The Eastern Sierras along Highway 395 in California and Nevada might be one of the most overlooked areas of the West. Most visitors to this area head straight to the national parks of Yosemite and Death Valley, but the whole length of this beautiful area holds many hidden treasures in the form of excellent hiking trails, alpine lakes, campgrounds and hot springs.
Early morning at Travertine hot springs — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann
The Eastern Sierras begin in the Topaz, Walker and Coleville area of California and end at Lone Pine and the entrance to Death Valley. Along the edge of the range and into the foothills of this popular mountain area are various natural hot springs that bubble to the surface. For centuries, the natural water in these pools were thought to have curative powers for ailments like arthritis, muscle aches, migraines and psoriasis. Some of the pools are very clean (like Keough's), but a few are muddy or may contain algae. Most are available for bathing, but a few are too hot to get into. Please read any posted signs or do your research before dipping a toe (or any other body part) into a hot spring in this geothermally active area.
If you want to experience the hot springs during any time of day (early mornings are least crowded), get a camping spot near these heavenly pools. There is nothing better than a late night soak under the stars of the Eastern Sierras before crawling into your sleeping bag.
Buckeye Campground and Hot Springs
If you don't mind a bit of a drive up a winding dirt road, head to Buckeye Campground just outside of Bridgeport and the small community of Twin Lakes. This beautiful campground is just above Buckeye Creek and contains about four loops of basic camp sites and bathrooms. The appeal of this area is Buckeye hot springs, which is a short walk from the campground. These hot springs are located in a pool right by the creek, so when you get too hot, you can take a dip in the freezing creek water. Just above this pool is another muddy pool that is shaped like a heart and is perfect for couples. The cost of a campsite is about $22, but the hot spring is free. Just down the hill from Buckeye is the beautiful Travertine Hot Springs. There is no immediate camping in this area, but the views from these series of pools are worth getting up early in the morning to watch the entire valley fill with the morning sun.
Keough's Hot Springs
If you want a few more amenities, head to Keough's Hot Springs, which is located just south of Bishop, Calif. and is the largest natural hot springs pool in the Eastern Sierras. They have a large hot swimming pool that was built in 1919 and is kept at 104 degrees all year long. They have water aerobics classes, lounge chairs and a small snack bar. Their camping area contains 10 water and electric sites with plenty of trees and views of the mountains. You are also allowed to dry camp in the area. The water and electric sites are $28 a night and the dry sites are $23 a night. You can also camp in their western-style bunk tent, which includes a heater, and costs about about $75 a night.
Iva Bell Hot Springs in the John Muir Wilderness — Photo courtesy of tobo/Flickr
Iva Bell Hot Springs
For visitors to the area who want to backpack to their camp spot, Iva Bell Hot Springs will be a quest. These hot springs are located about 7,200 feet into the mountains in the John Muir Wilderness. It's a 14 mile one way hike from the Red's Meadow and Fish Creek trail area of Mammoth Lakes to the camping area around the springs. Plan for a few days to hike up into the wilderness and enjoy the view from these fantastic pools. The camping is free, but you will need a backcountry pass from the Mammoth Lakes forestry station.
The view of Mammoth Lakes from the hot springs area — Photo courtesy of _tnz/Flickr
If you want to stay closer to civilization, the popular Mammoth Lakes area has several free hot springs including Hilltop Tub and Wild Willy's. Both of these hot springs are very popular and can get crowded, so your best bet is to camp in the Mammoth area, and get up early in the morning to enjoy some hot spring solitude. Both of these pools are accessible off of Highway 395 at Benton Crossing Road.
Benton Hot Springs
Maybe the only place to get a perfectly private hot spring is at Benton Hot Springs. The campground and hot springs resort is right next to the Nevada/California border in the small town of Benton. There are nine camp sites available and each have a private soaking tub, picnic table, fire pit and great views of Boundary Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada with an elevation of 13,147 feet. The small tubs cost $40 for a night and the large tubs are $50 a night.
A few hot springs tips:
- Check any local signage before going into a hot pool
- Most natural pools can be muddy or slippery around the edge. Watch your footing in and around the pools.
- Don't be alarmed if your silver jewelry turns black, this is caused by the sulphur and other minerals in the pools.
- Drink lots of water if you are in the pools for a long time.
- Most natural pools are clothing optional. If you plan on going into the water nude, ask any other visitors if they will be offended. If you don't want to see any nudity, be polite and just look away when people emerge from the water. Paid pools like Keough's require you to wear a swimsuit.
- Please don't trash the pools, they are public and for everyone's use. Pack out your trash and leave the place cleaner than when you arrived.