As my wife Edie and I drove down the dirt road in our campervan, in search of a thermal hot spring to soak our bones in after a couple of days of high elevation hiking, we suddenly noticed that the road ahead turned to water. A large puddle of unknown depth and consistency covered almost the entire path, halting our progress. Would we be able to forge ahead and make it to the hot spring, or would we get bogged down in a deep mud puddle, necessitating an expensive tow and lengthy delay while waiting in the hot sun?
California’s highway of adventure
In an October 2021 article in Outside magazine, Megan Michelson wrote: “I’d argue that Highway 395 makes for a more adventurous road trip than any other in the Golden State. After all, this is the main access point to the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, where the wall of high altitude peaks looks as dramatic as the Alps from every vantage point along the way.”
Edie and I have begun to truly explore this incredible wonderland of natural beauty over the past few years, especially since a September 2020 wildfire drove us out of Yosemite and into the eastern Sierra looking for alternative places to camp. As the wildfires kept spreading, we kept moving and discovering new campgrounds along the way. When we got kicked out of Saddlebag Lake campground near Yosemite after two nights, we took refuge in Lundy Canyon, near Mono Lake. As the fire danger approached there too, the camp host closed down that campground, leading us to the Bridgeport Ranger Station the next day, seeking out more ideas.
The rangers at Bridgeport directed us to the Twin Lakes region, where we found a lovely site at Honeymoon Flat campground. But, you guessed it, that campground also closed after one night, and we found ourselves back on the road again, driving through smoky air but still committed to the adventure. After a drive back though hazy Yosemite, we spent our last night in Groveland, California, before finally heading home the following day. Despite the tragic wildfires, we managed to have a safe, fun, five-night camping trip, even if we did need to wear N95 face masks on some of the hikes. We always followed the directions of park rangers, and left areas as soon as they were deemed unsafe.
The silver lining of that trip was the eye-opening realization of just how much unspoiled natural beauty, camping, and hiking opportunities exist just over the other side of the Sierra range. We had been over there before, but we hadn’t really explored it in depth.
Virginia Lakes – an intriguing destination on the map
After getting home from that “wildfire trip” and having a chance to peruse all the maps and information I’d gathered along the way, I took notice of a road starting at the top of Conway Summit, just north of Mono Lake, which provided access to an area called Virginia Lakes. A short, but steep 6-mile road seemed to lead to an area of eight alpine lakes, plus a campground. This looked like an area worth exploring. Our first trip there was in July 2021, and we loved it. So when looking for something to do this August, I again thought of Virginia Lakes.
An elevated experience
Set at an elevation of 9,600 feet above sea level, Trumbull Lake Campground is one of the higher places we like to camp. This lake is the first one you come to near the end of the Virginia Lakes Road. The campground features 45 campsites, available on a first-come-first-served basis, or by reserving online at recreation.gov. The campground is nestled in a lodgepole pine forest on the southern side of the lake, while the rocky north shore is perfect for scrambling up onto for a sunset view of the mountains. We had arrived late after a 3 p.m. rush hour departure from Alameda, so the first night was all about settling in, having dinner, and getting a good night’s sleep. The 233-mile trip across the state and over the Sonora Pass had taken us 7 hours due to heavy Bay Area traffic, but under more ideal conditions it shouldn’t take more than 5.5 hours. But we had arrived safely and were in the mountains, so all was well.
A cross-country trek
Since the Virginia Lakes trailhead starts at a lofty elevation of 9,700 feet and we had just traveled up from sea level, I suggested that our first day’s hike be a little less challenging than the full route up past all of the lakes and up to 11,000-foot Summit Pass. An elevation of 9,700 feet is categorized as high altitude, and the oxygen content available in the air around us would only be 14.5%, as compared to about 21% at sea level. That amount would drop further, to 13.7%, at the summit, according to the Center for Wilderness Safety’s “Oxygen Levels at Altitude” web page.
So instead of hiking to the summit, we decided to acclimatize by taking a cross-country route to Moat Lake (altitude 10,573 feet), a destination I had seen on the map. There was no official trail leading to it but the trek would still be shorter than the full Virginia Lakes trail hike. We’d have to navigate through forests, streams, downed trees, large boulders, and talus slopes in order to reach the remote lake, and then afterwards be able to retrace our steps and find the main trail again without getting lost. I had done some online research and read stories of other hikers and fishermen who made it to this lake, so after taking some compass readings and looking for landmarks, we left the trail and headed off into the woods.
Spring in August
Due to the record-breaking 2022-2023 winter snowpack in the Sierra, many of the campgrounds and trails were very late in opening this year. In August, some trails were still covered in snow. Even our Trumbull Lake campground was at least a month late in opening, due to all the snow and the need to assess and repair damage. This also means that all the melting snow, fast running creeks, full lakes, and wet meadows have led to a profusion of colorful wildflowers and green foliage, and a bumper crop of mosquitoes. Conditions more commonly seen in May and June were present in August.
As we made our way through the deep woods, stepping over creeks and fallen trees, I tried to look up and see the massive unnamed rocky outcropping that was a landmark for finding Moat Lake. The rocky landmark could be seen from the main trail, but the problem was that once we went off trail heading towards this lake, it could no longer be viewed and we just had to maintain a 300-degree northwest compass heading to stay on track.
Finally, coming out of the woods and breathing heavily in the thin air as we swatted at the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the landscape opened up and we could see our landmark straight ahead. Then it was just a matter of plowing ahead uphill over the rugged terrain and heading to the right of the massif, which would eventually lead to the lightly visited alpine lake.
There’s a thing in hiking called “false summit” syndrome. As you’re hiking, from your limited perspective it looks like you’re coming to the summit of a peak, but as you finally reach it, you suddenly realize that you’re not there yet—there’s still another summit to come. Will that be the actual summit, or just another false one? With aching legs and a hungry belly, that final summit is often maddeningly elusive to the intrepid hiker.
As we made our way up to Moat Lake, we kept thinking we were seeing what looked like the final edge of what should be the lake, but each time we found that we weren’t there yet, and still had further to climb. Finally, as we topped a ridge we saw the lake below us, a welcome site for our still-acclimatizing legs and lungs. We had the whole lake to ourselves, and enjoyed a relaxing rest and picnic lunch there. Later, we managed to find our way back down the mountainside via a different route, and reconnected to the main trail without getting lost. It ended up being just over a 4-mile hiking day, which was fine considering the elevation and that it was our first day. Plus, I always love getting to an off-trail destination that few people ever get to see.
The Virginia Lakes trail is hard to beat
The Hiking & Walking website describes our next day’s hike: “When ranking trails on the basis of scenery-per-mile it is hard to beat the Virginia Lakes trail. The first 1.6 miles wanders by five pretty lakes set amid a backdrop of colorful peaks with avalanche scarred slopes. The next 1.2-mile stretch climbs to a saddle at the head of the valley with panoramic views of the shimmering blue lakes spread along the valley floor, framed by multi-hued slopes of Dunderberg Peak (12,374 feet) and the austere rugged gray profile of Black Mountain (11,797 feet).”
The beauty of this trail is not only that it packs in more scenery-per-mile than most, but also that it begins at an elevation of 9,700 feet, very close to the alpine climatic zone, generally thought to begin at about 10,000 feet. So just stepping out of your car you’re already in a rarefied atmosphere, and it only goes up from there. Having slept two nights at elevation at that point, and having done a “warm up” hike the day before, Edie was feeling acclimatized and raring to go as we hit the trail by 10 a.m., and was zooming ahead of me. I was actually feeling less energized than the day before, and was dragging a bit. And so it goes with hiking; some days you feel more energized, some days you don’t, but you just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving anyway. The scenery and the excitement for what’s ahead keep you going, and before you know it you find you’ve put in 5 hours of hiking and have forgotten all about having been tired at the start.
And the views on this hike never quit. From the sight of Big Virginia Lake at the start, to the snowy mountains all around, on to Blue Lake, then past Cooney Lake, Frog Lakes, and even unnamed icy lakes at the summit complete with icebergs, this hike never gets boring.
Crossing a snowfield
Near the top, just short of the pass—Summit Pass, also known as Burro Pass—we encountered a sloping snowfield. Some hikers had turned around at that point, not sure if their footwear or their dogs were up to crossing the wet and potentially slippery route. But with our hiking boots and hiking poles, we felt well-equipped and followed in the footsteps of those who had crossed before us. It wasn’t a very long route, but it did require some careful footwork and pole placement to negotiate.
Having crossed the snowfield and climbed up and onto the saddle defining the pass itself, the final reward suddenly came into view—the sight of a whole new landscape not visible from the lakes trail below. We could see the majestic mountains and wilderness extending past the eastern border of Yosemite National Park and encompassing Camaica Peak, Grey Butte, Virginia Peak, Stanton Peak, and Summit Lake, along with numerous other lakes and peaks spreading out before us. Stunning new views like this are why you press on to reach the top, even when your legs are burning and your breath seems to be giving out.
After stopping to eat lunch at a scenic spot and exploring the summit area a bit more, we began the long walk back down to the trailhead and parking area. Although this hike is listed as just 5.5 miles round-trip, the high elevation makes it seem harder than that mileage would suggest. And with all the extra exploring and side trips we did that day, our mileage by the end of the day was about 7.5 miles. I would rate the Virginia Lakes trail as one of the all-time great Sierra hikes, for both its scenery and accessibility.
A fork in the road
Baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But what about when you come across a giant puddle in the road? That was our dilemma on our way to Travertine Hot Springs, outside of Bridgeport. We’d spent two days hiking at high elevation on the Virginia Lakes trail, and on this day were looking forward to the piping hot thermal springs and pools located a couple of miles down an unpaved road outside of town. As we stopped near the edge of the muddy looking water, I had visions of getting stuck in it and having to pay for an expensive tow, since AAA doesn’t cover off-road travel. Another car soon came along, a minivan-based camper occupied by a couple from Sacramento. They also were nervous about entering this pool with their low-clearance vehicle.
I got out one of my hiking poles and proceeded to probe the puddle from all sides, finding that it was no more than 4 inches deep at any point. In addition, the bottom of it felt firm and gravelly, not soft and muddy. A pickup truck came through it and then backed in and drove out of it again to show us how a vehicle handled it. Feeling pretty confident, we got in the van, started the engine and drove quickly though the muddy pool, our right side wheels hugging the edge that was the driest. With muddy water splashing up all around, we got through the puddle just fine, and I gave the thumbs up to the couple behind us, who then proceeded forward too.
Within 20 minutes we were soaking in deep, 104-degree mineral pools heated by underground geothermal fissures. These same hot springs were used by ancient indigenous peoples, and later by early settlers. As we relaxed and looked out over the beautiful Bridgeport Valley and the majestic Sierra Nevada range rising behind it, I was so glad we hadn’t missed out on this special experience due to a mud puddle. I guess sometimes in life you have to strike the right balance between being careful and being bold.
Get your kicks on Route 395
The Virginia Lakes area and the entire southern 395 corridor, from just north of Los Angeles all the way up to the Nevada border near Lake Tahoe, is a treasure trove of stunning natural beauty. From the Mojave Desert to Mount Whitney, from Lone Pine to Big Pine, from Bishop to Mammoth Lakes, from June Lake to Mono Lake, and on to Virginia Lakes and the Bodie ghost town, one could spend a lifetime exploring this route and never experience it all. And that’s only the southern section of the road. The northern route makes its way through Carson City and Reno, Nevada, before entering California again and making its way all the way to the Oregon border where it continues on through Washington state before entering Canada and becoming Highway 3. Road trip enthusiasts love to trace the route of historic Route 66, but I’d love to travel the entire 1,300-mile length of Highway 395. Now that would be an adventure.
If you go: More info about Virginia Lakes
It is not certain how Virginia Creek and the lakes it feeds were named, but according to the aptly named I Love the Eastern Sierra website, it’s possible that early miners named it either after their home state or Virginia City, or that a surveyor with a lady friend named Virginia christened the lake.
Trumbull Lake Campground, in the Virginia Lakes area, features 45 campsites for tents or RVs (maximum trailer length 40 feet) and sites can be reserved online at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. The campground is typically open June through October, and is administered by the U.S. Forest Service. There are no RV hookups. Single sites cost $28 per night, double sites cost $45, and triple sites cost $55.
Nearby is the Virginia Lakes Resort, which features a number of rental cabins, some with lake views, and some accommodating up to eight guests. Fishing, relaxing, and hiking are the big activities here, and anglers can be seen on the water in their float tubes at all hours of the day. An onsite lodge serves breakfast and lunch, and features a small general store. For more information, visit the Virginia Lakes Resort website.
Contributing writer Steve Gorman has been a resident of Alameda since 2000, when he fell in love with the history and architecture of this unique town. Contact him via [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Steve-Gorman.