California's Highway 395 is already one of the best highways in the state, thanks to the fact that it cuts through the eastern Sierra Nevadas. Starting a bit south of Lake Tahoe, it winds through a valley with Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park on one side, and Death Valley National Park on the other. Along the way, it passes Mammoth Lakes, ghost towns, gnarled forests of bristlecone pine, and some pretty bizarre natural oddities. Oh, and an abnormal number of geothermal hot springs. That's why we've dubbed it the Hot Springs Highway.
Travertine Hot Springs is located on California State Park land near Bridgeport. The hot water flows down travertine terraces, forming pools of water that gets increasingly cooler further from the source. It's free to visit, offers sweeping views of the Sierras, and as it's pretty close to town, is a bit popular, but note that there are no amenities here. Pack in a picnic (and lots of water!) if you think you'll want food. Limited camping is allowed on the dirt roads leading up to the spring if you want to make it an all-day affair. Be warned: You might find some people bathing au natural. It's totally allowed, so if you've always secretly wanted to skinny dip in a hot spring, seize the opportunity!
Not to say that Buckeye Hot Springs isn't popular, but it has more of a "hidden gem" feel than Travertine. It's tucked within the Toiyabe National Forest, so you feel like you're in a secluded woodland. The water cascades down a rock formation, and you can sneak behind the hot spring waterfall into a cave-like enclosure for more peace and quiet. There's a nice primitive campground right next to the spring as well. Again, it's clothing optional, so brace yourself!
Take a detour over to Bodie Historic Park to check out one of the country's best preserved (and most cursed) ghost towns. Its early days, in the 1860s, were marked by struggle, as stamp mills had a hard time finding enough gold and silver to make ends meet. By 1876, though, gold-bearing ore was discovered and launched the town to Old West notoriety. It boasted 65 saloons, a red light district populated by prostitutes, opium dens, and enough murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, epidemics, and stagecoach holdups to require the weekly newspaper to start publishing three times a week. Though its boom lasted until the 1890s, people started leaving the town in the early 1880s as other gold rushes lured those looking to get rich quick away. By 1920, only 120 people were left in town.
Today, it's a state historic park and remains in a state of preserved ruin. The authentic Wild West boomtown is also said to be cursed... anyone who takes anything from the park is doomed to encounter bad luck until they return what they took!
Take a refreshing break from swimming in hot springs to take a dip in Mono Lake. Known for its Martian tufa towers, Mono Lake has an otherworldly appearance. The towers are the result of the high levels of salt in the lake-- minerals wash ashore and fresh water evaporates, building up the tufa towers over time. Since the lake is over a million years old, the towers are quite literally ancient. The salinity also makes for an unusually buoyant swim, and locals claim that a dip in the lake will cure pretty much anything. If you happen to have any cuts, though, the water might sting; we're talking 2.5 times more salt than the ocean, so be warned! You'll also find lots of birds around the 65-mile-square lake, so take some time to explore and enjoy.
Make one more side trip to another natural oddity. The strange, twisting columns of Devil's Postpile are definitely worth a visit. The rock formation started as a boiling lake of red-hot lava. The slow-moving flow, which dammed up right where the monument is located, eventually cooled and contracted, forming the unusual columnar basalt formations that we see today. Glaciers scraped away parts of the basal, revealing the pile of massive columns. On average, the columns are two feet wide and can be over 60 feet tall. Most are 6-sided, but you can also find 5-sided, 4-sided, and even 30-sided stones-- this is due to the fact that the lava cooled unevenly and rapidly. Hike to the top for jaw-dropping views of the Sierras!
Hilltop Hot Spring is a developed, public spring that is a loosely-kept local secret, so don't be surprised if you encounter others enjoying the pool. Enjoy sweeping views of the valley and surrounding mountains from the hot tub. This one is especially fun to visit in the winter, as the trail to it is pretty easy and flat, even covered in snow.
Crowley Hot Spring is also known as Wild Willie's Hot Springs, and while I don't know how it got that nickname, I'm sure it's a good story. There are two pools here, accessed by a well-marked trail from the parking area. One is shallower and cooler, while the heart-shaped pool is both warmer and deeper. They're both pretty big, large enough to fit almost 30 people, so don't worry about crowds. You can do some primitive camping here as well.
The Inn at Benton Hot Springs is a great place to spend a night. The historic property, which has a 1940s farmhouse, has developed natural hot springs into individual spring-fed hot tubs. Some of these come with campsites, so feel free to set up a tent or RV and enjoy. If you're not one for camping, fear not! There's also the Inn (where all the rooms are done up in cheery 1940s decor, and guests share three hot springs), the two-bedroom, 1960s-themed Bungalow (which comes with a private hot spring hot tub), along with the Bunkhouse and the 1870s-era Conway House (this one also has a hot spring), all for rent. Charm, quirk, and hot springs... what more could you want?!
Where else in the world can you take a hike through a forest filled with the Earth's oldest trees? Nowhere, that's where! The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to gnarled, twisted, strange trees that are considered to be the oldest ever discovered. If you can, explore the Methuselah Grove. It's named for the Methuselah Tree, a 4,849-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine that was once thought to be the world's oldest... until a nearby pine was discovered to be 5,067 years old. Think about it; the tree was germinated in 3000 BC. That was the year pottery and hieroglyphics were invented, the city of Troy was founded, and construction commenced on Stonehenge. Mind. Blown.
Hit up one more hot spring before the end of the road. Keough's Hot Springs is the largest natural hot springs pool in the Eastern Sierra. It's home to developed soaking pools built in 1919 (which are meticulously maintained and cleaned), complete with lap lanes, water aerobics classes, and even a cooling waterfall. There are two pools, the larger one and the Hot Pool, both filled with the spring water that boasts 27 minerals. Keough’s also offers campsites, tent cabins, and modular retreat rooms in motor-lodge-style trailers. It's a funky, quirky spot where you can really unwind.
Between the fresh mountain air, unforgettable Sierra scenery, and supremely relaxing hot springs, a cruise down the Hot Springs Highway is the ultimate adventure for those looking to reconnect with nature... or simply escape everyday life.
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock