Few places offer a better home base for exploring the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada than June Lake, where we camped for three nights. Less touristy than nearby Mammoth with tons of great hikes and located just a short drive away from hot springs in Bridgeport, it’s a wonder the place does not receive more hype. We would have completely missed it if not for a recommendation from the father of one of our friends.
We knew that June Lake was located on a loop road that connected several lakes to the US-395 highway, but we did not bother looking at a map to see which way we should enter, and coming south from Tahoe took the first turnoff. Had we looked at one of the maps that our friend’s father had mailed to us, we would have seen that the lake is less than a mile from the highway. As it was pitch dark out by the time we got to the loop, we simply turned onto the first exit that pointed to June Lake and wound up taking a 14-mile scenic detour instead.
With only a handful of days and tons to see, we packed our stay at June Lake full, heading out to hike early and coming back late. We had read mixed reviews about the Bridgeport hot springs and were on the fence about going until we met some locals out on the trails our first day who strongly urged us to go after our hike. Although the Travertine pools looked pretty online, the locals told us to go to Buckeye instead because the water at Travertine is diverted from one spring to fill five different pools, which quickly become tepid as a result.
If we had not known to look for the Buckeye springs there is no way we would have found them. We turned off the highway and took a country lane for eight miles, driving through empty pastures and cattle ranches situated in the foothills of the Sierra’s snow-capped peaks. Buckeye Road, onto which we turned next, was all gravel and took us up a hill and into the woods. Only after several miles of driving – when we were almost at the springs – did we see a sign pointing us in the right direction.
We parked atop a hill in the middle of nowhere and then made our way down towards the springs, which could barely be glimpsed from above. The hot water trickled down a rock face into two small pools that were right at the edge of a rapid stream. S took out the camera to take a picture as we hiked down, but quickly put it away once D pointed out that we were not alone. Two rather large old men and a skinny younger woman were bathing in the pools au naturel along with a German shepherd. We spent the better part of two hours soaking in the hot water, which we alternated with quick dips in the icy cold river.
The sun was well on its downward arc towards the horizon by the time we headed back south to our campsite, stopping at Mono Lake along the way. In the 1940s, the springs that feed the lake were diverted to provide water for Los Angeles, leading the water level to plummet precipitously. In just a few decades, before a committee of environmental activists succeeded in reversing the water diversion, the massive lake lost almost a third of its surface area. As a result, its waters became saline and gave rise to tufas, oddly-shaped mineral salt deposits that dot the lake’s southern shore.
The locals we met out hiking owned a restaurant that was right on Mono Lake, but it was closed the one evening we were there. There are fewer towns on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada than on the other side of the mountain range, but fortunately June Lake itself has a small town, so our campsite was within stumbling distance of a local bar and several restaurants. We had dinner at the rustic Carson Peak Inn, where in addition to a hearty American meal we also got a lot of advice on good hikes in the area.
In fact, the young man who served our food told us to stop by his parents’ resort on our way back to our campsite. S went in to talk with them and came back with a book detailing the best Sierra Nevada hikes, which these good people gifted to her. There are dozens of cool-looking hikes described in this book, and we only did two, so we hope to return to June Lake one day to put the book to good use.