Mono Hot Springs Campout


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In both 2012 and 2013 my daughter Teri and grandson Mikie spent a week at Mono Hot Springs, deep in the Sierra on the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. This year I joined them for two nights.

The "official" way to get there is to follow state Highway 168 from the Fresno-Clovis metro area up  through the foothills and eventually to Huntington Lake, at 7,000 feet. From there you drive up and over Kaiser Pass at 9,100 feet, then on to your destination on a narrow, winding road. How narrow? It's a one-way road after the first few miles above Huntington. It's a three-hour drive, but the last 17 miles takes about an hour. From the end of the two-lane road (about five miles past the lake), I saw only one place where two cars could pass with both of them staying on the pavement. There are plenty of places for one car to pull off onto the shoulder, allowing the other car to barely squeeze by. There's no guarantee you'll meet the other car at one of these spots, which means that someone has to back up until they can get off the road. I have to wait five or ten years between trips up there, until I've forgotten just how bad the road really is. The top speed is usually about 15 MPH, although I was able to go 20 MPH a few places. Lots of places you need to slow down to 5 MPH or less. Blind curves, steep drop-offs, and rocky banks combine to make it the most challenging road I've ever driven. Needless to say, it's not recommended for motor homes, although some (foolish) people do take small travel trailers. I wouldn't even consider doing that. How narrow? It takes a 250 word paragraph to describe how narrow.

Regardless, the trip has its rewards. In several places there are views of the Silver Divide and parts of the Ritter Range. At the top of the pass are the graves of three dogs from Jerry Dwyer's sled dog team. Jerry delivered the mail throughout the winter months to the men working on construction of the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project in the 1920s. A one-mile dirt road leads up from the top of the pass to the White Bark Vista Point, where you get a dramatic view of the Silver Divide. This road is also the northern end of the Dusy-Ershim 4-wheel drive trail, considered the most difficult such road in the United States.

Just below the pass on the eastern side you go by a huge meadow, which is still very wet and bright green in early July. I camped in this area many years ago, and I remember it was cool enough that I had to sit in the sun while reading. During this trip it was 80 degrees at this location, just below 9,000 feet (the valley temperatures were reaching 110 each day during the week).

Throughout the trip you pass through evergreen forests that change from ponderosa pine and cedar at the lower elevations to red fir, lodgepole pine, juniper and Jeffrey pine higher up. And you get to experience ear-popping changes in elevation, from a few hundred feet in the valley, to 9,100 feet at the pass, then down to 6,500 at Mono Hot Springs.

About half way through the stressful, slow, one-lane section I realized that Sunday was not the best day to be going in, because a lot of people were coming out. It seemed that I never went more than two minutes before meeting another vehicle, and it was almost always I who had to back up, just because the most readily available turnouts were closer to me.

About 17 miles from Huntington the road divides, with the right fork going southeast to Florence Lake and the left going to Edison Lake. The Hot Springs resort and campground are about two miles from this junction toward Edison.

I got started from home about 9:30 on June 30, and arrived three hours later, just in time for a light lunch. Mikie went to the river to fish, and Teri headed for the swimming pool. I went with her to learn the layout of the area and to see the river. Although people swim anywhere in the river, there is one very good spot, which fishermen avoid, that is the main "swimming hole." While Teri cooled off, I walked back to the cabin and did some reading.

When Teri returned, we set out to see how Mikie was doing, walking along the road that parallels the river going downstream. We came to his favorite fishing spot, where he reported not much luck. While we were there, his lure got snagged, so he waded in to retrieve it. Teri soon followed to help him, and they ended up dragging out a large handful of tangled branches. The effort was worth it, since Mikie went after one lure and came out with three.

The National Hockey League draft was held that day, and Mikie's favorite team, the Colorado Avalanche, had the first overall pick. The two highest ranked players were considered pretty much even as to who was number one, so there was much speculation over who the team would choose. I took my iPad, hoping to get a signal, and Mikie had his iPhone. As it turned out, there was wi-fi at the store, so we walked over there to see what was going on. Once we got the connection, we were able to keep it at the cabin, so we checked in frequently during the afternoon as the draft progressed, something John Muir never contemplated as a wilderness activity.

Besides being a camping trip, we had decided this would be my Father's Day celebration and Teri's birthday dinner. She planned to barbecue the next day, so for our first night, we went to the River Rock Cafe, which proved to be a very good little restaurant. Although they did not serve fries, most dinners, including burgers, came with a trip to the salad bar, and it was as good as any salad bar I've seen except for Sweet Tomatoes (sadly now permanently closed by the Covid-19 pandemic).

The next day I got up around 8, did my morning exercises and went for a walk. I went out to the main road, about a quarter mile, mostly up hill, where I discovered that a number of people were camping away from the official campground. When I got back, I had a bloody Mary and read a while until breakfast time.

Teri fixed an excellent breakfast of bacon and potatoes, and after we cleaned up, everyone went their separate ways. Mikie went fishing, and Teri went for a long walk down a trail to  nearby Doris Lake, a little over a mile one way. I took a short walk around the back side of the resort, up into the rocks, and back out to the resort road, seeing a number of squirrels and chipmunks along the way. After I got back, a storm came in, but we had just a few light drops. However, when she returned, Teri said it had poured down where she was, and she got soaked. The weather was warm enough that this was not a problem, and she was dry by the time she got back.

I have been making popcorn the old fashioned way for about a year, and brought the equipment and ingredients, so we had an early afternoon snack, and everyone agreed with my finding that it's way better than microwave popcorn.

The rest of the afternoon was spent being fairly lazy. Mikie has become a big fan of Stephen King, and was reading It, an ambitious thousand-page project, so we all spent a lot of our time reading. In the evening Teri started the barbecue, and we had good steak dinner. Along with our steak, we all got a small sample of trout, caught by Mikie that same day (by the end of the week he had caught a total of 18, well below last year's harvest of 30).

Early that afternoon we had observed a lizard sitting on a rock outside the kitchen window. We kept checking back, and he stayed in that spot for at least three hours.

That night we were treated to a distant lightning show with plenty of thunder, but again with very little rain. Teri and I sat out on the porch and watched the show, but Mikie was still deeply immersed in the world of Stephen King.

I went out to look at stars during the night and discovered a fresh mound of dirt right by our doorstep, where a squirrel had been at work. There was no hole, and no sign of the little workman, so it was probably his clean-out tunnel, or adit as the hydro project builders would call it. (An adit in this case was a tunnel used to remove dirt and rock from the shafts that were drilled to carry water from the lakes to the power plants.)

The next morning everyone got up when they felt like it, and I again did my walk up to the main road. After a leisurely breakfast I started packing up, and got started for home around 11. Teri's mother was going to arrive later that day, bringing one of Mikie's buddies. Although it was warm and sunny when I left, there were dark clouds to the west, and I had a few miles of rain as I approached Kaiser Pass. It was hard enough that I had to set  the windshield wiper to continuous action for a while, but the main effect was to make it much cooler. Although it was no longer raining at the top of the pass, the ground there was very wet and there had obviously had a hard, quick storm.

Besides the nice cool conditions, there was another positive note - I met far fewer cars coming out, and for the most part, we seemed to meet in much better places. There was one time when the driver of a pickup coming in had to squeeze off the road, while his wife made sure he was not scraping the rocky bank, and I had to get my right wheels off the road next to a steep drop-off, but we made it, with probably three inches between our vehicles.

Farther down the road, below Huntington Lake, I had a few more drops of rain, so I held out the hope that it might be cooler at home. However, it was 85 degrees at Shaver Lake, 100 at Prather, and the temperature rose quickly after that, hitting about 105 by the time I got home.

Although the road is stressful and daunting, the surroundings make the journey worthwhile. The area is surrounded by huge granite boulders, with many species of trees and wildflowers. Sitting at the side of the cabin, we had a view of granite domes and peaks to the east.

The cabin was quite nice for such a remote location - not fancy, but a good size and well-equipped. It had two bedrooms, one with twin beds, and the couch was a fold-out futon. The kitchen was a separate room, with a wide entrance to the living room. There was a full-size refrigerator, and battery-operated lights; no other electrical power was available. The bathroom did not have a sink, so we washed in the kitchen. There are smaller cabins, which Teri and MIkie had last year, with a bathroom (including sink) and one large room for sleeping, living and cooking. The cabins are equipped with cooking utensils, dishes and silverware, and towels were provided.

When I'm gone I set my thermostat in the mid to high 80s so the house won't be unbearably hot when I return, but the unit won't run constantly. I brought it down to 80 as soon as I walked in, but four hours later it was only down to 84, and it stayed there to the point I was ready to call a repairman. However, after it got dark the temperature finally began to slowly drop, and it's been working fine since then. Apparently transferring all the hot air from a two-bedroom condo with vaulted ceilings on a 105 degree day takes a very long time.

There are some good pictures of the road here, despite a few inaccuracies. This is another good summary of the hydro project, although the information on the dog grave location is wrong. Specific information about the dog team is available in a book which may not be available any longer.

--Dick Estel, July 2013; reviewed and updated November 2020 


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 


Huntington Lake Rancheria Falls above Huntington At the top of the pass
Panoramic view of meadow east of the pass
The Silver Divide
A section of the meadow The graves are marked with
piles of granite rock
 Marks from jackhammer where rock was blasted apart to build the road
Getting close to the destination Arriving at the resort Store and registration office
A featured menu item
is buffalo burgers
Teri floats on the old swimming hole Mikie's favorite fishing spot
Hoping to catch a big one Going in to rescue his lure Mom helps Mikie retrieve his
lure from a tangled branch
Triumph - THREE lures rescued One of the small cabins Cabin 17 - our mountain home
One of Teri's favorite activities Yes, this narrow trail is the
main road in to Lake Edison
Huge boulders make a dramatic
backdrop to this meadow
The dome visible from our cabin Mountains to the southeast A storm provides dramatic lighting
Junipers thrive in rocky areas Harsh winters keep the trees "pruned" Exposed roots across
from our cabin 
A perfect dining area for squirrels Wild roses grow in hedges
all around the resort
Dramatic blossoms like this
add to the experience
Teri's birthday gift - just like the lunch
box she carried on the
first day of school
Mikie checks the latest
NHL draft results
Squirrels and chipmunks
abound in the area
Lizard poses on the pavement River crossing just south
of the turn-off to the resort
This is NOT a good passing spot
Banner Peak in the Ritter Range A peaceful pool on the river Not everyone stays in a cabin
Panorama of the Ritter Range
Related Links
Mono Hot Springs Camp Florence Lake Edison Lake
Big Creek Hydro Project More about the project Huntington Lake
White Bark Vista Point High Sierra Pack Station White Bark Vista Point Photos
Kaiser Pass Road Highway 168 California's worst roads
Jeffrey pine

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Updated November 2, 2020