You’ve probably seen, en-route to Lake Tahoe on Highway 50, the left-turn lane directing traffic onto Ice House Road leading into the Crystal Basin Recreation Area. Take time to explore this winding ribbon of asphalt, and you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of camping possibilities at more than 700 sites sprinkled around five scenic reservoirs, two of which have direct hiking access into Desolation Wilderness, where your dog can hike leash-less alongside you.
The Crystal Basin area in the Eldorado National Forest is jointly maintained by the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD), which operates a series of hydroelectric power plants tied to the lakes; and the USDA National Forest Service. Campground reservations are handled through Recreation.gov—which notes on its website that, due to this year’s heavy snow pack, openings may be delayed into July, and early-season reservations cancelled (call 530-644-2349 for current conditions). Trail maps and information are available at the ranger station on Ice House Road about 15 miles north of Highway 50.
• Closest to the highway, the four campgrounds at Ice House Reservoir, 5,400 feet elevation, generally open on Memorial Day weekend. Fishing and boating are popular here, and a paved, 3-mile bike-and-hike trail links all the campgrounds.
• Wrights Lake can be reached via a twisty, 8-mile road branching off of Ice House Road, but it’s more practical to take the designated exit off Highway 50 and travel 22 miles to this small but very beautiful reservoir. Given this season’s heavy snowpack, the 67-site campground, perched at a lofty 7,000 feet, likely won’t open until mid-July. Put it on your bucket list, as it’s a gorgeous spot with two popular trails—Rockbound Pass and Twin Lakes—leading straight from the campground into Desolation Wilderness, where your well-behaved dog can hike with you off-leash.
• Back on Ice House Road, Union Valley Reservoir, 15 miles from Highway 50, is the largest and lowest (4,900 feet elevation) lake in the Crystal Basin area, and is super popular for boating, jet-skiing, waterskiing and fishing. A bike trail connects most of the lake’s 12 campgrounds, which usually open on Memorial Day weekend.
• Families with kids love Gerle Creek Reservoir, the next lake up the chain, for several primary reasons: No motorboats are allowed, there’s a fishing pier, and the lake is small enough that parents can sit on the shore and watch their kids kayak or otherwise paddle out to the “pirate island” in the center. Another plus: the campsites are absolutely “yuge” compared to most. The campground, 27 miles from Highway 50 at an elevation of 5,300 feet, usually opens on Memorial Day weekend.
• At the top of the chain, Loon Lake is an ice-blue, often windswept gem set amid granite boulders at 6,400 feet. It’s a good 35 miles from Highway 50 on slow, winding roads, so allow yourself about an hour to get here. Three developed campgrounds for cars and RVs, plus equestrian and boat-in campgrounds, provide variety, and a hiking trail leads directly from the campground into Desolation Wilderness. (This is also a staging area for the Rubicon OHV Trail, perhaps the most famous organized 4×4 route in the nation.) Due to altitude and heavy snow pack, don’t look for Loon Lake campgrounds to open before July this year.
Photo Credit: @eastbaychico