Salt Springs is a remote artificial lake located way off all popular Sierra Nevada destinations in the gorge of Mokelumne River. The reservoir is about 1/4 mile / 400 m wide and 5 mile / 8 km long, and is formed by Salt Springs Dam that is operated by Pacific Gas and Electric.
The reservoir itself can look very different depending on the water level. A the peak of the 2015 drought it looked like a vanishing rain pool. Note the bare rocky shores. Ideally the water level should reach the tree line.
However in the fall of 2016 there was an improvement of around 50-75 ft / 15-25 m, per my rough estimates. Here is the same view after the more rainy 2016 season:
The dam itself is about 1/4 mile / 4oo m long and it looks more impressive when the water is low and more of the dam is exposed.
There was something like a boat ramp at the north end of the dam, but its entrance gate was locked.
We didn’t see any boats or swimmers. The place felt deserted and isolated. We heard lots of gunshots in the distance, probably a range practice.
There were lots of PG&E transformers and power lines around. The pictures don’t convey it but the whole place had a surreal look and feel.
We went up the trail that starts at the north end of the Dam. The trail gains a few hundred feet in the first 10 minutes after which it becomes more or less level. It stays in the shade of the trees for the most part and occasionally provides views of the reservoir. We hiked this trail twice and didn’t run into or see any other people except one group of three hikers. Here’s what we did see though:
- Lots of poison oak along the trail
- A few rattlesnakes, small to mid-size. One of them was right on the trail and was busy trying to swallow a lizard. The lizard’s size was comparable to that of the snake. I was so amazed that forgot to take a picture.
- Lots of annoying bugs
- A few deer
- A bear. We saw it at the upstream end of the reservoir. It was small, size of a large dog, and red. The bear saw us and ran away. It was the first time I saw a bear running. It moved with grace and ease of an antelope. As soon as I saw it one of my hands reached for the camera and the other for the pepper spray, but the bear was gone in 10 seconds.
During the drought year the water was very low and much of the rocky bottom was exposed.
In some places the exposed slopes looked like man-made terraces:
In the fall of 2016 when the water level was somewhat higher than the year before we hiked all the way to the upstream end of the lake where the Mokelumne River flows into it. Some parts of the terrain that were probably underwater earlier in the year were now visible, and some of them were covered with green grass or mold (I could not tell from the distance) which contrasted with sun-baked dry yellow grass elsewhere around:
Some of the islands contained mini-lakes:
The Mokelumne River that feeds the Salt Springs was about 10 feet / 3m wide near the point where it hit the reservoir and we crossed it via a wooden plank. This was the spot where we encountered the bear.
The area around the estuary is all light-gray Sierra granite. It features many holes about 3 ft / 1m in diameter, some filled with standing water.
Some of the holes provide a perfect example of natural landscaping:
Tanglefoot Creek flows into Salt Springs from the north, about 1 mile / 1.6 km from the upstream end of the Reservoir. It makes it way to the lake via steep Tanglefoot Canyon. The Salt Springs trails crosses this canyon via series of wooden bridges near the point where the canyon reaches the lake. Apparently there is a trail, called Tanglefoot Canyon Trail, that goes from the top of the Canyon all the way down to the Reservoir. We haven’t hiked this trail yet, but we’re planning to, and so far we just found the trailhead. It is located at much higher elevation than the Salt Springs and unlike the latter it is in a coniferous forest. The trail starts at an elevated ridge and the views are quite nice.
The area is almost as deserted as the Salt Springs. This is where dirt road ends. As far as I understand there are two trails that start at this spot: one follows the Tanglefoot Canyon, and another goes to Mokelumne Peak. (Don’t take my word for that – do your own research if planning a hike).
Planning your hike
I can’t emphasize enough that the Salt Springs and Tanglefoot Canyon areas are very deserted, despite being easily accessible from Carson Pass Highway. One is likely not to see a single person during a full day hike. The area swarms with rattlesnakes during the warm season, has lots of poison oak and is also a bear habitat. It can be brutally hot in summer or early fall.
During the snow season (about November to May) the Ellis Road and the Bear River Road south of the Bear River Dam are closed, making these areas inaccessible by car.
Getting to Salt Springs
From Pioneer, California, drive about 20 miles / 32 km east on Highway 88 to Ellis Road. Turn right on Ellis Road and drive for about 30-40 minutes following the signs to Salt Springs Reservoir. Park next to the dam at the unpaved parking lot at 38.499935,-120.216630 (the road itself is paved all the way to the end, although narrow and winding most of the time). The trailhead is right off the parking lot at the northern edge of the Dam.
Getting to Tanglefoot Canyon Trailhead
From Pioneer, California, drive about 24 miles / 40 km east on Highway 88 to Bear River Road. Turn right on Bear River Road. The road descends to Bear River Reservoir. Cross the Bear River Dam and follow the signs to Tanglefoot Canyon Trailhead. At some point the paved road ends and becomes a dirt track. The approximate location of the trailhead is 38.51698,-120.16708.