The Ultimate Road Trip Guide to Exploring HWY 395: Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs and Alabama Hills
This is your ultimate guide to road tripping and camping along HWY 395. Explore the natural beauty that the Eastern Sierra Nevadas have to offer, from expansive vistas of Mount Whitney, to unique geologic arches. This guide will cover everything you need to know about dispersed camping in the Alabama Hills, and finding places to soak in hot springs along HWY 395.
Ever since the pandemic, we've been embarking on more remote camping trips in California this past year, which has been extremely rejuvenating and invigorating. So far one of our favorite places we've had the pleasure of road tripping, is in California along HWY 395. You really can't beat the crisp air, beautiful mountain scenery, and natural hot springs near Mammoth Lakes.
We were first drawn to the Alabama Hills because of its unique geology and grandeur, plus the drive through Mammoth Lakes is quite spectacular. My husband Brian, had visited the Alabama Hills on a geology field trip along the HWY 395 corridor in college and we've been itching to explore more of this area.
Initially, we didn't have a solid plan for our camping road trip, but those kinds of adventures are sometimes the best! We had a rough idea of what activities and locations we wanted to see, but we planned to do things on the fly during our vacation.
Keep in mind, we decided to camp on New Year's weekend! (Brrr!) Although, if you get the chance to visit the Mammoth area during Fall, this is my favorite time to visit!
While researching the weather during winter time, we discovered that Mammoth would be substantially colder at night than Lone Pine. We knew that temperature would play a huge role in our camping trip's comfort, so we opted to do a day trip to Mammoth Lakes and spend our camping time in the Alabama Hills.
Although, we had a rude awakening with the wind while tent camping, and that's something you definitely need to keep in mind while visiting the Alabama Hills, it gets extremely windy. Definitely don't forget your tent stakes, like we did, and prepare to sleep in your car if necessary.
HWY 395 Road Trip Itinerary & Information:
Mono Lake Vista Point
This viewpoint is an excellent place to pause and take in the Mono Lake views! If you have any stickers that haven't found a home yet, the guard rail appears to be covered in stickers, so you might bring one to add to the collection.
The mountains behind Mono Lake were captured in the photograph below from my Print Shop. Because the snow and rainbow represent new beginnings and a fresh start, the print is titled "Renewed Hope." Something we may all benefit from as we approach 2021...
Before I get into the Hot Springs we visited in Mammoth Lakes I do want to leave a disclaimer. We want to preserve the integrity of these beautiful locations so before visiting make sure you are aware of the principles of "Leave No Trace." You can read about them here. It is a privilege to access this land and we must respect it and leave it better than how we found it.
If you are feeling adventurous and want to get a quick hike in, I highly recommend the Inyo Craters. You can hike or snow shoe in to get a view of these incredible craters and small lakes. Check out my full guide to hiking the Inyo Craters here, for how to access them and the best time to visit. It's the perfect spot to get a work out in before soaking in the hot springs off HWY 395 in Mammoth.
Wild Willy's Hot Springs - HWY 395
Wild' Willy's Hot Springs is a popular soaker's destination in the Mammoth Lakes area; it is by far the largest Hot Springs in the area, with many pools, including the famed Heart Shaped pool. After turning off of Benton Crossing Road you will approach a dirt road that will lead you to the Wild Willy's Parking lot. We've visited a number of hot springs, some of which are highly popular and others which are more quiet and private. We were anticipating a lot more people after reading about the crowds at this place, especially during a holiday weekend!
To our amazement, we must have come at at the right moment because we had the springs almost entirely to ourselves, with the exception of one other family who arrived right as we were about to leave!
We were genuinely surprised to have it all to ourselves, especially given the number of cars in the parking lot, but many people camp overnight in the parking lots to catch a glimpse of the sunrise. We arrived at the hot springs around 11:30 a.m., and I believe it was a great time to come during lunch hour! We've heard from friends and seen videos that sunrise is a very crowded time for the hot springs since people believe no one will be there.
If you want to go early, consider going an hour after sunrise; it may be less crowded, but everything is luck and timing. We also went during the winter on a weekday, so expect more crowds on weekends and during the "non-winter" season.
You'll need to go a short distance down the wooded path to get to Wild Willy's Hot Springs, approximately half a mile or less.
The photo below was taken after a relaxing soak in the hot springs. You'd think I'd be freezing to death, but it was a gorgeous day, and it felt amazing running around in my suit in the snow!
There are four different pools to choose from, and the views are breathtaking! Do you see the "Heart" shaped hot spring in the photo above? It may seem different depending on the water level when you come, but it is the first spring on the left as you Wild Willy's hot spring was roughly the same temperature as a hot tub, we'd estimate 102-104 degrees! The temperature will change slightly depending on where you are in the hot spring!
There are a few other hot springs in the vicinity, including "Hilltop Tub," "Rock Tub," and "Crab Cooker." Simply search for "hot springs" in the Mammoth Lakes area on google, and it will lead you to the appropriate location.
Crab Cooker Hot Springs - HWY 395
Crab Cooker Hot Springs is located on the opposite side of Benton's Crossing Rd, and it is also accessible via a dirt road. This hot spring comfortably fits four people, or six if you have a close-knit group! When we arrived at the hot spring, it appeared to be even busier than Wild Willy's! So we ate lunch and discussed whether or not to go in, and while we sat in the car, we noted that some groups had left the location, leaving only two persons in the springs. We only lingered for a short while to have a quick soak and have a nice chat with two other people before heading up the road to Alabama Hills!
It would be fantastic if you had this hot spring to yourself! The pool itself is not muddy, which is one thing I preferred about this tub over Wild Willy's. This hot spring was roughly the same temperature as the Heart Spring at Wild Willy's, though the spring at Wild Willy's is much larger and it can get quite hot if you get too close to where the warm water pours through.
Buckeye Hot Springs - HWY 395
Buckeye Hot Springs is located near Bridgeport, California, and is close to Travertine Hot Springs, another favorite soaking destination! There are several hot springs to soak in at both locations, though Travertine Hot Springs is simpler to get to off the road than Buckeye. If you're planning on visiting Buckeye Hot Springs, we recommend 4WD high clearance vehicle during the winter because of the snow.
Buckeye Hot Springs has one huge pool at the bottom, which you must climb down the slope from the parking area to reach. The hot spring sits directly next to a creek, which is nice to cool off in the summer time! Prepare to soak with other people because it can get crowded, and, like all other hot springs, it is acceptable to bathe in the nude.
So there are two other springs at the top of this hot springs area (pictured above), which is my one secret. I won't tell you where it is because it is all part of the fun! ;) Looking out over the mountain and river, though, the views are simply breathtaking. These pools are not as hot as a hot tub and are more akin to a warm bath.
The smaller two pools at the top of Buckeye Hot Springs is better suitable for two or three people, and note they are shallow.
Dispersed Camping in Alabama Hills
If you're unfamiliar with dispersed camping, it means you can camp for free on designated public land, and I recommend visiting the Bureau of Land Management's website for more information. We drove out to Movie Road and discovered some small roads to explore before deciding on a camping site. In dispersed camping, you won't find the typical camp site amenities, but you will find fire rings and flat ground that have been utilized by others in more popular spots.
One of the most amazing aspects about camping in the Alabama Hills is having a front-row seat to the infamous Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States! Not to mention, Iron Man, Godzilla, Django Unchained, The Lone Ranger, Gladiator, and a slew of other classic films have been shot here!
Look at the sunset that welcomed us on our first night in the Alabama Hills as we set up our dispersed camping spot!
While we were out there, we had some fun with night photography. It was a full moon, but I've heard that on a clear and dark night, the Alabama Hills is one of the best places for astrophotography!
So much to explore right at our "doorstep." The next morning we woke up to extreme winds (like 40mph!), so we actually collapsed our tent for the day and hopped in the truck to ride some dirt trails to explore.
We ended up sleeping in our truck since it was so windy, and I won't lie, it was too cold and windy for the tent! For extreme cold weather, I ordered us some new mummy sleeping bags, which I believe helped us sleep even better!
Drinking a beer from Sierra Nevada in the heart of the Eastern Sierra Nevadas! "Wanderland" was the perfect way to describe this location.
Hike the Arches in Alabama Hills
Mobius Arch is the most well-known and visible arch in the area, and it is a short 0.6-mile loop. It's a more crowded trail, but it's still worth checking out. This is a well-known photography and astro photography location!
As a photographer, I tend to bring a lot of gear with me! I'm thrilled that I finally bought a camera backpack to store all of our drone, laptop, and camera gear! This backpack was only $60 on Amazon! Check out my camera gear and backpack here.
Can you see the boot shape in the photograph below, taken at Boot Arch?
The Cyclops Arch was a little more difficult to locate, but we ultimately spotted it! This was our favorite, and we even flew the drone through the arch, which we recorded on video for our YouTube channel! I wouldn't recommend doing this unless you're certain you won't harm the environment in any way.
Hot Creek Geological Site - HWY 395
If you have some time on your HWY 395 road trip, make sure to stop by the Hot Creek Geological Site! The turquoise blue ponds are the product of subsurface volcanic activity. Although you can't get in or get close to them since they're boiling hot and people have been harmed in the past, you may admire them from afar by walking along the nice walking trail that spans Hot Creek. Brian did, in fact, stick his finger in the creek, and it was HOT!
The views are breathtaking, I love the way the creek meanders through the canyon and the hot geysers steam, with the gorgeous mountain range in the back. Definitely worth checking out if you have time!
I hope you liked reading about our road trip to see Mammoth Lakes hot springs, geologic wonders, and beautiful dispersed camping spots! Which destination do you want to visit on your next road trip?
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