This story was originally published in November 2016 as part of The California Report Magazine's "Hidden Gems" series. It re-aired on July 3rd, 2020 for a special show called "Buckle Up: A (Virtual) Road Trip to CA Hidden Gems." Note: The resort is open this summer, and visitors are welcome as long as they practice safe social distancing and wear a mask. The restaurant is closed, but you can buy a pre-made Buffalo Meat Burrito for takeout at the store.
The steep, winding road over Kaiser Pass to Mono Hot Springs is listed as one of America’s most dangerous. Cars go both ways but it’s not really a two-lane road.
If you hit a blind corner and there’s a car going the other way, there’s a good chance you’ll have to back up until there’s room enough for the other car to pass. That’s tricky because there are also steep drop-offs.
And there are plenty of potholes and big bumps that cause cars to bottom out, like mine just did. Fortunately, I have two adolescent back-seat drivers. And one of them is hanging out the window.
“What are you doing, Atticus?” my 12-year-old son, Asher, asks.
“Well, I was gonna look out of the car to see if there’s gas leaking out of it,” says Atticus, 14.
“That’s really smart, Atticus!” Asher says.
Wondering if a rock has put a hole in your car's undercarriage is nothing compared with the treacherous four- or five-day treks people made to Mono Hot Springs before this road was built.
Pack horses and mules would take visitors over Kaiser Pass. And there are accounts of Mono Indians guiding travelers. A vast hydroelectric project to bring more power to Los Angeles was the impetus for building a dirt road here in 1927. It was called the Big Creek Project.
“It was the engineering feat of the century,” says Jeff Winslow, who runs the historic Mono Hot Springs Resort with his son, Joe. “The only thing to beat it was the Panama Canal.”
And with the road, which wasn’t paved until 1953, came more visitors to the springs. The 1930s were the heyday for enthusiastic soakers.
“People loved hot springs. In fact, that was kind of the golden years,” Winslow said.
The Fresno County resort opened in 1935. A few years before that, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built a campground here, as well as concrete baths to hold in the spring water. Older Japanese American farmers from the Central Valley would set up house in tents for months here.
“The kids would bring elders up here all summer,” Winslow says. Then they’d return to the valley to work the farm and come back up to see their parents on the weekends.
Some of these concrete tubs still exist. The trail to them in a meadow along the San Joaquin River is mucky in parts. It kind of grabs you like wet clay.
Some crazy people, like my kids, jump in the ice-cold Sierra snowmelt. They scream out loud and say they can’t feel their legs.
But then they run up the riverbank to plunge in a hot pool. The water feels pretty nice, but it’s so dark you can’t see the bottom. And there’s lots of algae on the walls of the tub.
For a more sanitary experience, head to the bathhouse at the Mono Hot Springs Resort. Spring water is piped into clean private tubs where the water is usually a perfect 101 degrees.
The resort is an easygoing rustic place with stone cabins. Winslow says the people who built the resort had an old Fresno scraper and a mule, and took the stone out of the river and hauled it up to the property.
There’s a restaurant that serves elk and buffalo burgers and other hearty food.
But there’s more to this area than soaking. Rugged Sierra Nevada wilderness is all around, including alpine lakes framed by steep granite cliffs.
One of them, Doris Lake, is a great swimming spot. But we’ve been told it's slithering with snakes.
“I don’t think I’ll get all the way in,” Atticus says. “I can’t see the bottom and it’s filled with snakes.”
“Atticus, we’ve only seen one snake in here.” Asher says.
“Where there’s one there’s more,” Atticus says. “If I could see the bottom I’d be OK with it.”
Finally the kids get in — and try to catch fish with their hands.
“I think fish are pretty elusive,” Atticus says.
“What’s that mean?” Asher asks.
“They’re hard to catch,” says Atticus.
No fish in hand, we head back for one last dip in one of the natural mineral pools.