Jordan Hot Springs
Like so many of our shorter trips, this came together on a whim. There are few things more fun than sitting in a hot spring in the winter, and Jordan Hot Springs in the Golden Trout Wilderness has been on our radar for a while. However, the place is usually way too crowded for our taste, the spring being only about 5 miles from Blackrock Trailhead. In the summer, the trailhead is an easy drive on a fully paved road. In the winter, the road is closed, often as far as Kennedy Meadows, 20 miles away (cca. 12 miles on Sherman Pass Road and then 8 on Forest Route 21S03).
The winter of '17-'18 was off to a slow start. By the beginning of January, only one or two small storms hit Southern California, and the snow cover in the mountains was relatively low. After consulting the online snow levels map, the conditions looked promising. I called the Forest Service and they told me there's some snow both on Sherman Pass Road and after the turnoff to Blackrock Trailhead, but the roads are officially open, and if our car can make it, we're welcome to go up there. Based on the car we have (low clearance, front-wheel drive) I was told to count on having to park a few miles before the trailhead.
Blackrock Ranger Station (located at the turnoff on Sherman Pass Road, 8 miles from the trailhead) was still closed for the season, but I could download and email a permit request, and the permit itself was in my inbox only a few hours later. It snowed a little bit a few days prior, but the forecast looked great: cold and sunny.
Day 1 – L.A. to Blackrock Trailhead and Jordan Hot Springs
For various reasons, we couldn't get out of town very early, meaning it was 10:30am by the time we drove past Kennedy Meadows (great place, by the way, love it). The snow patches started just past that, we put on snow chains, but it wasn't deep. When we reached the closed ranger station and turned right, I took note of the odometer to see how far we make it. The snow got too deep for our car around mile 5.5, meaning we were about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.
We ate a snack, put the packs on, and started walking. It was already 11:30am, but we only had about 7.5 miles to go. The mutual decision was to leave the snow shoes and microspikes in the trunk because the snow won't be too deep and the terrain is relatively gentle.
The road undulates in the forest, climbing a bit, with Blackrock Mountain looming on the left. It was easy going in the shallow snow and the sunshine, peaceful and quiet. No other tracks were on the road.
A short while later, we passed the trailhead with its usual info display, restroom, and parking lot, then entered the trail in the forest and started our descent to Casa Vieja Meadows. This is about two miles, with a loss of only 500'.
As soon as we hit the shadowy part of the trail, we realized we're walking on ice. There was about an inch of soft snow on top, but below, it was several inches of rock hard, slippery ice. There must have been a freeze-thaw cycle for a few days, and the then recent light snowfall covered it. In most places, it wasn't too bad, but we had to be careful. The microspikes would have been perfect for these conditions, but alas, they were in the car, and it was too late to turn back for them.
One pm found us in Casa Vieja Meadows. There's a horse corral, some older buildings and a big open field (which I'm sure is even more beautiful in the spring) with Ninemile Creek cutting across it. The creek was half frozen, with the aforementioned ice everywhere in the shadows. We even found a small gully of sheer ice almost a foot deep.
The trail crosses Ninemile Creek (there's a campsite on the far bank), then turns left, descending into the creek's drainage. The snow-covered canyon was very scenic, frozen mini-waterfalls alternating with flowing water. After about a mile, at the confluence of Ninemile and Long Creeks, the canyon turns sharply west (left) and the forest gets much denser. Walking carefully on the snowy ice meant for relatively slow progress. No matter how careful we were, Em took a huge fall on a steeper section where she didn't see the ice. She could somewhat slow her fall with the hiking pole, but she still hit her lower arm and her hip. It was painful, but there was no damage done. A bit later, I almost took a bad fall, too, it was just sheer luck that I didn't roll down the hillside. Well, so much for not bringing those microspikes.
There are about four creek crossings between there and Jordan. Two were not a problem, but the other two were a bit of a challenge. At the first one, the water at the “official” crossing was about calf deep. We didn't want to take our shoes off and wade through the ice-cold water. A few dozen feet further down I found an even deeper, but much narrower spot, and there was a thick log right next to it. When I lifted the log, I found that it's surprisingly dry, thus light. I'm not a strong guy at all, but it didn't take me much effort to place it across the creek. Meanwhile Em was looking for an alternative further down, but found nothing, so we braved out makeshift bridge and got over OK.
Then, about half a mile above Jordan, there was another spot, even worse than before. A small logjam already made a makeshift bridge, but most elements were too thin and the thicker ones were covered with ice. My biggest concern was that a misstep could result in serious injury, other than just getting wet. It worked out, though.
It was almost 3pm when we got to the big camping area by the creek. There are spots for dozens of tents and some old cabin's remains still stand. We had no idea which way to go, so we followed the main trail further down, across the creek again (proper log bridge here), then a through beautiful field of dry grass (invasive wild oat and barley, unfortunately). We realized the hot spring is on the other side of the creek, we could have cut through the forest.
This crossing is somewhat of a thriller, the creeks runs in a narrow, but deep gorge. You have to use a few large logs suspended about five feet above the water. It's not scary at all, except the logs had a few frozen patches. Going slowly did the trick.
The hot spring is right upstream of this, a small, shallow pool with a pipe leading hot water into it from further above.
Jordan Hot Springs used to be a proper resort with cabins and service buildings. Most of these still stand, a bit further south in the forest. We walked up there to take a quick look and see where we could camp as close as possible to the hot water. You can read about the history of the place here: https://goldentroutwilderness.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/jordan_h-s.pdf.
Finally, we found a nice spot between the resort and the spring, just on the edge of the trees. It looked well protected and private in case others show up. So far, however, we haven't seen anybody.
As soon as we pitched the tent, we were off for a soak, taking one of the packs with evening clothing and food.
The hot water seeps from the ground a few feet from the creek, forming a tiny pool, dug out on the sides and featuring a primitive wooden bench where one could sit and dunk their feet. At that spot the temperature was too high, though. From here the water flows into the creek via a small trench, in some sections through pipes. A shallow pool in the creek is created by a tiny dam made of rocks and sandbags.
In theory, the pool would hold at least 7-8 people comfortably, however, this time that was not the case. Being January, the sun set around 5pm, and the air temperature dropped dramatically. Soon it was only 30°F.
The water felt fantastic, but only in the small spot directly where the hot water was flowing in. We made ourselves comfortable. As the air was getting even colder and a bit of wind came up, I got out to see what I can do about the water. Earlier I saw that some of the open parts of the trench used to have pipes, too, but somebody took them out and they were laying on the side. I worked a pipe back into its place and this way the water cooled off a little less before reaching us. It took a while, but it made a noticeable difference.
We had a great time relaxing in the water. It was a clear night, colder and colder, but the warm water made up for it and we kept stirring the hot parts to distribute the warm water more evenly.
Eventually, we even had dinner in the spring. I got out quickly, fired up the stove, then got out again to put the dehydrated dinner into the boiling water. Finally we ate while sitting in the water. We've done this several times at Sespe Hot Springs and love it.
We stayed there for a long time, past 9pm. Luckily, when we got out, the wind was not blowing much and even though it was down to 24°F, it was not uncomfortable to get dried off and dressed. When you get out of hot water, if there's no wind, you have at least a two-three minutes before you get cold.
We had a very quiet and uneventful night in the tent, cuddled up in the cold air, but warm in the sleeping bag.
Day 2 – Jordan Hot Springs to the Kern River and back
We got up late, ate a big breakfast and explored the former resort. There are still many buildings standing with lots of historical artifacts. Friendly reminder: leave everything in place.
Around noon, just as we were getting ready to leave, a thundering noise rose suddenly from the canyon and an F-18 fighter jet roared by, maybe 200 feet above the ground. A few minutes later, it made another pass, this time a bit higher. These planes come from the China Lake Naval Air Force Base, and we see them all the time in the Whitney Zone, but never so low. I read there have been problems before with too-low passes and even one of the Forest Service brochures said that you should report low-flying aircraft and the pilots would be disciplined. We had no such intention, of course.
Then we left for the Kern River, crossing the high logs below the hot tub and turning left on the main trail. The jet (or another) flew by again, this time right above us. I'm sure the pilot could see us now in the open. That was it, we never saw or heard one of them again. Unfortunately, I couldn't get pictures, the whole thing happened way too fast and I had my camera stowed.
We descended in the continuation of Ninemile Canyon, going west. The remnants of the 2002 McNally fire could still be seen, the hillside completely devastated, with only minimal underbrush growth. What used to be a thick forest is only a big manzanita jungle now.
The trail crests a hill, then drops sharply and crosses the creek. Here, too, the water was relatively high and we had to carefully navigate a small logjam. Past this, we encountered a barbed wire fence and to our big surprise, a beautiful little cluster of buildings with unmistakable signs of current use. According to the map, this was Soda Flat, and after looking it up, I found out it's a private place. Who can be so lucky to have property here? There was nobody around, though.
We kept on, past another hill, and descended to the Kern River, flowing south in all its majesty. It's truly beautiful, with scenic bends, while big pine trees and bright green manzanitas adorn the shores.
According to the map, there should be another trail a bit north of here, going back to the other side of the hill we just crested and supposedly even passing a waterfall. Thus, we turned right and negotiated the creek again. Em was more confident than I, she quickly walked across a pretty thin log, but I backtracked after two steps and decided to sit down and hop over on my butt.
Here we found another camp, a very, very cool place, right at a beautiful bend of the Kern, nestled between the trees. There was a big horse corral, a huge outdoor kitchen, and at least one building with lots of gear visible through the windows. Some people obviously use this place on a regular basis. We even found the name of the camp, but didn't take a picture of the signs and we forgot it since. If somebody knows the name of this place, please let me know.
We sat down at the immense dining table for a quick meal. It was already 3pm by the time we finished, so we got on the trail again, going uphill, approaching the banks of Ninemile Creek yet again. Indeed, a very nice little waterfall cut into the rocks, forming a mini gorge.
Somewhat further up, we had to... wait for it... cross the creek again. There was a cable strung across, but no bridge or log and the water was way too deep and fast. We considered going back the way we came, but then we saw a huge tree trunk creating a natural bridge upstream. It was high above the water, but very wide, so walking across it turned out to be a cakewalk. After bushwhacking our way back to the trail, the going was easy.
However, a bit later, at the crossing past Soda Flat, Em almost broke her leg. I got over OK, Em was behind me. She almost made it, too, but at the penultimate step, her foot slid off the log and into the water. It was almost knee deep there, but luckily she stepped on a rock or another log and only submerged her shoe to the ankle. Also, she almost fell to the side, which would have meant an awful, nasty break as her foot was held in place between two logs. Thankfully she's very careful in these situations and she didn't have much momentum. She braced herself with the hiking poles, stopped her slide, then carefully got back on the log. Some water got in one of her shoes, and that was it. I was very relieved of course, as for all practical purposes I saw her fall to her side and break her leg above the ankle.
The excitement was soon over and we worked our way back to camp, just in time for sunset. Like before, the temperature was dropping rapidly and like before, we made a beeline for the hot water as soon as possible.
The evening turned out to be a bit colder, but less windy than the previous, and we stayed up late again, eating dinner in the water. There was still nobody else around.
Day 3 – Jordan Hot Springs to L.A.
As we only had 7.5 miles to go, we slept late again and left at 9am. I was a bit antsy about those stream crossings and the icy trail, but we took it slow and negotiated them with without problems. Our makeshift bridge was still there and we made good use of it.
We arrived at Casa Vieja Meadows around 11:30am and decided to take a nice long lunch break. The obvious location for this was the little camp area we saw before. When we walked up to the fireplace, a most ungainly sight greeted us: lots of gear strewn around and some stashed between rocks, some partially frozen into the ice. There was an Evernew aluminum pot (new, with silicone handles), a baseball hat, a plastic box of Q-tips, an unopened bottle of mouthwash, a chapstick, a Thermarest Z-Lite CCF mattress and the empty bag of a camp chair. Everything looked like it had been abandoned recently, but at least a few weeks prior. We haven't seen any of it on the way in as we walked past without stopping.
While Em was unpacking the food, I started walking around to see if there's anything (or anybody) else. Within a minute, I found a few more knick-knacks, and then I saw some blue fabric up on the hillside in the bushes. For a moment I honestly thought it would be a person laying there. I didn't even say anything to Em, just climbed up through the bushes and was relieved to find only a sleeping bag. Empty. It was a crappy Teton Sports 20+ synthetic-filled heavy monster. Already, animals chewed holes into it and removed some of the insulation for their den. This is just a guess, but I know for sure in other places, marmots love to get their paws on human-made insulation and put it to such use.
As we were headed out and our packs were light, we packed up all the crap, including the sleeping bag, which ended up on top of my pack. It was heavy, but not terribly so. We carefully made our way up in the icy trail, climbing to the trailhead. The snow there was somewhat lower than three days prior, and a large car's fresh tracks could be seen on the road. However, we still haven't seen anybody.
An hour and a half after leaving Casa Vieja Meadows, we were back by the car.
After getting home, I emailed the rangers about the stuff we found, offering to return the items if they had any information about who left them. Never got a response. The sleeping bag was total loss, we threw it away, but the rest we still got. We'd be happy to return everything to their rightful owner, but I hope it's clear to everybody that leaving such items in the wild is super-crazy-awfully irresponsible and the only excuse is a true emergency situation. “Oh, I packed too much and my back is sore and I can't handle the weight anymore” doesn't cut it.
Regardless of all this, we had a great time, the hot spring is fantastic, the Kern River is amazing, and we'd love to go back, but if and only under similar circumstances when there are few or no other people around.
More pictures in the full gallery.