With summer coming to an end soon (nooooo! I was getting used to the 8 pm sunsets), I thought I would finally share the biggest highlight of my summer, and that was my birthday adventure in a little-known gem of the Eastern Sierra called Florence Lake.
What makes it so little known, and what makes it a gem? For starters, it’s not easy to get to — once you leave the main highway, it’s a solid 3 hours on a relentlessly winding road through the foothills and into the mountains, even though you’re only traveling 90 miles. Florence Lake is small-ish compared to its big sister, the nearby Edison Lake, and therefore doesn’t have the facilities that a larger lake would offer. But what it does offer — and what sets it apart from Edison and many other lakes in the region — is extreme solitude, boat-in camping, and remote campsites that face both a river and a lake.
With Florence Lake “closing” today due to the lake being drained for the year, I thought this post would make an appropriate send-off for this little end-of-the-road sanctuary.
By “end of the road,” I do mean it quite literally. Florence Lake sits at the end of Kaiser Pass, off a skinny, semi-paved, one-lane road notorious for being the worst maintained road in the region.
Unless you’re backpacking in from the John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, this road is the only way to Florence Lake. It’s a high-elevation adventure with spectacular views, so you’ll have to negotiate with your friends ahead of time that while one person keeps his eyes on the road, the other takes plenty of pictures (or better yet, video) for a show-and-tell around the campfire.
The ironic thing about Kaiser Pass is that for being such a remote road, we actually passed a little less than 10 cars coming from the other direction. Most of this one-lane road drops off a steep precipice several hundred feet on one side (with no barricades or even natural barriers), so if you’re unlucky enough to meet, say, a Suburban whose driver can’t drive, you have to back your car up (on a bumpy, curvy road) no less than 100 feet to tuck yourself into a narrow pull-out. And then said Suburban driver passes you without even so much as a wave or a nod. Some people.
After making it to the end of the road (with my guy insisting that he wanted to drive that road going home since I got to do it first!), we pulled up to this pristine paradise.
Florence Lake is a sapphire jewel surrounded by walls of granite in the John Muir Wilderness. It could almost pass for Yosemite — but without the crowds.
There’s a tiny general store on the lake, and we rented a fishing boat from them to haul our gear across the water to the campsite. While filling out the paperwork for the boat, I asked the gentleman in the store about a day hike I had read about, a trail that starts near the campsite and leads to a hot spring in the middle of a meadow.
He jovially mentioned that the hike was “right around 5 miles” and “pretty easy,” though he’d never done it. When pressed for the actual location of the hot spring, he said it was just past Muir Trail Ranch. (A couple weeks prior, I had actually called the ranch and the woman didn’t give too many specifics on the hike either, only saying that with our low snowpack this season, we could probably cross the river to get to the trail. Online sources state the length of the hike as anywhere from 4 to 8 miles, flat to steep, well-marked to not at all. Why all the mystery with this little hike? We would soon find out.)
Once we had our boat, we had to load it. It was a 6-person aluminum fishing boat and you’d presume that with 4 people and 2 pugs, we’d have plenty of space to pack in our gear, right? Obviously, you have never gone car (er, boat) camping with us!
Not only did we have all of our tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, camp kitchen, camp furniture, camp accessories, and four (but more like seven) days’ worth of food and booze, but we also brought, among the four of us, three kayaks, a stand-up paddleboard, and three fishing poles. We were ready for an adventure!
The wind had picked up that afternoon when we arrived, so we only wanted to make one boat trip across, a four-mile ride to the other side where the South Fork San Joaquin River flows into the lake.
It took us an hour to pack the boat with Tetris-like precision, and we even packed the kayaks with gear and strung them on lines behind the boat.
You might imagine that a fully loaded fishing boat towing three kayaks across a choppy lake with blustery wind and two pugs hanging on is pure comedy, and you’d be absolutely right.
But this was no ordinary campsite. A little work to get there simply meant less people around. We found a beautiful, primitive site on the water with views of the river on one side and the lake on the other.
We set up our basecamp kitchen and built not one, but two fire rings — one for the bonfire, and one for the cooking fire. We were living in luxury.
And with two fire pits, that meant we needed to go choppin’ for some firewood!
As night fell, we saw fish — lots of them! — jumping out of the river, but of course we didn’t catch any trout that evening, or the next few mornings and evenings after. Good thing we packed all that food and didn’t have to go Bear Grylls on them.
The next morning, the second group of friends arrived and they too brought the kitchen sink (as well as the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom…).
I almost felt guilty for not really roughing it in this wilderness, but all that was dashed when I watched my friend string up an outdoor solar shower above slabs of granite with a little toiletry bag hanging on a tree. And with an unobstructed view of the river. That, my dear readers, is how we roll.
We relaxed at camp for most of the day, then took our toys out on the water.
Despite being summer, it was still early summer, and the lake was as cold as the river as the snow melting into it. I went for a paddle on the lake and even my pug enjoyed it too… for about 40 minutes, until the wind started up and it felt like victory at sea.
The eastern half of the lake is dotted with granite islands and pulling up to one of them really feels like you’re on your own deserted island.
Up the river a bit, we discovered a little rock slide (fun!) and a short section of baby rapids (double fun!).
That night at dinner, I broke out the popcorn popper and whipped up a pineapple upside-down cake in the Dutch oven.
Call me silly, but I really had no idea that the cake does, in fact, need to be flipped upside down after it bakes. It took three mountain men to heave that cast-iron deliciousness onto a platter without appropriating it to the bears.
(A little camera trickery here attempts to hide the burnt bits — I mean, the extra caramelized bits — on my first pineapple upside-down cake ever.) The verdict from the Cast Iron Chef judges? “That was goddamn delicious!”
Sunday was our hiking day. We still had no clue where the hot spring was or how far the trail took us, but we didn’t think twice about winging it. Had we known better, we might have started the hike just a tad bit earlier. Just sayin’.
We took this picture at our campsite, in front of the outdoor shower, just before we set off on the hike. Kinda like proof that we had been there… you know, in case that picture would be the last recorded account of us being seen anywhere.
With no visible trail from our campsite, we scrambled across the boulders until we came to a footbridge. It passed over a gorgeous section of the San Joaquin with cascades flowing downriver. Was this what the ranch lady meant by crossing the river? It seemed easy enough, and we thought that maybe the river level was very low this year.
We found a trail and continued on it for the next couple miles. It was a fairly steep climb to start, but leveled out into lush green meadows surrounded by towers of granite.
We even passed a field of wild garlic!
The trail took us into the John Muir Wilderness at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. We didn’t pass a single other hiker along the way, which was remarkable considering it was summer in the Sierra.
We saw majestic horses grazing in this idyllic scene, tails flicking, ears perking curiously at us, and even though we knew there was a ranch nearby, we still pretended they were wild horses. It just seemed more romantic that way.
The only thing we knew about this hot spring was that it sat above Blayney Meadow, but where Blayney Meadow was located on our GPS was somewhat of a mystery. We passed two meadows, each time hoping to see a sign, but with every passing hour the hot spring seemed like a Shangri-La.
Somewhere along the way we stopped for lunch and took a dip in one of the tributaries of the river. Honestly I would’ve been happy to idle there the rest of the day, but we had gone too far to not continue.
Another mile or two up the trail, we finally saw our first sign indicating that a hot spring did indeed exist!
We were also paralleling the perimeter of the ranch, with its backcountry cottages peeking into view, so we felt we were very, very close.
After one or two more miles (or was it three or four or…? We were starting to lose sense of time and distance) we passed a second sign showing the way to Blayney Hot Spring.
At this point, the sun was waning and we knew we’d probably have to finish the hike with our headlamps.
We turned to the rest of the group and posed the question: Should we go on, or turn back? The GPS showed one more meadow in the vicinity, but it was on the other side of the river. We were still at least 30 minutes away from that point, and for all we knew, the hot spring might have deteriorated into nothing more than a mud puddle in the ground.
After a few minutes of hesitation and deliberation, we decided to press forward.
And this was what we saw 30 minutes later.
Just how badly did we want to find this mythical hot spring? The trail continued on the other side, but it required a ford across a swiftly moving current — there and back.
I finally understood what the ranch lady had meant when she talked about a river crossing on the trail. It was this river crossing, which presumably on an average snow season, was not crossable until late summer when the river flow was lower. I also knew that if she had mentioned this particular marker, it could only mean the hot spring was just a hop, skip and a ford away.
We rolled up our pants, took off our socks, and secured our packs. Tentatively, we entered the river.
Crossing a river is like walking on a set of slippery bowling balls that you can’t see. The water came up to our knees (or thighs on the shorter folks) and was cold and swift, but not so swift that it would sweep us downriver had one of us fallen.
Once most of us had made it at least halfway, the nervous tension turned into relieved giggles and we all finished crossing without any casualties.
We quickly picked up the trail, which turned narrower and marshier. This time, it really did feel like we were very, very close, because some hot tubbin’ hippies before us had laid a trail of stepping stones on the muddy path, leading into a wide open meadow.
Not more than a couple hundred feet ahead, we finally, finally, found our Shangri-La.
Blayney Hot Spring is one of the most stunning natural springs I’ve hiked to — right up there with Arizona Hot Springs on the Colorado River, and those are pretty hard to beat. But Blayney comes close, and it’s really unfair to pit these two wonders against each other because they’re so wonderfully different in their own way.
The hot spring is a deep natural hot tub fit for 10 of your closest friends, and just beckons you to take a running cannonball into it!
It was about chest deep, a perfect 100°F temperature, with little sulfur smell and a sandy bottom.
All around us were the mighty peaks of the Evolution Basin. You couldn’t hear a thing out there in that vast wilderness, aside from the occasional rustling of leaves. It was magical.
We broke out a few cans of PBR (’cause we’re classy like that) to toast my birthday, my friend Clinton’s birthday that same weekend, and that amazing moment we were all sharing.
But we couldn’t soak it up for too long, because by that time, the sun was going down quickly and we wanted to cross the river with some light left. A bit begrudgingly, we got dressed and started our way back.
The good thing was, even that quick dip in the spring soothed and relaxed and rejuvenated us for the hike home. The bad thing? We still had another eight miles to go and it was highly doubtful those rejuvenating effects would last.
The last two hours of our hike were in complete darkness, with only a stream of headlamps lighting our path. It was actually quite beautiful to be walking through the John Muir Wilderness, across the valley and over the granite hills, with our only sense being the sounds of our breathing. Every once in a while we’d stop to catch our breath, flick off our lights, and simply enjoy the show of stars overhead.
We made it back to camp just before 11 pm. I have no idea how I managed to fire up dinner that night, especially since I was both tired and hungry at the same time. Hunger won out, and I even baked a special birthday cobbler for Clinton — blackberry peach! — before we all passed out in our food comas.
It’s safe to say everyone slept in the next day, and no amount of coffee or Bloody Marys could motivate us to do anything more than laze in the sun. It was our last day in the wild, and I was perfectly content in my lounger, looking out over the lake (and the river).
Back at the boat, we packed up and loaded in. With little room to spare in between the coolers and tables and bins, we decided to tow one of the kayaks behind and my stand-up board behind that — with me on it!
It was kinda like wakeboarding — just on a really, really big board with less control — and I had fun carving along the wake and taunting the boat captain to go faster. I actually surfed that thing for the whole four miles across. Too bad it wasn’t a real wave! (Then again, my legs probably wouldn’t survive a four-mile-long wave!)
I know I’m getting old(er) when I start to forget just how old I am. It actually took me a minute to calculate the years and remember that I turned 32 in June. Most people consider the New Year — January 1 — to be the start of the new year, but I felt that my new year really began that weekend — and it began with a bang.
I clocked 16 miles in a day, kayaked, paddleboarded and wakesurfed (or hung on for dear life?) in a desolate wilderness, all in a span of four days surrounded by the best friends anyone could ask for. I left Florence Lake with goosebumps — not from the cold water, but from the excitement of the whole weekend.
The trip happened over two months ago, but looking through all the pictures and reliving those moments brought back all the goosebumps all over again!