Welcome to the Crystal Basin Recreation Area of the Eldorado National Forest, an 85,000-acre expanse of pristine pine and fir forests married with the western slopes of the granite of the Sierra Nevada. This region is graced by the grandeur of the Crystal Range’s majestic granite peaks and is laced with serene lakes, reservoirs, and pristine streams. Throughout the four seasons, the Crystal Basin unfolds a diverse landscape for rugged outdoor adventures.
Most Easily accessed off Highway 50 between Placerville and Strawberry California off State Route 3 which climbs out of the canyons of the South fork of the American River on Ice house Reservoir Road into a rich mountain terrain filled with casual daily escapes a weekend camping, fishing and outdoor recreation options for all four seasons.
Discover the Rich History
The Crystal Basin holds a rich history. Once the home of the Miwok, Washoe, and Maidu people, it later became a grazing ground for dairy cattle during the 1800s. In the early 1900s, the USDA Forest Service opened the Crystal Basin to the public. In 1957, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) embarked on the Upper American River Project (UARP), a series of hydroelectric power plants. Today, the UARP generates a staggering 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of clean, affordable electricity annually, enough to power approximately 200,000 homes in Sacramento. As part of the project, SMUD created a network of picturesque mountain reservoirs and recreational facilities, continuing to provide diverse land and water-based recreation opportunities for forest visitors.
Camping in the Wilderness
The Crystal Basin offers over 700 developed campsites. Most require fees and/or reservations and come equipped with a fire ring, a table, and a parking spur. Campgrounds provide bear-proof storage and trash containers, restrooms, and many even offer piped-in water. Most sites can accommodate recreational vehicles, although there are no hookups available. The maximum stay allowed is 14 days. If you seek a more rugged experience, undeveloped camping is permitted in most areas of the Eldorado National Forest, provided it’s at least 100 feet away from streams and lakes to protect streamside vegetation and prevent pollution. The Crystal basin draws many that are looking to escape and find solitude, but is also home to some of the funnest and most active lake communities each summer for water recreation.
A Paradise for Anglers
Anglers will find their paradise in the Crystal Basin, with opportunities to cast their lines for kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass, mackinaw, rainbow trout, and even wild brown trout. Union Valley Reservoir, Ice House Reservoir, Loon Lake Reservoir, and Gerle Creek provide a diversity of fishing experiences for enthusiasts.
Trails for Every Adventure
The Crystal Basin boasts an array of trails suitable for cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders. Whether you prefer leisurely family bike rides along the 5.5-mile paved trail at Union Valley Reservoir, or a more challenging 3.1-mile single track mountain biking experience near the Ice House campgrounds, there’s something for everyone. Equestrian campgrounds are available at Loon Lake Reservoir, Wrights Lake, and Tells Creek, offering access to scenic riding trails.
Bassi Falls Hike: A Natural Paradise
Nestled within the heart of the Crystal Basin Recreation Area, the Bassi Falls Hike is a hidden gem that beckons to adventurers seeking a close encounter with nature’s beauty. This enchanting trail offers a captivating journey through lush forests, serene meadows, and alongside cascading streams, culminating in the breathtaking Bassi Falls.
At an elevation of 5,300 feet, the Bassi Falls Hike is situated near Gerle Creek Reservoir, just a short mile from the Gerle Creek Campground. The trail guides you through a picturesque landscape, with captivating vistas at every turn. The gentle rustling of leaves and the harmonious sounds of flowing water create a serene ambiance, making it the perfect place to escape into the wilderness.
The Highlight: Bassi Falls
The ultimate reward for hikers on this trail is the awe-inspiring Bassi Falls. The falls serve as a mesmerizing backdrop for both relaxation and photography, providing an ideal setting for a picnic, a dip in the crystal-clear waters, or simply a moment of quiet reflection. As you stand in the presence of this natural wonder, you’ll feel connected to the raw, unspoiled beauty of the Sierra.
Boating and Watersports
Recreational boating is a beloved pastime on the pristine mountain lakes of the Crystal Basin. Ice House Reservoir, Union Valley Reservoir, and Loon Lake Reservoir feature paved boat ramps and are spacious enough to accommodate motorboats and a range of water sports.
Union Valley Reservoir
A Tranquil Angler’s Haven Union Valley Reservoir is a serene body of water in the Crystal Basin, perfect for anglers seeking peace and tranquility. The lake is teeming with kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass, mackinaw, and rainbow trout. It’s an ideal spot for a leisurely day of fishing amid picturesque surroundings.
Ice House Reservoir
Cast Your Line Amidst Pristine Beauty Ice House Reservoir offers a pristine and picturesque fishing experience. Anglers flock here for opportunities to catch rainbow trout, mackinaw, and even an occasional kokanee salmon. The clear waters and breathtaking views make it a favorite destination for those who love both fishing and natural beauty.
Loon Lake Reservoir
An Angler’s Paradise in the High Sierra Loon Lake Reservoir, nestled in the high Sierra, is a haven for fishing enthusiasts. Its sparkling waters are home to rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, and mackinaw. Whether you’re casting your line from the shore or a boat, the breathtaking surroundings add to the allure of this angler’s paradise.
Gerle Creek Reservoir
Reel in the Perfect Catch Gerle Creek Reservoir is a quiet gem offering an opportunity to reel in the perfect catch. Here, you can try your luck with wild brown trout in a tranquil setting surrounded by nature. It’s an excellent spot for a peaceful day of fishing in the Crystal Basin.
The Crystal Basin provides a gateway to Desolation Wilderness, offering access to a network of hiking trails spanning 117 miles across the Sierra Nevada. Many of the trails located within the Crystal Basin cater to hikers of all levels, offering easy to moderate day hikes. For an educational adventure, try the accessible Gerle Creek Summer Harvest Trail, which provides insights into how Native Americans utilized the forest’s resources.
Accessibility for All
Many developed areas throughout the Crystal Basin are designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. From the Crystal Basin Information Station to fishing piers and trails at Gerle Creek, numerous campsites, parking areas, and the paved boat ramps at the reservoirs accommodate wheelchairs.
In the winter, cross-country skiers can explore pristine ski trails near Loon Lake Reservoir, the highest elevation reservoir in the Crystal Basin. With trails of varying difficulty, it’s the perfect destination for snow enthusiasts. Remember to stay safe, know your limitations, and remain within your skill level.
For those who prefer four-wheeled adventures, the Crystal Basin is home to the famous Rubicon Jeep Trail and the popular Barrett Jeep Trail near Wrights Lake. Ensure you check the latest Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) and stick to designated roads and motorized trails.
Hidden Gems of the Crystal Basin
Jones Place: A Step Back in Time
Nestled amidst the scenic wonders of the Crystal Basin is Jones Place, a charming location that offers a captivating step back in time. Steeped in history, this spot harkens back to a bygone era, providing travelers with a unique and educational experience.
The Jones Place site offers a glimpse into the region’s past, allowing you to explore the remnants of early settlements and gain insight into the lives of the people who once called this place home. It’s an excellent opportunity to appreciate the history and heritage of the Crystal Basin while taking in the breathtaking natural surroundings.
More Hidden Treasures Await
As you journey through the Crystal Basin, you’ll discover a multitude of places that pique the curiosity of travelers. From historical landmarks to scenic vistas and serene spots for reflection, the region offers a rich tapestry of experiences.
Consider exploring places like:
Azalea Cove Campground: A tranquil lakeside retreat for campers, offering the perfect setting to unwind and appreciate the serene beauty of the Crystal Basin.
Big Hill Vista Point: A panoramic viewpoint that provides awe-inspiring vistas of the Crystal Range, stretching as far as Sacramento and Mount Diablo.
Robbs Hut: A mountain bunkhouse perched at a 6,700-foot peak overlooking the Crystal Basin. It offers a unique year-round retreat, complete with a cook stove and accommodations for six.
Each of these locations adds depth and intrigue to your Crystal Basin adventure, providing opportunities for exploration, learning, and relaxation. So, venture forth and uncover the hidden gems that make this region a captivating destination for travelers of all kinds.
Experience unique overnight stays at the Crystal Basin. Robbs Hut, located on a 6,700-foot peak overlooking the Crystal Basin, offers a mountain bunkhouse experience. Equipped with a cook stove, outdoor barbecue, and sleeping accommodations for six, it’s a year-round retreat requiring overnight reservations. The Loon Lake Chalet, open year-round, welcomes skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers. It features a spacious warming room, a small kitchen, and sleeping accommodations for up to 20 people. Overnight reservations are also required.
Big Hill Vista Point
For a panoramic view of the captivating scenery of the Crystal Basin, visit Big Hill Vista and Lookout. Here, you can take in the breathtaking vistas of the Crystal Range, with views stretching west to Sacramento and Mount Diablo.
The Crystal Basin Recreation Area offers a wealth of outdoor activities and diverse experiences for adventurers of all kinds. Plan your visit and explore this breathtaking wilderness in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, leaving you with cherished memories to last a lifetime.