Lake Isabella – the name glides over my tongue like a babbling brook, conjuring up quiet images of glacial lakes that reflecting elegant visitors who stroll, never walk, along its banks and stop off to buy patés from artisan stores, which are always within tasteful distance of its shores but never too far that one would have to wear bulky, sensible shoes to get there.
The reality is even drier than the sense of humour that created its Italian-inspired name. I guess it could be Lake Como if you just removed the height and snow of the Alps, replaced its icy glacial hues with bland brown water, substituted a lush green palette with a moonscape of rocky hills and shrubs and then throw a heat so searing it renders the whole image flat between the hours of 9am-5pm, after which you can come out of your air conditioned/swamp cooled house to witness this great gas ball of fury sinking slowly into the earth.
(Trying to italisize Lake Isabella)
So maybe Lake Isabella isn’t the quite right name to describe this rough and tough beauty. Think less Sophia Loren and more Sigourney Weaver, in Alien. But this doesn’t mean the woman doesn’t have its charm, it’s just not the kind you expect to be taken in by, especially when this southern part of the Sierra Nevada is in the midst of seven-year drought, meaning her great voluminous beauty that has been entertaining visitors for generations, now sits at 10% and shrivelling. It’s kind of like witnessing nature’s very own middle age spread – all the sexy bits have been overwhelmed by the boring bits that all but demand your attention.
(oh yes, it’s that kind of town.)
But this kind of scrappy beauty always appeals to me, mostly because it forces you to dig a little deeper to hit the water table. On the surface, the lake looks barren, past her hey day. But as soon as you put a boat to her body of water and she rears up like a wild animal, offering some of the best water activities this side of the Kern River Valley, where she finds her heart and home.
The lake is within gun shot distance of three small towns, all of which have their uses and charms. Wofford Heights has a quaint little cinema that shows one movie every night, but only if three people are in attendance. Lake Isabella sports the famous Nelda’s Diner – home to the longest list of milkshakes and endless smiles that you would expect from a local favourite with daily specials. Don’t expect to leave their grey vinyl booths without slurping down a thick “nut case” or “psycho geek” (to name 2 of 100 odd concoctions).
(That diner moment when you realise your milkshake is as plastic (and fantastic) as your booth.)
And then there’s Kernville, a place where the local food store sells both beer and ammunition – an explosive cocktail you pray never gets mixed with a V8 engine on the road or a 250CC horsepower on the water. From what I was told, the locals have an amicable, somewhat symbiotic relationship with the outsiders (or maybe it’s the other way around), many of whom own houses by the lake, which they frequent on their weekends away from LA, which is just two-hours away. As one holiday owner told me: “we bring our friends in with us.” I imagine they must bring their own organic food in too as the local options focused more on MSG than GMO free.
There is plenty to be had for the solo traveller – fishing, reading and people watching can all be had very easily. On a good day, going into the local supermarket at Lake Isabella is akin to viewing “the people of Wallmart” online. But the real attractions are really outside the town limits. The Kern River itself is clean and free flowing, offering a refreshing reprieve from the searing heat, the kind that cuts through your clothes like Zoro’s lazer.
Just a little further up the drag and you will find another outdoor gem – the Remington Hot Springs, comprising three pools of varying heat, right on river front, so you can switch between temperatures and views at your leisure and pleasure. It is a short, steep walk down (and thus a sweaty one back up) and its not as easy to locate without some local guidance, but once you find it, it’s as good as any spot to relax for a few hours and soak your city muscles while watching squirrels and birds doing more energetic activities.
(Pure alchemy. Remington Springs turns any body into a six pack with a hipster hat)
But if you’re more into land-based attractions and historical landmarks, drive to the nearby Sequoia National Forest and pay the $5 to take the “trail of 100 giants ” – a informative walk that weaves through a forest of giant Sequoia trees, and their smaller friends, including two giants that uprooted themselves, offering up their trunks to science and spectatorship. It’s a wonder to behold. There’s nothing like walking along a 100-meter tree that took 1 000 years to grow and a few seconds to flatten the forest around it, to cut your ego down to its correct and compact size.
(Feeling small. smiling big)
(It’s true. America does everything bigger)
Lake Isabella might not be as classy as its name would suggest, but it sure knows how to keep it naturally interesting and back-country authentic. Go. You won’t regret it.
Musing on the insignificance of it all…
Robert Levin · September 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm
I love that you made it to Sequoia National Forest. When I was there in 1988 my feeling when I first saw it was like I was walking into an enormous synagogue or church. It was just so awe inspiring.