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Up The Road: Eastern Sierra Tour: All Those Hot Springs

Jay Huang

The Great California Road Trip has rolled straight down from High Sierra summits to the edge of the Great Basin—a surprising transition, ecologically and otherwise. A particular surprise: the abundant natural hot springs, from Bridgeport to Mammoth Lakes to Bishop, many on public land.

Given the general stress load these days, you’ll want to add at least one good hot-springs soak to your Eastern Sierra itinerary. Pick up a regional hot springs guide, or chat up locals, to ferret out suitable spots. Some are quite popular and draw crowds—for most of us, not the best idea in the time of coronavirus. But others are less well known, and more remote. Sometimes you can also camp nearby.

Thank ancient geology, and today’s Long Valley Caldera, for the area’s mineral hot springs, creeks, and pools. Extending from Mammoth Mountain to Glass Mountain, the caldera is a giant bowl-shaped depression about 20 miles wide, open to the southeast, sloping toward Bishop, otherwise surrounded by mountains. Explore its volcanic features, and try to imagine the past in the present:

The Owens River Gorge, formed during the Pleistocene. The Mono-Inyo Craters, a 25-mile volcanic chain that erupted until some 600 years ago. The caldera’s extensive hydrothermal system, which makes itself known from the geothermal power plant at Casa Diablo Hot Springs to the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery. Hot Creek itself, long a popular draw near Mammoth Lakes, has been closed to swimming since 2006. Scenic location for many films including True Grit, Hot Creek is most famous as a blue-ribbon catch-and-release trout stream.

Then there are the hot springs—most on the caldera’s east side, many on public land, open to bathers and free.

Just south of Bridgeport and a mile off the highway by dirt road is always popular Travertine Hot Springs, stone pools with stunning views of the eastern Sierra and some tent camping nearby.

North of Bridgeport is Buckeye Hot Spring, just east of the seasonal Forest Service Buckeye Campground, past Doc and Al’s Resort on Twin Lakes Road. Soak under a cave-like rock overhang or in streamside pools.

Clothing-optional Hilltop Hot Springs, or Pulkey’s Pool, on Benton Crossing Road near Mammoth Lakes, serves up 360-degree views. Also locally popular: Wild Willy’s near Crowley Lake.

Talk about tubs with a view: Some of the 12 private ones at rustic Benton Hot Springs Ranch look steadily west to Mammoth Lakes and the dramatic eastern Sierra. Tent camping’s the treat here. You don’t rent the campsite. You reserve the tub instead, then pitch a tent, or park your camper or RV. Pets welcome. There’s also an eclectic B&B built of pumice, a miner’s cabin, rental houses, and remnants of an old mining town.

For a different trip back in time: Keough’s Hot Springs near Bishop, established in 1919 as a mineral-water health retreat. Big pool for day use—controlled access these days due to COVID-19—plus campsites.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


Photo Credit #1

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.