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Our big backyard

It was not a pretty sight to see debris overwhelm the shores and inlets of Folsom Lake this spring. Sticks, stumps and gangly logs collected like a giant bathtub ring on the 75 miles of shoreline, sometimes forcing swimmers and boaters at Granite Bay to dodge them as though they were the killer shark of "Jaws."

Would-be sailors and wakeboarders who usually put in at Brown's Ravine, picnickers at Folsom Point and anglers up at Rattlesnake Bar also had to adjust or navigate the inflow of mostly natural junk.

Yet, even at this low point in the ebb and flow of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, loyal crowds and devotees couldn't resist its charms. That's because Folsom Lake SRA, which is mostly owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed by California State Parks, is one of the most accessible and diverse chunks of outdoor recreation space anywhere.

Located between Interstate 80 and Highway 50, the park's 18,000 acres welcome up to 2.7 million visitors each year, as well as plenty of wildlife -- from the often-seen to the phantom, nocturnal visitors such as mountain lions.

"We have sightings all throughout the park, but especially near the bike trail between Folsom Dam Road and Historic Folsom," says Michael Gross, park superintendent. "Usually in the spring you get the most sightings. We have signs posted: 'Beware of mountain lions.' "

Gross, who has worked in many of California's state parks, says Folsom Lake SRA "has a unique intensity level and a much higher than average urban interface." Which is to say park users range from those awed by its natural attractions to adjacent property owners who nurture its resources -- and others who have been caught cutting down trees to "improve" the view.

Though Folsom Lake SRA is in the middle of the pack in state-park size, it's among the leaders in visitation.

Near-urban wonderland

And it's no wonder. Where else is there such a big-city backyard playground -- the park footprint touches three densely populated counties: Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer -- where not one but two campgrounds can deliver evening-by-the-fire coziness as well as early morning birdsong awakenings? And where else does merely living by a park offer such other rewards?

"The whole waterway is amazing, and then there's the biking, hiking, equestrian, running and bird-watching," says Folsom resident Crystal Barber, who essentially has adopted the park. Her solo walks along the American River Parkway "to get my thinking done" are shared with butterflies floating near wildflowers and birds of prey soaring above the stands of oak.

But it's not all butterflies and wildflowers for Barber. Several times a year, she rolls up her sleeves and leads organized cleanups of the park, sometimes in the company of another Folsom resident, Dan Winkelman, a retired state park ranger.

Though he's fond of all the natural wonders and opportunities above the dam on Folsom Lake, Winkelman speaks of the below-the-dam area around Lake Natoma as if it were an Eden for paddlers.

"Here's a five-mile-long lake, a quarter-mile wide very quiet, low-impact; it's world-class paddling," he enthuses. "There are islands to paddle around, there are channeling spots, and the canyon upriver. Three bridges for shade on hot days. It is just unbelievable what it offers."

A park based on water

The Sierra foothills and the lake views make it easy to forget that a river runs through it, so to speak.

Follow the water up the western shore and you'll end up at the narrows of the north fork of the American River, steadily inching up in elevation to nearly 500 feet near the park border with Auburn State Recreation Area.

Follow the shore on the eastern side and you'll soon be heading upstream on the south fork of the American River near Salmon Falls, roughly the park's eastern boundary (and a common takeout point for whitewater rafters).

The confluence of the two river forks formed the lake where Folsom Dam was built 50 years ago. Though the dam serves many purposes -- especially flood control -- park use leans toward the water, since about 12,000 of the 18,000 acres are liquid when the big lake above, and Lake Natoma below the dam, are full.

Folsom Lake is so popular, it's not unusual for the parking lot to close by 1 p.m. on summer days. There are only so many parking spaces, and that's why park officials repeat the mantra: "Come early in the day and stay."

Recreationists can launch boats of any size (though 40- footers seem to be about the biggest). Sailors, personal watercraft users and wakeboarders vie for access -- the latter groups apparently happy that a 5-mph speed limit on Folsom Lake because of debris hazards was lifted a few weeks ago.

But Folsom Lake SRA is equally beloved for what's under the water. Just ask Mike Esci, a fishing regular on the north fork for 15 years. His routine is to put his 16-footer with 40-horse outboard in at Rattlesnake Bar, way to the north where the river narrows.

"I've had a couple of days when I caught so many fish, my arms were about to fall off," says Esci, a retired Citrus Heights resident who likes to go after bass; he leaves the rest of the species -- including landlocked salmon, trout, catfish and crappie -- to others. He stalks spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass, preferring to use soft plastics and leech-pattern worm lures.

"You throw something out there that's not edible, not alive, and you manage to hook a fish -- that's fun," says Esci, a catch-and-release type who rarely brings any fish home.

His love for the park, though, is not limited to the water. On a recent Friday morning, after pulling his boat out at Rattlesnake Bar, he was praising the abundant wildlife -- just as three deer ran across the parking area.

"See," he says. "Rabbits in the morning, all over the place. I've seen raccoon, possum. I think I've seen an occasional fox. This is an amazing place, and they do a wonderful job keeping it that way."

Always a challenge

Still, for all of the park's natural beauty, Gross and his staff of 50 have their hands full. While usage and the surrounding communities are ever-growing, park funding is static, if not diminishing. That's why park officials are in the midst of creating a 20-year plan.

"The major challenge is the population base and having adequate facilities," Gross says.

Among the recommendations: to either expand marina facilities at Brown's Ravine or put another marina on the west shore; expand campgrounds, picnic areas and roadside-access points; and redesign and improve entrance stations to better handle incoming traffic.

Plus, while budgets may fluctuate, Gross hopes the numbers of volunteers -- not to mention their passion for cleanup and improvement projects -- will grow in the lean times. The Crystal Barbers and Dan Winkelmans, he says, will be key to keeping Folsom Lake SRA a place that draws crowds and delivers quality outdoor recreation.

Says Winkelman: "I can't believe how lucky I am to be able to live here. It's perfect for me."

To keep it that way, he hopes people who use it will learn "to care for it."

Or, as Barber says: "We can all make the park better, by picking up after ourselves and others and by respecting the park. Here's this huge natural resource, and it's right there."

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Hey, take a hike or go jump in a lake

Park Superintendent Michael Gross and his staff offer these five favorite spots to check out among the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area's 18,000 acres.

 Avery's Pond: Drive to the Rattlesnake Bar access, off Auburn-Folsom Road. Hike the marked trail for about 1.3 miles east, moving inland.

 Hike or ride a horse on the horse trail from Folsom Point to Brown's Ravine: Access Folsom Point from Natoma Street at the south end of the lake.

 Folsom Point Picnic Area: Great bluff views and lots of shade trees.

 Peninsula Campground: Unless you can hitch a ride on a boat launching from Brown's Ravine or Granite Bay to get to this east shore campground, you're in for about an hour's drive. (Check the map on Page E10.)

 Willow Creek on Lake Natoma: Park at the Iron Point light-rail station on Folsom Boulevard in Folsom. Cross the street, pick up the trail and head into the woods.

To get oriented with the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, see the map on Page E10 or visit www.folsomlakemarina.com/ trail_map.html.


A quick guide to using Folsom Lake

Here's information to help you enjoy a visit to the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area:

Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Oct. 14; 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 15 to March 31

Admission: $7 for day-use parking

Boat launch: $8

Camping: $20 for either Beals Point (west shore) or Peninsula (east shore, accessible by boat or a long drive). Camping reservations: (800) 444-7275

Information: (916) 988-0205 or www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=500. Or visit the office at 7806 Folsom-Auburn Road, Folsom

Concessions

The park sanctions more than a dozen concessions that provide services to help you enjoy your visit. They include:

Horseback riding

 Shadow Glen Stables: Hourly rates, boarding. (916) 989-1826 or www.shadowglenstables.com/ home.html.

 Ponderosa Trail Rides: (530) 367-3097 or www.ponderosatrailrides.com.

Wakeboarding

 Launch Wakeboarding School: Operating out of Brown's Ravine marina. (916) 532-9253.

Marina services

 Folsom Lake Marina: Various services. (916) 933-1300 or www.folsomlakemarina.com

Outfitters

Nearby outfitters include:

 CSUS Aquatic Center: (916) 278-2842 or www.csusaquaticcenter.com.

 California Canoe and Kayak: (916) 353-1880 or www.calkayak.com.

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