Southeast of Yosemite National Park lies the tiny town of Mammoth Lakes, population 8,000. Many Californians are familiar with Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, California’s snow sports playground. You most likely know friends who have visited for its famed natural beauty. Among the pristine lakes and snow capped mountain views, Mammoth Lakes is the perfect setting for fishermen, winter sports enthusiasts, and especially hikers.
Mammoth Lakes is a hiker’s dream. The town is situated near the John Muir Trail, a 200 mile trek through the Sierra Nevada Range named after the famed environmentalist and Sierra Club co-founder. If you want to stick to more local routes, there are 7 trails up nearby Mammoth Mountain. Choose a route with pleasant switchbacks or snaking crags to sneak a view of the Ritter Range and Twin Lakes.
After you wrap up a long hiking trip around Mammoth Lakes, don’t go home yet! The area is home to over six hot springs, free for visitors’ enjoyment. Less than a 20 minute car ride from “downtown” Mammoth Springs, these natural thermal pools offer killer views of the Eastern Sierras.
Crab Cooker Hot Spring
Crab Cooker is a cozy tub, with water piped in from the mineral spring 30 feet away. This setup allows guests to manage the water temperature with a valve. Generally, this spring’s temperature sits at 100°F, hence the name Crab Cooker.
Although it’s only a short drive outside of town, the backroads to reach the spring can be somewhat treacherous, so bring a car that can handle the bumpy trail. Once parked, the spring is just a .2 mile downhill trek.
The tub fits six or so people and offers clear views of the Sierra Nevada foothills. If you arrive early in the morning, not only may you get the tub all to yourself, but you might catch a glimpse of coyotes or cattle roaming the sagebrush plains. Between Crab Cooker and Wild Willy’s springs, Crab Cooker is the less crowded of the two.
Wild Willy’s Hot Spring
Only a 15 minute drive across Benton Crossing Rd is Wild Willy’s hot spring. This spot has two natural pools both about 10 feet wide. Here you can sit and relax in the 95-105°F crack open a fizzy drink and gaze at the Sierras.
After parking in the dirt parking lot, the springs are located at the end of a 200 yard boardwalk. The boardwalk seems to appear out of nowhere, and allows folks of all ages and ability a fairly leisurely stroll to the springs. Wild Willy’s is well-known among travellers, so to avoid the crowds, try visiting during a weekday mid-afternoon.
Tips for the Hot Springs
Keep in mind the unofficial clothing optional policy when visiting the springs around Mammoth Lakes. Yes we mean “au natural,” so don’t be surprised if you see a couple of folks sans-clothing lounging in the springs, or hey, you could be those folks!
Cell service around the hot springs and trails is spotty. To be safe, plan your travels in advance. Google Maps allows you to download areas for offline use. It also never hurts to bring along a map and compass just in case. These areas are very primitive and offer no facilities, so be prepared!
Both hot springs allow you to bring leashed dogs and remember these are leave-no-trace locations — so always pick up after yourself and your pet.
While you’re in the area, take the time to stop by some of the other springs only minutes away. Other popular springs near Mammoth Lakes include Crowley Hot Spring and the Hilltop Hot Tub.
Travel to Mammoth Lakes
Depending on which area of Southern California you are coming from and depending on traffic, Mammoth Lakes is a 5-7 hour drive along pleasant back country highways. Or if you’d rather, the nearby Mammoth Yosemite Airport has non-stop prop jet flights from LA. Either way, you’ll get some stunning views of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevadas. Once in Mammoth Lakes, the city provides plenty of transportation options within the city and to nearby cities. This is ideal if you plan on taking a long one-way hike and need transport back to your lodging.
Speaking of lodging, you will have to decide on sleeping arrangements before your trip. Of course, the town offers from cozy cabin inns to luxurious resorts. Since the town is so small, most lodging options are very affordable. To avoid the crowds, it’s best to make your drive up during the fall.
The land around the hot springs is owned by the Department of Water and Power, so you cannot camp directly near the spring. However, there are plenty of camping spots to the west. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a free campground at Crowley Lake. This BLM campsite provides a picnic table, fire ring, toilets, and drinking water.
Alternatively, Bishop is a 45 minute drive south along US 395. It’s alpine surroundings of pine forests and bright blue lakes are just as beautiful as Mammoth Lakes, but Bishop boasts a much warmer climate. This small town is also the backdrop to famous westerns like Clint Eastwood’s Joe Kidd and Yvonne De Carlo’s Frontier Gal.
Mammoth Lakes resides at a cool 7,800 feet above sea level. The best time to visit for a hiking trip is in the summer or fall, when temperatures hover in the mid-60’s to high 70’s. The summers in this region are very dry, so you won’t have to worry about being rained out.
Winters in Mammoth Lakes are different story, however. The town alone sees about four feet of snow every month from November to February, and this doesn’t include snow dumps at the summit often reaching six feet over a weekend! It’s no wonder people refer to it as a winter playground. It’s a perfect location for winter sports if you’re looking to try your hand at skiing or snowboarding!
Mammoth Lakes and the southwestern Yosemite region are the place to go for breathtaking mountain views, miles of alpine hiking, and, of course, to try your hand at a hot springs adventure. The plethora of hiking trails nearby have something for every level of hiker. You are bound to enjoy this small town in the midst of untouched Californian landscapes.
From the week-long John Muir Trail trek to an afternoon dip in natural hot springs, Mammoth Springs is the perfect escape from the traffic of LA.