Hidden in one of the most scenic parts of the Sierra Nevada lies the beautiful Mono Hot Springs. A visit here makes for the perfect weekend getaway for any enthusiastic traveler and adventurer in search of nature, peace, and tranquility.
A trip to the Mono Hot Springs should leave you feeling refreshed and energized, ready to take on the world. But that’s if all goes as planned!
If, however, you end up getting completely lost (like us), driving in circles for hours (as we did), and destroying your beloved car (yup, that happened), you’ll leave with a completely different sentiment!
But, on a bright note, we made it out safely! Here’s the eventful story of our camping trip to the Mono Hot Springs, and why having a good travel companion is necessary!
Psst… looking for more places to explore near California? Check out a few of our other posts!
- 8 Scenic Day Hikes in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, California
- 12 Things to do in the Charming Mountain Town of June Lake, California
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California
Table of Contents
Adventures with your travel companion
One of the most important people you will meet in your life is your travel companion. Maybe it’s a friend, neighbor, romantic partner, or family member. They are the person you match with when you adventure.
Do you like the touristy stuff? Are you on the hunt for art, nightlife, or food? Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to just lie on a beach with a beer and go with the flow.
All of those are valid travel styles, but they don’t always go together. Find yourself a partner for travel that you mesh with.
I was one of the lucky few who found that travel partner in my life partner.
Planning our trip to Mono Hot Springs
As you can probably tell, Lia is beyond pragmatic. She plans with the precision of an architect. Gear is researched, bargain bought, weighed, field tested, exchanged, tested again, recorded, catalogued, and then put into our packs. Check out this post for some of her best finds!
Destinations are curated from all over the internet and thrown into our ever-evolving itinerary. She books hostels, transportation, activities, etc. as soon as possible.
If you think it’s too much, believe me, it isn’t. As she’s said before, the planning is part of the fun. It builds excitement!
I am not as thorough as she is. I get overwhelmed by too much information. I’m also chill to a fault.
Where we match up is I am really good at following a plan. She does the setup, and then goes on autopilot while I move the pieces she planned. So she can get really stoked on research and using credit card points or whatever, and then shut off her brain while we’re traveling.
The cherry on top is that we both want to do the same things on vacation.
We didn’t realize we were perfect adventure partners at first. We had to find our stride.
And we found that stride after a diabolical rock, a totaled car, mountain stoners, a broken French Press, and a 10-hour ride in a tow truck on our getaway to the Mono Hot Springs.
Camping at Mono Hot Springs
It was our first Memorial Day as a couple. We’d been dating for 6 months.
Lia wanted to do something fun and outdoorsy with 2 of our close friends, H and T, so she planned a trip to Mono Hot Springs in the High Sierra because it was the only campsite that wasn’t booked 2 weeks before Memorial Day.
This was her first time organizing a camping trip.
From Oakland, it should have taken us about 6 hours, including stops, to get to Mono Hot Springs, California. Of course, it would end up taking us 10 instead, because it’s us.
Our friends came over in the morning, we packed up Lia’s car – named Fiona – and we were off to Sierra Nevada.
About an hour out, H realized she didn’t pack the pump for her air mattress. Yes, air mattress. H has since gotten better at roughing it.
Anyway, we stopped at Walmart to stock up on supplies that we would never use and hopped back on the 5.
Getting to Mono Hot Springs Campground
We reach the hills and it was a solid hour of climbing into the Sierra mountains. When I say climb, I mean I put all of my power on the gas pedal so I could go 15 MPH.
By this point, a good 4 hours in, all of us were getting hangry. No one wanted to be the one to choose a place to eat, so instead, we all passive-aggressively argued over which place to stop for food and when.
Finally, we stop for some overpriced sandwiches and start feeling a little better. We were about an hour and a half behind schedule, but who cares? From a geographical standpoint, we were only about 40 miles away from the Mono Hot Springs.
I was so hopeful back then.
According to the directions that Lia had printed out from Google Maps, we needed to take Kaiser Pass: seven miles of narrow, cliffside, one-lane road that must be taken at no faster than 10 MPH.
We had heard that this road to Mono Hot Springs would be clearly visible right when you get into town at Huntington Lake. No way you can miss it, we heard.
Long story short, we drove right past it.
Getting lost on the road to Mono Hot Springs
We pull into the tiny little mountain town of Lakeshore (on Huntington Lake) and get firewood – because as everyone should know, buy your wood where you burn it!
We should have asked the desk clerk where we needed to go next, but hindsight is 20/20 and my stubbornness is a 10. We drove on.
Lia remembered that she read something about “You’ll hit the road as you turn around a corner near the lake.” Well, lakes have nothing but corners. We kept driving.
We went past the last campsite in town, but we knew we were camping somewhere away from Huntington Lake. We turned back around and looked for Kaiser Pass again.
This would be a good time to let you know we printed the directions and a small version of the map; we did not have cell service. At one point I found a Mono Hot Springs map on a public restroom wall, but unsurprisingly, it was no help.
Trying to find Kaiser Pass
I went all the way through town again and turned back around. Future me would find out if I would have driven four more miles, we’d have found Kaiser Pass.
At the time me said screw it, let’s just keep driving and see if the road materializes (solid plan). We turned around yet again and drove through town for the fourth time.
This time we kept going until that road turned into a mountain pass
We went about 15 miles in the wrong direction at 10 MPH before we found enough cell phone service to realize we were all collectively the worst.
Poor H and T, mind you, had two giant bundles of firewood each on their laps during this pointless circling through Huntington Lake, and had no room to move since we had packed far more than anyone needed for a camping trip to Mono Hot Springs.
Finally, we found the damn Kaiser Pass and made our way carefully up the mountain, ooh-ing, and aah-ing at the view of the Sierra Nevadas spread out below us.
Finding our campsite
By the time we finally reached the Ranger Station near the Mono Hot Springs campground, it was closed. Because we’d taken 10 hours to arrive.
So we checked in with the tiny visitor’s center on Kaiser Pass, hoping for some good news. There wasn’t any.
We decided we would go to our campsite anyway. We reserved it, after all.
We agreed that we would drive back down in the morning and check-in properly. At the time, that seemed very important for some reason.
After a slow and treacherous descent up the mountain pass toward Mono Springs, and listening to “Bound 2” by Kanye several times (because it is Lia’s most hated song), we reached camp. Our trip, which was supposed to take 6 hours, took just north of 10.
We set up our tents and our hammock and had a really great first night of camp. We packed way too much, but that at least meant we had a pretty cushy set-up.
The next day of our Mono Hot Springs adventure
The next morning, Lia and I hopped into Fiona and took off for the ranger to check-in.
To give you an idea of the pass, you reach Mono Hot Springs about four miles before our camp down the windy Kaiser Pass. A mile past our camp in the other direction is the Lake Edison parking lot.
I turned left (stupid stupid Jeremy) out of camp and in a couple minutes, we found ourselves at Lake Edison. Damn. Wrong way.
No matter. We didn’t go that far. I tried to make up for lost time by going way too fast for this road; probably a break neck speed of 20 MPH.
We hit a turn and as we came around I saw the object of our undoing: a giant, smoking glob of magma bred in hell and mined by satan himself.
Really, it was just a sharp rock…maybe a foot tall, probably less.
We drove right over it and heard a loud screech followed by “ca-chunk,” which is car language for “I’m dead now.”
I have a habit of trying to keep it together even when clearly nothing is okay.
Lia suggested we stop and look but I said it’s fine. We’ll just keep going.
The check engine light went on. All good here.
A smell of oil. Seems normal to me.
The temperature ramped up. That’s weird. Must be the heat here.
Then the car died. For good.
Little fighter made it 5 miles down the mountain. RIP Fiona.
In a turn of fate, the heavens smiled down and the couple driving directly behind us were locals. Rugged, grew up within 10 miles of the Mono Hot Springs campground, fought a bear once and lived to tell the tale, style mountain locals.
They had seen this kind of thing before (apparently broken down Bay Area residents aren’t a rarity around these parts).
Not only did they diagnose our car problem (leaking oil tank), help us push the car down the 1 lane road to a turnout, and let us borrow their phone – which was using some kind of local mountain folk satellite service – but they even knew the towing company guy personally, and helped us reserve a tow truck for the next day.
Then our good Samaritans gave us a lift to the ranger station, where we had been headed.
Wanna know the worst part of this whole ordeal? A ranger had already checked in with our friends AT THE CAMPSITE! We didn’t even need to leave!
Fiona was sacrificed for NOTHING.
Heading back to the campground
Still in disbelief of the whole situation, and knowing full well Lia would break up with me for killing her car, we accepted a ride from our heroes back to the Mono Hot Springs campground, listening to their stories about the area and trying not to be alarmed by the amount of weed they were smoking while they drove.
Back at the campsite, we filled in H and T and introduced them to our new favorite people.
Like angels from stoney mountain folk heaven, the local couple offered to share with us a joint and some day old pizza that they happened to have in their pickup truck, which we accepted gratefully.
Afterwards, they offered yet again to give us a ride, this time down the Kaiser Pass to Mono Hot Springs, our original plan for the day.
We opted to ride in the back of the pickup truck, which was the greatest idea ever. They had a mattress in the bed of the truck (mountain folk camping!) so we piled in and enjoyed the incredibly scary, but incredibly fun ride to the hot springs before bidding our new favorite people ever goodbye.
Thank you, incredibly kind stoner mountain folk. I hope our paths cross again one day.
Finally getting to the Mono Hot Springs
The hot springs were underwhelming – essentially just concrete holes built into the side of a hill – but the river was pretty.
After a few hours, we decided we should hike back to the campsite – Sierra Nevada is known for its incredible hiking trails after all.
But when we asked a hot springs employee about the hiking trail leading to our campground, he took one look at us – 4 hipsters with “Bay Area” and “no cell service” written on our foreheads in invisible ink, lugging the sleeping bag H bought at the gift shop to go on her air mattress – and strongly suggested that we not take the backwoods hiking trail.
Instead, we had to hike up blazing hot Kaiser Pass in the sun for four miles.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the gift of “hiking” up a mountain pass, but I don’t recommend it.
The most heartbreaking thing was we could see a trail of Fiona’s oil the whole way up. The whole time, I heard the ghost of Fiona saying “Look at what you did!”
The next morning, T accidentally broke Lia’s French Press against a tree. It seemed like an appropriate way to say goodbye to the campsite. (Side note: who brings a french press on a camping trip?? What is wrong with us?!)
We packed up and waited for the tow truck at the entrance to the Mono Hot Springs campground, as per their instructions, at promptly 8 am.
Three hours later, we hear the unmistakable sound of a tow truck. Lia has the titanium, her-majesty’s-secret-service level of AAA insurance, so we had a lot of free tow miles.
Unfortunately, Kaiser Pass is in a state park, so they have to charge by the hour until you reach Huntington Lake. (The real moral of this story is f*** Kaiser Pass.)
When it was all said and done, it took the truck about 7 hours JUST on Kaiser Pass, at roughly 3MPH. It cost over $500 to go 7 miles.
In my mind, this was all more kindling for the inevitable break up between me and Lia, since your boy here did not make much money (I was working at a coffee shop at the time. I’ve since become a teacher, so you can guess which one of us pays for things).
After about ten hours, we found ourselves in Fremont, CA, where a mechanic upon which we pinned all of our hopes for the survival of Fiona was located.
Unfortunately, the mechanic closed about 5 minutes prior to us arriving. We left Fiona in the parking lot and took an Uber home, which cost us roughly the GDP of a small country.
After it was all said and done, Fiona was totaled. We ripped open the oil pan and by continuing to drive, we caused an electrical meltdown. We paid an arm and a leg to bring her back to civilization only to find out that she wasn’t fixable at all. RIP, Fiona.
All in all, it was a pretty eventful Memorial Day!
What We Learned from our Mono Hot Springs camping experience
We learned a few things from that trip.
- F*** Kaiser Pass.
- Our camping trip planning really got stepped up. No more last-minute planning and Google Maps printouts. Always have a backup plan for getting lost. Study the area around where you’re going. If you need to grab a road, make sure you know what is after it, in case you miss it.
- Add some wiggle room on your arrival time. Things happen.
- Locals are the best.
- Nobody needs an air mattress or a French Press on a camping trip. That’s ridiculous. We’ve since pared down our camping gear to actual essentials, like a Cast Iron frying pan and a V60 Pourover. I’m half kidding.
Most importantly, I learned the importance of a good travel partner.
Not only did Lia NOT break up with me, she didn’t even get mad. She likes to joke that the moment she realized we should get married was when she wasn’t upset that I totaled her car – that’s real love!
Even though the Mono Hot Springs were kind of a letdown, we got lost everywhere that we tried to go, Fiona died a terrible and expensive death, and T broke our french press, it was still a fun trip that we were all able to laugh about.
Oh, and H and T were both bridesmaids at our wedding.
Important note: 3 years later, T bought us a new French Press – small enough to take camping!
Being a disaster-prone couple
Since the Fiona incident, Lia and I have become in sync as travel companions.
It is almost a guarantee that something will go terribly wrong while traveling: reservations could get lost, you could lose cell reception, your car might break down, a storm might hit, you might get mugged.
And as it turns out, this trip was really just a warning sign of disaster to come, like our waterfall repelling catastrophe in Colombia, our Cataract Falls hiking disaster, or our Machu Picchu hike (which we didn’t complete) – the list goes on! We’re the most disaster-prone couple I’ve ever met.
Having a good partner can alleviate the stress of these situations and help you both make it through. No matter how crazy a situation we find ourselves in, we figure out a way to get through it together, because we’re damn good partners.
And that’s the importance of a good travel companion.
Have you ever found yourself in a moment of travel disaster and relied on your travel partner to pull through? Tell us about it in the comments!
Psst… looking for more places to explore near California? Check out a few of our other posts!
- Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park
- 24 Stunning Northern California Hikes (Near San Francisco)
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco: A Local’s Guide