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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 6:21 am | Fair 41º


Despite Drought, Lake Cachuma a Welcome Retreat for Fall Tourists

Water levels may be low, but cruises, nature walks and bald eagles a top draw for visitors at still-vibrant recreation area

It may be looking more like a pond these days, but that doesn’t mean visitors have to stay away from Lake Cachuma.

Water levels are still far above the minimum amount required, and a browner basin has coaxed more wildlife than usual out to explore the mud flats, according to park naturalist Liz Gaspar, who oversees programs aimed at attracting tourists.

While fall has always been a slow season at Lake Cachuma, one of Santa Barbara County’s two parks that allow camping, Gaspar fears locals think less water means less fun at the recreation area just 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara on Highway 154.

“I think it’s a little bit slower because of the drought,” she said last week. “Even though there’s drought, there still will be some degree of spring flush. It’s really a fun time of year.

“Yes, when people drive by they can see a low lake level. Yes, we must conserve. Yes, this is a serious drought. Having the lake low is like looking back in time. The wildlife sightings with the lake low have been fantastic.”

The lake currently has 57,698 acre-feet of water — about 29 percent capacity — that exposes more mud and even parts of the old Highway 150, but the level limiting recreation like boating is about 12,000 acre-feet, Gaspar said.

Last year at this time, the lake had 83,483 acre-feet of water, she said. An acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons.

Bird lovers flock to the park for its rare combination of bald eagles, white pelicans and osprey, which is also the name of the pontoon boat that takes 30 people at a time out to bird watch.

“Our wonderful, great thing that we have is the lake cruise,” Gaspar said. “We do it all year long. We get a variety of migratory water birds.”

A nature cruise takes off for a tour of Lake Cachuma. (Lonnie Box photo)
A nature cruise takes off for a tour of Lake Cachuma. (Lonnie Box photo)

The excursions are called Eagle Cruises from November to February, when sightings increase, and Wildlife Cruises the rest of the year.

Boaters still abound, with 124 launching at the lake in October along with 17 kayaks or canoes, according to county parks data.

Nature walks, biking and hiking trails, boat rentals and a Cachuma Lake Junior Ranger Program are other reasons to pay the $10 per vehicle fee to explore the park. Lake Cachuma generates 80 percent of its operations budget from day visitors and campers.

Gaspar said some fishermen still venture to the lake, but the number is smaller, perhaps due to the county halting its trout-stocking program.

Year-round educational events, hands-on activities and a bird room draw visitors to the Neal Taylor Nature Center. The facility opened 26 years ago in a historic ranch house of the old Red Gate Ranch dating back to the 1940s.

The independent, kid-friendly nonprofit center is open Tuesday through Saturday and highlights the ecosystem of Lake Cachuma and the San Rafael Mountain Range Watershed, running entirely on donations and volunteers.

Bird watchers set their sights on Lake Cachuma wildlife. (Linda Vanoudenhaegen photo)
Bird watchers set their sights on Lake Cachuma wildlife. (Linda Vanoudenhaegen photo)

“It is a bit of a hidden secret,” said center director Julie McDonald, who said 15,000 people visit annually. “A lot of people come up to the lake and don’t even know it’s here. It’s just such a lovely, lovely center.”

If people aren’t traveling to Lake Cachuma, they won’t see the center, which needs more volunteers.

“There’s a perception that there are no recreation activities on the lake because there’s so much less water,” McDonald said. “I think that’s a little bit of a misconception.”

At this time of year the park is a stark contrast from the summer months, when guests reserved about 400 tent and 80 RV camping sites, booking the place solid some weekends.

Gaspar hopes to encourage local schools to come in the winter for field trips to see the eagles and enhanced wildlife she said warrants visiting.

“We adapt as we go along,” she said. “You can come for the day. You can rent a kayak. You can have a picnic here. It’s still really beautiful.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Boat rides and Eagle Cruises are popular attractions at Lake Cachuma despite the low water levels — and the deer don’t seem to mind. (Linda Vanoudenhaegen photo)
Boat rides and Eagle Cruises are popular attractions at Lake Cachuma despite the low water levels — and the deer don’t seem to mind. (Linda Vanoudenhaegen photo)

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