It’s all about the kids, family and friends on this Fourth of July weekend—all ten of them for the Dickey family. It’s about the same for the Mateos and Alonso families as well. It’s usually more family and friends for the Buffingtons on this special holiday weekend. But that is what makes the Fourth of July so special, along with the fireworks—of course—on Don Pedro Lake. This lake borders the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park and is the ideal body of water for this annual celebration. It’s a time to share barbeque sandwiches, salads, watermelon, and refreshments on pontoon and deck boats, and enjoy each other’s company and companionship.
If you don’t want to trailer your own pontoon boat to enjoy the long weekend as the Dickey family does every so often, especially for the children, to see the great fireworks display, there are two Forever Resorts marina locations on the lake to rent small watercraft, particularly pontoon boats. The recreation facilities are maintained and operated by the Don Pedro Recreation Agency, an entity of the reservoir owners and governed by the Don Pedro Board of Control. It is the Recreation Agency’s objective to provide a quality family camping and water sports-oriented environment. And they do a very good job at it.
There are hundreds of campsites and trailer pads with an assortment of hookup options at Fleming Meadows Campground, Blue Oaks Campground, and Moccasin Point Campground. Fleming Meadows even has a several-acre chlorinated water lagoon, if the children want to go into a smaller pool than the big lake. Launch ramps are a plenty, but keep in mind, there will be a small wait if you plan to put your boat in during the holiday weekend at a nominal fee.
Hundreds of boaters also keep their boats in the water to view the fireworks display by the dam on the West Bay. For those who prefer to watch the fireworks from a high land vantage point, the local Gold Chain Lions Club has refreshments, hotdogs and hamburgers for sale by the dam at the campground area. Many of the volunteers will have their special red, white and blue gear on celebrating what this holiday means—America’s Independence from Britain. Club members like Jim Knosp and his wife will be on hand to give out refreshments and food instead of being in their own pontoon boat. They reserve that enjoyment after the weekend when most people have gone home.
Just over 100 miles from San Francisco or Sacramento, many visitors come nearly every weekend to Don Pedro, like the Buffingtons of Dublin, Calif., who also now own a houseboat on the lake as well as their recently purchased Aqua Patio pontoon boat. All kinds of boats can go a short distance from the launch ramps to any of the hundreds of coves to raft up, or be by themselves during family reunions or annual outings.
Don Pedro Lake is unique for its construction in a canyon carved out by the Tuolumne River, about 830 to 900 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Stanislaus National Forest. You pass this lovely lake going to Yosemite National Park, just about 45 minutes away, through rolling hills covered with oak trees.
It is actually the fifth largest man-made lake in California with over 2.3 million acre feet of water, or nearly 13,000 acres of water supplied by many creeks or tributaries and the Sierra Mountain snow melt, as well as the river itself. There is nearly 160 miles of shoreline that runs for about 25 miles in length from the dam created in 1971 to the river’s entrance by Moccasin Arm or the Tuolumne River Arm. The first eight miles of the lake run through steep wide canyons like Railroad Canyon, and then go into wider areas until reaching Middle Bay. The lake then opens up to beautiful water, and hills covered with deep green-leafed trees and little islands just waiting to have your boat beached for an evening get-together.
The earth and rock fill dam where the annual Fourth of July Fireworks display is held was built by the City of San Francisco, the Turlock Irrigation District, and the Modesto Irrigation District. No U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are involved with the lake. The dam rises some 585 feet above the old streambed of the Tuolumne River, creating a maximum lake level/elevation of 830 feet above sea level. Full pool of that elevation stays pretty constant throughout the summer, so large fluctuation levels are not an issue for the boats staked or camping on the shore for long periods of time.
It was an easy choice for the Buffingtons when they decided to beach their boat at one of their favorite spots at the west side of Big Creek Arm, close to 49er Bay, during the long holiday weekend. Jerry and Linda have a long history of boating and camping in the region. Jerry reminisces about the early years when he was just married to Linda, 52 years prior to last year’s Fourth of July.
“This boating lifestyle is very important to us,” explains Jerry. “We married young and boated with friends when we were 20 years old. We’ve boated, camped, had ski boats and pontoon boats on different lakes around the state ever since. We’ve even rented houseboats before owning one.”
The Buffingtons raised their four children, and are now helping to raise their 15 grandkids on the water.
“It’s a natural progression for us,” adds Jerry. “It’s also important to our well-being and to their well-being. We are a close family because of it, and all the cousins are close as well. We like it and it can be relaxing, although a lot of work at times, but a lot of fun and very rewarding when we look at the children having so much fun. I think they will remember these good times, too.”
The Buffingtons owned a pontoon boat and camped on shore before remodeling their current houseboat, but they never forgot the joy of having it. So they bought a used Aqua Patio pontoon boat since purchasing the houseboat. For them it’s an efficient way of transportation for the necessities of ice, water and food, as well as transporting family and friends rather than using the houseboat.
Food for the holidays for the Buffingtons is supplied by various family members, from a daughter who loves to cook up pork for barbeque sandwiches, to another family member who makes macaroni salad. Then you have mom’s potato salad that is made on the boat with everyone helping out. It’s still a matter of healthy eating with fruits and vegetables along with a favorite meat, but no one goes hungry here. The other family favorite is a fish taco made with fresh caught filleted catfish fingers.
Forever Resorts maintains the two large marinas on the lake, one at each end, which are about 20 miles apart. Runs to the marina for obtaining that precious ice is common, since it’s not unusual to spend the Fourth of July in 100-degree temperatures. Fuel, food supplies and a great cafe for the three daily meals, plus engine repair facilities are located at the main Fleming Meadows Recreation Area Marina. This is where the rental boats are located with parking and easy access. It’s not unusual to pass hundreds of large carp gathered for their daily feeding from children fascinated with these aggressive fish on the way to their boat. Just be careful, because lots of boats dock in this area to get ice or other food items to go.
The Moccasin Pt. Recreation Area at the north end of the lake also has clothing, food and boat supplies, along with another great café. A fuel dock, 130 moorings with covered dry storage, small boat rentals, launch ramp, and campground are located close to the river at that end. In a small boat, vacationers can go up river to fish, see bald eagles, deer, bear and even pan for gold with a recreational permit.
Forever Resorts regional manager Dave Wood said that they consider the lake as one of the best kept secrets in California. It might be crowded during the three summer holidays, but the rest of the time, the lake is quiet and relaxing. Forever Resorts also has 20 beautiful, fully-equipped houseboats for rent that range from 50 to 70 feet. Some boats even have hot tubs, and up to four staterooms. There is even a large 44-foot patio pontoon boat for rent that will accommodate a family reunion.
One of the more popular places to gather with boats of any size is at the waterfalls. There is only one falls, so if you ask, everyone will know which one you are talking about. Smaller boats raft up with the young crowd, enjoying the water and socializing. Top water temperatures are in the low 70’s this time of year, and if you care to dive deeper, like five feet deeper, expect the temps to be in the mid-60s. Not a bad way to cool off!
The area is a truly family-oriented vacation location. Cell phones don’t work very well out on the water, so it is up to everyone to just relax and enjoy the water by PWCs, fishing, wake boarding, windsurfing, swimming, walking the coves (some have marked trails), or by just getting to know one another again.
Fishing for salmon, trout, catfish, small mouth bass, and (rare in the western U.S.) the Florida strain of largemouth bass that reach up to 17 pounds, is not recommended during the holiday, but before or after the crowds, it’s a lot of fun.
Drew Mateo and friends spent the weekend to watch the fireworks, and even camped on their boat. The Dickey family and friends made it a point to celebrate with the fireworks and emphasized it’s all about the kids, including 3-year-old Kendell, who loves to fish on their Harris 24-foot Fisherman. Not to be forgotten, Luis Alonso made a two and a half hour trip from San Jose, Calif., to be with the family and friends at the 49er’s cove for the fireworks and to sleep under the stars. And we wouldn’t soon forget Lori Matteucci, Mikelle Mitzel, or Vanessa Souza in their patriotic swim suits! Oh, baby Judy Ha from Castrol Valley will be competing soon in that patriotic swim suit contest, too!
The 4th of July is all about family, friends, water sports, and fireworks of which there are plenty to enjoy on Don Pedro Lake.