller is a cold water lake with a stable water level supplied by a canal from Bowman Lake, while Rucker is a warmer shallower lake supplied by water from Blue Lake on Rucker Creek. The area offers good camping, fishing and boating.
Popular and accessible by car, Carr Lake is another attraction in the Grouse Ridge Area. Floatables improve fishing and the carry-in is short to this 16-acre reservoir. The lake is pleasant enough but once it is drawn down in the fall, the natural lakes above here are better.
This one is best early in the year- the water level is drawn down by mid-summer when the fishing gets iffy and the setting gets less inviting. There’s a primitive, gated road of about ¼ mile to the dam facilitates. Try a carry-in boat for energetic anglers. There is also access via the Round Lake Trail above Carr Lake.
This is a smallish lake that offers nice flat-water paddling. It is suitable for the car-top launching of small boats. Although the lake lies entirely on private Nevada Irrigation District lands, fishing and dispersed camping are allowed. For hiking, the Grouse Ridge Trail can be accessed by crossing the dam and spillway, water flow permitting.
Seven miles east of Truckee, this reservoir offers several inlets for bank fishing, surrounded by sagebrush slopes, bluffs, and pines. Can be lots of boaters with motorboats limited to 5-MPH in inlets. The lake is normally drawn down dramatically by late summer. There are three campgrounds in the area with fees required.
Jackson Meadows Reservoir
This is a very popular lake for camping, with several choices available on the lake or nearby. This reservoir sits in a forested valley with the Sierra Crest and English Mountain as the backdrop to this beautiful lake. All watercraft are allowed, with noise level laws are enforced. There are paved boat ramps on the east and west shores but they’re often not usable by late summer when water levels are low. Fishing boats dominate, but flat water paddling is good when the water levels are up.
This is a medium-sized reservoir that is about 1 1/2 miles long when it is full. It sits in a gentle, high elevation, forested basin. The reservoir now covers most of the original meadow. The remaining meadow stretches to the southwest and is the site of historic Summit City. Little remains of the gold rush town except for a few foundations and the cemetery. The last 4 miles of road are rough, rocky and narrow. In late summer when the lake is drawn down, it’s a muddy walk to the water near the boat access point at the lower end of the lake. Earlier in the season, the water level is adequate but there is no developed boat launch. Good camping of the primitive to semi-primitive variety.
The lake is isolated and scenic, but gated, with walk-in access to the lake level itself. There’s no boat launch and no motorized craft due to the gated road. It can be good for flat-water paddling but winds do come up fairly often. Camping is available at Independence Lake Campground, with 20 sites, some okay for small trailers but must be able to take the very rough roads required to get to the lake. This lake is managed by the Department of Fish & Game as a pure Lahontan cutthroat fishery -- if you catch any, they must be released.
This reservoir is located in open sagebrush country with smaller pines scattered near the lake. There is a wide open feeling, perhaps too much so when the lake is drawn down. There are three campgrounds on the peninsula between the two arms of the reservoir. This lake allows no water skiing, power boating, or individual jet craft. All craft have a 10-mph speed limit. There is a paved boat ramp near Prosser Campground, although it is not usable at low water in late summer.
HIGH SIERRA LAKES FOR HIKERS
If you love to go hiking and backpacking, love the feel of the granite under your feet, there are many high-altitude lakes waiting for you. Fly-fishing and daydreaming recommended. Here is just a sample:
A great short hike and beautiful setting make Island Lake a nice choice. This is a very photogenic lake that is a favorite swimming hole and offers challenging Lake, Rainbow and Brown trout fishing. As one hiker describes it, “You can make this a day trip or backpack in for a day or two. This is a great place to just relax. Start your hike at Carr trail head follow your GPS to Island Lake. Take your time and enjoy the scenery along the trail- approximate walking time 2.5 – 3.5 hours.”
This is one of the toughest hike-in lakes in our area, but also one of the most scenic. Lahontan cutthroat trout have been planted in Warren Lake to reestablish this fishery. On the western side of the lake there are a number of inviting campsites with opportunities for fishing, rock climbing, or just taking a well-deserved rest. Since the trail is rather strenuous and fairly long, it is recommended the hiker consider this at least a two-day hike. Nearby: Devil’s Oven Lake: At an elevation of 7874', the lake lies just a hearty cross-country scramble to an upper basin to the southwest of Warren Lake. Fishing is usually judged to be fairly good.
Lower Lola Montez Lake
This one is tame and quite near I-80. Located in a forested basin, a moderate hour-and-a-quarter hike brings you to its wooded shores. It's a great place to take kids for an overnight of camping and fishing. Fishing for Rainbow trout in Lower Lola Montez Lake is relatively good but it is also known for big Brook trout. The lower part of the trail to Lower Lola Montez Lake snakes through private property so stay on the trail. Upper Lola Montez Lake can be accessed via Rattlesnake Road and if you elect to scramble downhill for a few hundred feet, this can also serve as an alternate way to reach Lower Lola Montez Lake.
This beautiful lake rests in a basin only a mile by trail below the Grouse Ridge campground. Milk Lake's long shoreline offers plenty of opportunities for good fishing. The entire Grouse Ridge area is one of the most popular destinations in Nevada County because of the accessibility of so many fine lakes. This lake is the last in the chain of four scenic lakes (Island, Long, and Round Lakes) stretching to the east along the Round Lake Trail.
This is a dramatic lake in its rocky basin perched high above the surrounding lakes. This 5.4-mile out-and-back has it all: 5-star camping, superlative swimming, and picture-postcard scenery along a patchwork of lakes in Tahoe National Forest. A couple of hours of hiking with some moderate elevation changes will bring you to this lovely little lake along the Crooked Lakes Trail.
THE LARGER RIVERS
For larger rivers, the Yuba River attracts most of the attention, with its North, Middle and South Forks coursing through and draining the largest part of the county. Mostly running wild, it is known for superb swimming holes and hiking trails. The Yuba River Basin contains 1300 square miles of diverse lands, waters, habitats and human activities. To stay up-to-date on Yuba river news, visit the SYRCL website: www.yubariver.org . The Truckee River is also delightful and the Bear River is a less widely-known pleasure.
From the joining of the North and Middle forks, the Yuba flows southwards, then southwest, through the Sierra Nevada foothills, forming the Yuba-Nevada County border. The river widens into the main arm of Englebright Lake near French Bar, and is joined by the South Yuba within the reservoir. The Yuba leaves the dam near Lake Wildwood and is then joined by Deer Creek, the stream flowing from that lake, on the left. The Yuba slows down as it flows from the mountains out into the Sacramento Valley to join the Feather River between the cities of Marysville, Yuba City and Linda.
Yuba River (Middle Fork)
Originating in a bowl-shaped valley in Moscove Meadow, the 55.4-mile-long Middle Yuba River flows north into Jackson Meadows Reservoir, then turns west, descending steeply into a gorge, defining over almost its entire length the boundary of Nevada County in the north and Yuba County in the south. The river bends to the southwest, then west again, receiving Kanaka Creek from the right and Grizzly Creek from the left. It intersects Highway 49 about 2 miles northwest of the community of North San Juan, then a few miles after joins with the North Yuba River.
Yuba River (North Fork)
The North Yuba River is about 60 miles long and rises near the eastern border of the Tahoe National Forest on a mountainside along Highway 49. It flows southwest then west through a 3,000-foot-deep canyon past the small village of Downieville, where it receives the Downie River. It then incorporates the flow of Canyon Creek and Slate Creek, two of its main tributaries, and very soon after widens into New Bullards Bar Reservoir, which is impounded by a 645-foot dam. Soon after leaving the dam it joins with the Middle Yuba to form the Yuba River.
Yuba River (South Fork)
The 65-mile-long South Yuba River originates at Donner Pass at the crest of the Sierra Nevada, near the town of Soda Springs. Gathering numerous tributaries, it runs west through a marshy, lake-filled valley, shadowed by Interstate 80. The river then flows into Lake Spaulding, which is formed by Spaulding Dam. After escaping the dam, the river plunges northward into a steep-sided valley. Canyon Creek enters from the right, then Poorman Creek also from the right near the town of Washington. The river continues west into the foothills, crossing under State Route 49. Its mouth is on the eastern shore of Englebright Lake, formed by a dam across the Yuba River.
This lovely high Sierra river is heavily used for recreation, including rafting and fly fishing. The Truckee River's source is the outlet of Lake Tahoe, at the dam on the northwest side of the lake near Tahoe City. It flows generally northwest through the mountains to the town of Truckee, then turns sharply to the east and flows into Nevada, through Reno, and ultimately it empties into the southern end of Pyramid Lake, A common rafting run is the River Ranch Run. Starting from the outlet gates at Lake Tahoe stretching about 3 miles, the run ends at the River Ranch Restaurant. These rapids are almost all class 1 and class 2. In downtown Reno the river has been sculpted into a half-mile Class 2/3 whitewater park, and is used mainly for kayaking.
Once you’ve done the Yuba River, it’s time to try the Bear! At the crossing of Bear River and Hwy 174 there is a nice old bridge and a good hiking trail for a relatively easy, approximately two mile hike downstream. There are several smaller trails branching off to the river for swimming, fishing, or just relaxing. The Bear River is ultimately a tributary of the Feather River as it winds through four counties: Yuba, Sutter, Placer and Nevada. The river originates in Tahoe National Forest, south of the South Fork of the Yuba River and north of the North Fork of the American River. It begins south and west of Lake Spaulding. The river travels southwest and is impounded at Rollins Reservoir, Lake Combie, and Camp Far West Reservoir before joining the Feather River south of Yuba City/Marysville.
STREAMS & CREEKS
These tend to be the sweet spots that the locals know for the pleasures of berry-picking wildflower spotting and bird watching. There are far too many to name them all but in these days of GPS and internet mapping, see if you can locate: Deer Creek, Humbug Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, Brandy Creek and Poorman Creek, just for starters.
So now you have an introduction to some of the wet and wild attractions of Nevada County. Have fun, be safe, be tidy and appreciate the quality of our beautiful water.