An unexpected return to Mono Hot Springs

As fires raged all across the state of California, I had my focus aimed towards one in particular, the Ferguson fire, which was rapidly burning west of Yosemite Valley. I formed a morning and afternoon routine of checking the Yosemite webcams, looking for non-existent visibility through the dense smoke that had ridden California’s westerly winds into the valley.

Through a lottery system, Madison and I had been successful in earning two of the 225 daily slots to Hike Half Dome on August 6. It would be my third time hiking Half Dome and I was excited for Madison to go for her first.

For those that are unfamiliar with the Half Dome permit system, the final section of the hike, which is strung with cables that you use to walk up the nearly featureless granite formation, had become so jammed with traffic that a permit system was implemented in 2010, making the hike more enjoyable and safer, but also making access more scarce and valuable. The date that you are given in the lottery is the date you have to go.

As August 6th grew closer and the smoke in Yosemite Valley grew thicker, I started to come to grips with the fact that Half Dome just might not be in the cards for 2018. Sure enough, August 5th rolled around and there still was not a damn thing to be seen in Yosemite Valley. My third attempt at Half Dome would have to be shelved for the time being.

Not wanting to waste the precious week of vacation that I had requested months earlier, a contingency plan had to be put into motion. I was not going to give up on the flowing, tree-covered peaks and crystal-clear lakes of the beautiful Sierra Nevada Range. All throughout my childhood I had camped out in a remote corner of the mountains called Mono Hot Springs and I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a return trip. It had been over a decade since my last visit. It would be a slightly different, more remote trip than a weekend in the tourist-filled Yosemite Valley. Also, I really wanted to show Madison the magical views on the hike to Half Dome, so we had to do our best to make up for the missed opportunity and look for a replacement hike.

Mono Hot Springs just as I remembered

To me, Mono Hot Springs is a paradise of sorts, an outpost in the Sierra Nevada that tastefully chose to retain its beauty and never overdevelop. An ice cold river cuts throughout the campsites, flowing along steep granite walls and giving life to lush meadows where wildflowers bloom. Towering pine trees dominate the terrain and aroma as they work their way up as high as they can on the surrounding monstrous peaks. And of course, the main attraction of the area is the numerous hot springs that dot the river’s edge, providing a relaxing way to soak in the views.

The campsites at Mono Hot Springs are in high demand, so we booked a site at Mono Creek Campground, just a few miles down the road.

Getting to Mono Hot Springs is an adventure in itself. You have to take Kaiser Pass, a one lane, bumpy road that reaches elevations of over 9,000 feet (one of the highest roads in California.) The road has various blind turns and unguarded cliffs that can cause precarious situations when you come across traffic heading the opposite direction. While maybe a car with some clearance and four wheel drive would be ideal, my little Nissan did the trick and made it up there just fine. I drove cautiously, as any tow from this far out in the mountains would cost me my life savings.

We arrived at our campsite in the late afternoon on August 4th, pitched a tent, and took a dip in Mono Creek just a short distance from our site. We needed to rest because we had planned a hike for the following day that would fill the void of rigorous hiking that was created by missing out on Half Dome. We intended to reach the top of one of the towering peaks that loom over Mono Hot Springs, Graveyard Peak.

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Arriving to camp and making pasta as best we could in that little pot.
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Getting a quick dip in the hot springs after a long drive was amazing. This hot spring is my favorite because you can alternate between the relaxing, warm water and the freezing river. Photo: Madison Snively
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On the first day the wind had shifted from the prevailing westerly winds and blew the smoke southwest to Mono Hot Springs, which made for a nice sunset, but unhealthy air. Luckily the winds kept the smoke away for the remainder of our trip. Photo: Madison Snively

Forging our own path to Graveyard Peak

We woke up early on our first morning in the Sierras and heated water for a hot oatmeal breakfast. We had a solid thirteen-mile round trip hike on tap with just a hair under 4,000 feet of elevation to gain. The destination was Devil’s Bathtub, a natural lake in the high Sierras, and Graveyard Peak, one of the many mountains that form part of the semi circle of granite that encompasses the lake.

The first portion of the hike was a relatively mellow climb that breezed by. In just under two hours we had completed the 4.5 mile, 1,000 foot climb up to Devil’s Bathtub. Considering that so many of the lakes in the Sierras are damned, it was refreshing to see a pristine, natural lake. The water was crystal clear, as every detail of the lakebed could be discerned from its edge. The lake and the scenery were stunning, enough to the point that I would recommend to most people that they end the hike there and enjoy the lake for the day, avoiding the merciless climb up to Graveyard Peak.

Passing on an inviting dip in the lake, we decided to save that for the afternoon and trudged on to accomplish our goal of summiting Graveyard Peak. A steep, but relatively short trail-less, two mile hike up a sharp ridge on the east side of the lake was all that stood between us and a panoramic view of many of the barren peaks of the high Sierra.

As we gained elevation searching for the ridge that would lead us to the peak, I gained a new appreciation for hiking on trails. Looking for the path of least resistance through boulder fields and thick brush makes the distance you hike at least twice as much as it would be with a trail. We knew that the ridge looked pretty steep from where we scouted it on the shore of the lake, but it was steeper than it appeared. The relentless incline required frequent breaks and the thinning oxygen at over 10,000 feet didn’t make matters any easier.

As with climbing peaks goes, we kept passing false peak after false peak. (A peak that blocks the view of the true peak, making it appear as the top of the mountain.) The immensity of the mountain made our progress feel increasingly slow.

As we were approaching what appeared to be the true summit, we noticed a plume of smoke rising through the pine trees just a couple miles across the lake. It was too much smoke to be a campfire, but we couldn’t see any flames that indicated it was a wildfire. Various scenarios started racing through my head. If this indeed was the beginning of a forest fire, we were an awfully long way from our car and there was an abundance of dry timber sitting between us and safety.

For the meantime, the fire didn’t seem to be growing and we were so close to the peak that we continued on, too close to give up on our goal. We arrived to the top of Graveyard Peak four hours after first setting off from Devil’s Bathtub, surely the steepest, prolonged hike I had ever done without a trail.

Reaching the top is as, if not more, rewarding than I had hoped for, as dozens of high Sierra Peaks come into view, with lakes, valleys, and even a few glaciers (I think?) adding to the scenery. Not too far to the northwest you could see the billowing smoke of the Ferguson Fire giving the sky a distinct hue of grey.

As we took in the 360 degree scenery, I kept one worrisome eye on the aforementioned smoke rising out of the trees across the lake. A helicopter had arrived and was circling the smoke, giving me the idea that it wasn’t a drill. A glorious rest in the clouds at 11,500 feet had to be cut short, knowing that it would be best to work our way back towards the car in the case that the fire got any worse.

We hastily began the descent, hopping from boulder to boulder. The return trip back to the lake took only half the time (two hours) and this time we came at the lake from the north side to explore the opposite shore that we had seen in the morning.

The north shore is where all the snow runoff feeds the lake from the mountains, resulting in deposits of sediment that had formed beautiful, gradually sloping sandy beaches. Noticing that the smoke from the perceived fire had not gotten any worse, we decided that a well-deserved break was in order and we got our daily bath of fresh water.

That evening we arrived at the car, as exhausted as ever, nearly 12 hours since we commenced the hike. Hiking to Graveyard Peak had used up nearly all the hours of daylight at our disposal, but I was satisfied as it definitely felt like a worthy replacement of Half Dome.

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Commencing our hike to Graveyard Peak via Devil’s Bathtub. The first section was a piece of cake compared to what we had in front of us.
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Batting away mosquitos as we climb.
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The morning light and lack of wind on the lake made for an amazing view upon arriving at Devil’s Bathtub. It was about a 2 hour, 4.5 mile hike from the trailhead with 1,000+ feet or so of climbing. The mountain in the center of the photo was our next destination, Graveyard Peak.
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Despite collecting chilly snowmelt, the water temperature in the lake was not too bad compared to the rivers that we dipped in.
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Trying to scout the most logical route up to the top of Graveyard Peak. Following this ridge seemed like the most direct route.
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As you can see, the terrain was pretty steep and rough.
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Finally arriving to the top of the peak. This isn’t actually the true peak. There is a rocky outcrop a couple hundred yards up the ridge that is slightly higher, but not very accessible without climbing. Also, note that on the right side of the photo you can see the smoke plume that was making us nervous.
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This part of the mountain range forms a semi circle around Devil’s Bathtub, with a valley that slowly climbs up to a glacier fed lake (not sure if it qualifies as a glacier or a lump of ice). Definitely some epic spots in this photo worth exploring on a future backpacking trip.
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Looking to the east on the opposite slope of Graveyard Peak. These lakes are called Graveyard Lakes. Note the patches of snow/ice still left up there in August.
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You know how sometimes it’s hard to wrap your mind around the size of outer space? I was having that feeling, but with the overwhelming amount of untouched peaks and lakes in all directions with potential for backpacking. Photo: Madison Snively
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Unsure of the extent of the fire, our glory on top of the mountain was short lived and we began the boulder hopping back down to the lake. Our mph pace was very slow moving over this terrain.
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Finally back to the lake and ready for our daily bath.
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We set up shop on this beach, which extended with a shallow sand bar for about 50 yards before it dropped off into the depths.
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Normally a marshy meadow like this would be full of mosquitos, but surprisingly I didn’t see many. I wouldn’t have minded staying the night here.
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Keeping an eye on that fire.
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The deer all came out around sunset and we came across a few.
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15 miles and 4,000 vertical feet later, we were utterly exhausted. (We had originally thought the hike would be 13 miles, but the round about style of hiking the ridge to Graveyard Peak added mileage, as well as going to the beach on the other end of the lake).

Recovery at Doris Lake

After the overly strenuous start to the trip, our second full day in Mono Hot Springs was to be a mellow day to allow our muscles to recover. We rose a little later than normal and headed to the hot springs.

We spent the greater part of the day relaxing at a lake just a mile away from the Mono Hot Springs campsite. Doris Lake is a small, hot spring fed lake, known for its steep granite walls that make for excellent cliff jumping. These cliffs had been the cause of much allure, anxiety and fulfillment for me when I was younger. I always wanted to be like the adults and jump off the highest rock, called Eagle Rock for its resemblance to the head of a bird. After many years of working my way up, I finally was able to do the highest rock jump. A great weight off my shoulders after years of looking off the edge and not jumping.

In my return to Doris Lake I needed a smaller warm up jump and then I was ready to repeat my jump from Eagle Rock. I climbed the rock and jumped off before my mind could process the potential (and unlikely) consequences of the jump, avoiding any second guessing that might turn me back.

I jumped off Eagle Rock not because I felt like I had anything to prove, but I knew that if I didn’t it would be on my mind until the next time I came back, and who knows how long that would be.

The rest of the day was spent swimming, reading, and snacking on the granite shores of the lake.

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We went for a mellow hike in the morning up to “Lil Eden,” a large and mildly warm hot spring that I had been to many times before when I was younger. We were lucky and got it all to ourselves.
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Sore from the day before, a day at the lake was perfect. We read and napped for hours with this view at our feet.
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A day at Doris Lake is not complete without a jump off Eagle Rock. I had originally planned on not doing it (knowing that it existed), but once I saw it in person again, I couldn’t resist.
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Admiring the innumerable native lizards of Mono Hot Springs. I’m no biologist, but by looking online it appears that this is a Sierra Fence Lizard.

Hasta Luego Mono Hot Springs

For our third and final day we had played around with the idea of taking on another daunting hike to one of the many peaks in the area, but we had enjoyed our day lounging around the lake so much, that we scheduled a similar kind of day again.

For our final day we completed a hike up to a prominent rock formation called Devil’s Table (which was more strenuous than I remember it being when I was younger) and ended the day at Tule Lake, named for the dense tules that thrive around its shore.

More swimming, reading, and fresh mountain air provided the perfect end to this trip.

Mono Hot Springs surely isn’t Yosemite. It’s an entirely different kind of trip and despite my desire to hike Half Dome for the third time, maybe a couple days in Mono Hot Springs was what I was truly looking for after all. Hiking, swimming, cooking, and enjoying hot springs with nostalgic memories of my childhood sprinkled around every corner of the mountains made for an excellent stay up in the enchanted land of no cell service.

I sure hope I don’t have to wait a decade again to return to this piece of paradise nestled up in the Sierra Nevadas, hence why it’s an ‘hasta luego’ and not an ‘adios.’

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Hiking up to Devil’s Table (center of skyline), an interesting volcanic formation of vertical columns that juts out of the granite that encompasses the whole of this mountain range.
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Arriving at the foot of Devil’s Table. It’s fascinating how resistant to erosion this volcanic rock is, able to withstand the elements while the surrounding rocks and sediment layers have been worn away over the years.
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Standing atop Devil’s Table looking towards Kaiser Pass, the only way to get in and out of there in a car.
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Another lake day after our hike to Devil’s Table. This time we spent the afternoon at Tule Lake.
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Enjoying our final moments in paradise.

4 thoughts on “An unexpected return to Mono Hot Springs

  1. You and Madison are a pair of lovely people and it seems as though you’re both lucky to have found someone who enjoys hiking and climbing and soaking in the back country. As always, your photographs are wonderful — postcard quality — and your writing keeps getting better and better the more you do it. Of course, that’s true of most things!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoy coming along, be it only vicariously, on your and Madison’s mountain travels through the awe-inspiring high Sierras. Reminds me of a similar journey I took way back in the day, when…

    Liked by 1 person

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