Have you ever taken a bath outside next to a riverbed? Until July, I hadn't- but I can say now that I highly recommend it.
I have a few uber camper acquaintances whose Instagram feeds are filled with stunning scenery and adventures. This is how I learned about the (free) natural hot springs that exist in California. Until then, I had guessed that anything as wondrous as a natural hot tub would be purchased, walled up and have exorbitant admission fees to use. However, after seeing a pile of kidlets basking in a tub made of rocks in the middle of the desert, I googled 'natural hot springs' and found that they aren't uncommon (another gold star for CA). I also decided that I had to get to some.
We were headed to camp at June Lake in the Eastern Sierras, and a Sunset magazine article gave directions to some of the free outdoor springs. I decided that we should head for Buckeye Hot Springs on the second day of our camp. It's north of Mammoth and Mono Lake and was about an hour drive from our Silverlake camp site (adjacent to June Lake). As with most hikes and things, it's not really easy to find. It was lucky that we were in Mike's truck as the road became a bumpy dirt off-road path on the way in (seemingly on the edge of a cliff as well). We found Buckeye camp ground which had some folks who looked like they may just live there full time in the lot giving us stink eye as we passed. We felt utterly lost but also knew that we couldn't be far. The road looped around and seemed to be ready to spit us back out of the park before we saw a sign that said 'hot springs'. There was a dirt parking lot where we parked the truck and grabbed towels, water and sunscreen.
We got out and walked to the edge of the lot and saw a beautiful vista of huge trees as far as the eye could see. We heard a river and saw dogs playing in it, but saw no hot spring. Truth be told I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking for other than the rock tub I had seen on Instagram. Mike heard some men down the hill a bit and went to ask them if they knew where the springs were. I hung back and waited at the edge of the lot scanning around in the other directions to see if I could spot anything. He returned and said, "Good news, they's a bunch around here- those guys were even in one!...naked. They said that there's more down the hill." Wanting to go in the opposite direction of the naked men, we set off down the path that led to the river. On the way down, there was a trickle of water coming up out of the ground. Ever the intrepid explorer, Mike put his hand in it and immediately pulled it back. He said it was boiling hot. It streamed out of the ground and down the hill. As we zig-zagged down the hill to the bottom, we had to cross it a bit and there were some murky spots.
Near the bottom, we turned a corner and I saw a topless woman with no less than 5 huge dogs with her. This, coupled with the knowledge that there were some naked gents at the top of the hill, started to tip me off to the hot springs hippy element. I was kind of dreading seeing what (who) else was at the bottom. We had our swimsuits on and I already felt overdressed I am also a fan of clothing. Luckily, when we got to the river bed, there were about a dozen people including families with young children- all clothed; also Boobie girl put her top on as her and their pack of a dozen dogs were on the way out.
There was a series of four pools of water divided by rocks that were adjacent to the river. The first two closest to the path that we took down had small waterfalls of the hot water from the top of the hill pouring into the rock encased pool. The first (top) one was the hottest of the six tubs. I didn't have a thermometer handy, but it was hot enough to want to lay down in but also hot enough to want to get out of within a couple of minutes. As the pools went downstream, more cold river water mixed in with them, so they were successively cooler, along with a couple on the side closer to the stream. I chose the second one down, partially because it was empty but also because it was the most comfortable temperature. I laid down resting the back of my head on a rock and looked up. Water was streaming down in a mini waterfall into the pool, the sound of the river running was next to me, the sky was blue with puffy white clouds, there were pine trees all around- it was one of the top five most zen-filled magical moments of my life.
The people that were there were great too. We met a girl from San Diego. She was probably in her mid to late 40's, was covered in tattoos on her arms, chest and neck- tanned to a deep, dark bronze. She had on a customized Jack Daniels t-shirt with the neck and sleeves cut off and a swimsuit bottom. Her companions were two white bulldogs. She told us about Travertine hot springs and how Buckeye is far superior. She travelled alone with her dogs all the time in search of an escape from city life and came up to the springs regularly. On some days she said she was alone for hours in the hot springs with her dogs with not a soul in sight.
As we were getting ready to leave (though I pretty much never wanted to). Some old prospector looking hippy men arrive, got buck naked and jumped in to the first 2 pools. All the families immediately gathered their things to leave, doing their best to avert their eyes. Mike was annoyed and said to one of them, "you're chasing everyone away" to which he replied, "good, that's the way I like it". I have experienced being a regular in nature before. As kids, we spent hours a day in a forest by Lake Michigan behind a private boys school and a Catholic monastery. We knew every fallen tree and short cut and felt like we owned the joint. I imagine the old hippy dudes are the same with the springs. Having said that we never got naked to chase anyone away.
We took a different path back up to the car that led through the woods. Mike pointed to a pile of dung on the ground which was clearly bear poo. I looked up off the path and saw large rocks and a cave that looked like a bear habitat at the zoo. I then realized that we were in the bear habitat- just not at the zoo. Spooky, but thankfully we didn't see any of the little (huge) fellas around. I'd still love to see bears in the wild, but from more of a distance for sure.
When we got to the top of the hill and back to the truck, I was euphoric. It's so mind blowing that something like that exists, is accessible and that we were able to partake in it. I feel so lucky to be able to get to these places and experience things that I only heard and read about before moving to California. I was the most relaxed and recharged that I had been in weeks, maybe months. I was not only so grateful for the forest and the water and the outdoor hot tubs that I just relaxed in, but also to have met such a helpful, kind soul in the San Diego girl. As opposed to most encounters with other humans in the city, there's a fraternity among campers and explorers that I adore and bask in whenever I encounter it. Being a life-long city dweller, I probably wouldn't want that level of conversation and friendliness all of the time, but it's great when it happens.
Once I was back in the truck, I remembered that the rest of the world exists and went to grab my phone. Mostly to look at the photos I had just taken to remind me that it was all real. There was a text from my ex-husband saying he was engaged to a girl he met 6 months ago. I was upset that the news came in just then when I was at the height of happiness and blissful relaxation; but really, after thinking about it, it probably found me in the best mental place that I could have been for news like that. I was relaxed, happy, finding wondrous things in the world with someone that I love who loves me. Life's a beautiful adventure- with hot tubs.