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Great California Road Trips: Mono County

Also known as Great California Road Trips: U.S. 395, Part 3

The trail to Hilltop Hot Springs

It is no secret how much I love traversing California, especially on U.S. Route 395. This past week’s adventures were pretty well tied to this north-south route, as many of our summer adventures tend to be. As it is a gateway to the Eastern Sierras, with the Inyo, Humboldt-Toiyabe, Stanislaus National Forests, and more along the way, there are many points of interest to explore.

For the first three days of our nine-day trip in the areas around Yosemite National Park, Sami and I stayed in Bridgeport. While one full day’s worth of adventure was dedicated to Bridgeport, there were a few other places that are within about an hour’s drive, especially along the stretch of highway between Bishop and Bridgeport in Mono County that we were able to visit. As a creature of habit, Sami wanted to return to both Bishop and June Lake, however that did not mean that we did not have the opportunity to find some new places even in familiar haunts.

Return to June Lake:

Hermitage Juice Bar, June Lake, California

Our primary purpose for stopping in Bishop was really for food and fuel. We made an obligatory stop at Schat’s Dutch Bakkery for some cookies and other sweet treats. We bought cookie packs of different varieties to enjoy on our drives around California’s gold country, and to possibly share with the boys if they happened to last that long. Our drive to June Lake, however, involved a bit of a compromise- or rather bribery. I let Sami pick lunch after our visit to Bodie State Historic Park, and after searching the options around Mammoth Lakes, which involved an inordinate number of Mexican food restaurants, she settled on a place where she could get a smoothie bowl. She punched in the directions to Hermitage Cafe and Juicery, an organic juice bar where one could also order wraps and other healthy breakfast items.

Sami went for a fresh-pressed juice and a potato wrap. I had an iced coffee and wasn’t planning on getting any food, but I caved and ended up ordering an avocado toast. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the treat. The sourdough slice was thick and had just the right texture, and the avocado was fresh. The only seasoning on it was nutritional yeast, and this was actually very delicious. Sami enjoyed her wrap, and ended up loving the juice. It was on the higher end of what I would usually spend on a light lunch, but the food was good, and I knew I was paying for organic at June Lake.

Of course, no trip to June Lake would be complete without a swim in the lake. After lunch, as drizzle clouds were rolling in, we drove back down to the loop and toward the beach. The subalpine lake was not as busy as it was on our prior visit, however it was still a popular spot. I did notice that the lake seemed lower that it was a few years ago. As we made our way toward the center of the lake, we were still able to wade, whereas in years past, we were able to swim more. We figured that this was because of California’s ongoing drought, and this really put that into perspective. Still, it was a fun afternoon, and the lake was pleasantly cold and the area still beautifully picturesque.

Hilltop Hot Springs:

The view from Hilltop Hot Springs

Travertine Hot Springs were not the only hot springs I visited on this trek. The whole Long Valley Caldera is known for its geothermal activity. While this volcanic field has not seen an eruption in an estimated 100000 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the threat potential presented by this caldera is very high. While it remains to be seen whether this volcanic area will erupt in my lifetime (the threat is likely low), this supervolcano located within close proximity to towns and tourist attractions is something that geologists monitor.

Alkali Lake

While the idea of a supervolcano in California may be an alarming thought, the flip side is that the geologic activity in the region has created many of the absolutely spectacular sights in and around the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mono County. There are many opportunities for recreation and relaxation, including the number of hot springs in the area. A bit off the beaten path along 395, closer to Crowley Lake sits Hilltop Hot Springs. This temperature-controlled hot spring is small, but it boasts expansive views of the Eastern Sierras. The tub itself is a manmade cement and stone tub near Little Alkali Lake in Mono County. To get to the hot springs, head east from U.S. 395 on Benton Crossing Road. Most of the road to the gravelly parking area is paved, so the springs are easy to get to. From the parking area, go past the metal gate and onto a dirt and plank path. It’s only about a quarter-mile to the low hill where the tub sits. While the temperature control and drivability of the road could make the springs good for families, please note that like many hot springs, Hilltop is also considered ‘clothing optional.’ This was not an issue on the day that I visited as the two other people present were in swim trunks, but this is not always the case. For grown-ups though, Hilltop is a scenic place for a relaxing soak.

Walking to Hilltop Hot Springs

Lee Vining:

Lee Vining is a small town in Mono County just below the Tioga Pass just east of Yosemite National Park. The town’s population is just over 200 residents, but it does have a Chamber of Commerce and is a gateway to both the Sierras and Mono Lake, as well as Yosemite. On several of our trips with the girls, Lee Vining has been a stop along the way, typically to fill up on gas before entering the national park. In addition, a favorite campground of ours- Aspen Grove- is right along the pristine Lee Vining Creek.

Another view of Mono Lake from north of Lee Vining

Sami and I once again stopped in Lee Vining. This time we did not visit Mono Lake, much to Sami’s relief, though we did stop to take photos from the vista point along 395 just north of Lee Vining. Regardless of how stinky the alkaline Mono Lake is, it is beautifully scenic.

Instead, we headed to breakfast on the morning that we left Bridgeport for Angel’s Camp. I figured that a hearty breakfast would be a good idea before a nearly three-hour drive through a remote mountain pass. I backtracked about 19 miles south to Nicely’s Restaurant, before heading back up north to CA-108 and the Sonora Pass.

A vegetable omelette and hash browns

Nicely’s is a traditional American diner that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is a bar, as well as a meeting/banquet lounge in this 60s-styled establishment with a small-town feel. We arrived at the restaurant at about 10:30 am, and the restaurant was quite busy. This was not a surprise as there are not too many options for sit down restaurants in Lee Vining. Sami and I both ordered breakfast, my favorite meal of the day. Sami had the blueberry pancakes which came recommended, and I went for a vegetable omelette. Both dishes were good; the meal was filling and the price was decent. I would say that the breakfast was typical of diner fare- not gourmet by any means, but a good start to the day- and the service was prompt and the servers were friendly. Credit cards are accepted for payment, which was a relief as I had forgotten to grab cash prior to heading out on our trip.

I was glad to have stopped in Lee Vining for breakfast before heading north and west across the Sierras. The day’s drive, while not particularly long at just under three hours, would require some concentration and for me, food helps with focus. I also know that both Sami and I do get a bit hangry, and for me, there isn’t much that makes a mountain drive more stressful than cranky campers. It was pleasant to be able to sit down and enjoy a filling meal in a town with beautiful scenery.

Though Mono County lacks big city amenities such as Target, it makes up for it in the many recreational opportunities and historic sites one can tour. I love driving up 395 every summer; we always find something new in addition to our growing list of favorite spots. There are many happy trails to explore, and many adventures to share.

To plan your trip, check out:
Hill Top Hot Springs
Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce
Nicely’s Restaurant

References:
Long Valley Caldera. Long Valley Caldera | U.S. Geological Survey. (n.d.). Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/long-valley-caldera

Chillin at June Lake

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