There are few things that make a camping trip better than a drunken, midnight trek to a natural hot spring, and now that summer is beginning to fade into the rearview, it’s a whole lot more appealing to hunt down a toasty wilderness tub to warm up in. From the Sespe Hot Springs in the Los Padres National Forest to Esalen in Big Sur, these six natural Californian springs are spots you’ll definitely want to check out this fall.
Crowley (Wild Willy’s Hot Springs) Mammoth—For the partier
Located just a few miles from Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierras, Wild Willy’s (or formally known as Crowley Springs) features a large pond with a smaller, adjoining pool, ranging in temps from 95 to 100 degrees. Fed from several different Sierra mountain sources, Wild Willy’s is one of the more natural springs and is slightly less spacious than some of the state’s more commercialized options … so be prepared to get cozy on busier nights. If the name is any indication, Wild Willy’s has become a popular “pool party” destination, but close quarters and aquatic members aside, the springs offer uninterrupted views of the Sierras by day and on clear nights, miles of stars.
Directions: To get there from the US 395, take Benton Crossing Road/Green Church Road. Travel east about 2.5 miles until you cross two, large gates. Turn right just past the second gate and follow the road, keeping left consistently. After about a mile you’ll reach a parking area with a wooden boardwalk and about a 200-yard walk to the pools.
Esalen, Big Sur—For magic seekers
While Esalen Institute itself is a luxury resort spa, the retreat destination opens its cliff-side bathes to the public between 1 am and 3 am in the morning. It costs $25 per person and their public openings fill up quickly. Phone service is shaky in Big Sur, so it’s best to register online ahead of time, or if staying in the state park, to drive directly to the resort (and early!) The Esalen baths are definitely not as “natural” feeling as many other public pools, but it’s hard to deny the lure of a midnight bath beneath a pine tree awning overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s a little bit magic.
Tip: For the adventurous rule-breakers, befriend a local and learn how to bypass the reservation system by finding the hidden trail to the bathes.
Sykes, Big Sur—For those who like to walk
Big Sur is so big it gets two entries, but this one, unlike the first, is f-r-e-e. The catch is there’s a 10-mile trek involved before being able to get your fanny cooking in one of these pools. But, hey, the hike is half the adventure. The trailhead starts at the Pine Ridge Trail about a half mile from the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The distance may seem daunting, but hiking through the Ventana Wilderness has its treats too, including rolling hills, waterfalls and wild flowers, but it also requires crossing over the Big Sur River, which can be dangerous depending on the season. Sykes’ two main pools are surrounded by green forest and feature natural stone-lined tubs connecting with several smaller ones that fit between four and five people at a time. Temps range around 102 degrees. Soaking in hot water can be an energy-zap, so if 10-mile back seems a bit daunting, there are a few rustic campsites after the river where you can set up for the night.
Sespe Hot Springs, Los Padres National Forest—For the thick-skinned animal lover
If you like your baths pipin’ hot, then these pools have your name on it. At a blistering 194 degrees, the Sespe Hot Springs are considered the hottest in the state, so unsurprisingly, the best time to visit is during the spring and the fall when the air temps are cooler. But don’t worry, the Sespe springs are really only that steamy at the origin points and get cooler in the pools further down the creek, so there’s several temperature options to choose from. The area is also known for some major big-critter sightings, including bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and rattlers, so caution is definitely a must.
Directions: The hike to this one, is well, quite a hike. Clocking in at 18 miles one way, the trailhead is situated at the Piedra Blanca parking lot and continues east. There are two creeks that require hopping, especially when the water is high during the spring season. Hikers and backpackers can stop over at the Willet Creek Hot Springs (8.5 miles), take a dip there and snag the first-come-first-serve cabin or tent spaces before continuing on to Sespe.
Keough, Bishop—For the people-person
While the Keough Hot Springs wouldn’t win any major awards for scenery, they’re an especially nice destination for Bishop’s rock climbers and hikers who need a place to loosen up aching muscles after a long day of activity. The Keough hot springs have two options: one is free, one is not. The gratis option is comprised of two, rustic, brush-lined pools overlooking Owen’s Valley and attracts an eclectic bunch of hikers, campers, climbers and exhibitionists. Note: nudity is often rampant, and there is no camping allowed at the public site.
Directions: Between Bishop and Big Pine, California, turn off on the Keough Hot Springs Road and head uphill until you reach the second dirt road. Turn right and the public hot springs will be on the left.
Buckeye Hot Springs, Bridgeport—For some peace and quiet
There are few places on earth more beautiful than Yosemite National Park, and the Buckeye Hot Springs, while officially located in Bridgeport, California, edges into the territory of one of the United States’ most scenic destinations. While the Buckeye springs themselves are not as picturesque as its popular Travertine Hot Springs neighbor, it’s secluded location makes for a quiet, more private experience. The Buckeye hot mineral springs are located in the Toiyabe National Forest next to fresh water brook and even feature a cave. Temps range from 95-110 degrees, depending on the amount of creek water flowing into the pools.
Directions: Turn South on Twin Lakes Road and follow for seven miles before turning in at Doc and Al’s resort. After passing the Buckeye Campground, stay left for three miles and continue uphill until you reach the parking lot. Head downtrail towards the creek and hillside to the springs.