Magazine article Sunset

Soaking Up Fall: Autumn Is in the Air-The Right Time for a Road Trip to Natural Spring Waters in the Eastern Sierra

Magazine article Sunset

Soaking Up Fall: Autumn Is in the Air-The Right Time for a Road Trip to Natural Spring Waters in the Eastern Sierra

Article excerpt

AS I COAST INTO the Eastern Sierra town of Bridgeport, my steering wheel feels like it could be horses' reins, and I imagine myself operating a stagecoach like the ones that used to rumble through town from nearby gold mines. The 1877-built Bridgeport Inn still stands as one remnant of that era (the massage therapist across the street is a newer arrival).

Jack Kerouac and his "dharma bums" once used the town as a base to explore the Sierra. But I think of the area as a gateway to a natural spa paradise: Hot waters gush to the surface in abnormally high concentration between the towns of Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes, 60 miles south. Between them, U.S. Highway 395 cuts a ribbon of pavement like a surf-board's path riding the Sierra crest. And I've devised a therapeutic formula for a long weekend along this route: Drive, hike, see fall color, and do some soaking on the way to Mammoth Lakes. If the hot springs of the American West are thought of as sanctuaries of hedonistic worship, then Long Valley, a geothermally active depression just a little southeast of Mammoth Lakes, is hallowed ground.

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But finding the hidden pools that are open to the public (and not scalding hot) requires local knowledge--or locals willing to share that knowledge.

Travertine Hot Springs, a pair of warm tubs near Bridgeport, isn't one of those places--it's popular. When I arrive the next morning, however, after a night at Bridgeport Inn, Travertine's waters (which average 105[degrees]) and views of the Sawtooths are mine alone. To an amateur balneologist--one who studies, with barely a nod to science, the therapeutic effects of thermal baths--this is like a ravenous man stumbling upon an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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Eventually another wandering bather slips into the adjacent tub at Travertine. Our conversation immediately turns to which hot springs we like. The retired gardener from Santa Rosa points across the valley to the foot of the Sawtooths. His favorite springs, he tells me, is Buckeye.

With his directions, I get back in the car and drive about 10 minutes to the hot springs, nestled at the bottom of a ravine and sheltered by cottonwoods. Rocks segregate spring-fed pools of warm waters from a cool mountain stream. After spending an indiscernible amount of time--it could have been minutes, or hours--cycling between hot and cold, I dry off and continue south on U.S. …

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