California: Hot Springs of the Sierras
Travertine Hot Springs, Buckeye, Bridgeport, Yosemite and Other delights
By John Lander
The best thing about the hot springs of the Sierras isn't that they're free of charge.
The variety of the springs, the unique qualities of the waters and the stunning natural settings are enough to please outdoors enthusiasts, campers and hot spring enthusiasts. These springs are an excellent escape for people who want a relaxing weekend in an accessible location that feels remote from urban centers.
The springs below are not commercial establishments, so there are no snack bars or restaurants if you get hungry or thirsty. Bring your own bottles of water and snacks. Better yet, stop in Bridgeport for some food and make a picnic out of it. Rustic springs of this kind are maintained by local volunteers and hot spring enthusiasts, so visitors’ cooperation is needed in keeping them clean. The best of the springs are described below.
Travertine Hot Springs
Travertine Hot Springs lies on California State Park land just south of the town of Bridgeport. It is one of the easiest to get to, and therefore one of the most popular.
It boasts a stunning view of the Sierras while you bathe. Though it is designated as "clothing optional" many bathers these days prefer to soak in swimsuits. The naturally hot water is scalding at its source, but flows down rock formations till it reaches the pools below at a comfortable 103 degrees.
All types of people visit Travertine, including the nearby park rangers, campers, families, couples, and single travelers. Limited camping space is available on the short dirt road leading to the springs, but is not allowed in the immediate area of the pools.
Take route 395 south of Bridgeport for half a mile. Turn left at Jack Sawyer Road, just before the Ranger Station. Follow Jack Sawyer road, along a dirt road, approximately one mile.
Buckeye Hot Springs
Buckeye Hot Springs lies within Toiyabe National Forest, just north of Bridgeport. It is a little harder to get to than Travertine and doesn't have a grand view of the Sierras as its backdrop. What it does have is the sound of the adjacent babbling brook, which are very soothing to the senses and frayed nerves.
The hot mineral water cascades over a cave in a mini-waterfall formation. Troglodytes will enjoy the seclusion of soaking in the exposed cave, while others are content to admire the stream. Buckeye is clothing-optional though the majority of soakers are families with swimsuits.
Another draw to Buckeye is the nearby campground, for those who want to be next to the springs 24 hours a day. Like many "primitive" campgrounds, there is no electricity or running water so the free hot water at the spring comes in handy for bathing.
Be sure to bring along drinking water. Driving north out of Bridgeport, make the first left turn off of route 395 that you can (about 4 miles past the gas station). This is a one-lane, bumpy road – drive slowly and look for fallen rocks. At 4.5 miles after making that turn, there will be an unmarked, downward-sloping parking lot on the left. (There is a fork in that road along the way – go right, towards Buckeye Creek.)
The springs are down the hill on a steep, slippery, and difficult trail. Bring plenty of drinking water. There are many free campsites nearby (plus Buckeye Campground, run by the Forest Service, but it was closed for the season when I was there in late October) At the top of the hill, there is a parking area. The springs are down the trail from the parking lot towards the creek.
Hot Creek is located 25 miles south of Lake Mono, near Mammoth Lakes. Hot Creek was a party hot spot during the sixties though these days it is more family-oriented. The Creek is maintained by the National Park Service, and has a more official air to it as can be seen by the numerous warnings to avoid the scalding water along the hillside.
Hot Creek is posted as being closed. There have been deaths there because scalding water can erupt at random places at random times. People still soak in it (I’ve heard), but it’s probably too dangerous for us to recommend in this guide.
The waters are unique as the hot water bubbles up from the bottom of the creek, where the waters are heated by magma three miles below the surface.
This hot water mixes with the cold creek water. If you stand in one place for a few minutes you can feel the hot water mixing with the cold, resulting in a perfect temperature depending on where you are standing. Just be sure not to go near the restricted areas as the water is scalding in those places. Hot Creek has two bathing areas.
The first bathing area is at the bottom of the trail that leads down from the parking lot. This trail continues into the second bathing area, that is less popular but every bit as good as the first area. Hot Creek is very popular, and many international visitors come to bathe.
Located two miles south of the Mammoth Lakes turnoff from route 395, turn left onto Hot Creek Airport Road and follow the signs for about three miles. A wide range of food and accommodations are available at nearby Mammoth Lakes, a favorite ski resort in these parts.
Nearby Attractions: Bodie, Mono Lake and Yosemite
As everyone knows, the Sierras are not just about hot springs. A wide variety of attractions in the area are within a few miles of each other. Near Bridgeport lies Twin Lakes, a popular fishing and camping spot. It would be a shame to visit the Eastern Sierras and bypass Bodie State Park, a ghost town just off of route 395.
Further south of Bodie lies Mono Lake with its spooky tufa formations that are especially awe-inspiring at twilight. Both Bodie and Mono Lake are on the way towards Hot Creek along US route 395. Lee Vining, the small town next to Mono Lake, is the Tioga Pass gateway to Yosemite National Park.
Mammoth Lakes is much more visited than Bridgeport and Lee Vining, thanks to its ski slopes. It therefore has more amenities and services than little towns like Bridgeport or Lee Vining.
If you go: Bridgeport lies 140 miles southeast of Sacramento and 110 miles south of Reno, along scenic US route 395. The area can also be reached via the Tioga Pass which goes through Yosemite National Park when weather permits.Information on Bridgeport accommodations, campgrounds, restaurants, fishing and other attractions -- tel 760-932-7500
Budget accommodations are available in Bridgeport at the historic Bridgeport Inn. Guests can even opt for the Mark Twain suite, though shared-bathroom pension style rooms are considerably cheaper.
/ $29-75 tel 760-932-7380
An even wider selection of accommodations, including motel chains, are available in the town of Lee Vining, next to Lake Mono as well as at Mammoth Lakes, further south. There are also many campgrounds in the area. Information for all of Mono County, including Bodie, Bridgeport and Lake Mono can be found at: tel 530-495-9666
Information for Mono Lake tel 760-647-6595Information on the Mammoth Lakes area, including Hot Creek: / tel 1-888-GO-MAMMOTHInformation on the entire area of US route 395Soak.net, a web resource all about natural hot springs.