Union Valley Reservoir in California

by  vcmtthws

A self-supported trip created by vcmtthws

Trip Overview

"Sorry, it's your birthday. You can do anything you want but work on the house."

Up until now we have been pulling 18 to 20 hour days, every day, for more than two weeks. We purchased a beautiful Fixer-Upper and had been seriously engaged in Fixiner-Up. So at my wife's insistence, I did the only thing any happily married man would do� go canoeing!

It had been a few years, but we had made this area a canoeing favorite. Today however, would be a new lake for us. It was larger (about 2600 acre) and it was in heavy forest. Aside from dodging the occasional logging truck bobsledding their way down the winding mountain roads, the drive was as beautiful as always. Complete with panoramic mountain top vistas, corridors through the trees, and stunning glimpses off the edge-of-the-road cliffs. The only things that were unexpected were the availability of accurate maps (at the USFS Station) and the clear signage along the road. In the past, getting lost in logging country was half the fun, but now the fun was left up to time on the lake. Ok, we'd deal.

First attempt at a put-in was a no-go. We had taken Ice House Road (which becomes USFS Hwy #3) from Highway #50 about 1/3 of the way to Loon Lake and the Rubicon Trail head. Some 40 to 45 minutes if you�re not driving a big rig loaded with logs (if you are, then it�s only about 7 or 8 minutes). A few minutes past the Ice House Reservoir turnoff, we made a break for Jones Fork Campground, only to discover that there was no boat access at all. A cruel trick indeed, but not a game stopper by any means. It simply meant that we would have to launch from an actual launch ramp. And happy birthday to me, we found one another 10 minutes up the road. Enter Sunset Campground and Day Use� and boat launch� stage left! Union Valley Reservoir was finally tangible.

Actually, this is a great launch site. You were responsible for your party and ensuring your vessel was completely free of such parasites as the Quagga and Zebra Muscle (which are transported via boats and are rapidly devastating our California waterways). The ramp was small but clean with a tiny strip of beach on either side, and a single pier to load and moor from. Rules were clearly posted, and a handicap boat loading access dry ramp was available as you pulled into or out of the launch ramp line (or in our case, the launch ramp no line). So if you are physically challenged by getting into or out of a floating boat, you could ride the boat down the launch ramp and back out again. Score one for wheelchairlers. Clean chemical toilets were available at the top of the ramp turnaround and a plethora of available parking was just to the other side of that. All of this for just $7.00 a day.

Union Valley is shaped a bit like the United States mainland with an over sized north east territory and a finger poked through lower Northern California. Using this analogy, the put-in would be located somewhere in Georgia. Rolling mountain evergreen forests surround the majority of the lake, but the occasional meadow is squeezed in for visual inspiration. There is an eagle breeding estuary somewhere off to ramp right, so try to avoid this area when cruising the shore. The water is a deep blue, and relatively warm considering it is all snow melt (we were told this is because Union Valley is a relatively shallow reservoir, so it warms up quickly). Union Valley is also a high mountain lake, so frequent and unannounced weather changes are regular visitors.

Our agenda was to circumvent the lake counter clockwise. This should allow us to take advantage of the anticipated afternoon winds. At the launch site we met several returning fishermen. All had caught their limit and were more than happy to share their secrets (brag). So this turned out to be one of the few times we wished we had brought our fishing gear. Something we rarely do since our primary purpose when fishing is to feed and entertain the aquatic life. We've been told that fish actually pay to attend our venues. Can't win them all.

So with a minimal amount of payload and our trusty undersized dog, we set our Wenonah Champlain Kevlar ultra-light due north from the ramp. Boats were scarce, but the people, though well hidden amongst the trees, were not. Small boats spotted the shoreline, but only a dozen or so boats were actually engaged in water sports. The rest seemed to be sleeping.

Due to the size of the lake and the scarcity of boats, we were left pretty much to our own little world for the better part of the day. It was warm and the breeze was light for the first few hours. Everywhere you looked was picture perfect. At the apex of our journey, we paddled into one of the primary feeder creeks. It was entering from the back of a cove at the northern most reach of our country (tip of Maine). Here polite winds tried to discourage the water from joining us. The result was a playful mix of contrasting currents and confused debris fields. Well worth our efforts.

Our first challenge came when we tried to find a place for lunch. We had planned to have lunch on one of the larger meadows we spotted after setting our course, but had not remembered exactly where it was. We figured that we�d have some headwinds for part of our return trip, but the wind came a bit prior to its scheduled appointment. We cut our teeth in high winds, so anything less than gale force is really an inconvenience at best. And often a welcomed one. Winds tend to clear lakes of small boats, so our little word gets just a little bigger. Fewer people and more nature. Hence, if it�s not too strong, like on this day, we get the lake almost entirely to ourselves. Now if we could remember how far it was to the meadow for lunch, we�d have it made.

Between the slowing effects of the wind (which were surprisingly minimal on the near empty Champlain) and the growling in our stomachs, we opted for a narrow strip of beach protected from the wind, located somewhere around the boarder of Montana and North Dakota. It wasn't our meadow, but it was really nice. Most of the entertainment came from our small dog trying to retrieve driftwood logs that were 3 or 4 times its size. More times than not, she would succeed.

Refueled and ready, we left our peaceful little cove for a confrontation with the ever growing wind. Life was good but time was short. A few more corners to round and we found our meadow, and just paddled on by. This meadow would have to wait for our next visit.

Wind plays hide and seek in the mountains. It's hard to know which way it's going to come from after it swirls around the peaks and trees. So if you spend much time in high mountain lakes, you should learn how to read them just like a river runner would need to read eddies. Our planning put us in the sweet spot with the worst winds to our back and our bow towards the launch. We were going home and the wind was going to help us get there. Score one for planning.

The cove we launched from is well protected from the winds, so it was a leisurely paddle to the finish. Only down side was as we were getting ready to load up and go home, a woman imitating a walrus (or perhaps it was a walrus that wore a swimsuit), literally rolled sideways off a boat like a barrel down a plank, and onto the dock. She apparently had a bad day, and wanted to be sure everybody knew it. With enough room around her to launch the Spruce Goose, we had no trouble staying out of her way. And in the end, she was more amusing than upsetting. So really, this wasn�t much of a downside at all.

Perhaps if it had been the weekend, we probably would have had more congestion, but this gem meets a couple of our primary search criteria for lakes with easy access from civilization�

  • The area features an alternate lake that's closer to town and sports a venue that promotes a wild, irresponsible, and reckless aqueous lifestyle. In this case (on the same road), but much closer to town, is another large reservoir (Ice House Reservoir). Party animals and speed demons tend to be an impatient lot. 20 minutes can seem like 20 days and 40 beers to them.
  • A place where fishing tales are born!


Camping is available, don't know about hookups, or RV spaces. Otherwise well maintained chemical toilets at the launch site and a Handicapped load and unload dry dock.


$7.00, and you are responsible for being sure you boat is free of any and all parasites.


Highway 50 to Ice House Road (Becomes USFS Hwy #3). Stay on #3 for about 40 to 50 minutes (16 miles or so)until you get to Sunset Boat Ramp on your left. Currently all the roads are well labeled.


It would be worth a stop by the USFS station. This is a fairly good sized station, open during the summer months. It is about 3.5 miles from Sunset Launch (aprox. 10 minutes).

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water

Trip Location