Growing up my mom always told me about the amazing times she had on backyard rinks outdoors in Michigan. Living in Northern California I assumed that this just was never going to be a reality in my state and someday I’d go somewhere in the winter and skate on a frozen lake.
Flash forward to December 2020 and I heard from a former college teammate about a frozen lake in Northern California, near the Tahoe region! Getting to play some lake hockey seemed like it was going to be a reality. I quickly learned, however, Ice skating on a frozen lake in California is not as simple as it sounds (if you’re not near it). So here’s my guide to the best lake to skate on in California (in my opinion)
The lake in question is Red Lake which is near Kirkwood, CA, slightly south of South Lake Tahoe. It’s a smallish lake, and with the ideal conditions is one of the closest frozen lakes in California in retrospect of the San Francisco/Sacramento area. But the lake is not always frozen and it is not always skateable, a perfect set of conditions must be present in order for it to be accessible and safe.
Water freezes at 32°f, which means the first set of conditions for the frozen lake is a quite a few days of very cold weather in the area. I’m talking lower than 20°f for multiple hours over multiple days. And then having that kind of temperature consistently at least at night leading up to your planned skate. The cold will allow any melt during the part of the high temperature of the day to refreeze at night. Once this is achieved you should have a lovely sheet of ice.
The next thing you need is the lack of snow. If there is a snowstorm in the time leading up to your skate, good chance the frozen ice will be covered in snow. Unless you know someone is shoveling snow, you missed your chance. So try to check the weather and look for clear skies for at least a week. Also, if there is snow recently, you’ll want to make sure to carry chains in your car on your drive to this lake to skate on!
If all of those weather conditions are met, you should have one of the most amazing frozen lakes in California at your skate blades. However, if you’re not from Tahoe, you’ll need to wake up pretty early to actually take full advantage. From Davis, CA we left at 5:30AM and got there around 7:40AM and it was perfect. Magical light, crisp air, and dry ice!
Because the snow season in the region doesn’t usually hit till early or mid-December, your window to skate can start by late November and ends within two weeks. When you arrive, you should always check to see if other people are already skating on the ice, and if not – you should measure to see if the ice is at least 4 inches thick. Good information on how to do that here!
Once you check that the ice is safe, time to throw on your skates and have some fun! My recommendation is to avoid the edges as they can be thinner ice and the last thing you want is a wet skate. But bring some pucks, your dog, and just have some fun! The day we went the high was 49ºf and by 9 AM I had taken off all of my jackets and layers. However, a word of warning. If the high is that warm, the ice will start to melt around the edges, and you will start to hear the water moving underneath the ice. It sounds like a whale call. Around 10 AM it got very loud, and we decided that to be safe we were getting off the ice. A 2.5-hour skate is already amazing, and loads of people were still on the lake, but we wanted to go safety first.
If you ever wanted a lake to skate on in California, this is the spot to go before the snow season hits the area. You can see more photos from our trip on the Instagram as we had a really fun time there!