Tucked along HWY 395, down a winding mountain road, deep in the Sierra Nevadas, lies Lake Isabella. An epic boondocking spot where my family found mountains at every turn of the head, off-road trails that led to surreal untouched land, and the sweetest thing to be found on any adventure, water. Sweet, cool water that attracts boaters, windsurfers, paddlers, young couples, full time travelers and rowdy families alike to its shores.
Towing an RV on The 178 to Lake Isabella
Now, the road to lake Isabella is an adventure in itself. A mountain pass running through the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, home to the wild Kern River. Some road warriors out there like to call the 178 a “scenic shortcut”. And others tell of it more like surviving a near death experience.
We happened to be crossing our fingers, holding our breaths (well my husband was smiling ear-to-ear like the savage he truly is) and hoping we’d make it.
So here we were, cruisin in our new to us Dodge Ram 2500, pulling our 37′, 13k lb Off-Grid RV to her max.I was getting nervous. The man said “noo, we’re fine..” in that drawn out way that let me know he was full of it.
Now in my defense, we had recently figured out an unknown but important truck principle: Just because you can “upgrade” your truck to pull 13k lbs…. doesn’t mean you should.
Cue a recent flashback, us holding our breath while my husband floored our little dodge trucks heart out- in 1st gear now- barely going 15mph as we crested a long grade, our whooping and cheering at the sight of the horizon sounding a bit on the loony side. So yes, you could say I was “a little nervous” to take our first true mountain pass.
But a little research (from a tiny bit of midnight panic) the night before and I found that if you take the 178 coming from the 395 it is a mild drive, whereas the 178 from Bakersfield to Lake Isabella happens to be a nightmare. One full of hair-pinned turns, jutting rock on one side of the narrow road and the no rails-instant death kind of cliff drop-offs I only like to see in a car commercial on the other. I checked and double checked we were taking the right way.
And though the heights and turns got my nerves firing, the road wasn’t bad and our maxed out truck was able to handle it with no hiccups. The crisp hues of sun bleached grass and minty sage blurring along the mountainside highway eased my mind and anxieties. This side of the 178 is an easy route to gain confidence with the more adventurous side of RV’ing. And with an added bonus of seeing even more Joshua Trees than in Joshua Tree National Park!
Closer to the lake, the road drops sharply at the edge and grants the first views of Lake Isabella and the surrounding mountains.
Though I am terrified of heights, scenes like this on the road take my breath away and when it’s good enough, my fear with it. As long as I don’t look too closely at the roads edge 😉.
Lake Isabella – Boondocking at Auxiliary Dam
There are about 8 developed campgrounds around Lake Isabella with hundreds of spots, group sites, and blm land. We chose the Auxiliary Dam campground since it was easy to access and Free with our annual America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. It is typically $10/day but the Auxiliary Dam campground seems to take most annual passes as payment which gives you up to a 2 week stay!
We pulled in and showed our America the Great pass. They greeted us with Hi’s and How Are Ya’s before handing us a window display to keep as receipt. Simple and easy, then we headed down to be on water.
The absolute best thing about this desert oasis, is how close you can get to the water. Its a “First Come, First Serve, Park Where You Can Fit” kind of place. We followed a simple gravel road leading down to a rocky beach and found everyone as close to the water as they could get. Though there were only a handful of people and groups huddled along the beach. Driving to the edge, we got the end of the beach to ourselves and tucked cozily into a hillside, adorned with its own private rock cove in the water. Quiet Bliss.
Well, for a few days it was quiet bliss.
We had come to Lake Isabella because the man wanted water for his birthday. And what a marvelous birthday we all celebrated for him. First year out of the military, capable of taking the family in our fully solar-powered RV anywhere we dared venture. And here, we had an entire lake surrounded by mountains as backyard while our traveling family of 5 explored the small historical town for 2 weeks.
View of our waterfront boondocking spot in our off-grid RV at lake Isabella
The part we didn’t account for one little bit. Hadn’t even considered it. Seriously, with the mans birthday a few days before and my girls 5th birthday a few days after, and us just free birdin’ through the year… the Fourth of Freaking July Never Once Crossed Our Minds! Yes. Really. So here we are just basking and enjoying this wonderful lakefront spot we are enjoying fully -when 50 trucks towing RV’s pull in.
Does that seem like an exaggeration? It isn’t. By the end of the day there were 100 more Rv’s, Motorhomes, Vans, and Buses crowding the once empty few acres of waterfront beach.
When we woke up in the morning it was apparent people had moved in throughout the night. We had left about 20 ft from our steps to the water when we parked but since the water level was lowering rapidly everyday there was now about 40ft. That morning we found a city of tents, boats, and jet ski’s filling every bit of space out our front door.
“This is Bullshit”. Was the first reaction. But everyone has a right to the land the same as us. Sigh. Re-assess.
So we used the situation as a push to explore the area a little more. Lake Isabella offers an ever-changing backdrop of natural wonders to explore. We stayed away from the notoriously wild and dangerous Kern River this time, having our three babes in tow and all, but decided it was well worthy enough to add to a list for future adventures. Instead we drove around the lake to explore the other campgrounds and a few off-road trails we spontaneously found.
These are the type of roads that lead to places of mystery and awe. Little untouched pockets of the earth that suck you from outside yourself and all you know, and open you up to the magic of which lay all around us. This is where long conversations and deep questions come out. Where you can look your children in the eyes and say “You can do anything you can imagine in this world baby.” And feel it. Mean it.
Finding and taking opportunities to explore the strange beauty of the world was why we decided on a year long boondocking journey in the first place. Lake Isabella did not disappoint. This ethereal spot was part of a rarely visited part of the lake that had dried up significantly over the week. Because of the newly exposed lake bottom we were able to venture out into what seemed an other-worldly environment.
| Learning Bonus: the kids got to learn and witness first-hand The Cycles of Water in a truly memorable and unique way. They still reference this spot when learning about weather and environmental patterns |
Discover The Town of Lake Isabella
The Town of Isabella is a quirky small town full of history, gritty people, hardcore adventurers and relaxed families alike.
Drive the loop around Lake Isabella and explore the different campgrounds and BLM land.
And of course, fishing, boating, paddle boarding, windsurfing and whatever fun water activity you can imagine at Lake Isabella
Lake Isabella and the Kern River are what life revolves around in the town of Isabella. There is a small park in the area with tanks that are set up for hands on play and a few small museum and local attractions.
After a few days of exploring Lake Isabella, the town, and even driving an hour into Bakersfield a few times we decided it was time to make peace with the fully packed campground and mingle with the new neighbors. Now there is a reason solitude is so sought out in this lifestyle, the peace and contentment are deeply fulfilling… and yet there is something to be said for a rambunctious crowd of RV’ers and locals all livin’ it up at the lake.
The kids especially loved all their new friends and the fun toys they came with. Boat rides, paddle boards, water trampolines and more were all offered for us to enjoy with our temporary neighbors and new friends.
The crowds only lasted a few days though. By the end of the week we said good-bye to strangers we knew a little better, the loud droning of generators, and shrieks of children playing. And just like that the onslaught of people and tents at our door was gone.
One of the mornings after the crowds had dispersed we woke up and found the water had turned bright green. We looked up the local water advisory and sure enough there was dangerous levels of bacteria in the water from the mass of people over the long weekend.
Thankfully the water flows quickly through the lake and dam and the water levels normalized the next day. On that day though we played like scientist, observing and “testing” the water. The kids got to learn about dangerous algae blooms and how the water can be harmful to us and our animals.
Lake Isabella provided days of unhurried pleasure. Mornings were slow, a time of quiet self-care and reflection. Days were spent testing our bodies and each other on the water, while afternoons we enjoyed with conversation of dreams and travel, longing and ambitions.
So what were our overall thoughts on Family RV Boondocking at Lake Isabella?
We would definitely go back to and recommend Lake Isabella, especially for boondocking in an RV with kids. A perfect spot for groups, easy to access for large rigs, free with a pass, and true freedom to park and play on the water makes Lake Isabella a rare gem. Watch out for holidays and summer weekends for less crowds and bring in plenty of supplies for an Epic Boondocking Adventure.