Interpretive Hikes of the Mammoth Lakes Region: Hot Creek Geologic Site

Oct 20, 2020

Hot Creek Geologic Site is a spectacular interpretive site and recreation area located only 8 miles southeast of Mammoth Lakes. At this location, water from superheated geothermal springs interacts with a cold, alpine stream and visitors get a first-hand view of geological processes actively shaping the Eastern Sierra landscape. The interpretive area is easily accessible throughout most of the year and a well maintained and short trail descends into the middle of the geothermal activity.

An awe-inspiring visit to the National Forest Service maintained interpretive site should be on everybody’s list of things to do when visiting the region. There are only a handful of places on Earth like the Hot Creek Geologic Site. At the gorge, groundwater heated by underground bodies of molten rock (magma) reaches the surface and mixes with the cool waters of Hot Creek, creating a picturesque environment with almost alien-like features.

The Hot Creek Geologic Site began forming around half of a million years ago, when glacial melt runoff from the surrounding mountains began accumulating in the Long Valley Caldera near the present location of Lake Crowley. The large body of water breached its banks and naturally drained around 80,000 years ago, exposing the gorge and leaving a natural water course for the alpine stream to follow.

The same volcanic activity that is responsible for the creation of the Inyo Craters (located 3.5 miles north of Mammoth Lakes) is responsible for heating the groundwater that bubbles and steams to the surface at the interpretive site. As snowmelt water is shed from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is absorbed by the ground, some of it passes through fractured rock heated by nearby bodies of magma. This water reaches temperatures well above boiling, which is possible due to the extreme pressures in the subsurface of the Earth. The geothermally heated groundwater migrates to the southeast and makes it to the surface through conduits as geothermal springs and small geysers.

The small stretch of river that passes through the mile long gorge is incredibly photogenic, with thick plumes of steam rising from water meandering deep within a colorful and rocky river gorge. Below the hot springs, healthy populations of fish thrive as a result of abundant nutrition generated by the constantly warm waters of the creek. Delicate formations of layered travertine rock rim, the hot spring pools situated just above the river course and like most geothermal springs, the area is constantly changing and evolving. Once active geysers and springs are now dormant or extinct and new spring courses appear annually.

When visiting Hot Creek Geologic Site, make sure to bring your camera and a willingness to explore the area. The short, albeit somewhat steep, trail that extends into the gorge from the parking area is surfaced with blacktop and is lined with interpretive markers and signs. Once along the creek, the trail is dirt and adequate footwear is strongly suggested to ensure safe footing. Swimming is illegal at this location due to the rapid fluctuation of temperatures associated with the variable discharge hot springs. Water temperature changes of 200 degrees (F) over seconds have been recorded within the stream, so please do not risk injury or worse by swimming within the gorge. Visitors are reminded to be aware of young children and pets at all times and as a general rule, it is best to observe the geothermal activity at a safe distance.

A visit to Hot Creek Geologic, located just outside of Mammoth Lakes, is a great and easy family adventure that will keep all ages entertained and enthralled. From the steaming hot spring pools to the clear blue waters of Hot Creek, the gorge is a true natural marvel that provides equal opportunity to enjoy the surrounding beauty and learn about the region’s unique geology.

Jason Abplanalp

Jason Abplanalp first discovered the Eastern Sierra lifestyle six years ago and after brief tenures in Colorado and Idaho, Jason returned to the mountain town he truly loves, Mammoth Lakes, CA. As an avid skier, mountain biker, hiker, and fisherman, Jason believes there is no better place for his family to call home. Jason has…

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