Amazing Uncrowded High Sierra Camping On Kaiser Pass Road — Please Don’t Tell Anyone!

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Jackass Meadow, Ward Lake, Mono Hot Springs, Vermillion, and others

Date Camped: Every Summer since 2002
Open Season: June-September
Reservations: Campground Reservations through the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) @ 1-877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov, arrange with resorts separately
Check Conditions: High Sierra Ranger District (559) 855-5355
Services: No wi-fi, VERY spotty phone service, no hook-ups; camp stores in Mono Hot Springs, Vermillion Resort, and Florence Lake.
Notes: Campfire permits for dispersed camping (check ahead for fire bans); vehicle restrictions: cars okay, trucks recommended, short trailers acceptable
  • Rates: $19 single, $38 double sites
  • Sites: Varies by campground
  • Bathrooms: Vault in campgrounds, flush in "resorts", BYOB in dispersed
  • Showers: No showers in campgrounds, but campers can pay for showers in resorts (resort guests have free showers)

My old Bakersfield High School buddies and I have gotten together for a summer camping/fishing/shooting/eating/drinking trip we call the “Hoot in the Hills” for fifteen years now, even as we have spread across the state and country.  I’ve written about the phenomenal eating we do there on our food blog, but haven’t yet discussed our secret camping location in detail until now.  The first couple of years we stayed in regular campgrounds in the Sequoia National Forest, right above Bakersfield. But after a bad experience with fellow campers and a fiery year in which campfires were banned in the entire Sequoia National Forest, we headed a bit further north into a rarely visited region on the west side of the Sierra National Forest up above Fresno, and we’ve returned to the same area ever since.

Located at the end of Kaiser Pass Road, past Shaver and Huntington Lakes, 2-3 hours into the mountains east of Fresno, the Edison/Ward/Florence Lake region we camp in is 45 miles south of Yosemite National Park, 20 miles west of Mammoth Lakes (a favorite of ours), and 35 miles north of King’s Canyon National Park, it has much of the scenery of those famous places and almost none of the crowd!

I am sure a large part of the reason for the lack of crowds is Kaiser Pass Road itself.  Shortly past China Peak Ski Resort and Huntington Lake, the road narrows to a very poorly maintained one lane road for the next 20 miles or so until you hit Edison or Florence Lake.  No, not one lane each direction, but one lane total!  It requires relatively careful driving around tight turns, often with a cliff off one side, and a rock face on the other, but there are few enough vehicles and enough wide spaces to allow one or the other of the vehicles encountering each other to pull off to the side to allow one to pass.  Furthermore, the pass (and the road itself) often does not clear of snow and open until Memorial Day, so always be sure to call ahead if you are going early in the season.  It takes about an hour to drive these 20 miles, and you must pay attention, but it really is a beautiful drive, and one of my favorite parts about staying in the area.

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A sample stretch of Kaiser Pass Road–very narrow, with just enough wide spots to pull over to let others pass.

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View from Kaiser Pass Road. That is “Devil’s Table” in the very middle of the shot.

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This was the weekend after Memorial Day a few years ago–definitely call ahead to make sure the road is open early (and late) in the season.

We generally stop at the United States Forest Service Ranger Station in Prather, at the bottom of the mountain, to get our fire permits (2014 update:  CHECK AHEAD ON FIRE PERMITS—Campfires in dispersed sites have been banned the last two years, forcing us to stay in campgrounds instead!) and check on current conditions (though we also usually call ahead at (559) 855-5355 just to be sure the road is opened and there aren’t any conditions we should be aware of).  We also usually gas up here (there is gas in Shaver Lake, but no gas on top of the mountain) and grab an early lunch (and use the flush toilets one last time!) at Velasco’s Mexican Restaurant there.  It is about an hour of mostly scenic driving from here to the beginning of Kaiser Pass Road.

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Velasco’s! Our official rallying point in Prather, before heading uphill.

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Kaiser Pass. There are a couple of paths and vault toilets here.

There are three main segments of the aforementioned poorly maintained Kaiser Pass Road.  The first 7 miles from the beginning of road is a fairly consistent climb to Kaiser Pass itself, at 9,184 feet.  The temperature here is a good 20 degrees cooler than it is in Fresno, and it feels (and smells) great!  There are a couple of trailheads and a vault toilet here at the pass, but not much else.  The next seven miles to High Sierra Ranger Station are windy and beautiful, with views of sheer granite faces and a tremendous valley that allows you to see all the way to the mountain ridges that border Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes.  You will pass the Portal Forebay along the way, which we always ridicule for it’s artificiality, but this year we learned it also has a lot of fish that are relatively easy to catch and a decent campground.

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Another view from the road–That’s the south ridge of Yosemite in the distance.

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High Sierra Station sign–you’re almost to camp!

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Ranger Station. Nice, knowledgeable people here–talk to them! Plus, pit toilets!

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Sign at the ranger station.

We always stop here as well, to talk to the rangers closest to the areas we like to camp.  They have maps and a few items for sale, but it is a much smaller station than the one in Prather.  There are also pit toilets and a dumpster outside, and a bit of room for parking.  This is our other, more scenic, rally point if everyone didn’t make it to Prather and Velasco’s on time–especially if the camping area we were planning to go to isn’t accessible and we need to make a Plan B as a group.

From the High Sierra Ranger Station, it is less than a mile to a fork in the road, from which you can go to either left to Mono Hot Springs and Edison Lake, or straight to Ward Lake, Florence Lake, and Jackass Meadow.  Edison Lake and Florence Lake are both eight miles from here and both are impossible to miss, as the roads essentially dead end there.

Mono Hot Springs is about two miles from the Ranger Station, nearly all downhill, and features one of the two “resorts” in the area, the Mono Hot Springs Resort.  The resort has “rustic” cabins, some with kitchens and some without, some with showers and some without.  There is also a restaurant and a camp store, and natural hot mineral baths and massages available.  No TVs or micro-waves, but wi-fi service is available for guests.  Immediately adjacent to the resort is the Mono Hot Springs National Forest Campground, located right on the North Fork of the San Joaquin River.  There are some great campsites here, and the fishing on the river (especially by the bridge) has been very good for us.

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View of the river at the bridge adjacent to Mono Hot Springs Resort.

A great quick (roughly one mile each way) hike from here is to Doris Lake, a beautiful granite basin with water that is at least partially fed from hot springs.  This creates hot spots and cold spots in the lake, but regardless, the water is far more swimmable than any other water in the area.  The rocks surrounding the lake are also fun for jumping–if you’re the brave sort.  There are also some legitimate hot springs nearby.  “Little Eden” is a semi-secret natural hot tub along the road down to the bridge from the fork (it is on the west (left) side of the road, but a smaller hot spring is on the right side of the road), but several concrete lined hot spring tubs are along a muddy and wet trail just off the road just  west of the bridge on the south side of the San Joaquin River, just across from the campground and resort.  We have enjoyed both.

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Hot spring-fed Doris Lake is by far the best swimming lake in the region. Warmer than average, beautiful, and you can jump from the rocks!

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The other end of Doris Lake. Such a peaceful place.

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Little Eden natural hot tub! Muddy bottom, and sulfur smells, but so nice!

If you chose to keep driving past Mono Hot Springs, the road literally dead ends at Edison Lake.  There you will find Vermillion Valley Resort (again, it is a great option, but “resort” in the name should not conjure up visions of Cabo or Tahoe here…), where you can rent rooms in a motel-looking building, stay in yurt cabins, or trailers.   There is also a small restaurant and a fairly well-equipped camp store.  You can rent kayaks or motorized fishing boats to take out on the beautiful lake for as little as $45 for a half day.  They also have guided horse riding, and are a major stop for hikers along the nearby John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, providing showers, laundry, and re-supply barrels, as well as internet access and phones, and even a ferry to and from the resort to the JMT and PCT on the far side of the lake.  If you’d rather camp, Vermillion Campground and Mono Creek Campground (both operated by the Sierra National Forest) are right before and after the “resort”.  From this area, you can hike to Devil’s Bathtub, Devil’s Table, the aforementioned Doris Lake, or to the Twin Falls on Bear Creek.

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Fishing at Edison Lake.

As uncrowded as this area is, if you want an even more uncrowded experience, continue past that fork to the left just past the ranger station and head on towards Ward Lake, Florence Lake, and Jackass Meadow.  There is a camp store with boat rentals and horse riding at the lake, and a pretty cool historic guest ranch across the lake that requires a ferry ride and hike to get to. That ferry (and the store) also serves many JMT/PCT hikers, who use this as a way to the mid-point of their trail.

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Camp store adjacent to the boat launch at Florence Lake.

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View across Florence Lake from the camp store.

But the main lodging on this end of the road is either Ward Lake Campground or Jackass Meadows Campground, both operated by the National Forest.  Ward Lake is a very small, incredibly beautiful lake right off the road, with a handful of campsites right on the lake’s edge.  We have never stayed there, but always see families enjoying the fishing and kayaking on the lake.

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Beautiful and tiny Ward Lake, adjacent to the road and campground.

Jackass Meadows is a much larger campground below Florence Lake Dam at the end of the road.  It is a very nice looking campground with vault toilets, dumpsters, a camp host, and picnic tables, fire rings, and bear boxes in each camp site.  The bear boxes are quite necessary, as I gather they are VERY frequent visitors to the campground (2014 update:  Camp host says they haven’t seen bears in a few years–but you should use the bear box anyways).  Scary if you’re easily scared, cool if you are not.  There is also very good fishing near the campground, in the flows beneath the dam, which are stocked fairly regularly by the California Department of Fish and Game.  (Important 2013 Update:  Fires were banned outside of campgrounds this year, so we stayed here for the first time this year, and it was as nice as any USFS campground we have stayed at, but be aware–while the USFS website says no reservations, they are actually required in order to keep a campsite for more than a night, so visit the Recreation.gov website in advance (no data signal up there) and reserve your campsites, so you don’t have the fiasco that we ran into when we got up there without reservations.  Not sure why USFS hasn’t fixed their website yet.  2014 update:  Stayed there again–website still falsely claims reservations are unnecessary, campground still is very nice, and camp host Russ is awesome).

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Typical campsite at Jackass Meadows Campground–note the bear box!

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Fishing immediately below Florence Lake Dam, adjacent to campground.

We have always camped in the “dispersed camping” areas, which is to say anywhere in the forest you can find a flat piece of land big enough to park and put up a tent.  We’ve camped between Mono Lake and Edison Lake a couple of times, and along the dirt road below the Florence Lake dam every other time.  You need to obtain a fire permit at one of the Ranger Stations (NOTE AGAIN–check ahead, because fires in dispersed camping areas were banned entirely for most of 2013 and 2014, forcing us to stay in USFS campgrounds, where fires were still legal), and be able to provide your own water, “hygiene facilities”, bear protection, and need no supervision whatsoever, but if you want to avoid the potentially annoying camp neighbor next door (or being the annoying camp neighbor next door), this is the way to go.  One great dispersed camping area is on the left side of the dirt road on the other side of the San Joaquin River crossing (see below) in a large dirt area that usually has several other campers right where a cable crosses the river from a small tower.  An added benefit of this stop is that it is right where we have had the most luck fishing of anywhere in this area.

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View from our “dispersed” campsite, South Fork of the San Joaquin River.

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View up the South Fork of the San Joaquin River from camp.

Some of the “hardships” to prepare for in dispersed camping:

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To get to dispersed camping near Jackass Meadow, you need to cross the river here. In high water years, the gate to the road here is closed–call ahead!

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One year, this tree fell across the road between our camp and civilization, and USFS would not help until Monday at the earliest!

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Fortunately, we had our own tools.

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And handled the problem like the men we are!

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Better bring your own toilet facilities, too!

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Our lame, makeshift, totally inadequate bear alarm, to protect ice chests in the pick-up bed after getting raided one year. Usually we are less bothered by bears than the campgrounds (only one problem ever), but be alert.

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Oh–and no phone service. This guy from our group climbed this mountain (camp is in the valley below) to make a call home.

Bring shelter from the rain! We’ve gotten hail, rain, and thunderstorms regularly while camping here.

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And you have to make your own fire ring…

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And cook your own primitive camp meals!

There are not many (any?) improved trails here, but if you are so inclined, you can find your own path to the top of Jackass Dike (a great viewpoint), Infant Buttes, to Hellhole Meadow (a trail exists near Ward Lake), or up and back to the Pacific Crest Trail (if you take a boat across Florence Lake).  But mostly we just hike up and down the San Joaquin River, fishing (largely successfully) as we go.

Random beautiful pictures of the region:

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View of Florence Lake, Jackass Meadow, and San Joaquin River from the top of Jackass Dike (the tall cliff above our camp).

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Jackass Dike from the mountain across the valley. Our campsite is below.

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San Joaquin River from the far side of Florence Lake.

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Another view of Jackass Dike from the river.

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Upper Mono Creek on the far side of Edison Lake.

This really is my favorite place to be.  While some of it is undoubtedly just getting to see my buddies that I only see once a year, it is really such an incredibly beautiful place, where there are so few other people that we can simultaneously avoid being annoyed by others and annoying others ourselves.  If you want a place almost as beautiful as Yosemite and King’s Canyon, but hate crowds, this is absolutely the place to go.

But we really do love how secluded this area is, and we worry every year that people are going to find out about this place and they’ll improve the road, and we’ll suddenly be surrounded by Crocs-wearing tourists and people with no back-country etiquette, so if you do go and fall in love with the area like I have–please don’t tell anyone!


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