Summer Break at the Lake
By Misty Hall
Central Coast lakes hold some of my best childhood memories. I think back to bathing suits worn all day, accessorized with fishing poles, wakeboards, and s’mores … eating messy popsicles, and riding bikes with a gang of friends … beating my dad in gin rummy while listening to classic rock on the radio … these were the moments I waited for all year long.
Though this unprecedented drought has had a devastating effect on our region’s reservoirs, these places still hold loads of opportunities to make memories with your family. Here are six we love:
Lake Casitas Recreation Area
A reservoir built in the late ‘50s, Lake Casitas provides drinking water for the Ojai Valley and parts of Ventura. As such, there’s no bodily contact allowed with the lake. But don’t worry, Lake Casitas has plenty to keep you busy. You’ll find oak-shaded campgrounds with more than 400 campsites, excellent fishing, a challenging 18-hole disc golf course, a water park, hiking trails, and amazing birding opportunities. There’s even a pair of bald eagles — the only bald eagles to nest on the mainland in Ventura County since 1922!“
One of the most popular things to do at the lake, me included, is to walk the park,” says JoeAnthony Martinez III, park services manager. “A lot of local residents come daily to walk the grounds of the park, and along the Wadleigh Arm Trail where you can get a look at our pair of bald eagles.”
Like most lakes in California, Casitas is quickly shrinking due to the drought but you can still catch one of the legendary bass that are rumored to inhabit these waters. (Trust me, I’ve done it — no fish tales here!) You can also find crappie, catfish, bluegill, sunfish, and rainbow trout. Night fishing is available during full moons, including the following dates:
July 14-16, Aug. 11-13, and Sept. 16-18.
If you’re planning to launch your own boat, plan ahead — more than a month ahead, in fact. Casitas is one of the last quagga mussel-free lakes in this area, and park management has taken strict measures to keep it that way. All vessels, kayaks included, are subject to a 35-day quarantine period to keep this invasive, destructive mussel out of the reservoir. Don’t have time for all that? No problem — you can rent a boat from the marina, or even book a day on the water with one of the local guide services such as Ojai Angler, Rich Tauber, or Fred Klinshaw.
“Bass tournaments are frequent during the summer,” Martinez says, “but (there’s) nothing like fishing into the evening hours with the American Bass Association tournaments scheduled from 2 to 8 pm on July 9, July 23, Aug. 27, and Sept. 10.” Other tournaments include Rich Tauber Tournaments on July 16 and Aug. 13, and the two-day Elshere Cup on Sept. 17.
Even though you can’t take a dip in Lake Casitas, you can still cool off at the Casitas Water Adventure Park! Open weekends through September, this small park boasts a lazy river, splash pad and lagoon for kids, and a snack bar. The kid-friendly activities extend beyond the waterpark, with outdoor movie nights scheduled throughout the summer. June 25, they’ll be showing Encanto; on July 2, Cars; and July 23, Finding Nemo. You’ll also find plenty of playgrounds, basketball courts, and horseshoe pits.
Want to get out and toss a few discs? Casitas lays claim to an incredible (and challenging) 18-hole disc golf course, open 7 days a week. “The disc golf course is highly rated in Southern California and is host to the Coyote Classic yearly, with competitors world-wide attending,” says Martinez. This year, the Classic will run from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.
But discs aren’t the only thing flying around here. Just below the Osprey Campground, you’ll find the home of the VC Comets. Members of this radio control flying club fly their gas and battery-powered RC airplanes off their small runway here. Especially on weekday mornings, you can often catch them doing incredible acrobatics with their planes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions — these guys love sharing their passion with the public. They host special events throughout the year, and welcome new members regardless of your skill level. See their website vccomets.com for more.
By now, you must be getting hungry. Check out the park store or the Marina Café, which makes a mean chorizo burrito, excellent pancakes, and the best french fries this side of anywhere!
Getting there: From Ventura and the 101, take Highway 33 to Santa Ana Road in Oak View.
For more: casitaswater.org/recreation
Lake Piru Recreation Area
It gets hot in the interior valleys of Ventura County during the summer, but you can cool down at Lake Piru! Take a dip in the designated swimming areas from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Or, no matter the time of year, you can hop on your personal watercraft, strap on the water skis, gear up for a day of sailing or paddleboarding, or just tool around in your boat. Whatever your preference, Piru’s got you covered. If you need to rent a boat or gear, Piru’s teamed up with the local Tommy’s Boat Rentals, which can outfit you for your day of adventure.
Don’t forget to bring your fishing poles! Piru’s a great place to drop a line for bass, but you might also nab a crappie, rainbow trout, catfish, and bluegill. Fish in the cool of the night during special twilight fishing dates, from the shore or from a boat. On July 23-24, and Aug. 13-14, fishing times are extended until 2:30 am. “We have a very strong fishery,” says chief park ranger, Clayton Strahan. “We may not be known for record-size fish, but we are known for quantity!” The lake is host to dozens of fishing tournaments each year, as well.
If you’d rather keep your feet on dry land, you’ll still have plenty to do at Piru. Get up early and hike the shoreline (leashed dogs are welcome). Or, hike Pothole Trail, which until last year had been closed for almost two decades in this area. In 2001, the 12-mile loop hiking trail was closed to protect the endangered Arroyo toad, but it reopened access to the southern portion of the Los Padres National Forest in 2021. The trailhead can be accessed inside the park.
If you’re not up for a backcountry hike, grab your sports gear because there are basketball and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, and even a 9-hole disc golf course. There are plenty of picnic tables and grills, too, so bring a cooler and have a feast with a view!
With more than 200 campsites to choose from, you can easily extend your stay. Both tent and hookup sites are available, but advance reservations are strongly recommended. And you don’t have to be too far away from the creature comforts of home here — there are laundry facilities, showers, and even wifi across the recreation area (see website for rates).
Getting there: From the 101 in Ventura, head east in Highway 126. Once in Piru, take Main Street to Piru Canyon Road.
For more: explorelakepiru.com
Another reservoir, Lopez Lake was built in the late 1960s to service the communities from Pismo Beach to Oceano. Unfortunately, the drought has ravaged this lake which sits at about 27 percent of capacity. The boat launch ramp has been closed since late May, but you can still hand-launch your kayak or float-tube, and there are boats available at the docks for rent.
And although the lake sits at its lowest level in several years, there’s still plenty to do around here. Throw out a fishing line, or paddle around in your kayak or canoe. There are also miles of hiking and horseback riding trails with lots of wildlife and plant life to discover. Planning to camp? There are more than 350 campsites surrounding Lopez Lake, including primitive tent sites and hookup sites. If tent camping isn’t your thing, Lopez has cabins! (Just be sure to book in advance.)
Lopez has even more fun in store for you at the Vista Lago Adventure Park and the Mustang Waterpark. I remember visiting Mustang as a young kid, impatiently looking up at the two slides snaking down the hillside as my mom slathered sunscreen on my face. Flying 600 feet down to the splash pool was thrilling back in the 1980s, but these days, you’ll find even more fun with the Stampede — a wild halfpipe with a 38-foot drop to the bottom — a kiddie pool, and lots of shade in the cabanas. It’s open 7 days a week, through Aug. 14.
Vista Lago Adventure Park is a newer addition, offering ziplines and rope courses for all ages. There are multiple levels of challenges (even a couple of high-speed ziplines), so no matter your experience or fitness level, you’ll find fun and adventure. Afterward, enjoy refreshments at the Sipline Snack Shack. Be sure to plan ahead, though; the park is open Thursday through Monday at select times, and reservations are recommended.
Getting there: From the 101 in Arroyo Grande, take Branch Street to Huasna Road/Lopez Drive.
For more: slocountyparks.com/camp/lopez-lake
Tucked into the mountains above Santa Barbara, rural Lake Cachuma beckons visitors with its 9,000 acres of recreation space and views in every direction. Here you’ll find sprawling campgrounds — primitive and full hookups — hiking trails, a disc golf course, swimming pool, store, a nature center, and more.
Don’t have a tent or RV? Rent a yurt! Cachuma boasts several yurts, which sleep three to six people. Unbelievable views off the decks of these rustic structures make them a splendid choice for a weekend getaway. Not surprisingly, these tend to fill up fast, so reserve in advance.
If you’re looking to take a dip, head on over to the swimming pool — no body contact is allowed in the lake itself, as it is a reservoir. The pool is open all week during the summer (but be sure to call ahead to confirm the hours). But even if you can’t swim in Cachuma, you can still get out on the water. Rent a boat, kayak, or paddleboat and explore the many coves where you’ll find excellent fishing. (And hey, the views of the surrounding mountains aren’t half bad, either!) If you’re planning to bring your own boat, be sure to call ahead about inspections.
Check out the Neal Taylor Nature Center for an educational experience for the kids (or yourself!). Small in size, it’s big on information: from the construction of Cachuma’s Bradbury Dam, to the resident plants and animals, to the native Chumash who inhabited this area thousands of years ago, and more. The center is typically open Thursday through Sunday, but call ahead for hours as this is a volunteer effort.
If you’re just coming up for the day, you’ll find lots of day-use picnic areas with grills and tables. Don’t feel like cooking? The Hook’d Bar & Grill is an excellent choice! Last time we were there, I had the tri-tip sandwich and a local beer from Topa Topa Brewing Co. — a true Central Coast meal if there ever was one!
Getting there: From the 101 in Santa Barbara, take Highway 154/San Marcos Pass Road to Lakeview Drive.
For more: countyofsb.org/637/cachuma-lake
If you’re driving on the 101 in northern San Luis Obispo County, you might notice an unusual bumper sticker on passing vehicles. Why do so many people around here have that same funky white dragon stuck to their windows? It’s not a dragon at all, but the outline of Lake Nacimiento! Those stickers tell me I’m not the only one who has a special place in my heart for “Naci.” It’s where I first learned to water ski at age 9, and where we played flashlight tag till way past our bedtimes in the summer. Here, you can swim, water ski, wakeboard, inner tube, jet ski, and boat to your heart’s content.
Nacimiento’s probably best known for its water sports, but there’s plenty to keep you busy if you’re not ready to take a dip. Hike along the shore and the surrounding Santa Lucia mountains, or take refuge in the new airconditioned arcade. Celebrating something special? Get a Naci-gram! “Our dragon mascot comes and delivers a special message with balloons and a gift of your choice for a small fee,” says Layla Decker, general manager.
The fishing’s great along Nacimiento’s ample coastline — especially in its coves and narrows. It’s the only place in California where they stock white bass! You’ll also find largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, bluegill, and catfish. Keep an eye on the Naci website for kids’ fishing derby dates. If you’re planning to bring your own boat, you’ll need to pass that quagga mussel inspection I keep talking about (see website for details). There are also a slew of boats and equipment available for rent at the marina.
If you forgot something at home or (gasp!) run out of beer, the general store has you covered on weekends. You’ll also find great souvenirs here, too. Don’t feel like cooking? The Dragon Lake Grill serves up delicious fare nearby.
“I love visiting our general store. The decor is very unique and almost all handmade. Even if you don’t purchase anything it’s fun to go visit,” says Decker. “I also love to paddleboard on the weekdays when the water is quiet, and you can see all the wildlife coming out of hiding from the busy weeks on the shoreline.”
Whether you’re in a tent or RV, you’ll find a great spot on the oak-dotted hillsides (there are hundreds to choose from). If you need accommodations, however, you’ll have choices here. Along with RV rentals, there’s a small cabin (dubbed The Naci Cottage), as well as lodges which sleep four to eight people. These cozy homes have everything you need for a great stay — even a complimentary boat slip at the marina! Some have fireplaces and patios, as well. As you might expect, these fill up quick — as do the campgrounds. Say it with me: reserve in advance!
Getting there: From the 101 in Paso Robles, take 24th Street/Nacimiento Lake Drive (also known as G-14).
For more: golakenaci.com
Santa Margarita Lake
Confession time: Santa Margarita Lake is the only one on this list I haven’t actually visited. But don’t send me hate mail — this pretty little piece of paradise is one of San Luis Obispo County’s best-kept secrets, even for us Central Coast locals! And after learning about it, I gotta say, it’s high on my to-do list this summer.
Compared to some of the bigger lakes in the region, Santa Margarita’s 60 primitive campsites may seem like small potatoes. But that’s precisely its charm! With no RV hookups, no fancy frills, and (potentially) no cell service, you’re free to unwind in nature — the old-fashioned way. There are even boat-in campsites if you’re seeking a real retreat. (For a more modern experience, try the KOA campground down the road.)
Speaking of boating: if you’re planning to bring your own, plan ahead and check those quagga mussel regulations. Or skip all that and rent a boat instead. Pedal boats, kayaks, canoes, motorboats, and even pontoons are available at the marina. Because Santa Margarita is a reservoir for San Luis Obispo, no body contact is allowed here. Definitely plan on bringing your fishing gear, though, because we hear they’re biting up at Santa Margarita. Red ear, trout, catfish, crappie, and bluegill are all found in this reservoir.
Bikers, hikers, and equestrians, we haven’t forgotten about you! The Santa Margarita Lake Natural Area and its thousands of acres of open space will keep you plenty busy. And bring your binoculars, because the wildlife sighting and birding opportunities are fabulous, as well. Audubon.org says, “Bald eagle nest regularly at Santa Margarita Lake, and osprey, golden eagle, and peregrine falcon are regularly observed in the area and considered likely nesting around the lake.” Other notable species in this IBA (Important Bird Area) of the Santa Margarita Valley include yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats, great blue herons, sharp-shinned hawks, wood ducks, and purple martins, as well as Cassin’s, Warbling, and Hutton’s vireos. The list goes on!
If you’re looking to spice up your trip a bit, drive 15 minutes down the hill to Santa Margarita to go wine tasting or even ziplining at Margarita Adventures. San Luis Obispo and Edna Valley is a 30-minute drive, where you could spend days slowly tasting your way back to camp.
Getting there: From the 101 south of Santa Margarita, take Highway 58 to W. Pozo Road, then to Santa Margarita Lake Road.