The Ultimate Road Trip Guide to Exploring HWY 395: Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs and Alabama Hills
Take the ultimate road trip across the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, soaking in soothing hot springs in Mammoth Lakes and seeing the Alabama Hills' unique geologic grandeur. Explore the Alabama Hills for dispersed camping areas, take in the vistas of Mount Whitney, and climb to beautiful arches along the way. Along HWY 395, this guide will provide excellent choices for hiking, hot springs, and camping destinations.
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As someone who travels frequently, this quarantine makes me want to jump out of my seat and fly somewhere, but I know that is not the case right now. I'd gladly take the middle seat and sit next to a wailing baby simply to *experience the rush* of flying and visiting a new place. If you're on the same page as me, let me know in the comments!
The one advantage that restricted travel has provided us is the ability to learn more about our own state. We've been embarking on some remote camping trips in our home state this year, which have been quite rejuvenating and invigorating. Nothing beats fresh air, beautiful scenery, and being outside in nature.
Brian and I have been across most of the North State together and wanted to try something new, but not too far from Sacramento. The geology and wonder of Alabama Hills attracted us, and I knew Mammoth had some hot springs. Brian had been on a geology field trip along the HWY 395 corridor in college and wanted to return to see more of the Alabama Hills.
We didn't really have a plan when we decided to go camping, but those kinds of adventures are the best! We had a rough notion of what activities and locations we wanted to see, but we planned to do things on the fly during our vacation. We discovered that Mammoth would be substantially colder at night than Lone Pine while researching the weather (Alabama Hills). 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.
We left Sacramento, California at 6:45 a.m., via the HWY 50 to HWY 89 to HWY 395 route.
Mono Lake Vista Point - 51508 US-395, Lee Vining, CA 93541
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...
Okay 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.
HWY 395 - Wild Willy's Hot Springs
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 the internet, and it will lead you to the appropriate location.
HWY 395 - Crab Cooker Hot Springs
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.
HWY 395 Buckeye Hot Springs
Buckeye Hot Springs is located near Bridgeport, California, and is close to Travertine Hot Springs, another favorite soaking destination! There are many 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!