Living 45 years on the coast, but having business or family needs that take me into the Central Valley, I’ve driven Highway 20 along the north shore of Clear Lake more times than I can count. It was time to take a leisurely drive all the way around the lake. Doing this gave me a whole new perspective on this interesting body of water.
First, some facts about the lake itself. Clear Lake is the largest natural lake in California. Lake Tahoe loses this distinction because half its shoreline is in Nevada., Clear Lake has about 43,520 surface acres of water, or about 68 square miles, with 100 miles of shoreline. Average depth is 37’ and at its widest spot it’s 19 miles across. Scientists say it’s a very old lake with sediments dating back 480,000 years. It has more than a dozen named islands.
Next, it was my birthday, and for a senior respecting COVID precautions I sure as heck wasn’t going out for dinner to celebrate. I could, however, pack a picnic, go on a drive around the lake with my husband, and avoid human contact. Plus, I had an old worn 1964 map of Lake County, with funky graphics and facts, to follow.
Lake County has a well developed park system all around the lake. From Rodman Slough, alive with birds, to city parks with playgrounds, there’s always a place to pull off and enjoy water views. And if there is a way to put the words lake, view, water or shore in a place name it’s on a street sign there (think Lakeshore or Lakeview, or Edgewater, or Harborview..). Every fish or plant in the county is attached to a sign (like Walnut Cove and Catfish Lane). Some place names give you pause. Would you want to swim in Pinkeye Lake?
Our old worn map had colorfully patterned overlays to show where the best fishing was and what crops grew where. Wine grapes were not noted but pears and walnuts were the top crops. Clear Lake was proclaimed the “Bass Fishing Capital of the West” and a Mountain Paradise, a warm weather water sports destination, and the site of sea plane “Splash-In” events. The whole area was a Vacationers Dream, and, of course, the advertisers on the back of the map were realtors for subdivisions, marinas, motels, and bait & tackle stores.
We passed business enterprises unique to inland maritime locations. I questioned the frequent pile driving signs until I realized they probably worked with places like the Dock Factory. Boat Works building had launching ramps right down into the lake and storage facilities were for watercraft wrapped up and covered for the winter season.
Homes stair stepped up hillsides so all five dwellings could claim lake views over the top of their neighbors house. Palm trees, agave and cactus were landscape design features with solar panels on rooftops quite common. Homes were everything from tiny wooden cabins that looked like they’d been vacation retreats for 100 years to retirees McMansions, big, ostentatious and ugly, and looking totally out of place.
A common roadsigns around the lake was Hill Blocks View, a warning that around the corner a homeowner might be exiting a driveway. We circled the lake from the west side, stoping by Mt. Konocti to collect obsidian, then headed back up towards Highway 20 where we came upon the weirdest view of the trip.
Ever heard of the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine? It’s an EPA Superfund toxic clean up site. From 1865 to 1957 sulphur, arsenic and mercury were mined on this 150 acre site before it was abandoned. It borders 1,300’ of lake shoreline. In its midst is the sulphur bank and a flooded pit 90’ deep and 23 acres in size about 750’ from the lake.
My first reaction to the small pond was “That sure does not look like anything natural,” Weird soil color and waters that looked like toxic sludge, a mix of contaminated mine waste and naturally occurring geothermal waters, sat in stark contrast to the lake’s beauty. Sportsman are warned not to eat more than one fish a week from the immediate area of this east shore of Clear Lake.
Since we had the time we drove up Bartlett Springs Road near Upper Lake to see the wildfire damage of a few years ago. The owners of the mineral springs resort 15 miles up the road had imported Chinese to build the steep road more than a century ago. We went about eight miles up a neatly snowplowed road but it looked like an old black and white photo out the car window with charred black tree trunks against white snow drifts. Manzanita sprouting everyplace was a happy note. A wide spot on the way back down let us pull off and look down on half the lake basin and it was a beautiful sight.
So for a beautiful but close by adventure take some time, drive around Clear Lake, and enjoy the view from all directions. You won’t regret it. And you can be home before dark.