Aster Lake, CA
This small, mountainous lake is inaccessible. Or, as my wife and I joked, a real pain in the access. Unless you’re a champion hiker, or just very ambitious, it’s a hassle to get to. But that’s what my wife and I did. We hiked. It sucked, and then it was awesome.
Aster Lake is near Kings Canyon National Park and Panther Gap. Before we had kids, my wife and I had time to do some backpacking, and on one particular trip we decided to hike to Alta Peak and stopped to camp at Panther Gap. This was the western side of the Sierra Mountains and it was spectacular.
On Day 1, we hiked up to Panther Gap and set up camp. It was a stunning night, a quintessential campfire, stars dotting the endless night sky while the forest croaked and chirped and hooted into life in the shadows around us. In the distance, a mountain lion would snarl, and the moon hung so big, so bright above us, it was all I could do to not throw my head back and howl. OwwOOOOOAH!
The next morning, we hiked Alta peak, over 11,000 feet in elevation. From the top, we had this incredible panorama we could see for days, and I thought about what it must have been like for the first pioneers crossing the mountains to look out over the land. Stunning doesn’t begin to cover it, and we were totally drained by the time we made the hike back down to Panther Gap.
We were beat. Really tired. But somehow, the trooper that she is, I convinced my wife to make the hike the next morning up to Aster Lake. It was a trek, to say the least.
We didn’t fully understand how far it was.
3/4 of the way, my wife was ready to stop, but I got her to push up to one more ridge. As we crested the top, the land on the other side dropped away into a spectacular, sprawling valley. We stood on the ridge looking straight down across a lush valley, a picturesque waterfall roaring off in the distance, a miniature white cascade from our lofty perch above the world. From where we stood, we could watch kestrels gliding over the treetops, circling and swooping among the leafy branches.
The rest of the trek was downhill from there, but my wife is as wise as she is tenacious, and she was already thinking about having to walk up again on the way back. She looked me in the eye before we took another step. “Look,” she said, “I’ll walk down that hill, but you better be sure there’s a lake at the other end.” The thing is, I wasn’t 100% sure. To be honest, from the looks of it, I didn’t know how there could be a lake down there.
But I reassured her (as non-committal as I could) that whatever we might find on the other end (e.g., lake or not!), it would be totally worth it. Begrudgingly, she got walking again, and we are so glad we made it down. At the bottom of the valley was Emerald Lake AND Aster Lake.
What a gem.
There is nobody out there. These are remote lakes just set in the cliffs, with snowy paths down the mountains creeping up to the water, right up to the edge. On the other banks, vibrant green grasses and loose vegetation sparsely dotting the rocky outcrops and boulders..
In the middle of the lake was a little island, no bigger than a small shop or restaurant, and I waded out to it. A fly-fishing dream. The water was only a few feet deep, and with small midges and dry flies, I could see trout swimming around. They were all small, 6-10″, but I was in paradise. A remote lake all to myself, fishing in a barrel full of gorgeous fish. And most importantly, I had my wife with me.
We camped and picnicked and didn’t worry about a thing. It’s rare, even among some of the vacations and “getaways” we have, to truly detach so completely and have such one-on-one quality time. Looking around from the floor of the valley, surrounded by calm lake waters and solitary evergreen copses rising up the mountainsides, I felt so humble and so exactly where I needed to be through God’s grace.
Needless to say, it was well worth it.
On the way back, we began slogging through the water when, out of nowhere, a little water snake came gliding by. He freaked my wife out pretty bad, and that accelerated our return trip just a bit.
Aster is one of those lakes that gets overlooked. People talk about exploring, hiking the John Muir Trail, and that lake for me was a taste of what else is out there off the beaten path. The western and eastern sierras especially are full of these gems.
Now that the kids are old enough to walk and carry their own gear, I’m sure we’ll be back out there exploring more and more again as a family. Aster Lake lives in my mind as a reminder that fishing is, in many ways for me, just a companion hobby, secondary to appreciating the incredible beauty around us and the quality time with our thoughts, dreams, and the ones we love who make it all come to life with us. You know, the ones who make it all feel “Happily Ever Aster.” See what I did there?