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Gently placed into the central Sierra Nevada Mountains near Sonora in Calaveras County, New Melones Lake holds the title of fourth largest reservoir by volume in California. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the New Melones Dam and powerhouse between 1966 and 1979 for flood control on the lower Stanislaus River and San Joaquin River Delta, hydropower generation, irrigation and municipal water supply, and fish and wildlife management. The Corps transferred management of the New Melones project to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1979. The proximity of New Melones Lake to San Francisco--just 125 miles away--has helped it blossom into a popular waterfront playground.
Begin your New Melones Lake trip with a stop at the Visitor Center and Museum. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, the center is dedicated to educating you about the Stanislaus River and how it was used by the area's original settlers. The informational tidbits are interesting and sometimes surprising, like when you learn that this region has been populated for over 9,000 years. The area that surrounds the lake is literally peppered with archaeological and cultural sites, and your stop at the Visitor Center will help you narrow down which ones you'd like to see.
Each year, about 800,000 visitors flock to the shores of New Melones Lake, but with all the space that its 12,500 acres provides, you can feel like you've found your own private slice of paradise. There are over 300 camping sites, several boat launches, a handful of marinas that rent boats, and some great fishing opportunities for the avid angler.
Fishing on New Melones Lake is a treat for even the most experience angler. The cool, clean waters are home to black crappie, bluegill, channel catfish, kokanee, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass. Bring your boat with you or rent one from a local marina, and get out onto the waters to enjoy perfect blue skies, gentle breezes, and the excitement of catching your next meal. As always, make sure you have a valid California fishing license.
If you love the outdoors, the hiking and biking trails surrounding the reservoir are sure to strike your fancy. You'll find most of the developed trails within the Glory Hole Recreation Area, though there are several more scattered around New Melones Lake's 100-mile shoreline. Trails range from easy (less than 2 miles of fairly flat terrain) to challenging (4+ miles with steep hills and terrain) and allow you a first-hand look at incredible natural bridges, amazing lake vistas, soaring mountains, and so much more. For a map of the area trail system, stop at the Visitor Center.
For boating enthusiasts, New Melones Lake has several boat launch ramps and docks in both the Glory Hole and Tuttletown Recreation Areas. Taking a boat out is truly the best way to see this large and lovely lake, giving you the opportunity to see trees reflecting off calm waters, investigate coves and tranquil lake nooks, and get a front-row ticket to the diverse wildlife that make the reservoir their home.
If you really love the feel of the water beneath you and the sound of an engine, consider renting a houseboat. New Melones Lake has several houseboating options, and you'll live in true waterfront luxury as you explore the lake in your own portable home. Falling asleep to the lap of water against the boat and having your only alarm be the brilliant sunrise is a once-in-a-lifetime treat that this unique option will afford you.
With all the water fun, you'll have to jump in sooner or later. Take a dive off the back of your boat and luxuriate in nature's own air conditioning, float on your back and watch the clouds drift by, or pump up the excitement and take a wild tube ride behind a boat. More experienced water lovers are free to water ski or kneeboard, and if you're there on a warm summer day, you'll find that you're in very good water sport company.
New Melones Lake is full of outdoor activities and active fun for every age, taste, and preference. Whether you're relaxing lakeside and taking in the sun or hiking through mountains to catch a spectacular view of the lake below, you'll know that you've found a truly beautiful and tranquil vacation spot.
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