Lake Isabella to Kennedy Meadows: Ugly and Beautiful

This is what you get for ‘winging it’.

With our grand plans thwarted due to weather reports indicating rain (conspiracy), we had to improvise. The car had long-since been packed, all we needed was an inspiring destination. After consulting several maps, and exchanging several terse words with one another, we decided to head towards Lake Isabella in the Southern Sequoia area. According to my camping guidebook (which I am now starting to distrust), camping was plentiful and fish were jumping. Seemed like an ideal place to spend Memorial Day weekend, and a just reward for two spontaneous adventurers (cough) such as ourselves.

From SF to Lake Isabella is about a 5-6 hour drive? I can hardly remember. It felt like an extremely long, uneventful, and painful drive.

About 3am, or some time in those whereabouts, we pulled into Lake Isabella…and drove around and around and around trying to find a camping spot, many of which were no reservation sites. All looked as if they were spilling out at the seams. Around and round we went, trying to remain positive, scoping out cute chalet-style restaurants to visit during the trip. We tried unsuccessfully to pump ourselves up, “yeah, this place looks, um…really…yeah…it probably is beautiful in the daytime…yeah…big lake…” It didn’t work. The more loops we made around the lake, the more I disliked the place.

Needing a bathroom break, we finally settled on Camp 9, where the guidebook said we would find flush toilets and lake views. Instead…how can I describe this…Camp 9 reminded me of a post-apocalyptic refugee camp on par with Mad Max or Waterworld. No trees, just barren, grassy fields set up in marshy land next to the water. The campsites were literally right next to one another — a strip of asphalt with “lakeside view,” housing maybe 25-30 RVs, touching nose to nose, sprinkled intermittently with a few tents who were illegally camped there. At least it was quiet in this part of camp.

Not so much at the other circle/loop of campsites nearby, where we discovered 3 available spots, all right next to each other, but at least on a plot of (dead) grass. There were maybe 50+ campsites clustered in a loop here, with maybe 2 or 3 feet separation from one another. At 3 am, approximately 90% of the people (who apparently all arrived in an SUV or 4WD truck) were still awake, with bright lights shining from their truck headlights focused on the camp/party sites, and plentiful bud lite being passed among bros.

Sliding precariously halfway down a hill was a singular, wobbly port-a-potty. (ONE flush toilet for entire campground existed high on the hill away from the water. Bring a flashlight if you use it at night–there were no lights). One port-a-potty for 50+ drunk dudes. That was a deal breaker. It didn’t take long for us to weigh our options of staying the night, waking up next day, and moving to a better camp, or driving all night until we found a suitable camp.

And so we drove. And we never looked back.

Out of sheer proximity, randomness, and a little bit of luck, we stumbled upon Kennedy Meadows ($17/night, pit toilets, water pump)  in the Dome Land wilderness of Sequoia National Forest/Inyo National Forest. By the time we arrived, we were able to catch the sun rising through the trees–just enough light to set up camp, and not enough light to be daunted by the horrible fly-laden pit toilets.

We slept through the morning and into the early afternoon under some very lovely trees.

Camp Kennedy

Camp Kennedy

You can hike and swim and fish here (the kern river flows right by camp). It is also the starting or ending point for PCT hikers, of which we saw a few. We, however, chose to do absolutely nothing. Instead, we spent the day cooking on a portable grill

Grilled Chicken Offal

Grilled Chicken Offal

reading under this awesome tree (welcome shade in 80-90 degree daytime heat)

afterrnon at Kennedy Meadows

afternoon at Kennedy Meadows

and generally just relaxing, eating good food, drinking lime bud lites, talking, and enjoying the view

view from camp

view from camp

We stayed at site #10, btw. — in my opinion site 10, and the sites surrounding it were the best in the loop. They are close, but not too close, to the horrible pit toilets with the dead fly carpet. It’s also close to one of the camp’s water pumps, none of which were working at the end of May (you can find water at the General Store up the road).

While we could still hear and see neighbors, each camp had quite a bit of land and trees between sites, so there was some sense of privacy, and of “getting away from it all.”

In a million years, I would have never thought to camp this deep into no-man’s land. Yet, somehow a community of people have discovered this place, and have chosen to settle here. Apparently, this place has long-since been a site for camping, fishing and hunting. To get here, you travel from desert scrub, up over and beside a canyon, through what we called “barren wasteland” (a bunch of burned trees), to the meadow. How did people ever think to find this place, so perfectly hidden from the rest of the world?

Not only that, but build a monument to ice cream

ice cream!

ice cream!

Ice cream seems like a popular treat in these parts, as every one of the 3 stores in this 10-15 mile area have signs advertising ice cold ice cream. The shop near this ice cream memorial scared me — was it open, was it closed? All I know is that there was an “ice cream” sign outside of what looked to be  someone’s house. An old bearded guy with busted baseball cap sat picking his teeth near the door. We drove on. But if you want gas, they also seem to sell that. Ice cream and gas. Nice combo.

you can get a couple gallons with your ice cream

you can get a couple gallons with your ice cream

Furthest up the road from the camp is Grumpy Bear’s Restaurant and Tavern (2C-10 Kennedy Meadows Rd.  Inyokern, CA), where we decided to stop for firewood.

In the driveway, while taking pictures of this

someones home

someone’s home

I noticed off in the distance, a 10 or 11-yr old African American boy, dressed in a tshirt 3x too big, walking through the fields with a 3 or 4 yr old white kid on his back. I don’t know what about the sight of those 2 struck me as being so odd, except that the memory of those kids, so out of place, has stuck with me.

We went inside Grumpy’s, obviously out of place ourselves. This place must have been built in the late 1960s, and never ever changed since (looks like the events calendar at Grumpy Bears was updated last in 2005–probably has not changed since either). On the left side, is the worlds smallest gift shop/supply store, where I’m pretty sure you can buy an assortment of products from 1970s that have yet to see the light of day. On the right was a more lively atmosphere — the tavern with a bar, pool tables, and quite a few locals. We were eventually greeted by a hostess, who asked if we were interested in trying their bbq (‘It’s real good”), and told us that their closing time was “whenever everyone decided to leave.” She was really friendly. A good vibe. We considered eating there, hanging with the locals and all that, but instead we returned to camp.

on the road

on the road

watched the sunset by the river–apparently a decent fishing hole,

watchign sun set

watching the sun set

And ate some chili-lime marinated chicken by the nice fire, which we fed for hours and hours, not wanting it to ever die.

sitting by the campfire

sitting by the campfire

No idea what we talked about for so long, but really, being outdoors, sitting by the campfire with bellies full of grilled chicken, there is a certain satisfaction that exceeds words. And so we sat together, enjoying the fire, and that feeling,  as long as we could.

Camp 9, Lake Isabella — ($17, night, 100 campsites at first come, first serve basis. 3 flush toilets and multiple porta-potties service the campsites, many of which are RV-only. Not recommended, even the ones with lake view. There’s no shade, and campsites are extremely close together)
Kennedy Meadows ($17/night, west of Hwy 395, in the Southern Sierra range. There are several nearby camps, including Fish Creek. Click for more info.)

Grumpy Bear’s Restaurant and Tavern (2c-10 Kennedy Meadows Road, $10 BBQ/American pub food, beer, pool table, ice cream–pretty much the only place besides the General Store to get a hot meal)

General Store (up the road from Kennedy Meadow Campground–this is kind of the hub of the meadows — you can get a bite to eat, fishing gear, books, water, beer, pick up mail, tshirts, etc. a little bit of everything)

Lake Isabella (340miles/5hrs south of San Francisco–the website says its California’s best-kept secret. There is nothing secret about this place. Keep driving, not recommended)

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  • Miki
    August 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Great story and made me laugh. The African American boy is mine and the kid with him is his good friend. We spend alot of time in Kennedy Meadows out family had property there. They are actually the same age abd are still very good friends. 15 years old now and doing well. We still visit there often. Thanks for the story.

  • verosnow
    August 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Haha! How interesting! I still remember those kids, both of them in the field playing piggyback with nobody else around.. Maybe I confused the kid on the back to be younger since he was being carried.

  • Miki
    August 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Hes actually much small than my son and still is. :). They have grown up a bit but there is still a size difference. Both 15 now. The description was so perfect…. Thanks for the laugh and memories…..