The locations of the natural hot springs in the Eastern Sierra used to be quite the little locals’ secret—in the old days, visitors might ask a bartender or a clerk where to find them and get a cryptic answer—understandably, the locals wanted to keep these places to themselves.
Times change, however, and most of these natural springs, the result of the geothermal activity that spans the Eastern Sierra, can easily be located via Google Maps these days.
Soaking in a naturally hot, spring-fed pool with dramatic views of the peaks and craggy ridges of the Sierra is a must-do for Eastside visitors. From Bridgeport in north Mono County to Keough’s Hot Springs south of Bishop, there are a myriad of pools to choose from.
Bridgeport boasts some of the coolest spots for soaking—Travertine hot springs, with its otherworldly mineral formations, is featured on the cover of Falcon Guide’s third edition of “Touring Hot Springs California and Nevada,” and is run by the Bureau of Land Management. There are several different pools to choose from, from muddy-bottomed tubs fed by dripping hot water to the concrete-built pool just adjacent to the parking lot. There’s also a BLM-maintained restroom and informational placards.
Buckeye Hot Springs is northwest of town, located adjacent to a popular campground. It’s got a hot waterfall that feeds pools which sit next to a babbling brook, but high runoff from snowmelt can render the tubs lukewarm (or even downright frigid) in the spring.
In the Long Valley Caldera, in the desert east of Mammoth Lakes, natural hot springs dot the landscape if you know where to look. Wild Willy’s is one of the best known—located on BLM land, the huge tub is fed by a hot stream and fits at least 20 people, though it’s unlikely you’d want to share a tub with that many. A boardwalk spans the length of the marshy area between the parking lot and the tub, which can make navigating at night difficult. Use caution exiting Wild Willy’s, as the tub is experiencing a good deal of erosion from people climbing in and out, and if it gets too big, it may lose its ability to retain heat.
Shepherd’s Hot Tub, on the other end of the spectrum, fits two comfortably and four if you squeeze. It’s got an incredible view and cattle grazing on the land all around. Many people bring their dogs to the springs, which is fine, but make sure you have them under your voice command if they’re allowed to run off leash—chasing cattle or disturbing wildlife can garner you, as the dog owner, a hefty fine.
Hilltop Hot Springs is probably the easiest to access and find, just off Benton Crossing Road and up a meandering boardwalk. The sunsets at Hilltop are hard to beat, but it can be crowded due to its proximity to the road.
It’s important, when visiting the natural hot springs, to prepare yourself to see some nudity. Before the springs were accessible to most, soaking “au naturel” was the norm. Now it’s quite common to see bathers in suits, but donning swimwear is a good way to advertise that you’re “not from around here.” Another thing that’s frowned upon is young children soaking in the springs. It’s just more of a grown-up thing. And this may go without saying, but never, ever, use soap or bathe in the springs. That’s a surefire way to garner dirty looks and even get a lecture on etiquette.
Finally, locals ask that visitors to these incredible natural wonders behave as if they lived here too—this includes not leaving cigarette butts, animal and human waste, and litter around the springs. Even “biodegradable” things like orange peels and pistachio shells are an eyesore. Be a good neighbor, even if you call some other place home.
Sarah Rea is a freelance dirtbag-turned-journalist who has been living in the Sierra on and off for twenty years, with eight spent in Yosemite National Park and five in Mammoth Lakes. She likes dogs, rocks, good food and jumping into cold water.