Monday, October 14, 2013

Swimming At Millerton Lake

Dale Matson

Swim Area At Millerton Lake

Millerton Lake is a reservoir near Fresno California with a capacity of one half million acre feet of water. The water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. The main water source for Millerton lake is the San Joaquin River flowing from its 3 sources (North, Middle and South Forks). It is the second longest river in California. The Dam at Friant CA (finished in 1942) was also constructed for seasonal flood control.

The San Joaquin used to be the southernmost California River for Salmon runs but since the construction of the Dam, Salmon are no longer found in the San Joaquin. There has been a cooperative effort by conservationists and farmers to restore Salmon to the river in the future.

Millerton Lake is a wonderful resource within 15 minutes of Fresno. It is used for swimming, boating, fishing, camping and has hiking and mountain bike trails also. Millerton Lake is situated between Madera and Fresno Counties.

Sharon And Me

The irrigation water downstream from the dam is much colder than near the lake surface because the water is drawn off the bottom of the lake which is about 320 feet deep when full. This means that on high solar gain hot summer days, the water temperature can be over 82 degrees which is great for swimming. In spring and fall the temperature is closer to 65 degrees and we need to wear wet suits to keep warm. We usually begin in early May and end in November.

Millerton Lake With Sierras Above


Like every big lake there are stories of monster sightings. We have not seen anything much larger than empty beer cans while swimming but I have heard from fishermen that there are ‘lunkers’ lurking in the deep.

Mike, Marie, my wife and I began swimming there once a week ten years ago. I was training for the Hawaii Ironman and needed experience with open water swimming. Open water swimming is quite different than a pool. There are no lane lines for guidance and one “lap” is a trip across the lake. Some folks never accustom themselves to the fact that they are in water over their head and will not swim in open water. A large lake is an approximation of ocean swimming but the giant swells in the ocean combined with fish that can eat you make things more worrisome.
Navigation is by sighting on a tall tree or something on shore and swimming toward it. In fall, your goggles fog up and the bright sun can make vision difficult when it is low in the sky. The positives are many including the hot chocolate in Friant after the swim. It is really neat to see geese flying over just over your head as you turn to breathe while you are swimming. We have seen lots of game along the shore over the years including Eagles, Ospreys, and an occasional Bobcat. Mountain lions have also been sighted on the trails but as someone who ran those trails for years;  I never saw one. We swim early in the morning before the speed boats arrive and the turkey vultures are perched nearby with their wings open to catch the morning sun.

I had been thinking about writing this story for a while. I brought my camera along to take pictures of the swim area. As I composed the story in my head while swimming, the thought came, “…and an occasional Bobcat.” We were done swimming and headed out toward the gate and low and behold, Sharon spotted a Bobcat. What a great way to start our week!

Bobcat Eating A Meal


  1. Millerton Lake State Recreation Area is located in the heart of California, near the southernmost end of the Mother Lode gold region. I went there one month before mycanada tour.
    We went there for camping. The north shore has 148 developed sites among oak and gray pine woodlands. Each site has a table, stove and drinking water. Two group campgrounds can accommodate from 45 to 75 people.
    We enjoy there Picnic, hiking, fishing and camping. You can also do boating over there.

  2. You are correct and that area with the developed campsites is on the Madera County side of the Lake. The San Joaquin River is the border of Fresno and Madera Counties. Half of the Millerton Lake dam is in Madera County and half of the dam is in Fresno County.

  3. Exactly Dale Matson. You have given the right information. As far as I know the Lake was created by construction of the Friant Dam across the San Joaquin River in 1944. Is it true?
    I’m a history student and love to visit different places to get information about them. I’ll be glad to read your reply.

  4. juliana juan,