It's no surprise in geothermally active Nevada and Eastern California that there are plenty of areas where the underground turmoil finds its way to the surface. One such hot spot is Travertine Hot Springs, near Bridgeport, Calif.
The Travertine springs are located about a mile-and-a-half south of Bridgeport. To reach the area, drive a half mile south on Highway 395 to Jack Sawyer Road. Turn left onto Sawyer Road, then left again onto a marked, partially rutted dirt road (not recommended in the winter unless you have four-wheel drive vehicle). Continue another mile to the springs.
There is a strange, somewhat off-planet feel to the Travertine site. Because of the mildly sulfuric hot springs and alkali-saturated soil, little grows in the area.
The result is a stark, barren terrain dotted with brackish pools and muddy fields carpeted with stunted, salt-coated grasses and unusually shaped mounds and half-domes of soft clay. Indeed, the name "Travertine" comes from the whitish calcium carbonate crystals deposited by the mineral-laden hot spring water.
There are several pools at Travertine, including a nice, partly developed round pool on the high ground above the area, adjacent to the dirt road. A tad hotter than the lower pools, this one is popular with veteran hot spring aficionados.
The lower pools are interesting. An inch-wide trough has been carved along the ridge of a mound. Hot water bubbles from the top of the mound and spills down the little cut to a series of four pools at its base.
Water then flows from one pool to the next, cooling along the way. That means the first pool is the hottest (an estimated 105 degrees), while each subsequent pool is a little less intense (the last pool, which is the largest and most shallow, is about 90 degrees).
Because the Travertine springs are accessible and relatively well known, expect to run into people there, unless you come early in the morning or at night.
The Bridgeport area is surrounded by undeveloped or partially-developed public hot springs. Another good prospect is the Buckeye Hot Springs, located about 11 miles northwest of Bridgeport near the Buckeye Campground (direction signs five miles north of Bridgeport lead from Highway 395 to the spring).
This spring is situated near the side of a hill. A clever damming system allows soakers to control the heat of the water by mixing colder water from a nearby stream with hot water from the spring. Rude, undeveloped campsites can be found nearby.
As with the Travertine area, you must take a dirt road to reach the Buckeye spring. You should use a four-wheel drive vehicle in the winter.
Of course, the best part of both the Travertine and Buckeye springs is the free admission. What a deal.
For more information, contact the Bridgeport office of the National Forest Service, (619) 932-7070. Also, there are several good guide books to hot springs in California and Nevada, including "Hot Springs of the Eastern Sierra," by Dayton writer George Williams III, available at local bookstores.
(Richard Moreno is the author of The Backyard Traveler and The Backyard Traveler Returns, which are available at local bookstores.)