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  • Randall Benton /

    Zoe Conant, 7, leaps into Ice House Reservoir in the Eldorado National Forest. The man-made lake is a favorite of vacationers and day-trippers hoping to avoid crowds.

  • Randall Benton /

    A kayaker looks all alone on Ice House Reservoir, though he's likely to have company in the form of swimmers, skiers and fishermen.

As its name implies, Ice House Reservoir is c-c-c-c-old

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

On the map, it looks enticingly remote and tantalizingly gelid. Smack dab in the middle of the green expanse of the Eldorado National Forest sits a body of water the Rorschachian shape of a horse in mid-stride, bearing the promising name of Ice House Reservoir.

Surely this spot, 50 miles south of Lake Tahoe and 70 miles northeast of Sacramento, will provide blessed relief from the Central Valley summer swelter.

Surely the name is not some cruel SMUD-inspired joke to lure unsuspecting campers and boating enthusiasts to a tepid, bath-water-warm man-made hole.

Surely, at one time, someone must've actually made ice at the site of what now is this big gulp of a hydroelectric power source, so shouldn't the water be, like, cold?

The only way to find out, for sure, is to go jump in the lake – OK, reservoir.

Remote as the site may appear on Google, you realize you're not alone in this venture as you embark on a Friday morning. After exiting Highway 50 about 16 miles north of Placerville for the 11-mile climb up Ice House Road into the depths of the forest, you're following a serpentine line of SUVs with kayaks and canoes strapped Romney-doglike to roofs, campers towing boats and jet skis, sedans with mountain bikes tied to the trunk.

Once you've made beachhead in the day-use lot – the 83-unit campground is sold out on this late July weekend – you step out into a pine-scented, rare-aired (5,500-foot altitude), warm-but-not-oppressive late morning. The weather service states the average summer temperature here is 72 degrees, a veritable cold snap compared to the sweat lodge that is Sacramento.

The eye goes immediately to the expanse of indigo with ripples of sunlight glinting off the surface. The water doesn't so much lap at the shore as nudge up against and caress it.

Before taking the plunge, you figuratively dip your toe in the water by asking campers, fishermen and boaters all around you for their take on the temperature.

How cold is it?

"It's cold, yeah," said Zack Lenox of Camino. "I couldn't stay in very long."

"By August, it's not that cold," said his dad, Bob.

"I grew up on this lake," said Pete Francone, who now lives in Carson City, Nev. "The water's always freezing, year-round."

"It's a little cold, but once you get in, it's fine, bearable," said Dale Martin of Placerville.

"You'll get that ooooph (sharp intake of breath) when you first go in," said Miguel Rangel of Camino. "If you get past that, you're fine."

Enough with the stalling. Time for some participatory journalism.

There are two generally accepted ways to enter a lake: Wade out carefully, inch by inch, each footfall secure on the rocky bottom until the water rises knee-, waist- and then shoulder-high and then submerges your head; or, gain a quick foothold and do a Superman splash for immediate, total immersion.

You opt for the latter, on the theory that it's best to endure a short, sharp blast of cold rather than long, drawn-out exposure.

And, well, dear readers, it is cold. As advertised. Not as cold as the "Ice House" name implies, but frigid enough to cool off a flatlander's overheated epidermis. The shock of cold lasts not even a minute and, if you keep moving, the water soon becomes exceedingly tolerable.

As you make like Michael Phelps and frolic about, you notice something else refreshing about the reservoir: It's not overrun with people and watercraft.

Sure, the campground is full, but even around lunchtime and early afternoon it's not the hydro equivalent of the Cap City Freeway at rush hour. You count just two aluminum fishing boats bobbing on the water and, in the distance, the buzz of a single speedboat pulling water skiers in its wake.

"This is why I like coming up here," said Rangel, who's on a fishing trip with Zack and Bob Lenox. "The atmosphere is quiet. The people are generally good. It's a peaceful place to come and relax."

Many fishermen and campers say Ice House, while neither little known nor little used, is not a wildly popular go-to spot in the summer, like Fallen Leaf Lake near Tahoe or Jenkinson Lake at Sly Park in Pollock Pines.

"Sly Park is packed, and that's why we're here," Lenox said. "On a weekend, if it's really busy, there might be seven or eight boats out there (at Ice House). That's nothing compared to Sly. We were here all day yesterday and just saw maybe one or two other (boats)."

At nearly 700 surface acres and 10 miles of shoreline, Ice House isn't the largest of the SMUD-owned reservoirs and lakes in the area; nearby Union Valley Reservoir dwarfs it at 2,412 acres.

When Martin and Leah Thomas of Placerville were planning a family reunion for more than 30 people this year, they took the crowding and accessibility into account.

"Three years ago, we went to Fallen Leaf, and it's real nice," Martin said. "But it's hard to get three or four campsites together there. And Jenkinson is just too crowded. Now, even (Ice House) is getting full."

Thomas said she was poised over her computer keyboard in January when the reservations for July campsites at Ice House were made available.

"At 7:02 a.m., I hit the button to get (the sites) here all together," she said. "That would've been almost impossible at Fallen Leaf."

To family patriarch Jack Thomas, Ice House is a reasonable compromise. He would've liked to get closer to Tahoe, but presiding over breakfast as his children and grandchildren milled about, he gave the place his stamp of approval.

"It's close to the water, and it doesn't rain as much here," he said.

One of his granddaughters piped up: "The bears are not as invading here."

"That, too," he added, smiling.

Both the Thomas family reunion and Jennifer Stout's family reunion across the hillock had room to sprawl. Each pine-studded campground site is limited to six people and one vehicle per single and 12 people and two vehicles (including RVs) per double site.

"The oldest generation of our family has been coming here 30 years," she said. "I've been here since I was a kid, and it hasn't changed much. My cousin has a boat and we go out tubing, canoeing and fishing. It's a kind of tradition for us every year."

It is possible, however, to decamp for Ice House on the spur of the moment. Pat Gonsalves, manning the entrance for American Land and Leisure, the company contracted by the Forest Service to run the campground, said 60 percent of the sites are reserved in advance but 40 percent are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Chris Hopkins, from Brentwood in the East Bay, and friends lucked into three spots at midweek and reserved them through the weekend.

"I don't like these places where you have to reserve it a year or two in advance," he said. "That's a real hassle. But I also like how it's quiet here. I go to Lake Berryessa (in Napa County), but it's just got too many things going on – boaters and jet skiers everywhere. And I'm not a big Delta fan. The water in the Delta kind of scares me."

Fishermen are drawn to reservoirs such as Ice House and Union Valley because the water is clean and fish (mostly rainbow and brown trout) are planted regularly. The guarantee of freshly stocked waters is what brought avid fishermen Harmon and Carmen Ellis up from Folsom. Tired of plying their pastime at their local lake, the couple went on the Internet to see which sites have been recently stocked.

"We've never been here before," Carmen Ellis said, as she and her husband carried poles and tackle along the rocky shoreline. "Wish us luck."

They caught nary a nibble, they later reported. "But it still was a fun day," she said.

That wasn't enough for Bob Gerber, who came from Sacramento to fish. After a rough day on his boat, he was heading over to Union Valley Reservoir.

"There's fish out there; they're just not biting right now," he said.

Gonsalves has heard many a fisherman's lament in his job. He says it's best to fish Ice House when it's not hot, defined as anything over 70 degrees, because "it gets so hot, the fish have gone down deep and you have to have downriggers to catch them."

Most of the campers, frankly, cared little about how the fish were biting. As Stout said of her brood, "They just play on the beach all day. We'll bring lunch down. That makes them happy."

For those wanting a respite from the water, a 3.1-mile (one way) mountain bike and hiking-running trail is carved into the rolling hills parallel to the road into the camp.

The trailhead is on Ice House Road, a few hundred feet beyond where you make the turn for the final 1.5 miles of paved road to the campsite. (It's marked "Ice House Mountain Bike Trail.") It's a relatively easy trail to traverse, with lots of short climbs and descents that mountain bikers desire, and enough tall pines to satisfy your coniferous cravings.

You can pick up the trail at several road crossings closer to camp. It's not well marked, but look for brown stakes along road shoulders next to the main campsite.

At several spots nearing the Strawberry Point campground, the trail rises and the reservoir pops into view, seemingly luring a sweaty, dusty trekker back to its refreshing, watery depths.

"The water's chilly but not cold," proclaimed Gonsalves, who spends five days a week at the Res and deserved the last word. "Low 60s. Just about right."


It is possible to escape the seemingly unrelenting heat of a Sacramento summer – without leaving the Central Valley? Travel writer Sam McManis continues his exploration of three non-coastal options for cool day-trip respites.


• Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno


• Moaning Cavern Park in Vallecito


• Ice House Reservoir in the Eldorado National Forest

To read previous Cool California stories, go to


Where: Eldorado National Forest, 23 miles northeast of Placerville

Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 50 about 16 miles northeast of Placerville; take the Ice House Road exit. Travel on Ice House Road 11 miles to Forest Road 32 (look for signs to Ice House Reservoir), turn right and go about a mile to the campground.

Campsite information: 83 total units, including tent, trailer or RV units and walk-in tent sites, vault toilets, no showers or hookups, piped water, nearby dump station. Cost for campsite: $22 per day. Day pass to parking lot: $7. Pets welcome but must be on leash.

Recreational options: swimming, fishing, boating (with boat ramp), picnic area, fire rings and grills and a bike/hiking trail.


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