For those California 126 commuters unacquainted with Lake Piru, it's sort of like the Invisible Man. Signs hint of its existence, but it can't be seen driving by.
That's the best and the worst thing about the place. Since it's not immediately visible, a lot of people won't bother to drive the six miles or so through Piru to find it.
"I think people in the city don't realize the extent of recreational opportunities we offer here," said Park Manager Doug West. "Since it's relatively unknown, it's relatively unspoiled."
Lake Piru is in Los Padres National Forest between Castaic and Fillmore. Leaving California 126, the road to the lake leads though the little town of Piru, then up a windy, mountainous two-lane road offering vistas of vast pastures populated by cows.
At this time of year, everything is green.
Between the town and the lake, Piru Canyon is also home to the Bunk House, a bed-and-breakfast facility; a shooting range; and Piru Canyon Honey, which offers free samples.
As you approach the site, a sign reveals the full name of the area, the Lake Piru Recreation District & Santa Felicia Dam, operated by the Ventura County Conservation District. The conservation district owns the lake and its surroundings.
The fee to enter the area is $7.50 per car, an additional $7.50 for a boat and varying fees for camping. A road runs along the northwest side of the lake past a number of campgrounds, picnic areas and hiking trails, and there's a spectacular view of the lake from just about everywhere.
The word Piru comes from the name for the reeds that grow nearby and were once used by Native Americans to weave baskets.
The lake, which is fed by Piru Creek, was formed in 1955 with the construction of the 200-foot-high Santa Felicia Dam. The lake is a little over four miles long and averages about a mile in width, holding more than 88,000 acre feet of water. It didn't reach capacity until 1969, a year of serious flooding all over Ventura County.
At present, the lake is 19 feet below capacity, but that's still plenty of room for all those fish.
Lurking in the depths are abundant rainbow trout, brown trout, catfish, northern black bass, bluegill and crappie. Lake records include a 15-pound bass and a 3 1/2-pound crappie.
California's Department of Fish and Game deposits more than 40,000 pounds of trout there annually.
"Lake Piru is best known for the trout," said West. "Since there are no predator fish here, we have holdover trout from years past."
The fishing opportunities are limited only by one's imagination--and stamina, according to Park Ranger Leslie Reed.
"You can fish here wherever you can get to, either by boat or by hiking," Reed said.
The lake is indeed a boater's paradise. A five-lane concrete launch ramp makes for easy access.
Water-skiing is fine, but these days the water is a brutal 58 degrees.
The lake allows swimming in designated areas, with lifeguards on duty in the summer. There are also areas for tubing. Kayaking is fine as well; actually, everything is allowed at Lake Piru except personal watercraft.
The Condor Point Snack Bar is open weekends (daily in summer), serving breakfast and lunch; beer and wine are available.
The lake marina also offers private slips, dry storage, boat rentals, gas and oil, bait and tackle--the usual.
The lake is surrounded by a variety of trees, including oaks, sycamores, California peppers and, in the aptly named Olive Grove Campground, a veritable sea of olive trees.
This grove of adult trees and green grass features 240 camping spots, plus numerous picnic areas. The trees were planted in the 1880s by Piru founder and religious book publisher David Cook, who sought to re-create the Garden of Eden. The area is stunningly beautiful, even on a gray winter day. Camping is available to those with tents, truck campers or RVs.
There are even hot showers for registered campers and those outdoorsmen of the Ramada Ranger persuasion. Each campsite has a table, a fire ring and a grill. These facilities are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
A poorly kept secret, the lake attracted 600,000 visitors last year, with around 3,500 a day on summer weekends. In addition to all these tourists, Lake Piru is often used by Hollywood for film work--"Wild Wild West" was the last major motion picture to use the lake.
Located next to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, the lake attracts such additional visitors as golden eagles, geese, ducks, osprey, deer, bear, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes and those most unwelcome guests, skunks.
According to Reed, the best thing about the lake necessitates an early arrival.
"This place has sun-ups unsurpassed in the whole county," Reed said. "The beaches may have the best sundowns, but we have the best sun-ups."
Lake Piru Recreation Area, 4780 Piru Canyon Road, open year-round. COST: $7.50 per car, other options vary. CALL: 521-1500.