In our last episode we took you to this mountain oasis called Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. This time, we go 100 miles north of there to a place called Mono Hot Springs.
Mono (pronounced “MOE-no”) Hot Springs is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes, and it’s about halfway from the Valley to the East Side. The hot springs sit in a mountain valley next to a fork in the San Joaquin River.
Like Mineral King, the springs are at the end of a long, winding road. To get there from Fresno, you drive up Highway 168 East past places like Shaver Lake and China Peak Ski Resort. Before reaching Huntington Lake, turn onto Kaiser Pass Road, which quickly becomes only one lane.
At some points it’s worse than the drive to Mineral King. It’s narrow and bumpy and at a few points, the side of the road drops off literally over a cliff. We don’t recommend driving it at night.
As you climb Kaiser Pass, the highest point of the drive, you briefly venture out of dense pine forest onto bald rocky terrain, then settle back underneath ponderosa and lodgepole pines for the rest of the way. Once you’ve made it, you arrive at a mini community of campgrounds, cabins, a restaurant and even a general store. It’s charming and rustic and has something for everybody.
In this episode, we’ll take you there and talk about all the other great things you can do nearby. We’ll also talk about a kind of off-the-beaten path camping that’s not quite backpacking, but it’s definitely not staying in a campground. We’ll finish with some camp food stories - ‘cause who doesn’t like food?
“I think it’s just heavenly”
We, Ezra and Kerry, have both visited Mono Hot Springs - but this week, we decided to bring in someone else to tell you about them: Alice Daniel, a reporter for KQED who recently traveled to Mono with her family. She put together a story on the area for a series called “Hidden Places,” and she reveals what originally attracted her there.
“Doris Lake [a short distance from the hot springs] is filled with snakes,” she says. “So I figured, what better place to bring two boys?”
The road to Mono, Daniel says, is “listed as one of America’s most dangerous,” and it bears its own complicated history beginning in the 1920s.
“Apparently, the last six or seven miles of the road were so difficult to build that it was dubbed ‘the cheap and nasty,’” she says. “They blew it up with dynamite and had to remove huge boulders the size of houses.”
Her family, all vegetarian, skipped out on the elk burgers and corned buffalo at the resort restaurant, but enjoyed soaking in the resort’s private tubs and the outdoor hot springs just a short walk from their cabin.
A map of the area identifies a handful of hot springs encased in cement. More adventurous hot spring-goers can seek out natural pools dotting the hillside - if they’re ready to navigate pockets of soft, silty mud. “It’s almost like quicksand, sometimes, when you’re walking through all that muck,” Daniel says. “When I was walking along, I would notice there would be, like, one sole flip flop on the trail, like somebody just couldn’t quite get it out.”
Snakes, dangerous road and muck aside, the whole Mono Hot Springs area is peaceful, soothing and serene. “I think it’s just heavenly,” Daniel says. “It just restores you. It makes you feel better about people and the world itself.”
For the rest of our conversation, listen to the full show.
More Than Just Hot Springs
There’s a lot more to do in the Mono area than just basking in hot water. When Ezra went up there this summer, he went kayaking on Edison Lake near the Pacific Crest Trail. He and his friends camped off the grid. That’s called dispersed camping.
To find out more about this way to camp, we want you to meet Jeff Greene.
By day he runs media inquiries for Riverside County, but his true passion is the outdoors. He writes about his escapades on a blog called Greene Adventures. Greene and his high school buddies have camped in this area every summer for the past 16 years.
“I describe that area as having 80 percent of the scenery of Kings Canyon and Yosemite and one percent of the people,” Greene says. “It really is about how beautiful that area is and yet so isolated.”
When Greene and his buds go to Mono, they want to camp alone. So they try not to stay in designated campgrounds.
“There’s a lot of areas back there for what they call dispersed camping, which is camping somewhere other than a campground,” says Greene. “It’s perfectly legal in the national forest. If you want a campfire you have to get a fire permit.”
A fire permit can be picked up at the High Sierra Ranger District office in the mountain town of Prather on the way up the hill. You can also pick one up at the High Sierra Visitor Information Station on Kaiser Road. You can’t miss it. Greene says the most important part of dispersed camping is that you need to bring everything.
“You just have to be completely self reliant,” says Greene. “Besides your regular camping gear you need to bring your own portable toilet. You need to bring all your own water. We tend to like eat really well and drink really well. So we have way too much gear to strap to our backs, but in a couple of trucks we can bring in everything we need.”
You can also hike, fish and kayak on lakes and rivers here. Both the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail run nearby. One cool feature a few miles east of Mono Hot Springs is Edison Lake. There’s a ferry that brings hikers to camp stores at a place called Vermilion Valley Resort.
And if you don’t like to hike that much you can also hunt or shoot guns.
“We can put up little targets and while we’re waiting for dinner to be done we can just target shoot right there on the site. You would never be able to do that if you were in a campground. Camp hosts get a little agitated when you try to do something like that.”
So you’ve had an amazing day soaking in hot tubs, hiking, swimming, (hunting?), maybe soaking again, and you settle back into your campsite for the evening. Roaring campfire? Check. Cold beer? Check. Now, an important question: what do you eat?
Being out of the kitchen scares some people, but camp cooking doesn’t have to be difficult - or terrifying.
Kerry’s strategy: take pre-packaged foods like ramen or macaroni and cheese and add tons of fresh veggies to them. Here's Kerry's recipe for Beer and Bean Burritos:
Ezra’s strategy: SNACKS. He also likes sandwiches and chips for lunch and some heartier meals like homemade chili, baked potatoes or steaks for dinners. Things that you can cook on the open fire. Here's a ready to go meal you can make before you leave home from Ezra:
This week, we also tried something a little different: we asked our listeners for audio files with their own camp cooking recipes and pointers. Molly in Fresno reminisced about a backpacking trip in Tasmania.
“At the end of day three,” she says, “I was more thankful to have a broiled grilled cheese sandwich than I had been at any other point in the trip just based on the fact that those flavors reminded me of home in a foreign place”
And here’s Jill from Wisconsin.
“If you’re doing a long trip, go out on a one overnight or two-night shake down trip and try eating it on the trail,” she advises. “My appetite changes so much on the trail and normal things that I will eat are disgusting.”
And of course, as Emily in LA says, there’s only one way to end the evening.
“When I think of camping, I think of family and sitting around the fireplace,” she says, “and for me that always meant s’mores. It doesn’t matter where I’m camping or with who; I always bring stuff to make s’mores.”
For their full stories, check out the full podcast.
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