Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
Something magical happens when you slip into the healing waters of geothermal hot springs. Every ounce of stress begins to float away as you settle into the warm, soothing water, surrounding yourself with natural stones and scenic landscapes. California’s hot springs seem impossible—encompassed by expansive, rugged wilderness that stretches in every direction and crafted without the aid of human hands—yet the surrounding rugged mountains, sandy deserts, or forested thickets remind visitors of nature’s powerful beauty and our role in protecting it.
Indeed, geothermal springs have long been praised for their perceived medicinal properties and health benefits. Lucky for us, California is chock-full of hot springs—most of which lie just off the beaten path, well outside the confines of luxury resorts. While this adds to the appeal and ambience when visiting these remote destinations, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning a trip to California’s natural hot springs.
Before we dive in to some of the best non-commercial hot springs in California, there are a few things you should know in order to plan the ultimate getaway:
Located northeast of Los Angeles, due north from the eastern edge of Lake Arrowhead, Deep Creek Hot Springs makes for an ideal day trip from the city. The natural hot springs lie a moderate 3.6-mile hike from the parking area, so the geothermal pools provide a nice rest after a somewhat arduous journey. Traveling during the week increases the chances of a peaceful soak, since the secret is officially out about this place.
Make sure to pack plenty of water and to save enough for the way back—which is significantly harder than the trek in. Though the short hike may seem easy enough, the elevation changes 900-plus feet along the way, making it more difficult than it appears. Temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees during the summer, too, so make sure to come prepared.
Since the Pacific Crest Trail follows Deep Creek from Lake Arrowhead, it’s not uncommon to see serious backpackers at the springs, but to visit the natural hot spring, park at Bowen Ranch Road trail and pay the day-use fee ($10 per person). Then, prepare for a few stream crossings, which can range from knee-high depths to swimming-level waters. Hike up to the origin of the springs to experience the naturally occurring hot waters—which can reach around 200 degrees—or stick to the pools at the bottom to stay in the (significantly cooler) warm waters.
Take Deep Creek Road from Hesperia for about five miles. Turn left onto Pack Memorial Trail and follow it all the way to Bowen Ranch. Though the trip is only 15.5 miles, the drive takes about an hour.
Situated about five miles from Mammoth Lakes, Wild Willy’s Hot Springs (also known as Crowley Hot Springs) is the perfect escape from civilization. The Sierra Nevada mountains surround the pools; the sky appears to open up with endlessly sparkling stars; and sagebrush grazes the landscape, adding pops of discreet color to the otherwise barren horizon. Believed to have been created by the same volcanic activity that formed the Sierra Nevada, these thermal pools were revered as sacred grounds and still maintain their natural appeal today.
Wild Willy’s features two pools about 50 feet apart. The larger is about 10 feet wide, 3 feet deep, fits about 10 people comfortably, and generally stays around 97 degrees. The smaller tends to have a higher temperature that hovers around 107 degrees and is recommended for two or three people.
Travel along Highway 395 south from Mammoth Lakes until you come across Benton Crossing Road (also referred to as Green Church Road). Turn left here, and follow the road for about three miles, driving past two cattle guards and then turning right. Continue along this road, taking the left forks in the road whenever they appear. After about another mile, the sign and wooden boardwalk will emerge, welcoming you to the hot springs.
Travertine Hot Springs is easy to get to and is located about 25 miles north of Mono Lake along Highway 395, close to the California-Nevada border. The spring is unique in that it offers an ADA-accessible cement tub close to the parking lot; this large tub accommodates up to eight people. Meanwhile, the three mineral pools located farther along the path can each fit three people. The 100-degree thermal springs are also surrounded by looming mountains, with campsites available just down the road, should the enchanting waters and restorative gray travertine mud entice you to stay for multiple days and dips. Plan your visit on a weekday during the spring and fall months so you can avoid the crowds and snowy roads.
From Bridgeport, take the 395 south for 0.8 miles. Turn left onto the unpaved Jack Sawyer Road before you get to the Bridgeport Ranger District Office, and continue on for 0.2 miles. Turn left again at the fork in the road, drive for one more mile, and the springs will appear along the road.
Nestled in the Los Padres National Forest, the secluded Sespe Hot Springs provides a wonderful reward after a long hike; depending on which trail you take to the natural hot springs, the trek spans between 7.5 and 17 miles one-way. The springs are different here than most of the others you may come across—the hot springs’ water flows down through a stream and over a man-made rock wall before falling into the soothing pool. While this destination is only accessible by foot or on horseback, there are three different trails that all lead to the remote oasis.
Choose between the moderate, 16.8-mile Sespe River Trail; the 7.5-mile Alder Creek Trail; and the difficult, 9.5-mile Johnson Ridge Trail. You can catch the Sespe River Trail from Ojai and the other two trails from Maricopa. Depending on which excursion you choose, the path may feature swimming holes, gorgeous mountain views, river crossings, and campsites.
The remote Saline Valley Warm Springs is best visited over a couple of days; though the destination is only about 70 miles away from the nearby town of Bishop, the tumultuous drive takes about four hours. Tucked away in the western edge of Death Valley National Park, these springs are not meant for novice explorers, the faint of heart, or the middle of summer. If you’re able to make your way through the sands and rocky roads, you’ll be greeted by a makeshift pole with a bat sign, green lawns, rock gardens, and warm pools that are not, in fact, mirages. That’s when you know you’ve arrived.
Though their quirky nature may imply that these hot springs belong in a surrealist painting, the harrowing expedition leaves these pools relatively solitary, unlike the springs located just off the roadway. That being said, taking a four-wheel-drive vehicle; bringing plenty of food, water, and fuel; and relying on paper maps rather than on phones or other electronics that require signal are absolutely essential to survival here.
The Saline Valley is known for being dry and arid (it is the location of abandoned mines and salt deposits, after all), so the going can be rough. Drastic temperature drops, high winds, and sudden drops in altitude are all encountered along the way, too, and the springs lie near a makeshift landing strip, so low-flying planes are not uncommon. While there are plenty of things to take into consideration, the soaking pools of the various hot springs extend for three miles down the dirt roads, making for an extreme—and incredibly memorable—adventure.
From Bishop, take Highway 190 east for four miles, and turn onto Saline Valley Road. Continue on the rocky pathway for approximately three and a half hours until coming upon the springs.
Now that you know what adventures are out there, you’re ready to start planning your next excursion. Let us know your favorite California hot spring in the comments below.
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