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One of the most popular destination lakes along the California Central Coast is 3100-acre Cachuma Lake. In 1953, the federal Bureau of Reclamation constructed a dam across the Santa Ynez River to provide a water supply to nearby Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. After the Cachuma Dam, later renamed the Bradbury Dam, began retaining water that would otherwise flow into the Pacific, much of the Santa Ynez Valley was under up to 150 feet of precious water. The local Santa Barbara County Parks Division immediately arranged a long-term lease of the lake and surrounding 9000-acre Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. The intervening 60 years have seen Cachuma Lake developed into one of the area's favorite outdoor destinations. There is now something here to interest every member of the family.
One of the most popular spots on Cachuma Lake is along the south shore where the Cachuma Lake Campground holds more than 400 campsites in four separate areas on a large peninsula, with over 100 of them fully equipped with electric, water and sewer service. Group camping areas are available for reservation. The large public use area on the peninsula also holds a marina which rents row boats, canoes, kayaks, pontoon boats and pedal boats; the marina sells gas, fishing licenses and bait. A grocery/convenience store sells snacks and supplies, while a playground offers some physical activity to energetic young visitors. Picnic tables, grills, rest rooms and drinking fountains round out the amenities for day visitors, while coin-operated laundry and showers add convenience for campers.
In addition to bring-your-own shelter, Cachuma Lake offers yurts and fully-equipped one-and two-bedroom cabins by reservation only. The campground is popular enough that reservations are always a good idea. As Cachuma Lake is a drinking water supply reservoir, no-body-contact rules preclude activities such as water skiing, jet skiing and swimming. Two swimming pools with lifeguards are available for swimming, with swimming lessons taught regularly for a small fee. The pools are closed during the winter months, although the campground is open. The campground even offers a new dog park for four-legged campers, who must be licensed and up-to-date on required vaccinations.
Boat launching ramps accommodate a variety of smaller boats for a small fee. Two fishing piers, one with handicapped access, are provided for shore fishing. A 40 mph speed limit on much of the lake allows bass boats to travel the large lake with ease. Other areas are off-limits to heavier boat traffic for the paddling pleasure of canoes and kayaks. The lake and boat ramps are open year-round, with fishing usually more popular as a winter sport. The planted rainbow trout are usually more interested in the offered flies when the water is cooler. In recent years, the lake has become known for excellent smallmouth bass fishing, while the many arms, coves and bays provide optimal habitat for sunfish, catfish, bluegill, redear and crappie. An annual trout fishing derby is extremely popular. And recently, in answer to an increasing number of carp in the lake, a carp bowhunting season has been declared. Because of the danger of invasive mussels, new boating regulations require quarantine times and power washing for trailered boats without a current Cachuma Lake sticker. A storage lot is provided for boats waiting out the quarantine period.
Miles of hiking trails are enclosed within the 9000-acre Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. Set against the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountains, the area covers all types of hiking terrain. Everything from easy, leisurely walks to rocky and steep climbing routes can be found. On the north shore of the lake, the Neal Taylor Nature Center is a hands-on nature experience offering nature-based exhibits and activities for children. Bird feeding stations behind one-way glass allow for observation of the many local birds, Trout eggs can be seen hatching, and a resident bear is available for viewing. Entrance to the Nature Center is free, covered by the $10 entrance fee to the Recreation Area (annual permits are available). The Nature Center also offers lake wildlife cruises led by naturalists, who know the best locations to scout out birds and animals among the isolated coves and rocky shores. In winter, these lake cruises are especially prized by bird watchers who often sight bald eagles.
Other nearby attractions include the Los Padres National Forest, a short distance up-river with plenty of scenic hikes, forest campgrounds and hidden wilderness picnic spots. El Capitan State Beach is about 45 minutes to the west by road, offering swimming, beach hikes and lovely views of the Pacific. Several nearby small towns offer unique restaurants, bed & breakfasts and guest lodges. The City of Santa Barbara is located 30 minutes away and offers a full range of hotels and upscale lodgings, elegant shops and restaurants of every description. All sorts of outdoor adventures can be found in the surrounding area to take advantage of the warm climate and fantastic mountain views.
Cachuma Reservoir delivers water into the main Santa Barbara water distribution system via a tunnel from the lake. As the lake ordinarily holds the waters from spring flooding, water levels are very dependent on recent rainfall and can change drastically from season to season and year to year. After several years of drought, Cachuma Lake is currently very low, so boating and fishing are limited by the low water. The water levels will improve once regular rainfall in the surrounding mountains provide the necessary run-off. The campground is still open, however, and many activities can go on as usual. Cachuma Lake is well-worth a visit even during times of low water as the striking rocky scenery is still visible and the plentiful wildlife even more likely to be near the water. So, bring the binoculars and the hiking shoes: Cachuma Lake awaits!
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