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A sparkling sapphire gem carved into the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, the San Luis Reservoir enjoys a scenic location in Merced County. This California reservoir is jointly owned and operated by the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Unlike other reservoirs that are created by damming river waters, the San Luis Reservoir is the largest off-stream storage facility in the world. Water is pumped uphill from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta during the rainy season, then released during the dry season for use by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.
Construction of the B.F. Fisk Dam took four years, from 1963 to 1967, at which time the reservoir began receiving water. The San Luis Reservoir filled to capacity in 1969 with 12,700 watery acres and 65 miles of shoreline. In addition to the lake's functional purposes for farm irrigation and hydroelectric power generation, San Luis Reservoir is now known as a haven for boaters, sailors, campers, and nature lovers alike.
On a warm spring day, on your way to the shores of the San Luis Reservoir, you'll pass fields of colorful wildflowers, glimpses of the crystalline blue waters, and gently rolling green hills. In summer, warm temperatures help those hills to turn a golden wheat color as the oaks adjust to the new season. Always a peaceful and beautiful trip, your first sight of the natural treasures that await will be the perfect appetizer to your trip.
This quiet valley began as a home to three different indigenous Yokuts groups - the Foothill, the Northern Valley, and the Southern Yokuts. Always rich in natural resources, these peoples fished, hunted, and foraged for food and materials to sustain them. In 1805, the Spanish arrived with new ideas and missions, forever changing the lives of the Yokuts. Over the next 40 years, up until the 1848 Gold Rush, the newcomers fished and hunted the Yokuts lands, eventually depleted their resources and doing serious damage to their number by introducing new diseases. With the influx of settlers during the Gold Rush, the native resistance was finally squelched.
Though the valley bears little resemblance to what it was 200 years ago, visitors and residents can educate themselves on the San Joaquin Valley and San Luis Reservoir past and present at the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area. Start your day at the park's Romero Visitor Center and pick up pamphlets of San Luis facts, things to see, places to go, and goodies to eat.
The San Luis Reservoir offers many different options, from sightseeing to hands-on activity. Nature lovers will enjoy taking an introductory hike; the Lone Oak Trail travels six miles of the lake's shores, weaving past Quien Sabe Point and flirting with Lone Oak Bay. Take your camera, because the shores of the lake are filled with jackrabbits, ground squirrels, deer, feral pigs, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, waterfowl, and even bald eagles.
Summer temperatures at the lake usually hover in the 90s, occasionally reaching 100. On such warm days, a cool lake dip will be just what you need to refresh your energy supplies. San Luis Creek's North Beach area has a lifeguard and designated swimming area, and the rest of the lake is fair game for those who want to find a quiet spot for a float.
Of course, there are other ways to cool off aside from swimming. Enjoy the breeze on your face as you take a powerboat jaunt around the lake, hang onto a tube for dear life, or test your waterskiing skills behind your rented boat. Jet skis, pontoon boats, canoes, and kayaks also have a niche at the San Luis Reservoir, so whatever your speed and boating preference, you'll feel right at home. Strong winds can pick up quickly on the lake, so red warning lights on top of Romero Overlook and Quien Sabe Point warn boaters to head to shore.
San Luis Reservoir reaches a water level low-point during summer when demands for water are high. Low water levels combined with high temperatures encourage the growth of algae. The San Luis Reservoir Low Point Improvement Project is reviewing feasible ways to preserve water quality.
Camping has a big presence at the lake, and one of the best ways to get to know the lake is at night. When most of the day's visitors are gone, the stars come out, the waters calm, and you'll feel like you have this 12,700-acre reservoir all to yourself. Several campgrounds populate the shores and provide everything from primitive campsites tucked into eucalyptus and pines to luxury sites with nearby restrooms, barbecues, and water and electric hookups.
The San Luis Reservoir and San Joaquin Valley are rich in history, natural beauty, and activities for tourists and residents alike. After you've spent just a weekend here, you'll find that leaving the rippling blue waters and green hills to go home is something best left for another day.
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