It wasn't exactly hot rods streaking toward the cliff in "Rebel Without a Cause."
It wasn't even up to the standards of tractors playing chicken in "Footloose."
Nevertheless, I furiously worked the controls of a pedal boat along with one of my daughters, chugging along at the blazing speed of 2, maybe 3 miles per hour. Twenty yards dead ahead, another boat carrying my wife and two other daughters rocketed toward us at an equally awesome speed. I wasn't going to blink. Neither was she. I was steely eyed. Her jaw was set in a determined grimace. We got closer ... closer. ... I braced myself and my progeny for impact.
That's about the only sound one can get out of the impact of a couple of pedal boats on the clear surface of the Lafayette Reservoir. Actually, we weren't really playing chicken. My wife and I were both trying to figure out how to get our boats going in the same direction. In the process, the entire family just about fell in the water with laughter at the bungled result.
It was one of those reliable options that local families have when trying to figure out what to do on a weekend day. But many take the Lafayette Reservoir for granted as a great place to go for a relatively inexpensive day out. While it may not be known too well outside Contra Costa County, the area's potential for a full and fun day that doesn't cost too much is worth a drive from the Peninsula or the South Bay, especially if you go to one of the quality restaurants in the area afterward.
There's scenic lakeside hiking that even preschoolers can handle, plus more challenging upper-level hill trails with amazing views. Most of the picnic areas are first-come, first-served, with 125 picnic tables (44 have barbecues) and two large-group areas (one serving up to 250 people, the other up to 75, both of which have to be reserved). There are also lots of lawn space, a huge play structure for kids, and a number of piers for fishing around the 2.7-mile lower trail. The East Bay Municipal Utility District plants trout during the fall, winter and spring months, and catfish in the summer. The visitor center sells fishing tackle, bait and permits.
That's also where one can rent a row boat, kayak or pedal boat that, in some cases, leave an entire family in stitches.
Normally we hike the lower trail, look for deer and rabbits, and lure the kids around the lake with the promise of the play structure at the end. This day it was all about the boating. We went out looking for pelicans, the occasional jumping fish, turtles sunning themselves on logs and the long-lost Lafayette gator.
That's right. A gator.
Ever since stories circulated in the mid-1970s of an alligator being loose in the lake, I've always kept a lookout while hoping maybe, just maybe, there was something else living in it. You never know. During a 1996 hike, I spotted a 5-foot-long, nasty-looking black snake with its body half in the water. I asked some questions at the visitor center and discovered that someone a few years prior had planted a Mississippi diamondback water snake whose descendants were grabbing fish off the lines of anglers. (No worries; the non-native species was eradicated from the area shortly afterward.)
So we never stop looking for the alligator that may have once spent a summer in Lafayette but now mostly just makes for a fun story 38 years later. Anytime you can get kids occupied with that sort of thing, while they exercise, is worth the trip.
IF YOU GO
The Lafayette Reservoir: Open daily from sunrise to sunset, 3849 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, 925-284-9669, www.ebmud.com/recreation/lafayette-reservoir.
Parking is $7 (meters also available; $1.50 per hour, 2 hours maximum).
Boat rentals range from $15 (for one hour) to $35 (for five or more hours). A $40 deposit is required. Renting the large picnic area costs $350. The smaller area and the stage areas each cost $200.
Bicyclists and people on roller skates, in-line skates and scooters are allowed from noon until closing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from opening until 11 a.m. Sundays. Dogs on leashes are OK.
Parents need to know: While the lower trail is only 2.7 miles, there are a few steep hills, so a stroller for younger children isn't a terrible idea. There are a few water fountains and restrooms along the trail. And be prepared to spend some time at the play structure. It's big and pretty irresistible to kids.
Nearby eats: The reservoir is located at the very (western) end of town, and every kind of food known to man is available within a few miles, right off the main drag.
-- Tony Hicks