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Eldorado National Forest

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Eldorado National Forest Overview

Northern California's Eldorado National Forest is situated just west of Lake Tahoe and includes the glacially carved granite peaks of the surrounding central Sierra Nevadas. The landscape, sculpted by the last Ice Age, is largely barren and raw and recalls the austere black and white images captured by the photographer Ansel Adams. Desolation Wilderness is typical of the forest's stark beauty, with its string of alpine lakes and the giant five-square-mile granite bowl at Desolation Valley.

Impressive sheer-walled canyons have been cut through mountainous topography by the Mokelumne, Cosumnes, American, and Rubicon rivers. The forest's vegetation types consist largely of woodland, chaparral, mixed conifer, true fir, and subalpine. Elevations vary widely, ranging anywhere from 1,620 feet to 10,380 feet.

Gold discovered on the American River triggered the 1849 California Gold Rush. And although you can still pan for gold, the true treasure is the abundant trout in the forest's 611 miles of rivers and streams. Fisherman can also try their luck on one of the 11 reservoirs, including the Hell Hole, where kokanee salmon and rainbow trout are pretty much a sure thing during summer and fall.

Wintertime lures cross-country skiers to the Loon Lake Winter Recreation Area. Impressive backcountry ski trails traverse the lodgepole forest and granite bowls that surround the lake.

The forest is around an hour's drive from Sacramento and parts of the San Joaquin Valley. If you're making the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, you can do it in less than four hours. Major airports are located in Sacramento and Reno, Nevada.

Fish Wrights Lake
At an elevation of 7,000 feet, Wrights Lake is among the most scenic and easily accessible natural lakes in Eldorado. From a canoe or from the shore, you'll find its cool, clear water teeming with rainbow, brown, and brook trout. Only nonmotorized craft are allowed on the water, so there's plenty of peace and quiet, and no scary wakes to frighten the fish. You can fish here year-round, although you're likely to find ice and snow in winter. There are trails on both sides of the lake and a campground with 67 sites.

Raft an American Classic
The South Fork of the American River is the most popular whitewater rafting river in the West, flowing through the stunning gold foothills of the mother lode like an emerald snake. Contrary to what rapids named "Meatgrinder" and "Satan's Cesspool" imply, the river is suitable for beginners, pros, and anyone in between. Experienced rafters do their own thing, while beginners enjoy a wide selection of local and regional outfitters to choose from, most of which offer both one-day and two-day guided trips. Water is highest—and most rambunctious—in springtime, although the South Fork American can be run safely anytime between April and October. Expect early spring or late fall trips to be chilly—make sure your outfitter provides wetsuits!

Hike Desolation Wilderness
Desolation Wilderness definitely used to be desolate. So much for a well-kept secret! The wilderness encompasses roughly 150 lakes, and ranges in elevation from 6,500 feet to a breathless 10,000 feet. Its surreal landscape of exposed granite peaks is dotted with pocket-size meadows, ponderosa pines, and trout-filled lakes. It's also extremely popular. A permit quota system restricts access for high backpacking season (June through September), but if you plan at least 90 days in advance—or venture in the off-season—you shouldn't have a problem. Park rangers can advise you on other ways to beat the crowds.

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View Wild Things in the Mokelumne
Drawing its name from a Me-Wuk village in nearby San Joaquin Valley, the 105,165-acre Mokelumne Wilderness is a place of great scenic beauty. Dominated by volcanic ridges and peaks, the rugged landscape is home to a wide variety of wildlife: deer, bear, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and beaver. It is also a great birding spot, hosting hordes of grouse, mountain quail, and several species of hawks. With over 100 miles of trails to explore, you'll have ample opportunities to see them all.

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Camp Upper Hell Hole
Upper Hell Hole is considered among the best and most scenic walk-in campsites in California. Situated in Buck Meadow near the rim of a massive granite gorge, the view overlooks the shocking blue waters of Hell Hole Reservoir. Starting at the southwest corner of the lake, the hike to Buck Meadow is three miles from its trailhead. The hike is rated moderate-to-difficult, but anyone who's done it says the payoff is worth every step.

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