Hot Creek Geological Site
The first time I discovered Hot Creek was completely by accident. I was driving home with Jim and a friend after a weekend of snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain and we decided to take a detour to Wild Willy’s, a popular natural hot spring pool just off Highway 395. We had only been to the hot spring once before and the directions given to us were super sketchy, something like “follow the dirt road before the airport, turn at the red barn, drive over 3 cattle grates then turn right…” Needless to say, we ended up taking a wrong turn somewhere on that dirt road, but it all worked out because we ended up on the rim of an underground molten cauldron!
Since discovering this hidden wonderland we try to make a stop at Hot Creek every time we’re in the area. Like an imaginary scene illustrated in a fairytale, the Owens River meanders through an ancient gorge tucked away in the valley at the base of the Sierra Nevada. Plumes of glowing steam dissolve into spectacular views of Laurel Mountain. The vastness of the rolling meadows are only exceeded by the scale of the imposing rugged peaks.
A vista point at the parking lot overlooks the turquoise volcanic pools. From there the path leads down to the river but pay attention to the fenced off areas and signs warning of potential injury and death. The water is literally a boiling cauldron of arsenic—14 people have died here over the years.
“Hot Creek is a place to marvel at geology in action. Boiling water bubbling up from the creek bed, fumaroles and periodic geyser eruptions at Hot Creek attest to the chamber of hot magma which lies about three miles below the surface of the earth in this area. The steam you see along the Hot Creek drainage is created when water percolates deep into the ground and enters a complex underground plumbing system. The water is heated and pressurized before it rises to the earth's surface. It is believed this journey takes around 1000 years. Earthquakes can cause sudden geyser eruptions and overnight appearances of new hot springs at Hot Creek. Water temperatures can change rapidly, and so entering the water is prohibited.” (fs.usa.gov)
Most people stay up at the picnic area or stop at the bottom of the paved path across from the turquoise pools, but we prefer to get as far away from the lot as we can. At the end of the paved path a sun exposed dirt trail continues along the geothermal river. Here you’ll pass the occasional fisherman and some striking rock formations. You’re only a few miles from the highway but you feel totally isolated as the flowing water echoes through the canyon. Find a spot to sit in the dewy grass, watch the springs dance through the water like a bubbling glass of champagne, and enjoy the Owens River’s toast to a day well spent.
getting to hot creek geological site
It’s actually pretty easy to find, just turn off 395 onto Hot Creek Fish Hatchery Road (just North of the Mammoth airport) and follow the signs for Hot Creek Geological Site for about 4 miles. It’s a dirt road most of the way, pretty bumpy and feels like you’re driving into the middle of nowhere, but the signs are clearly marked and once you arrive there’s a parking lot with restrooms and a picnic area.