Soaking at 8,000 feet: Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs

Apr 2, 2017

Looking out at the Eastern Sierras from Hilltop Hot Springs

A large chamber of magma churns, aches and pushes at the earths surface. Only a small amount of lava flows, until a series of earthquakes shakes the ground, then silence...BOOM! A giant explosion occurs blowing the top of the magma chamber and throwing 150 cubic miles of ash and rock[1] into the air which spreads as far away Kansas[2]. Over time a new roof forms, but at a point ~1.2 miles below the old roof, forming a depression 9 miles wide by 18 miles long called the Long Valley Caldera. This dramatic eruption which was 500 times larger than Mt. St. Helens (only 0.3 cubic miles of material[3]) and more than half as large as the last major Yellowstone eruption (240 cubic miles of material[4]) occurred approximately 760,000 years ago. Since then the area has remained volcanically active with eruptions of nearby mountains and the creation of hot springs. The springs, in particular Casa Diablo, were used by the Paiute Indians[5], then by stage coach travelers from 1878 to 1881[6] and finally by motorist once highway 395 was created. Today Casa Diablo is a power plant station and is unusable by the public, but there are more than a half dozen publicly accessible springs located nearby.

The main cluster of hot springs is located near the center of the caldera and southeast of the resurgent dome in an area named Whitmore Tubs. The area contains the following springs:
  • Wild Willies a.k.a. Crowley Hot Springs
  • Hilltop Tub
  • The Rock Tub
  • Shephard's Tub
  • Crab Cooker
In addition there is one other spring at Little Hot Creek just outside the area. I wasn't able to make it to Shephard's or Crab Cooker, but was able to make it to the rest.

Wild Willies

The sun sets over Long Valley as bathers enjoy the main tub at Wild Willies.

This spring is the largest and most popular. The parking area is large but was filled with many people camping both in tents and trailers when I visited. From the parking lot is a short 1/4 mile walk on a nice boardwalk through alkali meadows installed by the BLM in 1998[7]. First you'll pass by a small heart shaped tub which can hold around 8-10 people and is the hotter of the two. A few paces down the trail you'll come to the large tub which is partially gravel and partially concrete and can hold 20+ people. The larger tub has a nice temperature gradient, with it being very hot near the inlet and a nice comfortable temperature near the outlet. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my thermometer on this trip and so wasn't able to get readings, but I would guess that the upper pool is consistently over 100F and the lower pool anywhere from 95F to 105F depending on where you are sitting.

I visited the spring with Tram and a friend on a Friday evening around sunset in mid-summer and there were 20+ people between the two pools with everyone wearing a bathing suit. Many of us were drinking a beer and after a 15 minutes or so we'd struck up a conversation with strangers. I think soaking in hot water while watching the sun set in the Sierra's can even put the biggest grouch in a sociable mood. We picked up some critical intel on nearby springs during our conversations as well as recommendations for good hikes in the area.

Hilltop Hot Spring

A third of a mile down Benton Crossing Rd. from the turnoff for Wild Willies is the turnoff for Hilltop Hot Spring, perhaps the most scenic of all the Whitmore tubs. The walk from the parking area is 1/4 mile on a nice gravel path and board walk that ends on a large white silica sinter deposit. After walking across the clearing, reminiscent of a moonscape, you come to a concrete and rock tub surrounded by turf mats. The mats may seem crude, but in reality are functional, saving your feet from the sharp pebbles while entering and exiting the tub. As you lower yourself in the tub, only large enough to fit 6-8 people, you see mountains to your east and west with the enormous Long Valley extending for what seems like an eternity to the north and south. The hill the spring sits atop is in reality only a small rise, but it is enough to give you a commanding view of your surroundings.

A boardwalk keeps vistors above the water soaked ground on the way to Hilltop Hot Spring (left); PVC piping and a valve allows control of the temperature to suit ones preference (right).

I visited this spring in the morning around eight, too late for sunrise, but early enough to be the second car in the parking lot. Fresh cow patties dotted the grass and portions of the path on my walk to the tub. The chill of the morning air brought goose bumps to my skin. As I crested the hill I could see that no one was in the tub and for the moment it would be just the nearby cow's and I to share a pleasant Eastern Sierra morning. I dipped my hand into the water, checking the temperature, it was very hot. The previous bather had left the ball valve open almost the whole way, filling the tub with 105F+ degree spring water. There is no cool water nearby to temper the heat with so the only option is to turn off the valve and sit in the water for short duration while waiting for it to cool.

The Rock Tub

The Rock Tub is a small tub built with rocks and concrete.
The easiest to find of all the springs has to be The Rock Tub. Located just off Whitmore Tubs Rd. and much nearer to highway 395 you can drive right up to the tub. A smaller spring facing the eastern face of the sierras and only enough room for 4-8 people. In 2005 the BLM announced plans to restore the roads, dispersed camping sites and nearby Sage Grouse strutting grounds, called leks[8]. While visiting I saw signs of roads blocked by boulders, but the main gravel roads were fairly rutted out and the campsites didn't seem to have any real maintenance done to them.

Little Hot Creek Spring

Tucked away in a small valley down several dirt roads and located next to a stream is the excellent Little Hot Creek Hot Spring. It's a little more of an adventure to get to this secluded spring compared with the Whitmore Tubs, but it's absolutely worth it.

Clearance is tight with some vehicles (left), and some balance is required while crossing Little Hot Creek (right).
As you sink into the tub, formed of smooth concrete, you'll likely hear a dragonfly buzz past or maybe a grasshopper will flutter by. You may even see a Yellow-headed Blackbird in hot pursuit. The trickle of Little Hot Spring creek, just yards away, provides a relaxing audio bed to the song of summer in the High Sierras. After a few minutes, adjust the valve to let more spring water in, sit back and let the world melt away.

View from the tub (left), Little Hot Creek has a nice concrete tub with inlet control and an overflow pipe (center), If you're gonna bathe then you need to put in some work scrubbing (right).

Nearby Geological Features

If you stop by for a soak in Long Valley make sure not to miss some other nearby geological attractions. The caldera and the area surrounding it contain some unique natural features, some more accessible than others, but all are worth a visit.

Hot Creek Geological Site

Mammoth creek flows out of Twin Lakes at a cool 50F, some 11 miles later warmer waters from thermal springs enter the creek and its name changes to Hot Creek[9]. Hot Creek has been well known for generations as a place for great swimming and spectacular fishing. It was even a filming location for several movies in the 60's and 70's, among them True Grit.

While the gorge in particular has been popular for swimming in the past, it has had it's fair share of injuries and deaths, mostly due to users ignoring signs and fences and entering hot pools[10]. With a heavy increase in unpredictable thermal activity in 2006, swimming has been prohibited indefinitely. Discharges of boiling water can erupt to heights of six feet in the middle of the previously calm stream, raising temperatures from 86F to 199F in seconds. These discharges often hit fish, causing them to cook instantly.

Despite the ban on swimming and danger presented by the thermal activity the Hot Creek Geological Site is a wonderful place to visit. After a short hike down a paved trail you'll find yourself set in a rugged brown gorge, with lush green aquatic grasses running along the stream bed and brilliant cerulean colored pools lining the opposing bank. And if you've brought your fly rod along, after a short hike upstream or down, you may find yourself hooked into a beautiful trout.

Horseshoe Lake

In 1990 scientist noticed that tree's were dying on the north side of Horseshoe Lake. At first the cause was though to be drought or insect infestations, but in 1994 the culprit was found to be abnormally high levels of CO2 in the soil[11]. Typical levels of soil COare around 1% or less; levels in the tree-kill area were found to be 20% to 90%! The tree-kill area rapidly grew to around 120 acres, but by 1996 the CO2 discharge rate stabilized and the growth of the tree-kill area slowed[12].

The reason for the CO2 discharge is thought to associated with a series of earthquakes in 1989 due to a magma chamber moving closer to the surface. These earthquakes likely caused fissures which allowed the CO2 to escape from the chamber where it had been accumulating. There are several other tree-kill areas around Mammoth Mountain, which test have shown are caused by the same chemically identical CO2 that is present at Horseshoe Lake. This points to the being a large chamber of gas in the mountain.

Pockets of CO2 buildup, called Mazuku, are present around the lake a nearby Mammoth Mountain. Numerous signs are present around the lake which warn visitors from sitting on the ground and luckily most have heeded this advice. Still there have been several reports of asphyxiation symptoms, such as a U.S. Forest Ranger in 1990[13], and even the death of cross country skier in 1998[14]. In addition, three ski patrol members were killed on nearby Mammoth Mountain after falling into a snow pit while fencing off an active fumarole.  

Devil's Postpile

Devils Postpile
The 60 foot high wall of columnar basalt at Devils Postpile National Monument. Original photo by Peretz Partensky.
To the west of Mammoth Mountain sits an excellent example of columnar basalt called Devils Postpile. While columnar basalt is not especially rare, the size and number of columns on display here put's it as one of the best sites in the world. Columnar basalt is formed due to stresses that occur when lava cools[15]. 80,000 to 100,000 years ago a lave lake formed in this area, reaching depths of 400 feet in places, and as it cooled the joints in the basalt formed creating long symmetrical cracks. The formation remained hidden for thousands of years until finally, water and glaciers began to erode portions away[16]. The feature was much larger thousands of years ago, but as is evident in the large field of broken columns at the base, erosion has taken its toll.

Crowley Lake Columns

This relatively newly discovered and hidden geological feature has been a mystery for over 70 years. Shortly after Crowley Lake was formed, by the construction of Long Valley Dam in 1941, strange columns began to appear along the eastern shore[17]. The clusters of columns, estimated to be around 5,000 in total, have the appearance of a Moorish Temple. Research conducted by UC Berkeley has given rise to the theory that they were formed during the last explosion of the Long Valley Caldera. As cold snow melt seeped into the hot tuff deposit it boiled, creating convection columns. Research is still ongoing to better understand how these unique features were formed.

Finally to help with location's I've put together a map of all the springs and other attractions:


Pocket WiFi in South Korea (대한민국)

Mar 13, 2016

SK Telecom service counter at Busan International Ferry Terminal

Living in the modern, hyper-connected world has made most of us dependent on having 24/7 access to the internet. In the past, while traveling, the norm was to go without internet for long stretches of time. Your hotel might've had internet access or you may have gone to a cafe for a drink and some free wifi. However, there is another cost effective way to have internet access while traveling in many countries: Pocket Wifi Routers. South Korea has the best 4G/LTE coverage of any nation at about 95% on time and some of the fastest speeds, averaging around 17 Mbps[1]. This makes it one of the best countries for staying connected while on vacation.

Prior to leaving on our trip to East Asia we did some research on the pocket wifi companies available. After some digging on Google and and reading through several forums threads, such as this one, I came up with the following five companies offering the service:

SK Telecom: T mifi

Price: 5,000 KRW (~$4.25 USD) per day
Pickup Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae, Busan Port, etc. (click here for full list)
Drop off Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae, Busan Port, etc. (click here for full list)
Coverage: Nationwide
# of Users: 3
Speed: 100 Mbps, slowing to 200 kbps after the first 1 GB of data each day
Data Cap: Unlimited
Reservation: Online/Phone
Deposit: 100,000-200,000 KRW ($80-170 USD)

KT Olleh: WiBro

Price: 5,000 KRW (~$4.25 USD) per day
Pickup Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae, Busan Port, Jeju
Drop off Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae, Busan Port, Jeju
Coverage: Nationwide
# of Users: 3
Speed: Varies with device, generally 4G (~15 Mbps)
Data Cap: Unlimited
Reservation: Online
Deposit: 200,000 KRW (~$170 USD)

LG U+: LTE Router

Price: 8,000 KRW (~$5.50 USD) per day
Pickup Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae
Drop off Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae
Coverage: Nationwide
# of Users: 3
Speed: 75 Mbps
Data Cap: Unlimited
Reservation: Email/Phone
Deposit: None

MobilePOP: LTE Router

Price: 5,000 KRW (~$4.25 USD) per day
Pickup Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae mailed to your accommodation
Drop off Locations: Incheon, Gimpo, Gimhae
Coverage: Nationwide
# of Users: 5
Speed: 60 Mbps
Data Cap: Unlimited, may slow down after first 500MB of the day
Reservation: Online/Phone
Deposit: None

Pocket Wifi Korea

Price: $5.25 USD per day
Pickup Locations: Incheon, mailed to your accommodation
Drop off Locations: Incheon
Coverage: Nationwide
# of Users: 5
Speed: up to 100 Mbps
Data Cap: 1 GB per day
Reservation: Online
Deposit: $50 USD

While all the offerings are pretty similar on most aspects there are really only two companies (SK & KT) that offered pickup at Incheon and return at Busan Ferry Terminal. Our travel plans would have us arriving at Incheon International Airport and then departing via ferry from Busan International Ferry Terminal to Japan. After sending emails to both companies with request for pricing and confirming dropoff locations we chose SK as they had a promotion running at the time.

SK Telecom T-mifi with accessories 

When we landed in Korea picking up the router was easy enough as there are good directions for finding the desk on the SK website. With a reservation number in hand I was given the router, shown how to power it on/off and then shown how to connect my phone. Contract signed and deposit paid we were off on the A'REX headed for Seoul.

During our two weeks in Korea we never really had issues with coverage, even in smaller towns such as Jeonju or Suncheon. Reception was great on the train and even on the subway. I can't speak too much to the battery life as we really only turned it on when we needed to message people, use a maps application or read up on some travel destinations. The rest of the time it was powered down, likely due to our skimpy usage we never had the battery run out, although it did get low a couple days. The only issue we had with the router was that once or twice a day the phone would fail to connect and so we had to turn the router off for a couple minutes and power back on. Other than this minor inconvenience we found having a pocket wifi to be a spectacular tool for travelling in South Korea.

Roaming service counters at Busan International Ferry Terminal

Returning the pocket wifi was almost as easy as picking it up. Our only issue was that Busan had just completed a brand spankin' new ferry terminal earlier in the year and no good English information was available online for where the terminal was now located or where the pocket wifi return counter was located inside of the terminal. We did eventually find both without too much difficulty and now you can find the ferry terminal at this Google Map Location. The dropoff/pickup desk is located on the second floor near gate six.

*Pricing, data rate and other details for each service last updated on March 13th, 2016.


City Gardens

Jul 28, 2015

This post is an archive post from 2009 when I was studying abroad at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku in Tokyo, Japan.

Even among the concrete of Tokyo it’s possible to find some green, you just have to know where to look. To get this photo I didn’t have to look hard nor travel far. In fact it was on the way home from school.

Everyday on my commute from the dorm to school and back, I pass by a large area of gardens. I’m not sure if they are community gardens because the gardens are fairly big, not individual 10×10 plots like we have in American community gardens. Unfortunately while I was there taking pictures none of the farmers/gardeners were around for me to ask. It’s possible that these people owned the land and just haven’t sold it for development because they want to garden on it.

On my ride home on the infamously crowded Den-en-toshi line I got off at Fujigaoka station and headed for the gardens. It was a nice summer evening, the humidity hadn’t hit too hard, the bugs were starting to make their noises and there was a slight breeze. I walked around looking into all the gardens hoping to see someone to talk to. When I realized I probably wouldn’t see anyone I slowed down a bit to admire the gardens and the atmosphere. It’s been a while since I’ve been around a garden so I needed to soak it up.

Some of the gardens had little shacks on the land, probably tool sheds. On one of the sheds I saw some gutters with an ingenious system taking the water from the gutter into a barrel and inside of the barrel were goldfish. I’m thinking that they used the water for the plants and the fish are there to eat mosquito larva, plus their poop in the water gives it some nutritional value for the plants. I’m a nerd for things like this so I sat there and looked the whole thing over for a good 10 or 20 minutes, all the while the Den-en-toshi rushing by every few minutes.

What did those people on the train think of me? Why is that weird foreigner looking around at the gardens and taking pictures? No I doubt they were thinking that, how could I be so self centered to even think they noticed me. I ride the same train every day, these people don’t pay attention to the world outside of the glass and metal twinkie.

As I was finishing up walking around I heard the loud distinctive sound of a saxophone. I decided to sit and listen for a while, I had time to spare, so I sat and took it all in. I took in the relaxing vibes, forgetting all the worlds problems and only focusing on the moment. Sometimes what we all need is to step back for a bit and just sit. Don’t think, just absorb.


May 31, 2015

This post is an archive post from 2009 when I was studying abroad at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku in Tokyo, Japan.

Around a month ago I went to Ameyoko (アメ横), a famous shopping street in Ueno, with some friends from school. The street is chock full of shops selling all sorts of wares. I saw belts, bags, kimono, fruit, gyros, shoes, sushi, golf balls, and on and on. The thing that caught my eye the most was the fruit stands though, especially the fruit on a stick. I didn’t buy any as I wasn’t hungry, but the pineapple on a stick and melon on a stick looked especially good while walking around in the summer heat. The price wasn’t too bad either, around $2 for a stick.

The reason all the fruit stuck out is that I never really see fruit anywhere. When I do see fruit it’s crazy expensive. There are a couple of reasons I believe fruit is more expensive here than America. One is the fact that the fruit never has bruises, they only ever sell pristine looking fruit. I can only imagine how much slightly bruised/overripe fruit is going to waste. The other reason is because it’s always packaged in a nice looking box, or wrapped up individually in plastic. Back in the states it’s just a big bin of fruit and you pick through and find what you like.

After Ameyoko I tried to run over to Kappabashi-dori (A street famous for selling cooking/restaurant stuff, including the plastic fake food Japanese restaurants are so famous for.)to buy some souvenirs, but everything was closed by 5pm. This is another thing I’ve noticed in Japan, the business hours suck. Just about everything except restaurants and bars seem to open late, around 10am, then close early, around 5 or 6pm. In addition some places have a one to two hour break around lunch where the shop is closed. Larger stores will often have better business hours, but when you go to the smaller shops or restaurants be prepared for a locked door or closed sign.

Looking back on the hours that businesses were open I actually don't think it's much different in America. At the time I may of been used to larger businesses in America that are typically open until 8pm, which the department stores in Japan are open equally as late. I've noticed since living back in America that many small independent shops typically have similar 10am-5pm business hours as the small shops in Japan did. If you plan to visit any particular small shops while visiting Japan I would recommend looking for business hours online, as it is still possible that they close abnormally early or keep irregular hours.

お風呂, 銭湯 and 温泉

May 19, 2015

This post is an archive post from 2009 when I was studying abroad at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku in Tokyo, Japan.

The O-furo (お風呂) is a wonderful way to end the day in Japan. Even more so after all the walking one does while living in Tokyo. What better way than to relax your muscles and joints in VERY hot water and have a casual conversation with people around you. Plus it’s a good way to improve your Japanese.

My first bath in the dorm was a little embarrassing, for the first three seconds. As soon as my body slipped into the hot water and began to loosen, all troubles drifted away. I struck up a conversation with the Japanese student next to me, nothing more than a self introduction, some chit chat about school and day to day life. In America this would have been so awkward, or at least I picture that it would be. Yet I had no shame, what is there to be embarrassed about? Sure you don’t hang out with a bunch of other naked people all the time, but hell everyone is naked. It’s not as if everyone will stare at your crotch, if they did/do then THEY are the weird ones.

I now take a bath everyday and don’t know if I could survive all the walking without one. Even with the benefits of health and learning Japanese a fair number of the other exchange students don’t take baths. They must be fairly self conscious, or scared of the unknown. I would advise them and anyone who has the chance to at least try a public bath/onsen because there is nothing quite like it. Step into the world of the Japanese O-furo and let all worrisome matters melt off your mind.

The following was from a later post, but I've decided to combine them as they cover the same general subject.

I’ve already blogged about the O-furo before and I’m gonna do it again because 1) I really like taking baths now, and 2) Japanese people really like taking baths. O-furo is the name of the actual tub which you take a bath in. At my dorm it was called the O-furo because it was just a bathtub at the dorm. There are also sento (銭湯) and onsen (温泉), both of which contain O-furo. Sento are bathhouses, usually within the neighborhood, which residents go to to bathe and relax in the water. The sento is not as common today as it was 100, or even 50 years ago. This is due to almost all households having their own baths and plumbing now, which was not available before. I said sento contain O-furo, let me try to explain this. Within the sento are several baths (O-furo) with different features. The ones I’ve seen are: massage bath, medicine bath, standard hot water bath, mineral/onsen style bath, cold bath, electric bath, and a very hot bath.
  • Massage baths are basically hot tubs as they have hot water and strong jets to massage your body.
  • Medicine baths (薬湯) are baths with some sort of Chinese style herbal medicine. I've been told various ingredients are used such as  どくだみ , しょうぶ , orange peel and ginger among others. Different sento will use different blends of medicine.
  • Standard hot water and very hot water baths are both self explanatory.
  • Mineral baths are baths with minerals added that mimic a natural hot spring (onsen).
  • A cold bath is a bath with really cold water. It also usually has water falling from above so you can put your head under it, kind of like a waterfall. This may be related to the practice of standing under a cold waterfall in nature, called misogi (禊), which is supposed to purify one's body. The cold bath is also usually placed next to the sauna, which most sento have.
  • Finally there is the electric bath. Yes, it’s a bath of water with electricity going through it, although it’s a low voltage I’m sure, or at least I hope so. There are of course warnings that if you don’t have a good heart you shouldn’t get in, that’s very reassuring.

A common mistake by foreigners is to think that onsen and sento are the same, which they are not. The difference is that onsen draw their water from hot springs, where sento use ordinary water heated up. Don’t shove sento aside though because they aren’t natural hot springs, they are very relaxing in their own right.

Back in Gion, I put my laptop back in my bag, took out my city map and decided on the best route to take to Gokou-yu, a sento I’d found online. Gokou-yu (五香湯) is a 25 minute walk from Kyoto Station or a shorter 10 minute walk from Tanbaguchi Station. I'd suggest walking from Kyoto Station as it will take you past Nishi Honganji a temple grounds that is free to visit.

After walking across the city I was on my last spurt of energy as I entered the sento and said good evening. I paid about 600 yen for entrance to the sento, a rental towel, shampoo, and soap. This about what it cost at the other sento too. I went in and had the best soak of my life, trying out all the baths, even the electric one. I could only stand to sit in it for about a minute or two because the sensation was so awkward. The electricity makes your muscles flex, kind of like those muscle infomercials that were all the rage about 10 years ago.

The place was really clean and kind of generic looking. The bottom floor had showers and five different O-furo, while the upstairs housed the sauna, a couple showers, and two more O-furo. It was a Friday night around 10pm (they are open until 1am) and the place was fairly packed. About an hour or so after I arrive a couple guys with full body tattoos came in. I’m talking about the whole sleeve, the torso, and onto the legs. Most likely they were yakuza (Japanese Mob), but they didn’t seem very mean or intimidating. They just wanted a nice soak like everyone else.

The next few nights I alternated between Gokou-yu and Funaoka. Funaoka (船岡温泉) had a more atmospheric feeling, with a nice outdoor bath (rotenburo) made of cedar and cool wood carvings on the wall and ceiling in the changing room (pictured). Funaoka is the most famous sento in Kyoto, likely due to it's age (established in 1923), the wood carvings and it's inclusion in Lonely Planet books and various other tourist materials. There are many more foreigners here than the other sento around town, but it is still a lovely place to visit at least once.

Why did I go to these sento so frequently? Why not just take a shower or bath in my hotel room? Well my hotel didn’t exactly have any showers, unless there are secret one’s inside McDonald’s. After my long bath at Gokou-yu, I headed for the closest McDonald’s for my first go at staying the night without a real bed.
© Curtis Barnard 2016