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Hunting for Hot Springs

Snowshoes, check. Snow pants, check. Mountain Standard puffy and blanket, check. Thick wool socks, check. The three of us (me and my two adventure buddies, Bennett and Kat) piled into the 4-Runner and headed for Markleeville, CA—a little alpine hamlet just south of Lake Tahoe, population: 210. After a two hour mountain drive and a long dirt road, we arrived at the small turn out marking the start of our expedition.

For the past couple months I had been on a veritable hot spring brigade. Stacks of dog-eared guidebooks occupied my living space, and most bookmark tabs on my browser linked to obscure websites on geothermal hot spots. Research on this particular hot spring revealed something intriguing: as far as I could tell, nobody had physically hiked to it. The popular approach involved rafting the Carson River or fjording it on a 4-wheeler. Icy waters and a high risk for hypothermia eliminated the option of rafting, and use of motorized vehicles within the state park carried a $1000 fine (a little beyond our dirtbag budget). I found information suggesting we could reach the spring by foot, but it didn’t seem like anyone had actually done it, even in the fair-weather months.

And so, with topo map and GPS watch, we entered the woods beside the pullout. There was no trail. In hopes of discovering an efficient path to our destination, we headed straight up the height of land next to the pullout for a better vantage point. We estimated the springs to be about 5 miles away from the pullout, and planned on shimmy-ing along a certain ridgeline to our destination.

The approach was grueling. There were no discernable trails, and the steep ground crumbled under our boots like kitty litter. On more than one occasion, we would crest a ridge only to discover we were headed the wrong way, which meant scurrying back down and then up another ridge. This frustrating process continued for a few hours until we finally found a promising gully that appeared to be a dry creek bed. Assuming it would eventually lead to the spring, we decided to follow it. Thankfully, we were correct, and by mid-afternoon we were perched at two gorgeous hot spring pools overlooking the fast-flowing Carson River.

We pitched our tents, and promptly hopped into the springs for a little post-hike decompression. Around 7pm a storm rolled in, so we took to our tent for shelter. No campfire session that night, but after such a grueling day of bushwacking and route-finding, it felt amazing to just drift asleep to the sound of rain on my tent fly.

Morning came along with calmer skies. Not wanting to repeat yesterday’s bushwack, we decided to follow a faint 4-wheel road leading from our site up an adjacent mountainside. Some sort of trail was better than none at all. The road hugged the ridgeline, bringing us to incredible views overlooking the valley and eventually leading us (almost) right back to the car.

For those who don't know you already, what's your deal?
Hello! My name is Ellen Baker. If I’m not rock climbing, taking photos or drinking a tasty brew, I’m probably looking for the next best adventure or writing for a local magazine. My humble abode resides in Sacramento, CA, but really all of California is my home. I love it here. 

How do you make the most of the Snow Dream Season?
I’ve got to admit - I am a summer person. The summers here are hot and sweaty but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So, instead of dreaming and wishing it was summer, this year I decided to make the most of the snow dream season. I’ve dabbled in snow shoeing, snowboarding and naked snow-angel creations, getting me closer and closer to a winter gal. 

What piece of gear would you consider absolutely indispensable on this trip?
I’m frugal - probably more frugal than I should be, so I have a terrible sleeping bag. For this trip (and every other I have been on this year), the Mountain Standard fleece blanket is literally my savior. I burrito myself up in that bad boy before crawling into my sleeping bag and I stay toasty all night long. Plus, I usually get the adventure puppy to cuddle with me too.

Best part about snow, worst part about snow. Go!
Best part: smashing it in peoples faces. Worst part: everyone knows where you pee'd.

You've got quite the history of scouting California hot springs
Maybe it’s just nostalgia because it was my first hot spring, but Wild Willy’s near Bishop, CA is still my favorite. Remington in Kern County, CA is a close second! They both have phenomenal views - the best milky way photo I ever got was from Wild Willy’s and the sound of the rushing Kern River at Remington without a soul to be found is such a peaceful scene. You can’t compare the two. I love them both!

Can you give us some crucial advice for the novice hot spring explorer?
If you are new to hot springing, my advice is this: Be kind; to nature, to others at the hot spring, to yourself and to the experience. Some hot springs are better than others. Ask locals for hot spring advice - it will get you to some amazing places that the internet never will.

Give me a six word meditation you took away from the trip.
Put trust in those around you. Without my amazing co-adventurerers, I might not have made it.

Field Agent Ellen Baker is a climber, photographer, puppy-cuddler, and aquatic geothermal expert (aka hot spring enthusiast). Follow her on instagram, and check out her sweet website and blog!

What the heck is a RIMBY Scholarship?
Mountain Standard is stoked to fund a handful of badass Field Agents on dream excursions each season. Each season, agents can apply for a RIMBY Scholarship to cover some of the gear costs for their proposed trips. Ellen Baker's hot spring adventure is just one from our first round of scholarship winners. Stay posted for more trip reports in the next few weeks. For more information on how to become a Mountain Standard Field Agent, click here.