Hwy 50 to Loon Lake
California Sierra Nevada
Ice House Rd
Quick Ride: Ice House Rd is a find, a true discovery, a glorious godsend. Absolutely beautiful wide-open mountain vistas with snow capped peaks in the distance, a true treasure within El Dorado County. Wide two lane with a center line, occasional shoulder, and no shortage of drop-offs. No guardrails here. Occasional bumps. Very few surprises. No crazy corners or sharp 90-degree hairpins, rather these hairpins are smooth curves capable of sustained speeds offering over 34 miles of non-stop curves. Attach Wentworth Springs Rd for the perfect mountain loop.
El Dorado - COUNTY
34 Miles - LENGTH
Most Excellent, No guard rails - PAVEMENT
Mountain, Smooth - CURVES
Loon Lake to Hwy 50 - CONNECTS
Ice House Resort, Fresh Pond, Georgetown - GAS
Twenty years ago, my wife and I bought our first house. We both worked in Sacramento but had no desire to live there. We started pushing out from the edge of the city to find something more within our first-time buyer price range. Now being young kids with a new baby, we didn't have high expectations, and we couldn't afford to buy 10 or even 20 miles outside the city. We pushed further out and the prices of homes came down to our level. We finally purchased a home at 4000 feet in Pollock Pines which was the furthest point out from the city that was still a manageable commute. My commute would be 45 minutes each way, but it was our house, our yard, our driveway. We were homeowners.
I had also let my much-loved ’93 Kawasaki ZX-11D go and bought a Suzuki Hayabusa. Next on the To Do List was begin exploring the mountainous region around our new home. Based from this 4000 ft elevation, there were mountains in every direction, and even when there weren’t mountains, rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada stretched for 200 miles north & south in both directions.
It was a rider’s paradise. Nine miles from our new house was Ice House Rd.
I had never heard of it. But oddly enough, I had ridden past it multiple times traversing Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe along the busy thoroughfare of Hwy 50. Ice House is found along this main artery of Hwy 50 at the very bottom of the South Fork of the American River Canyon.
At the same time that we bought our first house, Wentworth Springs Rd which parallels Hwy 50 to the north, was a dead-end road out of Georgetown. That one I had ridden; I would ride up on my Yamaha FJ1200 to the end of the pavement near Eleven Pines Rd and then turn around when Wentworth Springs Rd became gravel. But Wentworth Springs Rd was being paved to Ice House Rd. A former dirt jeep trail, Wentworth Springs Rd was in the process of being widened, smoothly graded, and applied with a ribbon of chocolaty smoothness up and over Hartless Mountain. Overnight, these roads were no longer dead-end rides. They went someplace. They connected to something.
Eager to get to know my new Hayabusa, I awoke early one Sunday morning in March and leathered up. I tucked the camera into the tank bag and left the house by 5am. Riding off into the cold of night with the electric gear on high.
The goal was to arrive at the top of the range as the sun began to climb over the Sierra Nevada.
A turn north off Hwy 50 with well-marked signage, I quickly realized Ice House Rd was a find, a true discovery, a glorious godsend. Absolutely beautiful wide-open mountain vistas with snow capped peaks in the distance, a true treasure within El Dorado County. Wide two lane with a center line, occasional shoulder, and no shortage of drop-offs. No guardrails here. Occasional bumps. Very few surprises. No crazy corners or sharp 90-degree hairpins, rather these hairpins are smooth curves capable of sustained speeds offering over 30 miles of non-stop curves.
Ice House Road wastes no time appealing to your inner child. A 180-degree hairpin introduces the ride and up the hill you go. There's an easily missed intersection in the first hairpin that may spark a wee bit of curiosity. This is White Meadows Rd. It runs along the north side of the American river although not close enough to see the water. The pavement however, only lasts several miles and then dead ends. There are spur roads like Peavine Ridge Rd, that connect back up the hill to Peavine Ridge, but these are unpaved fire roads. The Blair Mill site, McConel Place, Telephone Ridge, and Rice Cabin are all found back in these hills.
The first leg of Ice House Rd is a twisted affair gradually climbing in elevation through an area once-devastated by the Cleveland Fire. The scars have long since faded. Summer or spring, even with snow on the ground, the road is often well-traveled enough to have the snow plowed to Union Valley Reservoir. Other years the road has been plowed to Wentworth Springs Rd. As the snow melts, the road clears all the way to Loon Lake, the farthest reach of pavement.
These reservoirs were designed as large man-made lakes at multiple levels. Snowmelt flows into the highest level, then is released to the next reservoir below, then the next level, then finally released back into the Middle Fork of the American River flowing to White Rock Powerhouse. Power is generated at each level as gravity-fed water flows through massive pipes called penstocks.
It's 34 miles to Loon Lake. Along the way, the road also rides past Union Valley Reservoir, el. 4870 ft. and Ice House Reservoir, el. 5500 ft. These three are PG&E & SMUD's first big caches of water for generating power and for flood control built in the late 1950's. Union Valley Reservoir is the largest and was created in 1963 over Silver Creek when a 453-foot high earthen dam was built to block off the canyon. Union Valley Powerhouse is at the base of the dam. The Reservoir is filled by Big Silver Creek, Jones Fork Silver Creek, Tells Creek, & Wench Creek. Depending on the snow levels during the winter, these reservoirs can vary widely in the level of water.
NF 32 provides access to Ice House Reservoir, then connects eastward to Wrights Lake and over to Hwy 50.
Peavine Ridge Rd also connects to the east side of Union Valley Reservoir via the paved Bryant Springs Rd. Further down Peavine Ridge is the power generating station in Jaybird Canyon although I've been told the entrance to this canyon has been gated off by PG&E.
The reservoirs are stocked with fish and surrounded by numerous campgrounds. There are over 700 campsites in the Crystal Basin region, this in turn attracts plenty of anglers and campers. Union Valley Reservoir is known for its kokanee salmon, small mouth bass, mackinaw and rainbow trout. Although Loon Lake was originally a natural lake before it was developed into the present-day reservoir- it and Ice House Reservoir are restocked with rainbow trout each summer. Or if you prefer mountain streams- try Gerle Creek for German brown trout.
The Crystal Basin Recreation Area is a joint development between the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Forest Service. SMUD operates these series of reservoirs and hydroelectric powerhouses which furnish energy to about 180,000 homes in the Sacramento area.
Three miles up the canyon wall, a forest service building appears providing a wealth of information about camping permits and the Rubicon Trail. If you miss it, there is another ranger station at the 12-mile mark. The 1992 Cleveland Fire started right before the first hairpin on Ice House Rd at Cleveland Corral and fanned by 60 mph winds, produced 100-foot-tall flames and burnt 24,000 acres on both sides of Hwy 50 over two weeks. The fire climbed north out of the canyon and all the way over to Big Hill Lookout burning over 240 structures including most of the structures at Big Hill Lookout. The fire lookout tower that originally spotted the fire also burned.
However, the good news is the denuded hillsides were salvage logged and a massive human effort to replant the trees was put forth by volunteers who planted thousands of trees by hand. The first time I rode Ice House, these trees were not very high creating an unobstructed view across the mountainous hillsides. Only several feet high, these same trees are now over twenty feet high on average and a great success story for the forest service in repairing a mountain region after a forest fire.
After six miles, you’ll reach the crest of the canyon wall and flip over the other side into the Crystal Basin. However, not so fast Speed Racer. If you take the turnoff at the hairpin, and continue north up the ridgeline, this road is Peavine Ridge Rd and flows back into Jaybird Canyon to Robbs Powerhouse at the river bottom. There is a dam and a small reservoir. Peavine Ridge Rd narrows to one lane with hairpins. This ride is a dead end, but it’s a fun paved detour if you have the time to ride all the way down into the narrow canyon. Riding into these mountain canyons will make the world seem a million miles away.
The Ride into Jaybird Canyon is one way in, and one way out, so you can't get lost if you stay on the paved road. If you did decide to ride Peavine Ridge Rd, it soon evolves into a road created by the power companies in the 1960s to reach their generating stations. Peavine Ridge is a loose meandering ride with several teasing views to the west. After several miles, Peavine Ridge Rd begins a steep descent into Jaybird canyon through five hairpins. The last hairpin is a 180-degree switchback that is so tight, it might involve a three-point turn for some.
Deep within the canyon, Sugar Pine Creek is a long waterfall visible on the opposite wall of the canyon as you reach the river bottom adjacent to the station. The south wall of the canyon at the powerhouse is almost straight up in some places with another waterfall coming down the south wall in spring.
Jaybird Powerhouse began producing power in May of 1961. A massive penstock falls straight down the mountainside creating the source of the hydro power with an adjacent maintenance ladder shooting right up beside it. I didn’t have the guts to climb it. The road continues as a gravel path for another ½ mile along the water’s edge to the Camino Reservoir Dam. When you've had your fill, head back to Ice House Rd, but take the detour north 5.6 miles to the earthen dam for Ice House Reservoir. Amazing views and often deserted. It’s 8.4 miles back to Ice House Rd from the Union Valley Reservoir earthen dam via Bryant Springs Rd.
A short distance beyond the crest of Peavine Ridge is a broad pullout on the north side of the road providing an impressive view of the Crystal Basin and range. At 9 miles from Hwy 50, Ice House Resort Campground arrives. There may be fuel here in an above ground tank but we never plan on filling up here during a tour. The ride is remote enough where you need to think about fuel vs distance and plan accordingly.
The restaurant here is a good stop for snacks and carries the usual American-style eats. The bar area is covered in dollar bills attached to the walls and ceiling, each with a name or origin written on the dollar bill. The Pashnit Tour group has made this our lunch stop and they handled our large group with ease. Ice House Reservoir is 1.5 miles east via Forest Road 32, but isn’t visible from the road. Use the forest service website to plan reservations to camp here. The 3-mile long Ice House Bike Trail runs along the shores of Ice House Reservoir, passing by all the campgrounds.
It’s easy to miss, but there is a four-way junction for the Big Hill Fire Lookout and Ice House Reservoir, a mile north of Ice House Resort. A turn to the east is Forest Rd 32 over to Ice House Reservoir and Wrights Lake. Wrights Lake is a smaller lake surrounded by several private cabins some of which have been owned privately since the 1920s. Wrights Lake also provides the closest staging area for climbing to the top of the Crystal Range. Trails lead away from the campground up to the crest of the Sierra Nevada and top-of-the-world views of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
East of the Wrights Lake turn-off, NF 32 narrows to one lane and connects back in the Hwy 50 but is not advisable for larger vehicles or trucks pulling trailers. Ridden westbound on NF32 climbing from Hwy 50 out of the canyon, this is a narrow single lane paved road. Super fun for motorcyclists, not fun for trucks pulling large trailers.
Route Suggestion: if you are headed downhill on Hwy 50 coming from Tahoe, escape the traffic and ride Wrights Lake Rd to NF 32 to Ice House Rd. You’ll hit Ice House Rd at the halfway point. Zero traffic, and you can then ride Wentworth Springs Rd back to Georgetown, then Salmon Falls Rd back into El Dorado Hills.
Back on Ice House Rd, a turn to the west at Big Hill Rd offers a quick twisty route up to the top of Big Hill Lookout. The fire lookout atop Big Hill at an elevation of 6,132 ft dates to 1933 when the California Conservation Corp constructed fire lookouts throughout the Sierra Nevada. It has been manned seasonally ever since except during WWII when it was manned year-round for the detection of balloons carrying Japanese fire bombs.
The Cleveland Fire in 1992 destroyed this hilltop and all its structures. In 1993 a new tower was completed 23’ feet high with a 14’x14’ lookout atop. The narrow catwalk that surrounds offers a 360-degree view.
Big Hill Fire Lookout has to be one the best day trips from the Placerville - El Dorado County area, rarely ever busy, the fire lookout is manned by friendly staff and open to the public if you want to brave the nearly vertical steps to get into the Fire Lookout. Fun for the kids plus mom & dad. We’ve brought many tour groups here for over the last 15 years and enjoyed this break in the day immensely. Each time we've visited Big Hill, the lookout was there to give us a tour plus explain how they shoot an azimuth and plot out distance to potential fires
Big Hill is also a helo fire attack base. For several years, a Bell 214 B1 fire-fighting helicopter, Helimax N232HL, was parked on the helipad. Smoke jumpers are based here, these are firefighters that parachute into burning forests and often the first responders to a forest fire.
Smoke jumpers may also fast rope into a forest fire. A thick rope dangles below the hovering helicopter, they grab that rope and slide down it to the ground below.
One visit, several smoke jumpers along with the pilot of the helicopter walked out. We quickly learned the pilot was a member of the Pashnit.com site and a fellow Triumph rider. He obliged the tour group with an in-depth tour of the Huey helicopter.
There are some pull-up bars nearby that likely have the best view of any set of pull up bars in the Sierra Nevada. Quick workout will get the blood pumping.
Don’t miss the short walk north to the viewpoint providing an impressive panorama of Union Valley Reservoir below. The view of the lake below the lookout is expansive and breath-taking. Mountain peaks frame the horizon, the most prominent to the southeast is 9,985 ft. Pyramid Peak, a triangular shaped peak. The peak is the highest point in the Desolation Wilderness that borders the Crystal Basin to the southeast from Big Hill.
What makes Big Hill Lookout most interesting is if you ride Ice House Rd only intent on experiencing a brisk clip, you’d never know this breath-taking view is even here. Bring a snack, bring lunch, and ride up here to make this one of your destinations for your journey on Ice House Rd.
The Crystal Range extends north from 9985 ft Pyramid Peak along an 11-mile ridge, which includes Mt. Price, Red Peak, and Silver Peak. The range covers some 900 square miles, it spans 85,000 acres and Big Hill sits in the middle of all of it.
More than 700 campsites are available during summer and fall months. Paved boat ramps are found at Ice House Reservoir, Union Valley Reservoir, and Loon Lake. Only non-motorized boats are allowed at Wrights Lake and at Gerle Reservoir.
At the twelve-mile mark is the Crystal Basin Information Station, a forest service building providing all the info you’ll need to camp, jeep, fish, or boat here. Hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and Fridays from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. Note for the northbound rider, the station is found at the exit of a smooth corner and is hidden from view until you’re right on top of the forest service entrance. The entrance may come up suddenly. Slow moving Jeepers pulling large trailers with even larger rock crawlers may be pulling into the parking lot.
The turnoff for Union Valley Campgrounds is just up the road. To make this your camping destination, reserve space on ReserveAmerica.com or the forest service website. The furthest point is Camino Cove Campground on the west side of the lake near the dam
The majority of Ice House Rd is a delicious two lane, smooth and maintained, banked corners, often with expansive views across the canyon and Sierra. Note there are animals about. One visit to the Fire Lookout, the patrons informed us a rider on Ice House Rd had recently hit a bear. Totaled his bike, but the rider survived due to his armored leathers.
Need a Christmas tree? And a place to cut one down? One year, we got a permit at the Fresh Pond Ranger Station for a Christmas Tree. Then we drove up with the kids on Ice House Rd, took a side road and began wandering through the forest looking for a Christmas tree.
You can cut trees in the national forest with a permit and a couple bucks paid to the local ranger station. It was a fun experience and the kids loved it. Another year, the kid’s school came up with trailers and cut 20 or 30 trees and the school sold them as a fund raiser.
At the 21-mile mark from Hwy 50, you’ll ride up on Robbs Peak Rd to Robbs Hut atop Robbs Peak at 6686 ft. It’s a short unpaved fire road for 6 miles to a locked gate. You then have to hike about 3/4 mile the rest of the way if you opted to ride up to the gate. Robbs Peak Rd is found in a long downhill straight, and easy to blow by if you’re not watching for it. The hut can be rented, reserve online at recreation.gov. There is a second access road from the top of Hartless Mountain on Wentworth Springs Rd, but it’s a locked gate here so plan to hike up the crest of the ridge to Robbs Hut
When you reach Wentworth Springs Rd, it quickly becomes apparent, this makes for the perfect loop. The paving that was done in the early 2000s to connect Wentworth Springs with Ice House Rd created the perfect motorcycle loop. These roads are super fun, endlessly twisty, remote, few sideroads and few people almost year-round.
One mile north of the Wentworth Springs junction is the turn off for Loon Lake. Wentworth Springs Rd extends north from here but this evolves into a dirt fire road to Airport Flat Campground and continues along the contours of Gerle Creek merging with the Rubicon Trail on the north side of Loon Lake.
Stay to the right at the fork in the road and continue on Ice House Rd for one of the more dramatic views overlooking the South Fork of the Rubicon River in the canyon below. No tall trees to obstruct your view, the view south across the Crystal Basin is breathtaking. Space. There’s lots of space. If you need space, you need ride this short hill climb to Loon Lake.
As Ice House Rd passes over the South Fork of the Rubicon River after a quick S-turn, there is Robbs Peak Reservoir barely noticeably beyond a locked gate but the rushing mountain river is beside the road for a short distance. Fed by snow melt, this stream may be dry in summer. The elevation climbs six miles up to Loon Lake from the Wentworth Springs junction. Loon Lake is at the highest level in this multi-level cascade of water.
In 1884, Loon Lake Reservoir was constructed to supply water to Georgetown Ridge for mining. Water in Loon Lake was diverted into canals still visible today. That water flowed all the way to Georgetown and drained back into Pilot Creek. The filling and subsequent release of water from Loon Lake for power generation can vary the lake level as much as 36 feet up or down.
Loon Lake Campground also has an equestrian section exclusively for horses. The Loon Lake Rubicon Trail Head parking lot on the north side of the lake is often full of big trucks and car haulers. Trailers contain large rock crawlers ready to climb over the sierra up the smooth granite rocks that make up the trail.
Nearing Loon Lake, I pulled to the side of the road after miles of basking in this glorious godsend of a ride. Shutting the bike off, I peeled off gloves, helmet and earplugs in the cool mountain air. The sun was quickly overcoming the morning dusk.
Overlooking the Rubicon River Canyon, the sound of the silence was the most peaceful and soothing sounds. The mountain was still. Roads like this were placed on this earth so that you and I can escape for a few moments, stand atop a mountain and survey all the world before us. Not a sound. No neighbors, no lawnmowers, no other traffic, no TV, no kids. Nothing.
Only the sound of the wind flowing across this vast basin within the mountains. And that's it. No other sound. This is why I come up here. This is why you should come up here.
One of the PG&E guys drives by in his blue pickup truck as I stand there. He's grinning from ear to ear and waves. Somehow, he knows what I'm thinking. We can both see for miles! Imagine this view every morning on your way to work!
On this Sunday morning in March flanked by my new motorcycle to which I was much better acquainted with, the sun began to ooze over the horizon. My breath formed wisps of vapor in the 6000 ft mountain air. The first rays poured a brilliance over this cool morning. Upon reaching Loon Lake, there was still snow on the ground and Loon Lake was covered in ice. In summer, the mountain water here is crystal clear and the deepest blue. At night, the skies come alive with stars.
There is a large 3-story chalet here near the lake you can rent. Located at an elevation of 6,348 feet, Loon Lake Chalet is nestled in the granite bowls and lodgepole red fir forest surrounding Loon Lake. The chalet has excellent views of the Sierras and Loon Lake. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) built Loon Lake Chalet in 1989 originally intended as a warming station in winter. A third floor was added a few years later and a sleeping loft created. The chalet is the center of the Loon Lake Winter Recreation Area.
The Loon Lake Chalet is open to the public weekends and holidays in the winter from 9 am to 5 pm. Rental on winter weekends is from 5 pm to 8:30 am. Both the warming room and the loft serve as sleeping areas and will accommodate up to 20 people. A dozen sleeping pads are available in the loft.
A Ranger is in residence on duty, staying in the patrol room on the bottom floor. The chalet has electric heat, lights, and stove. There is a propane fireplace for comfort. The kitchen has a range, hot and cold water, sink, microwave, refrigerator, small dryer, and coffee pot. Furniture includes a seating area made up of a queen-size futon couch and Adirondack couches facing the fireplace, tables, and benches. Outside there is a large deck with BBQ, tables, and benches overlooking the lake. Reserve it at recreation.gov.
Loon Lake spans 76,200 acres and has 53 campsites, 15 RV sites, and 9 equestrian sites. They're open June 15 to Oct 1- reservations of course make sense. There are even 10 sites on the northeast side of Loon Lake that are boat-in campsites called Pleasant Camp. One of the nearby mountain bike trails even includes a 10-foot diameter tunnel through solid rock.
Beyond that- there are another 10 sites at Spider Lake- a hike-in-hike-out campground- although jeepers find it easily reachable to camp on the east side of the lake near Little Sluicebox on the Rubicon Trail. Bring your own water or a good filter. No fees for the hike-in, but first-come-first-serve.
The powerhouse is a short distance away from the Chalet and was completed in 1971. To create what you see today, Loon Lake and Pleasant Lake were joined to form the 1400-acre reservoir. The power generating center is actually 1200 feet below the lake drilled though the ancient rock. The earthen dam at Loon Lake Reservoir sits an elevation of 6410 ft.
Paving on Ice House Rd ends when it reaches Northshore Campground the Red Fir Campground and Loon Lake Dam, then it descends to the Loon Lake Rubicon Trailhead at the base of the earthen dam. The famous 22-mile Rubicon Trail starts here along Gerle Creek, and pops out near Tahoma along Lake Tahoe.
The annual Jeepers Jamboree started in 1952 with 55 vehicles, and will be attended present-day by over 200 rock crawling vehicles. The eastern maintained portion of the trail is called the McKinney Rubicon Springs Road.
Hydro-electric power is produced by this staircase using the same water over and over. This area of man-made reservoirs actually totals not just the dam you see here- but 10 more dams, 11 turbines, 8 powerhouses, and several other dikes and dams along the upper American River. Total installed capacity is over 687 MW, producing 1.8 billion KWh annually, enough for 20 percent of the Sacramento’s electricity needs.
Ice House Rd is one of the few mountain roads plowed clear of snow throughout the winter, weather permitting of course. One April, I headed up here and rode across several stretches of ice before giving up and turning around. But a few days of warm sun on the road will dry off the last grip of snow on the road. This adds to the uniqueness of Ice House Road since if you like to ride during winter, this is a great place to visit as the seasons change.
Ice House Rd is a treasure. A truly enjoyable ride, ride it briskly, ride it slowly, makes no difference. It’s endlessly twisty, often with banked turns and steadily climbs northward away from the Hwy 50 corridor until it reaches Loon Lake 34 miles later. While the road passes by several large lakes, none are visible from the road although signage is ample and consistent. The only people you ever saw were the campers, anglers, and jeepers. When Wentworth Springs Rd was completed it created a second access road to reach the Crystal Basin and the Loon Lake staging areas to the Rubicon Trail, but even so, it’s never that busy. Although word to wise, don’t ride it at 5 o clock on a Sunday. Caravans of Jeeps headed home create caravans of 4wd lifted rock crawlers, their large tires humming happy song as they drive by.
After enjoying the morning sun, and noticing I was the only soul up here at this early hour, surrounded in ample layers of snow plus the ice covering the lake, it was time to head back down from the 6500 ft elevation of Loon Lake. My wife would be up soon and wonder where her husband was. But a quick glance at the clock assured me my early departure was a smart move. There was still enough time in my morning to take in the newly paved Wentworth Springs Rd up and over Hartless Mountain.
But that’s another page.
Ice House Rd - Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Ice House Road
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
34 Miles - LENGTH
Excellent for the majority - PAVEMENT
Smooth, Many, Constant, Mountainous - CURVES
Hwy 50 to Loon Lake - CONNECTS
Kyburz, Fresh Pond, Ice House Resort, Georgetown - GAS
700 campsites, Loon Lake Chalet - LODGING
6410 ft- PEAK ELEVATION
38°45′37″N 120°31′48″W - Fresh Pond
38.87°N 120.42°W - Union Valley Reservoir
38.988°N 120.331°W - Loon Lake
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Peavine Ridge Rd
NF 32 / Wrights Lake Rd
Big Hill Lookout Rd
Robbs Peak Rd
Wentworth Springs Rd
Ice House Resort
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