For most of its 20-mile length from Huntington Lake in the Sierra National Forest, Kaiser Pass Road feels more like a goat path: 1 1/2 lanes wide, steep, winding, exposed and full of potholes. There are a few places where you pray some gargantuan RV towing a trailered boat isn’t coming the other direction. Because one of you has to back up to the nearest turnout. And, oh yeah, there’s a 1,000-foot drop just outside your window with no guardrail.
So why do I drive it so often every summer and fall? Because Kaiser Pass Road places you right in the heart of several prime Sierra destinations, many as uncrowded as the range has to offer. Just past the High Sierra Ranger Station, about 14 miles from Huntington Lake, the road splits. One fork leads to Edison Lake, passing Mono Hot Springs. The other leads to Florence Lake.
I can think of few places that rival Mono Hot Springs for a camping trip. You can fish from the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, go swimming in spring-fed Doris Lake (a singular delight) or hike to any number of places. All with the convenience of the Mono Hot Springs Resort and its cafe, store, lodgings and recently renovated bath house. (Free soaking is available on the other side of the river.)
From Edison Lake, you can backpack to any number of spectacular lakes in the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas. I remember one trip to Big Margaret Lake a few years back where the fishing was so good I ate nothing but trout for lunch and dinner for three days. Or stay at Edison, where the Vermilion Valley Resort serves steaks from The Meat Market and delicious fruit pies.
Florence Lake has a small store and boat rental, and is a great jumping off point for some of the most scenic wilderness in Kings Canyon National Park. Take the John Muir Trail through Evolution Valley and up to Evolution Basin, one of the most visually stunning alpine settings in the Sierra. Or go a little more off the beaten path and follow the San Joaquin to its source at Martha Lake.
Edison and Florence Lakes were built by Southern California Edison as part of the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project and continue to generate hydroelectric power for millions of Southern Californians. And it’s SCE, not the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Kaiser Pass Road. I’ve heard talk that SCE has plans to do some re-paving along the notoriously lumpy, pot-holed section west of Portal Forebay. But we’ll see.
Is Kaiser Pass Road really the vehicular nightmare as described by the esteemed Mr. Stienstra (see first paragraph)?
Well, that depends. If you insist on driving it during the height of weekend traffic — Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons — then odds are good there will be numerous traffic encounters. And if you’re unlucky, one of them is full-sized 4×4 with extra wide tires speeding around a blind corner. But to blame it all on L.A. traffic is kind of ridiculous. I’ve seen lots of bad driving up there (and some good) with Fresno and Bay Area plates, too.
The solution is to go slow, never faster than 25 mph, and pay attention at every turn. Having driven the road dozens of times, I almost prefer driving at night. Oncoming headlights usually provide ample warning, and you’re not distracted by the jaw-dropping view across the Mono drainage to Mount Ritter and Banner Peak.