Trip Report: San Andreas and Folsom Lake
Updated: Aug 5
May 26 – June 3, 2017
May 26th: Gold Strike
We realized early on that nine days at Yosemite would suffice and it wasn’t worth changing campgrounds again just to eke out one extra night. So we spent May 26th at Gold Strike RV Park in San Andreas, where we had access to full hookups, a laundry room, and a mid-sized grocery store, which felt utterly decadent after our Yosemite trip.
That’s probably why the kids and I returned from “Treats” market with a liter of vodka, jar of olives, and bottle of vermouth—civilization requires martinis, right? We had given our Pack-n-Play to one of the park rangers at Hogdon Meadow after realizing we were never going to use it, so technically I could’ve purchased about 20 pounds of alcohol without overloading the pod.
Besides, we had listened to the Garmin, which I’m pretty sure was drunk, because it turned a 73-mile trip into a four-hour test of patience. In good news, while crawling in first gear for 12 miles along a narrow, badly patched “two” lane road, we had an opportunity to see three different farm entrance gates decorated with creepy cherubs, their dirty, tarnished faces daring us to trespass. Don’t worry about it. May not look like it, but we’re literally getting out of here as fast as we can.
I wouldn’t say Gold Strike was particularly nice, but its residents were. It’s a combo park that includes campers and mobile homes. While in the office paying for our site, I chatted it up with a man who was fired after Miracle-Gro bought out his company. “They offered me the District Manager position,” he recounted, “but I told them I didn’t want to work with poison.” He’s a natural gardener whose Airstream is nestled among a variety of five-gallon buckets that house the majority of his food. He told me about a cool, somewhat sexist event—the Men’s Competition—where each entrant is judged on a set of five items: some type of pepper, two other vegetables, jerky, and a craft beer. Then he drew me a map for getting to the grocery store and I tried to follow it but holy hell, I hope he’s better at gardening.
Wendy did four loads of laundry and we tortured the children with showers. They’re both scared of the shower in the Pod. And the toilet. If we ask if they want to take a shower, Darwin says “No,” and Emerson says “No, no.” There’s no mistaking their position on it. But we subject them to it anyway, even though we know they’ll be filthy less than 12 hours later.
May 27th – 28th: Placerville KOA
We arrived at Beals Point Campground at around 11:30, ready to camp in site #73 for two nights before switching to our full hookup site for the next five nights. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, so we were just happy to have reservations somewhere.
After waiting behind several cars, we reached the kiosk. “We’re checking in,” I told the attendant.
“Hmm, I don’t have anything here….” he answered.
I whipped out the handy three-ring binder designed for just such occasions and relayed our reservation number, pointing to it on the page as if that gave it more credibility.
“I don’t know who put that together for you,” he said. “But that campsite is about an hour away—at least an hour away—at the Peninsula Campground.” He handed us a small piece of paper with the phone number and directions for that campground. I called and confirmed that yes, that’s where we were booked.
I didn’t like the idea of driving at least another hour, especially along a peninsula whose campground had a one-star review on Yelp. So we pulled to the side and while I fed the kids lunch, Wendy found us a new campground about 20 minutes away: a KOA in Placerville. I felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, so the $70/night price tag surprised me. But the lure of highway driving and hookups was just too strong, and we decided to stay there until our real reservation at Beals Point kicked in and we could camp near Folsom Lake.
“This is a real highway,” Wendy commented as we merged onto the 50. “When’s the last time we were on one of those?” We’d been on several roads that referred to themselves as a highway, but this was the real deal and it brought me joy. I’m not even being facetious—it was actual joy.
We cruised along the broad, smooth pavement until we saw the signs for the KOA, situated at the end of a bumpy road just past a rusty “Camp Mining Winery” sign. A bit skeptical—particularly considering our last KOA stay—Wendy and I rounded a corner and saw a couple of horses, two goats, and a cool log cabin that turned out to be the KOA office. When I registered, I realized why it’s so pricey.
This place has a pool, a nice playground, a single-species-not-sure-how-I-feel-about-it petting zoo, a little store, and a fishing pond with geese (including goslings). It was packed for Memorial Day Weekend and sites were really close together—something that would normally make us both cranky—but there was a good vibe. Our neighbors were playing redneck golf when we arrived and gave us a warm welcome even though we’d cut their playing field in half. There were lots of people hanging out, talking at tables they’d set up, sitting under awnings with patio lights. It was just… nice. And we had electricity and water, a cell signal, and okay wifi.
There were also free cookies at the desk and a sign that read:
PLEASE WATCH FOR PINE CONES! THEY MAY FALL ON YOUR CAR AND THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT
Now there’s a sign born of necessity, I thought. When I asked the receptionist, she confirmed that yes—they had to create it because people kept complaining about pine cones falling on their cars. “There’s nothing we can do about it!” she said, “but they complain to us anyway!” I think I know who made the sign.
The kids got to see a horse, geese, and goats for the first time in their lives. Darwin has started to ask if she can pet things, and unfortunately the answer was no in each case here, but the kids did get to feed the friendliest goat, which made them happy. We also took another crack at swimming. Darwin had a good time in the water and Emerson was content to sit with me on the edge. “Do you want to go in the water,” I’d ask. “No, no,” he’d say. One “no” is never enough with him. Come to think of it, the same applies whether he’s the one saying it or we are….
When we got back from the pool, I saw a text from my mom asking me to call her. When I did, I was reminded how quickly pain can travel in the silence before words begin: “I have some bad news.”
I won’t go into detail because my mom comes from a huge family with nine siblings and I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. But it feels disrespectful not to acknowledge my uncle’s death—as though somehow it’s not worth mentioning. So I’ll simply say that I’ll miss his quick wit, sly smile, and booming laughter that made me want to laugh, even if I hadn’t heard the joke. I always knew he loved me, and I will always love him. Rest in peace, Uncle Bob.
May 29th – June 3rd: Folsom Lake State Recreation Area
They’re sticklers for their 2pm check-in here at Beals Point. We had to leave the KOA by 11am and tried to kill time by stopping at a Walmart super center. But even then, we reached the campground kiosk at 12:30pm.
“Check-in isn’t until 2:00,” he told us. “But you can use the day-use area until then.” He gave me a pink slip of paper with tape for the windshield.
“So park in the day-use area and then come back here at 2:00 to check-in?” I asked.
“Yep,” he answered, as though it was perfectly normal.
Checkout is at noon. There are no rooms to clean. Why hold so fast to that two-hour vacant period? I might think it was normal if we hadn’t just come from national park campgrounds, where check-in and check-out are both at noon.
So we continued to the day-use parking lot and found a nice pull-through spot. Then we walked around for the next 90 minutes with the dogs and kids. We checked out our campsite, just waiting there, empty. We watched throngs of people hanging out by the lake—cooking delicious-smelling meats, laying out in the sun, playing in the water. We walked really slowly. Then we looked at my phone and saw that 45 minutes had passed.
We’re stuck near Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on, I wish the staff knew better, then we could move along….
We took shelter in the shade of a restroom hut by the kiosk and killed time listening to park employees admonishing would-be campers from parking in the turn-around. They were all waiting for that magical 2pm check-time. “Ford Ranger,” an employee yelled through the speaker, “MOVE!”
“If you didn’t force everyone to wait until two, this wouldn’t be happening,” I found myself muttering aloud to the imaginary staff member eagerly seeking my advice. “They’re doubling their workload,” I complained to Wendy, “telling everyone who comes a little early to wait until two, then talking to them again after two.” We just shook our heads, hot and tired and wishing I’d spent more time in Walmart. “What time is it now?”
We managed to buck the system and check in precisely one minute before two. I think we got the worst site, with a radio tower behind us and a dumpster in front, but the sites here are huge and there’s lots of privacy. There are also full hookups and our pad is level, so no real complaints.
Besides, this stop is more about the lake than the campground. This is the first place I’ve been able to fish regularly and there’s lots of shopping nearby. We spent six hours yesterday buying supplies from Target, Bass Pro Shop, a local pet store, and Sprint. Earlier this week I met Huntley—a fisherman sporting flip-flops and light blue board shorts, his can of Bud Light in a shady spot on the picnic table and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Any luck?” he asked, as he approached.
“No,” I answered. “But I’ve never caught anything.”
“Want some help?” he asked.
He gave me a few tips for casting, like lining up a certain part of the reel each time to prevent it from tangling, and he demonstrated a cool lasso-type technique that takes advantage of centrifugal force to cast farther while stressing the fishing rod less. He suggested pointing the rod downward rather than holding it up while reeling in because if you get a bite, the rod automatically does the work of keeping the fish on the line.
“The thing about the set-up you have here,” he said, “is the fish can see this braided line coming a mile away. Want me to make you a leader line?”
“Sure,” I answered. “If you don’t mind.”
“It’s no problem. I have to go to my truck though. I’ll be right back.”
He returned with nine spools organized around 10-gauge wire bent into a circle. Then he cut a piece of clear line and showed me how to make the “improved clinch knot,” which I had accomplished once before using a YouTube video. He faltered for a moment and said “Sorry, I’ve been drinkin’ and I’m not used to talking while I do this.” I couldn’t help but smile.
“Why not just use a regular knot,” I asked. The good ol’ double knot had become my go-to because it didn’t require learning anything new. Huntley explained that if a fish pulls on the line, a regular knot will break. So it doesn’t matter how much weight your line can take if the knot is weak. Figuring out how to tie that fancy knot finally seemed worth the trouble. So I practiced with Huntley until I finally got it.
“The other thing about that braided line,” he continued, “is that it doesn’t have much flex. So it gets stuck on things easier.” My tendency to lose lures seemed less like my fault, and I decided I liked talking to Huntley. “Also, if you get a fish, it’s easier to reel it in, but it’s a lot harder to actually hook the fish.” I explained that I had bought the braided line because I was looking for a one-size-fits-all solution for our trip and didn’t want to have to change out the spool because it took Wendy and me an hour to do it the first time.
“I can swap it out for you, if you want,” he offered.
“That’s alright,” I told him, “I don’t want to take all your stuff.” But I did want to take his stuff. Maybe I would actually catch a fish if I had better-suited line.
“It’s alright,” he answered, “I get my stuff for free. I’ll show you how to do it.” Turns out Bass Pro Shop provides Huntley with a monthly stipend and free swag in exchange for the advice he provides its customers during free seminars. And I see why—he was so good at explaining how and why to do things.
Even though my fishing record stands at zero, I learned a lot on this leg of the trip. I’ll probably still have to refer to YouTube if I need to add more line, but now I know how to tie the magical knot that will help retain whatever fish finally takes pity on me. I practiced my new skill several times this morning before Wendy brought the kids to meet me, then we all went to the other side of the lake to play in the water.
Now the kids are napping, the dogs are sleeping, Wendy’s cross-stitching, an old episode of Law and Order is playing, and the air conditioner is blowing. Life is good.
Read the next trip report: Vineyard RV Park