A cool coastal breeze, worming its way up through Mission Gorge, ruffles the mirrorlike surfaces of the seven Santee Lakes, and sets cottonwood leaves aflutter. A damp, wholly agreeable odor permeates the wooded shorelines. Does it spoil this pleasant experience to realize that these bathtub-shaped impoundments store reclaimed waste water, used for irrigation since 1962.
Having first visited the quite barren Santee Lakes in the early 1970s, it is a pleasure to behold the rather luxuriant vegetation growing along the shorelines there now. Moisture-loving willows, cottonwoods, and fan palms crowd against the waterline. Some larger trees -- natives such as coast live oaks and California sycamores -- that were left standing when the lake basins were excavated remain as well.
Most people visit the Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve for picnicking, fishing, and RV camping. In recent years, though, new sidewalks have been poured and many of the former dirt roads that rimmed the ponds have been converted to smooth asphalt. That has made the place more suitable than ever for walking, bicycling, and in-line skating.
Recent and ongoing projects include a kid's "sprayground" and a campground expansion featuring 128 new full-hookup sites.
The lakes, all in a chain, are numbered one through seven, south to north. This is just the way you encounter them as you travel north from the park's vehicle entrance near the corner of Carlton Oaks Drive and Fanita Parkway in Santee. There's smooth pavement all along the east side of the lakes, and a mix of dirt roads and asphalt on the west side. Interconnecting roads let you cross from one side to the other at frequent intervals.
Artificial islands and peninsulas -- some with picnic sites -- were built into some of the lakes. Lake 5 has paddleboats and canoes for rent. Camping facilities lie beyond lake 5.
It costs $2 weekdays, $3 weekends to park your car on the Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve grounds. If you leave your car outside the fenced area and enter on foot, there's no charge to get in. A secondary entrance on the east side is available for the self-propelled at Fanita Parkway and Lake Canyon Road.
Current hours for Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve are 8 a.m. to sunset Monday through Thursday, and 6 a.m. to sunset Friday through Sunday. Almost nothing stirs in the park before 8 a.m., so get an early start if you want to be assured of traffic-free walking, jogging, cycling, or skating. Call 619-596-3141 for more information.