Lake Berryessa offers a spectrum of affordable recreation

Devil’s Gate on Putah Creek, on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, is a deep notch carved in a high, rocky escarpment. When engineers searching for a new dam site spotted it, they must’ve broken out in huge grins. Now, a half century later, as drivers wheel past the engineers’ creation, 304 foot-high Monticello Dam, they can smile, too. On the far side, they’ll see Lake Berryessa, an inviting, 20,700-acre expanse of blue and sparkling water.

But if visitors then hunt for access points to enjoy this sprawling lake, they’ll find less opportunity than they would have a dozen years ago.

The recreation-and-concession scene here underwent the equivalent of a major earthquake. Of the seven large resorts that once catered to 1.5 million visitors per year, just two are left — and overall lake visitation has dropped to a third or less of what it once was.

The hardy survivors are: Markley Cove, a tidy marina that offers boat and modular cabin rentals, just two miles from the dam; and Pleasure Cove, found a few miles farther on, with a sprawling campground, RV park and boat rentals that range up to luxury houseboats.

These resorts steadily polish their offerings, under terms of multiyear contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That federal agency not only manages the lake, but also 10,000 acres of meadow and woodland that wrap around Berryessa’s shore. The other five resorts? Gone. Their former sites are now mostly scraped down to open ground.

And thereby hangs a tale, which we’ll relate in a bit.

The present at Berryessa is actually far more interesting.

If affordable summer recreation is your quest, this lake’s current situation should prove your grail. The pair of still-operating resorts offer a full menu of fun, some of it upscale. However, if all you want is a place to watch your kids splash and swim, picnic, dry-camp, fish or launch a boat, the lake provides a number of other sites where you can accomplish all those at remarkable prices, ranging from cheap to free.

Someday, new concessionaires will create resorts at Berryessa and fresh infrastructure will rise. But so will fees. And now? Well, prices may never be this low again. It’s a good time to acquaint yourself with the charms of this big lake.

“Our goal is to offer a variety of recreation services that can lead to higher visitation,” said USBR Park Manager Jeff Laird. “Right now that means a wide range of options, some that cost little or no money.

“We want people from a wide range of economic circumstances to find a way to have fun here.”

Details about the offerings at Markley Cove and Pleasure Cove are readily available at their websites, listed below. But the public opportunities elsewhere around the shore deserve their own summary, particularly since they’re part of a rapidly evolving situation.

Try to visualize this oblong lake as a round clock dial. Monticello Dam on Highway 128 is at 4 o’clock, Markley at 4:30 and Pleasure at 5:30. Between the dam and Markley are a half-dozen marked trailheads that lead down to the water to provide access for swimming and fishing, all free.

At 6 o’clock — or nine miles from the dam — is the junction of Highways 128 and 121 and Steele Canyon Road. Five miles up that road lies the Steele Canyon Recreation Area, with a concrete launch ramp. This is one place where fees are being collected, including $15 for day use, $20 for boat launch, and $25 for tent camping. (More information is at the website.)

At 7 o’clock — 14 miles from the dam — is the junction of Highway 128 and Knoxville Road. Close to the junction, you’ll find the venerable Turtle Rock Bar & Cafe. Just after it, and two miles up Knoxville Road, is the Olive Orchard day-use area, for picnicking and fishing access; it’s free for now. One mile farther on, find the Cappell Cove boat launch ramp.

It’s also free and open to use from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. You can even (for now) park your car and trailer there overnight and sleep on your boat (if you have toilet facilities on board), though you cannot camp anywhere on shore.

Moving on up Knoxville Road, in 2 more miles you’ll come across the Spanish Flat Recreation Area, once a sprawling resort, now a good swimming and picnic area that is open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. This one does have the same fees as Steele Canyon. In another mile, you’ll find the Spanish Flat Village Center.

Then, just 1 mile farther on, the USBR’s Dufer Point Visitor Center — at about 8 o’clock on your dial. It’s open Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. (closed Wednesdays), and on weekends and holidays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

The Oak Shores Day Use Area is a mile past the visitor center, and offers some of the most charming picnic and beach sites. It is at present free for day-use, as is Smittle Creek another mile on. Continuing north, you’ll pass Berryessa Point and Monticello Shores, sites that are closed and awaiting redevelopment.

Putah Canyon Recreation Area is 15 miles up the Knoxville Road, has boat launch, day-use and camping facilities with the same fees as Steele Canyon.

Nearby, the Camp Berryessa site is being developed as a new environmental education center by Napa County, able to accommodate 128 campers at a time. Opening is set for fall 2014; the public can reserve it for use when educational activities are not occurring.

Finally, at Eticuera Day Use Area, 20 miles around the lake from the Highway 128-Knoxville Road junction, or 34 miles from the dam and straight up at midnighton our dial — is a small day-use area with vault privies and a hand-launch boat ramp (canoes, kayaks) all free for use.

Here’s the story behind the current palette of opportunities. Lake Berryessa boasts 165 miles of shoreline, more than twice as much as Lake Tahoe. But for 50 years, the best parts of that shore were blocked by 1,300 trailers and mobile homes that were parked and in many cases, almost stacked, at the resorts by long-term renters. These renters did give the resorts a steady income. They also created fire hazards, denied a great deal of access to the general public and generated pollution problems. Not only were sewage systems at most resorts judged to be inadequate, over 100 trailers were unconnected to a sewer line of any sort, with predictable results.

The leases that allowed this situation to fester were granted two extensions by the Bureau, but finally, in 2006, a big shake-up occurred. Leases were not renewed, renters and concessionaires were told to vacate the premises, and new concessionaires were sought. Legal problems loomed if old infrastructure was left in place, so in most cases the government removed it completely. A new concessionaire signed up to run six of the resort sites.

However, in December, that firm was dismissed for lack of performance and sent packing.

That’s why Berryessa’s in its current state. The lake’s caught between two worlds (to crib a line from poet Matthew Arnold). One’s dead. The new one? Well, let’s say the labor’s taking quite a bit longer than anyone had hoped. Meanwhile, the lake stays relatively uncrowded, there’s no charge to use a number of nice facilities, and Berryessa is simply begging to be rediscovered. Since it’s a mere 40 miles from Sacramento, 20 from Napa and 50 from San Francisco, there’s no reason to think it won’t be.

Terry Sparkman is a veteran manager for Future Resorts, the concessionaire at Pleasure Cove, and he’s been steadily improving the site for five years. As a sign of optimism, the company signed a contract that runs until 2040.

“Berryessa’s a nice, family-oriented place to be,” said Sparkman. “For the most part, it stays pretty calm. It’s going to take millions of dollars to put in new infrastructure at the places that were closed. But I feel pretty happy and excited about the future.”

Those sentiments are seconded by Linda Frazier, who has run Markley Cove with her husband, John, since 1987. The couple went through a rough patch when the Bureau awarded the Cove’s lease to a new concessionaire — but since it was the same firm that was booted out for nonperformance, the Fraziers were soon back in the saddle.

“We’re very fortunate that we have loyal customers, especially at our marina,” Linda Frazier said. “For a while there, we scrambled a bit. But the USBR people are now trying their darndest to get this lake back on track, and I think that’s a good thing. We’re happy to be here; we’re in the game and we’re good to go.”