One great day trip: Diamond Valley Lake

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Jamie Lee Pricer

A hiking path circles man-made Diamond Valley Lake, the largest public works project in California.
© Stephen Minkler | Dreamstime.com

Nestled in the hills south of Hemet, a visit to Diamond Valley Lake can offer a much broader experience than you might suspect.

First, there’s the lake itself that flooded the Diamond and Domenigoni valleys, once home to 19th-century homestead pioneers. Before that, it was home to Cahuilla and Luiseno Indians and even earlier to Ice Age animals.

Hailed as the largest public works project in California, the Metropolitan Water District lake is 4.5 miles long, more than 2 miles wide and 150 to 250 feet deep. Giant earth cutters, earth movers and dump trucks moved 110 million cubic yards of soil and rock to build the lake’s three dams — the largest earth-fill dam project in the country. That’s enough to stand a wall around the equator 7.5 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

Drinking water reservoir

Started in 1995 and finished in 1999, Diamond Valley Lake stores drinking-water and can supply the emergency needs of Southern California residents for six months. Hence, it’s not a swimming hole, but open for boating and fishing (catfish, sunfish, bluegill, rainbow trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass) with rentals at a marina.

Hikers can choose from two multi-use trails — a 6-miler on the lake’s north shore or a 22-mile stretch around the lake’s perimeter. For non-hikers, a drive-up viewpoint off Winchester Road offers a look at the lake, the largest of the dams and nearby farms, ranchlands and hills.

Aside from the lake, a treat awaits for information hounds. When the valleys were excavated, hundreds of thousands of fossils and artifacts were uncovered.

“We knew we’d find some, but did not know we’d find so many,” says Darla Radford, collections manager at the Western Science Center, a non-profit museum created to house the finds.

Lake facts

To the northwest of the lake, the science center is one of the first museums to receive a platinum LEED rating for energy- efficient design. It also houses the colorful Visitor Center — a must stop for people of all ages with a slew of fun and sometimes sober facts about the lake and water use, such as:

• Per-person water usage in California has dramatically increased – from 20 gallons a day in 1910 to 200 gallons a day in 2010.

• Enough water falls every day in the U.S. to dump 15,000 gallons on every American.

• Before construction, 1,600 goats stripped vegetation from the site’s hillsides.

• It would take nearly 20,000 years to fill Diamond Valley Lake with a garden hose.

A three-dimensional map shows how the aqueduct system brings water to Southern California. A whooshing exhibit shows how stations pump water over mountains.

In the adjacent museum, you’ll learn about mastodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths and saber tooth cats that roamed here hundreds of thousands of years ago and left a trove of fossilized bones. Artifacts from hunter-gatherer Indians found in more than 300 campsites and villages date back about 9,000 years.

Two displays not to miss: A recreated archaeology dig site under glass on the museum floor and a single mastodon molar — an 8-inch long eye-opener.

If you go: Western Science Center,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues. to Sun. except
holidays. Admission $6 to $8.

2345 Searl Parkway, Hemet. (951) 791-0033. www.westerncentermuseum.org. Lake information1-800-273-3430, www.dvlake.com