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Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, CA: How to Visit This Cool Geothermal Spot!

Located less than ten miles from the Mammoth Lakes town center, Hot Creek Geological Site is a Highway 395 must-visit for its spectacular setting and interesting hydrothermal features.

Suggestive of a mini Yellowstone or Lassen Volcanic, Hot Creek Geologic Site is a great place to witness the marvels of geology, from boiling pools and occasional geysers to fumaroles letting off steam. Visiting the site is one of the best things to do in Mammoth Lakes!

Aqua Pools at Hot Creek Gorge in Mammoth Lakes, CA
The aqua pools at Hot Creek Geological Site!

Spoiler alert: you cannot swim in the pools at Hot Creek Geological Site, or even get close to them. Water temperatures here can change to scalding hot abruptly, so you will see many signs warning you not to attempt to enter the water.

Planning a visit to Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, California? Read on to discover what to expect, plus our tips for visiting the site!

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Hot Creek Geological Site: An Overview
What to See at Hot Creek Geological Site
Things to Do at Hot Creek Geologic Site
Essential Facts About Hot Creek Geologic Site
How to Get to Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, CA
Tips for Your Hot Creek Geological Site Visit

Hot Creek Geological Site: An Overview

Hot Creek Geological Site is part of the Long Valley Caldera, which was formed by an eruption about 760,000 years ago. The caldera continues to be thermally active, with multiple hot springs and other signs of geothermal activity in the region.

Mammoth Creek, a cold stream fed by snow melt, flows through the town before heading east. At the Hot Creek State Fish Hatchery, warm geothermal springs mingle with the cold waters.

Hot Creek flows through Hot Creek Gorge in California
Hot Creek meandering through the gorge

The stream is named Hot Creek when it enters Hot Creek Gorge, where even hotter springs dramatically increase water temperatures. You can see many hydrothermal features along its length as it traverses the gorge.

In the gorge, water that has seeped deep underground meets the magma that lies way below the surface. It is subjected to immense heat and pressure. The heated water eventually (over many centuries!) makes its way to the surface, spurts out, and mingles with the cool surface waters of Hot Creek, creating the otherworldly landscape you see at Hot Creek Geologic Site.

Seismic activity at Hot Creek keeps the landscape ever-changing, with new fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs emerging where there were none before, and existing features disappearing.

Beautiful landscape at Hot Creek Gorge near Mammoth Springs, CA
The landscape at Hot Creek Geological Site is otherworldly!

Several years ago, swimming was permitted in certain parts of the site. But because of the unpredictability of the water temperatures and suddenly erupting geysers, the pools are now fenced off. Entering the water is forbidden.

What to See at Hot Creek Geological Site

the Hydrothermal Features

Gawking at the hydrothermal features is of course the top reason to visit Hot Creek Geological Site.

The aqua pools are the most striking feature at the site. Located by the side of blue-green Hot Creek, the pools, and the clouds of steam rising from them, create a breathtaking scene. Minerals seeping from the water create interesting patterns in reds and rust on the chalky white rock surrounding the pools. It truly is a picture postcard scene!

The turquoise pools at Hot Creek Geological Site
The blue pools are the top attraction at Hit Creek!

You will see more subtle fumaroles at other spots at the site, and, if you are lucky, you may even see a geyser (or many!) spurt into the air during your visit. Geysers here are random though, and we didn’t see one in action when we visited.

the Beauty of Hot Creek

Hot Creek itself makes for a beautiful picture as it winds its way through the gorge. Reeds grow in profusion along its banks, and in the spring and summer, you may see wildflowers here as well.

A view of Hot Creek flowing away from the gorge
Hot Creek departs the gorge

All this in the spectacular setting of the Eastern Sierra, with magnificent mountains forming the perfect backdrop for the meandering creek.

The long range scenery visible from here is gorgeous as well. To the west, you can see the stunning peaks that rise above Convict Lake, and to the north, you can see Mammoth Mountain in the distance. In the east, the Glass Mountains rise up into the sky.

Mountains above Convict Lake seen from Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes CA
Beautiful peaks to the west of Hot Creek

the Flora and Fauna

If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars! We saw a bald eagle flying over the creek when we visited, its majestic wing-span and bright yellow beak an exciting sight. Other than bald eagles and osprey, you may see egrets or herons by the water.

There are many varieties of plants at the site as well, both along the pathway to the creek, and surrounding the water. When we visited in July, there were some wildflowers still in bloom along the pathway.

Wild Shrub in Bloom at Hot C reek Geological Site in California
A wild shrub in bloom in late July

Things to Do at Hot Creek Geologic Site

Admire the Views from the Overlooks

You do not have to venture too far from the parking lot to find fabulous views at Hot Creek Geologic Site. Just walk to the overlooks at the edge of the parking area, and you can see straight down to the beautiful blue pools.

There is an interpretive sign at the overlook that offers information about the site and the hydrothermal activity here.

An interpretive sign at Hot Creek Geological Site in California
Interpretive sign at Hot Creek Geologic Site

Walk the Paved Trail Down to the Creek

A short steep paved trail at Hot Creek Geologic Site leads from the parking lot down to the creek level. Along the way, you can enjoy beautiful views of the bright blue pools, the deep blue-green of Hot Creek, and the colors and textures of the rock formations.

The trail has one switchback, and ends at a fence at the bottom. When we visited, there were gaps in the asphalt on the path, and places where it had broken off, so do not get so engrossed in the views that you forget to watch your step.

Pathway at Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, CA
The scenic pathway at Hot Creek Geological Site

Signs along the pathway warn of uneven ground and scalding hot water. Please heed all warnings and signs.

A dirt trail continues along the south bank of the creek in both directions. Given the signs, we didn’t feel comfortable getting off the asphalt, so we turned around where the pavement ended.

The trail to the fence is quite short, at about 0.2 mile one way, but it is quite steep.

Steep asphalt trail at Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes
The trail at Hot Creek Gorge is fairly steep

Head to Brees Lookout for the Perfect Instagram Photo!

Continue on Hot Creek Hatchery Road for about 0.2 mile beyond the Hot Creek Geological Site parking area to Brees Lookout. See map.

From Brees Lookout, you can get fabulous photos of Hot Creek with the Sierra Nevada mountains as a backdrop. The lookout is an especially sensational photo spot at sunrise or sunset.

Stunning view from Brees Lookout at Hot Creek Gorge in California
A view worthy of Instagram!

If you arrived in a passenger sedan, consider leaving your car at the Hot Creek Geological Site parking area and walking to the lookout and back. The last bit of road to the viewpoint is quite a bit rougher than the main gravel road.

Essential Facts About Hot Creek Geologic Site

Hot Creek Geologic Site is managed by the USDA Forest Service (Inyo National Forest). It is open from sunrise to sunset, everyday. Interpretive signs offer information on the history and geology of the area. There is no fee to visit.

There is a good-sized parking area at Hot Creek Geologic Site, and vault toilets are available by the side of the parking area. The overlooks into the gorge are right by the parking area.

Entrance to the parking lot at Hot Creek Geological Site near Mammoth Lakes, CA
There is plenty of parking at Hot Creek Geological Site

Dogs on leash are permitted at Hot Creek Geologic Site. Fishing, swimming, and entering the water are not allowed.

Good to know: Although fishing is not allowed at Hot Creek Geological Site, Hot Creek is considered one of the best fly-fishing destinations in the Eastern Sierra. Hot Creek Ranch offers paid access. Free access is available at the lower end of Hot Creek Ranch.

Fun fact: Hot Creek Gorge was a filming location for several movies, including the 1969 classic True Grit.

Hot Creek Geological Site is super scenic!
Hot Creek Geological Site is super scenic!

How to Get to Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, CA

Hot Creek Geological Site is located a few miles southeast of the town of Mammoth Lakes.

Coming from Mammoth Lakes and points north, take US 395 South. Turn left onto Hot Creek Hatchery Road, which comes up right before Mammoth-Yosemite Airport, and drive about 3 miles to arrive at the parking lot. See map.

From Bishop and points south, head north along US 395 and turn right onto Hot Creek Hatchery Road just past the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport. Drive about 3 miles to arrive at the Hot Creek Geologic Site parking area.

The route along Hot Creek Hatchery Road is well signposted, so look for signs for Hot Creek Geologic Site as you drive. The last 1.5 miles or so of the drive is on gravel rather than a paved road, but the road is generally passable in a passenger sedan. We visited in a Honda Civic and had no problems on the unpaved portion. Drive slow!

The garvel road at Hot Creek Geological Site in California
The gravel road is not too bumpy!

Access to Hot Creek Geologic Site by automobile may be affected by road closures in the winter. During winter, if the road is closed to vehicular traffic, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobile are options for access.

Tips for Your Hot Creek Geological Site Visit

Visit Early or Late in the Day for Beautiful Photos

Both sunrise and sunset are considered ideal times for photography at Hot Creek Geological Site. We visited in the early morning and the light was still gorgeous, although the colors of sunrise had disappeared.

Hot Creek Gorge in California on a beautiful summer morning
Morning is a great time for photography at Hot Creek

Heed All Signs and Warnings

Hot Creek Geologic Site is beautiful, but it can be dangerous if you do not obey posted signs and warnings. You will see signs warning of dangers all around the site, so read and heed them for a safe and enjoyable visit.

Warning Sign at Hot Creek Geological Site in California
Heed all warnings!

Allow Enough Time

You don’t really need a ton of time at Hot Creek Geologic Site, but allow an hour or so to walk the trail down to the creek, look for birds and wildlife, take lots of photos, and to savor the beauty of your surroundings.

Wear Sun Protection

Even though it is short, the walking path down to the creek, as well as the overlook area, are exposed, so wear sunscreen and shades. We like this natural sunscreen!

Walking the Pathway at Hot Creek Geological Site in California
Allow plenty of time to savor the beauty here!

Bring Drinking Water

Although it’s a short hike and a quick visit, bring drinking water to stay hydrated during your visit.

Don’t Expect Great Cell Coverage

Cell coverage can be spotty to non-existent at Hot Creek Geologic Site. The road to the site is well signposted and the trail is short, so you can get by without navigational aids.

Remember Your Camera!

Bring your smartphone or a camera for photos and videos of the beautiful pools and Hot Creek landscape.

Landscape at Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, CA
The landscape at Hot Creek Gorge is spectacular!

Looking for a small camera that takes great landscape photos? Consider the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III. It shoots excellent high-resolution photos, and great video as well. Get it on Amazon!

Bring Binoculars for Birding

If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars. If you spot a bald eagle or en egret, you will want to get a closer look! We use the Celestron Trailseeker compact waterproof binoculars.

Looking at the blue pools at Hot Creek Gorge in California
Looking for wildlife and birds at Hot Creek

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Planning to explore more of the Sierra Nevada? Check out some of our other travel and trail guides!

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Discover what to see and do at the otherworldly Hot Creek Geological Site in Mammoth Lakes, California. Best photo spots, best time to go!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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