This is actually a blog post about how not to walk or hike in the area by Lake Natoma if you’re looking for a two-hour jaunt. The larger shaded section on the north side of Lake Natoma on my “Top Trails Sacramento” map fooled me into thinking that the north side would be the shadier side. A shadier map does not make a shadier route. Duh.
What you will find on the north side of Lake Natoma, after parking by CSU’s Aquatic Center and crossing the Hazel Avenue bridge, is a busy bike trail and the Pioneer Express dirt path through a large clearing surrounded by tailings left over from Gold Rush dredging days. Not pretty. You’ll find more shade by taking the gravel road rather than the dirt path where you see the sign for the Pioneer Express trail. The gravel road extends approximately a mile up to the Shadow Glen Family Stable, and it looks like it continues around the perimeter of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area/Lake Natoma Unit and reconnects with the bike trail. That reconnection point is about two miles from the Hazel bridge.
We did a little reconnaissance on the south shore and found it to offer far more shade. With afternoon temps in the 70s, we lucked out today. When summer really starts to heat up, we’ll try the south side route.
The only trick to the south side trail is near the beginning. When you hit the parking lot, the bike trail – which looks like a road (and it is used by Park Rangers) – takes a 90 degree turn to the right. Pass the maintenance station and park sign shop on the left. You’ll see posts blocking a road straight from vehicular traffic ahead of you; that’s the route to the Hazel light rail station. Take a left before the posts and you’ll be on the main bike trail. You’re quite close to Highway 50 at that point, and paralleling it.
If you’ve got more time, you can do the entire circumference of the lake in 4-5 hours (according to Top Trails Sacramento)… or in half that time, walk the south side of Lake Natoma and hop on light rail at the Folsom station, taking it back to the Hazel station. Steven L. Evans, the author, provided these directions, coming from the direction of Hazel: Just after crossing under the Folsom-Auburn Bridge, “turn right into the Lake Natoma Inn parking area. Continue in a 180-degree loop to the right as your path climbs the southeast abutment of the bridge to the bike/pedestrian walkway along the bridge’s east side. … turn left here to to go the Folsom Light Rail Station.” Once you’ve reached the Hazel station on light rail, exit and look for the trail up to Lake Natoma; the paved bike path appears to be directly across Folsom Blvd.
We parked for free at the parking lot closest to Nimbus Dam and the river (there are two parking lots, one immediately after the other). A gate attendant asked what we were there to do and we answered, “walk,” which resulted in us being allowed to park for free. If you park inside the Nimbus boat launch area, you will have to pay a fee of $10 (up from $5 a few years ago).
Start and finish: We meandered, starting at 1:05 p.m. from the car near CSU Aquatic Center, first up the north side of Lake Natoma, then up the south side, finishing at 2:50.
Blister count: 0
Don’t miss: Watching the kayakers and sailors having fun on the lake
Watch out for: Little cyclists not paying attention when they come around corners near the dam on the north side of Lake Natoma
Whew! No snakes. There may be mosquitos if you take the Pioneer Express path later in the season; the two small ponds are pretty stagnant
Head count: Millions! Lots of people out having fun, mostly on bikes
Resources: Hours and info about the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area (including Lake Natoma unit) online here. The CSU Aquatic Center, which is open to the public, is one of the area’s gems; hours and information online here.