NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

Exploring Tahoe National Forest

A Brief History

Tahoe National Forest consists of 1.2 million acres, of which 800,000 are public lands managed by the Forest Service. Elevations range from 1,500 t0 9,400 feet. It is anchored by the Big Kahuna of California (and Nevada) lakes, Lake Tahoe. Historians tell us that the native peoples (Washoe, Maidu & Nisenan tribes) didn't live in what is now Tahoe National Forest year-round, but hunted and foraged here. In the 1840's trappers were active here, and in the late 1840's the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill became the game changer. Timber was needed to support the mining operations and timber remains an important component of the local economy to this day. If you travel or camp in the forest you will encounter logging trucks, a fact of life. Lake Tahoe and its immediate surroundings are covered separately in a piece entitled The Lake Tahoe Basin.

The Roads

We will focus our efforts starting from the city of Auburn, from which many roads emanate. It is reached most directly by taking Interstate 80 from your starting point. Click the links for a description of the sights and campgrounds to be found along the way.

The major "arteries" in this area are as follows:

Interstate 80 from Auburn to the Nevada state line. We'll not cover this in detail as in our view Donner Lake is the only significant point of interest on the route. But it's a valuable conduit to other places.

Highway 49 (aka the Yuba Donner Scenic Byway) from Auburn to Sierraville & the intersection of Hwy. 89.

Highway 89, for these purposes running north from Lake Tahoe in the south to the national forest border to the north. From there it will carry you into Plumas, Lassen and Shasta National Forests should you wish to continue your trek. We do, but not here.

Highway 20, for our purposes running from Grass Valley in the west to the intersection with Interstate 80 at about Yuba Pass, just west of the Cisco Grove exit from Int. 80 and well west of Donner Summit.

Many "lesser" roads are critical to your travels in this area as well, and we will cover them as they relate to important destinations.

The Destinations

Sugar Pine Reservoir & Big Reservoir (aka Morning Star Lake)

These two lakes are less than a mile apart about 30 miles east of Auburn. Both sit at close to 4,000 feet and offer camping, fishing, small boating and swimming. Sugar Pine, at 3,500 feet, is known for better fishing with stocked rainbow trout and populations of smallmouth and Florida strain largemouth bass. Swimming is allowed; kayaking and canoeing are popular pursuits. There are 2 group campgrounds. It is managed by the forest service. Big Reservoir, at 4,000 feet, has more campsites, including showers. It also is stocked with rainbow trout and has a swimming beach and some lakeside campsites. It is privately owned. Lake Clementine is also nearby, which is really a 3.5 mile stretch of the North Fork of the American River. It has 2 undeveloped campgrounds. The nearest town is Foresthill. Click on the links for Sugar Pine Reservoir or Big Reservoir for more information and directions.

French Meadows Reservoir

This remote lake sits at the end of a long (40+ miles), winding road about 50 miles east of Auburn. It sits at 5,200 feet and features 1,920 surface acres. It is stocked with rainbow trout to supplement a population of native browns. It is known as one of the better lakes for trout. The downside is that the lake bottom is strewn with underwater hazards like tree stumps, and the lake level can fluctuate due to drawdowns. All types of boating are allowed. Hell Hole Reservoir, in neighboring Eldorado National Forest, is nearby (15 miles south). Click the French Meadows Reservoir link for more information and directions.

Lake Spaulding

This is a good fishing destination and easy to get to. Travelers on Int. 80 would turn left on Hwy. 20 at the Yuba Gap overcrossing 24.5 miles west of Truckee and backtrack 2 miles to the lake entrance. If you were driving Hwy. 20 east from Nevada City you will encounter the access road 2 miles before reaching Int. 80. The lake is managed by PG&E, sits at 5,014 feet and has 698 surface acres. Click the Lake Spaulding link for more information.

Lake Valley Reservoir & Kelly Lake

These lakes are close neighbors to Lake Spaulding and are accessed from Int. 80 by taking the Yuba Gap exit (25 miles west of Truckee). Lake Valley Reservoir is the larger of the two by far, with 300 surface acres sitting at 5,800 feet. It is sometimes stocked with rainbow trout and/or brown trout, so check with DFG if fishing is on your agenda and you want to catch something. Waterskiing is prohibited. Lodgepole Campground has 35 sites for tents or RV's to 30 feet with picnic tables, fire grills, potable water and vault toilets. No hookups. A boat ramp is nearby. Kelly Lake is a tiny day-use place with picnic tables and fire pits. Boats with motors are prohibited. Click the Lake Valley Reservoir link for more information.

Scotts Flat Reservoir

This is an attractive destination located just north of Colfax about mid-way between Int. 80 to the south and Hwy. 20 to the north. Access is from Hwy. 20 five miles east of Nevada City. Sitting at 3,100 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada it has 850 surface acres with 7.5 miles of wooded shoreline. There is a campground with 187 sites, 2 boat ramps and a marina. Personal watercraft are prohibited. There are 2 fishing piers to make things easy. Fishing is good for planted rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, and also has populations of brown trout and smallmouth bass. Click the Scotts Flat Reservoir link for more information.

Kidd Lake & Friends

Kidd Lake is a tiny lake just off Int. 80 a sort distance east of the Cisco Grove exit and before Soda Springs. Nearby are several other remote lakes that you can hike to, namely Cascade and Long Lakes. All sit at about 7,000 feet and since they all prohibit motors they will appeal to some. Trout fishing isn't highly rated but there are some there. Kidd has 10 tent-only group sites, each accommodating up to 10 people. Picnic tables, fire grills, potable water and vault toilets are available. Reservations are required, and you must reserve a minimum of 2 sites. Call (916) 386-5164. This is a PG&E Land Projects site.

Fordyce Lake, Eagle Lakes & Lake Sterling

These remote lakes are for 4WD folks and are not recommended for anything else. Fordyce & Sterling are stocked with rainbow trout fingerlings. Lake Sterling has a primitive campground, located near a Boy Scout Camp, so you'd better know your knots and like the sound of a bugle. Driving east on Int. 80 about 52 miles past Auburn you would execute a left turn onto Indian Springs Road to get to Eagle Lakes and drive for about 2.5 miles. A mile further east you would turn left onto Fordyce Lake Road and drive about 4 miles to Fordyce Lake & Lake Sterling. Contact the Tahoe National Forest Service, Nevada City Ranger District, at (530) 265-4531 for more information. Click the Lake Sterling link for more information & directions.

Bowman Lake & Friends

This is another one for 4WD enthusiasts. Bowman Lake is the largest of several remote lakes within a short distance of each other. To get there you take Hwy. 20 east from Nevada City about 23 miles to Bowman Lake Road/ FR 18. Or from Int. 80 past Emigrant Gap and before Cisco Grove turn left onto Hwy. 20 and backtrack about 4.3 miles to Bowman Lake Road and turn right. Starting out the 16 mile access road isn't too bad but it gets progressively worse, particularly the last 4 miles or so. So be warned. Click the Bowman Lake link for more information.

Donner Lake

Lake Tahoe's little sister, Donner Lake is a High Sierra Jewel located just off Int. 80 after you pass over Donner Summit (heading east) and west of Truckee. Visible from the highway, it nevertheless feels pretty isolated when you are camping there. Amenities are many. Click the Donner Lake link for more information.

Jackson Meadow Reservoir

This is a well-appointed and popular destination offering camping, boating of all types, fishing and hiking in an alpine lake setting. It sits at 6,200 feet and features 11 miles of shoreline. There's forest service camping with 130 sites spread over several individual campgrounds, including group and equestrian sites. There is also a boat-in site. Fishing is for stocked rainbow and brown trout. For hikers and equestrians, the Pacific Crest Trail passes just to the east. To get there get to Truckee on Int. 80 or another way. From Truckee drive north on Hwy. 89 17 miles (8 miles before Sierraville), turn left on Fibreboard Road and drive to the northern shore of the lake. From there you can circle the western shore, where all of the facilities are located. Click the Jackson Meadow Reservoir link for more information. Note: nearby Independence and Webber lakes are private.

Prosser Creek Reservoir

Set at 5,711 feet with 740 surface acres this lake offers boating with a 10 MPH limit, fishing for stocked rainbow trout, swimming, hiking and mountain biking opportunities. Fishing is best in late spring/ early summer. Like most reservoirs, drawdowns impact water levels so check before coming. There is one traditional campground, one undeveloped lakeside campground (with an OHV area nearby) and a group campground. To get there take Hwy. 89 north from Truckee about 4 miles to FR 18N74, turn right and drive a short distance to the Lakeside Campground (undeveloped) or continue on to the developed Prosser Campground. Click the Prosser Creek Reservoir link for more information.

Boca Reservoir

This 980 surface acre lake sits at 5,700 feet less than 2 miles from Int. 80 just east of Truckee. So it's not exactly remote, although Truckee isn't going to scare many people for its size. It boasts 14 miles of shoreline and offers fishing for stocked rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and camping at any one of several campgrounds. The lake is fed by Stampede Reservoir, 5 miles away. Lake levels fluctuate greatly so check conditions before coming. To get there drive east on Int. 80 six miles past Truckee to the Boca-Hirschdale exit and then north on County Road 270 1.5 miles to the dam. From there you can turn right on Stampede Dam Road to two of the campgrounds or to Stampede Reservoir. Or turn left on Boca Dam Road to the Boca campground and later on the boat ramp. Click the Boca Reservoir link for more information.

Stampede Reservoir

This one is Boca's (see above) big brother; it feeds Boca Reservoir. At 3,440 surface acres and 25 miles of shoreline it is second only to Lake Tahoe in size within the state of California. As a result it has something to offer for everyone, including all manner of boating, swimming, mountain biking, hiking and especially fishing. It is known for its population of kokanee salmon and probably tops the list for people with an interest in that species; Boca also has some. There are more than 250 traditional campsites, 2 group sites and 8 primitive sites to serve any need. Click the Stampede Reservoir link for more information.

Bullards Bar Reservoir

This one wouldn't qualify as a remote, pristine alpine lake but it has its attractions. Sitting at 2,000 feet it has 4,700 surface acres and 56 miles of shoreline. It is open to all types of boating, including waterskiing. Unlike some lower elevation lakes, this one is heavily wooded as trees are abundant. Fishing is popular year-round, with both warm and cold water species present, including bluegill, crappie, catfish, large and smallmouth bass, rainbow and brown trout and kokanee salmon. The kokanee salmon are the prime draw for many anglers. There are plenty of facilities, including a full-service marina with boat rentals. To get there take Hwy. 20 east from Marysville 12 miles to Marysville Road (there's a sign). Turn left and drive 12 miles to Old Marysville Road. Turn right and drive 14 miles to the dam. From there drive north along the east side of the lake to the campgrounds. Click the link for Bullards Bar Reservoir for more information.

Lake Tahoe

Books have been written about this spot so we won't attempt to synopsize it in a paragraph. 22 miles long by 12 miles wide it offers about anything a visitor could want. Click the Lake Tahoe link for more information, as well as links to the many state parks located around the lake.

Empire Mine State Historic Park

The site of one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest and richest hard rock gold mines in California. In existence for more than 100 years, the mine produced 5.6 million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956. Click the Empire Mine link for more information & directions.