The rugged terrain of Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding landscape is one of the most picturesque destinations in Eastern California. The rural mountain town, nestled amongst the Eastern Sierra Mountains in Mono County, is probably best known to visitors for its famed downhill skiing on Mammoth Mountain. After years of visiting the ski slopes, I’d heard stories of the area’s lesser known natural wonders; hot springs and other hidden gems scattered across the volcanic caldera. Always up for an adventure, I planned a winter visit to Mammoth with the sole intent of finding these hidden hot springs and uncovering the beauty of this wild part of California.
I began my journey from the town of Mammoth Lakes, where I headed east and then south on the open road. The seemingly endless expanse of high desert plains belied the mystical beauty concealed amongst the sagebrush. I came upon a solitary green church at the intersection of two roads. This was my first clue, and I followed the crossroad for several miles, around a bend, where I was greeted by this view.
Wild Willys Hot Spring
About three miles from the green church I came to a cattle gate and a small dirt road on the right. At the end of the dirt road was the start of a boardwalk. I followed the path to find a hidden oasis; a cluster of natural hot springs flowing straight from the earth. The morning sun glistened between layers of rising steam, inviting me to jump in. The contrast of the warm water against the freezing temperatures outside felt heavenly, and cradled me like a warm blanket. I stayed until my fingers turned pruny and my curiosity for the other pools got the best of me. Although well maintained and regulated, I found the water temperature to vary quite a bit between each pool.
Just a hop, skip, and a jump away was a pool encircled in stones in the form of a heart. The heart pool quickly became my favorite, and I imagine it would be even better shared with someone special. Mindful of the fact that these pools are all natural, I wasn’t put off by a little mud.
A Day At Convict Lake
As the crowds began to fill the springs at Wild Willys, I made my way across the highway to Convict Lake, where I enjoyed the afternoon amongst crystal blue water and the towering peak of Mount Morrison. The story goes that the lake got its name when escaped convicts took refuge there in the 19th century, before being caught in a shootout.
The Crab Cooker Hot Spring
Eager to find more of Mammoth’s hidden hot springs, I ventured back to the green church road. At three miles down I took a left, onto a winding and bumpy gravel path which I followed to its end. Here I came upon a lone rock pool surrounded only by mountains, near and far, in every direction. I counted my blessings as I enjoyed the five star views in solitude.
Sunrise on the Caldera
High off of hot springs, the next morning I set out to discover more. I met a group of campers the day prior who had clued me in about another rock tub. It was not on any map but just a short way up the dirt road. I arrived just as the sun broke over the horizon, and stayed for what felt like hours, soaking up the warmth of the spring while watching the golden light spill over the plains. (Update: This pool is now closed as of 2019)
Wild Lands of the Eastern Sierras
Much of the land in the Long Valley Caldera, including that around the hot springs, is Bureau of Land Management land. BLM land is designated as undeveloped public land that can be enjoyed and camped on without a permit, for free. The preservation of these lands is imperative, not just for the benefit of present and future generations, but for the ecosystems in place.
The Rock Tub Hot Spring
Just as the sun began to set below the horizon, I arrived at my final resting spot, a small rock tub aptly named “The Rock Tub”. The small pool was a great place to reflect on the day. Moreover, I felt a sense of appreciation for the millions of years of natural history that gifted the land with these wild gems, of which I was now able to so freely enjoy.
Hot Creek Geological Site
My heart content after two days of soaking in nature’s jacuzzis, I knew there was more terrain to be explored. Not very far from the springs I came upon a scenic wonderland: a volcanic river gorge of turquoise water and travertine rock, shrouded in veils of steam. The thermal waters too hot to swim, I hiked the perimeter of the gorge, humbled in the shadow of the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks.
As I climbed the layers of travertine and looked down upon the bubbling geysers, it felt more like I had landed on the moon than the middle of California.
Mono Lake California
A half hour drive north of town would take me to an ancient shimmering oasis in the dry Great Basin. An otherworldly inland sea dotted with tufa towers, the immense saline lake was hauntingly beautiful, peaceful and still. As I circled the basin I was enveloped by the smell of limestone and salt. The water heavy and slippery to the touch, I imagined it would feel great to submerge myself in the summer months. Much like the other natural wonders of Mammoth, its rich history impressed upon me as I walked the shore. The experience felt like a dream, and upon leaving I was met with a keen sense that I would one day return.