There aren’t a lot of lakes to discover in Southern California — and recent drought conditions mean there are even fewer now — but Cachuma Lake has a special, hidden allure.
Located about 115 miles from Los Angeles, just north of Santa Barbara, it’s nestled in a serene valley between the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains that was originally a Spanish land grant and later divided into smaller ranching parcels. The artificial lake is 7 1/2 miles long, has 42 miles of shoreline and occupies some 6,000 acres.
The best way to experience the lake is by taking a two-hour pontoon boat cruise with a park naturalist ($15 adults, $7 ages 4-12; no children under 4). They run twice a day, depending on the season. Liz Gaspar, 53, a park naturalist for 10 years, has a love of nature and Cachuma Lake that is contagious.
“I’ve got to take you to one spot!” she said, revving up the motor on the boat in anticipation of a recent tour.
Jetting into little coves and stopping to let people touch 20 million-year-old Monterey shale, Gaspar also loves to share stories or tidbits of information.
“If you see a bird and its wings are in a slight V, it’s probably a turkey vulture,” she said. “If the wings are flat like an eagle, think ‘even,’ or hawk, for horizontal.”
The latter two may be hard to tell apart, but, she said, it’s a good way, at a glance, to get a sense of what you are looking at.
Cachuma Lake, named for a Chumash Indian village, is populated by more than 275 species of birds. Some are year-round residents; others, such as the cliff swallow, which flies 7,000 miles from Argentina, are migratory visitors.
There’s plenty to see, including prairie falcons, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, California condors and, if you’re lucky, bald eagles. Add in the thriving natural flora — flowering fuchsia, Fremont cottonwood, elderberry —and it’s a sensory-overload experience. On every trip, Gaspar makes a point of turning off the engine, stopping the boat, and giving passengers the time to listen and look at the world that lives around the lake.
“We live in houses that have four walls,” she said. “So even our vision is restricted. When you are outside, you look farther into the distance using your eyes in a different way. Our senses are being turned on in ways that we don’t even realize when we are outside.”
Once home to one of the largest populations of Native Americans in the United States, the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area’s roots go back to when residents voted during the 1940s to build a dam on the Santa Ynez River. Originally named the Cachuma Dam (later renamed the Bradbury Dam), it was completed in 1953. According to Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County Public Works Department’s deputy director for water resources, more than 200,000 people use the lake as their primary water supply today.
“The lake continues to draw down, as there was no inflow this year. It is not at an all-time low, but you can absolutely see the decline of the level,” he said.
Even at 38 percent capacity, there’s still plenty of water, with lake depths of about 90 feet for lake tours and boating.
Enjoying the recreation area can take a number of forms — anything from a half-mile nature-trail walk to a 4-mile hike to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains ridge line. There are many trails in the Los Padres National Forest, opportunities for biking on quiet roads or in the mountains, and two public swimming pools.
Taking a dip in the lake is off limits because it’s a domestic water supply, but you can rent pontoon boats big enough for a party, or smaller boats for year-round fishing on the trout-stocked lake. The free Neal Taylor Nature Center features cultural and natural history displays as well as interactive exhibits.
It can take more than a day to explore Cachuma Lake, and there are numerous options if you want to spend the night. There are 420 spaces for RVs, tents and group camping. Or, if you want to really sleep in style, reserve a fully equipped cabin with lake views, hot showers, television and a microwave.
The most exotic accommodation is a yurt, a sort of cross between a teepee and tent that is so popular it needs to be booked months in advance. It’s a cozy alternative to tent camping as there are cushions to sleep on, but you still have to bring bedding and do your own cooking at an outside fire ring.
Christine Fernandez, 58, of Santa Ynez said she often brings visiting family to the lake for a nature cruise.
“Every time we come, we see something new,” she said. “Sometimes you forget the things you learned in school and the local geological history. We always call this area paradise; it sounds corny, but it’s so amazing here.”
IF YOU GO
Cachuma Lake Recreation Area
2225 Highway 154/ Santa Barbara / (805) 686-5055 / countyofsb.org/parks
Photo: There are several housing options at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, including a yurt. Photo by Cyndi Bemel