If you’re a connoisseur of hot springs in the Eastern Sierra, you’re probably well acquainted with the usual scene. Crowded tubs, left-behind beer bottles, and a lack of nearby camping are often the reality when seeking out these, ahem, hot spots. When I first started planning my trek out to Iva Bell Hot Springs, I was sure I knew what to expect – a mellow, 12-mile day up and down undulating, wooded hills that led to a few mucky pools with a decent view. Boy, was I wrong.
Before even setting foot on the trail, there are a few things you should know about the area. First of all, this trail is not flat by any means. It winds down well-graded switchbacks, climbs up the side of a mountain, then drops hikers way down to Fish Creek before climbing back up to get to the springs. It’s a burly 12-mile day even for the experienced hiker, and we highly recommend doing this as a two or three day trek.
Wilderness permits are required for all overnight travel in the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses, and the quota season is generally May 1st – November 1st. Weekend permits do fill up well in advance, and only 9 online permits are allowed each day, so book early for this seriously enchanting trek. The trailhead is sneakily named, but you’ll want to nab a permit for “Fish Creek.” (A longer route is also possible for hikers looking to hit Duck Lake first.)
Second, the trailhead is located inside the Devils Postpile National Monument, meaning you’ll have to take a shuttle from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center if you’re visiting during summer months ($8 for adults, $4 for children aged 3-15 as of August 2019). The shuttle is required for all day and overnight hikers arriving between the hours of 7am – 7pm to minimize traffic and human impact on the wilderness area. Hikers can wait for the shuttle (they run every 20 minutes or so) right outside the adventure center, near the kids area.
If you’re hiking the trail during the fall when the road is still open, but the shuttle is no longer required, you’ll want to grab your permit at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center in the morning, if possible, and jet down to the trailhead to get a parking spot before they all fill up. Some parking is available at the Rainbow Falls trailhead, but the overnight parking lot at Reds Meadow is a better option. Shockingly, Reds Meadow does not offer bear boxes to store food at the trailhead, to either throw away or bring your car snacks with you.
This is an active bear area, with both the PCT and JMT intersecting at Reds Meadow. Bears know this is a mecca for hikers, so come equipped with a bear-resistant food container on any overnight trip in this section of the Sierra.
And one last thing – mosquitoes here can be intense during the summer. All campsites at Iva Bell Hot Springs are located right next to a marshy, swampy, gloriously green meadow, meaning you’ll get up close and personal with these pests at sunrise and sunset, so come prepared and bring. that. bugspray. Now, on to the trail!
At first, the trek over to Iva Bell Hot Springs may not look like much. It’s a pretty straightforward, well maintained 12-mile trek that undulates up and down, but never rises above 7,750 feet of elevation. However, with a full pack on and sun exposure, it can feel utterly daunting at times, even for a seasoned hiker. Bring plenty of water and plan for some extra time to enjoy the views (there’s plenty to go around). If you have the time, why not take a three-day weekend with a zero day at the hot springs?
Starting at Reds Meadow, you’ll head down a gently graded trail through the forest that crosses the PCT/JMT almost immediately. Then, as you near Rainbow Falls, the trail widens and becomes much more flat and sandy. You’ll likely see quite a few day hikers in this area, but after the first mile and a half, they’ll be long gone.
At the 1.1 mile mark, you’ll hit a spur trail heading off to the upper lookout of Rainbow Falls. It’s well worth the effort to head over and catch a glimpse of this famous, iridescent waterfall that towers above the creek below at 101 feet tall.
Head back the way you came towards the main trail and look for the sign pointing towards Fish Creek. That’s where you’re headed, and from here, the crowds will thin out. You may not see another hiker until the springs!
The trail will begin a long and gentle descent towards Crater Creek, passing nearby some really cool granite rock features. Verdant, green ferns line the more shady, wooded areas of trail, and prickly, red gooseberries burst out of the bushes everywhere you look.
Around 4.2 miles in, the trail opens up to some Yosemite-style granite slabs, and you’ll be greeted with an amazing view of a cascading, hidden waterfall as the trail starts to open up. The next 2 miles of trail offer up some majestic views, and you’ll probably have them all to yourself. It’s a great time to get the camera out or take a lunch break and stare out at the wild and vacant expanse of the canyon below.
For those looking to break up the mileage into multiple days, there’s an awesome backcountry campsite at the 4.5 mile mark, just off trail, with a pre-existing fire ring and a seriously epic spot to catch the sunset from.
After this, get ready to climb. The next section of trail might break your heart a little, as it climbs up, up, up (over 400 feet) through an alpine pine forest and then steeply drops down a set of intense switchbacks as it plunges 800 feet towards Fish Creek. It’s important to remember here that you’ll be hiking up all these switchbacks near the beginning of your return day, so plan your timing accordingly. The trail is sunny and exposed and much more comfortable to traverse in the morning!
At the bottom of the switchbacks, look for a gorgeous wooden bridge that crosses Fish Creek. The trail mellows out from here to the springs, and you’ll meander through a gently-graded path along the edge of burbling Fish Creek, climbing up and down a few mellow hills as you pass under rock faces that tower overhead. Most notably, you’ll get a stellar view of Devils Top on the right just before you ascend up to the tubs.
Look carefully at the foliage on this next section of trail, and you might be in for a treat. Thimbleberries and wild blackberries are frequent sightings near the stream. Wildflowers also thrive here in summer months, with bitter cherry, California fuchsia, and California wild rose all making appearances along the trail.
At the 12 mile mark, be on the lookout for a small, wooden sign on a tree that’ll tell you it’s time to turn left towards Fish Valley and cross the epic-sounding Sharktooth Creek. It’s really just a mellow log crossing over a gently bubbling stream, but it sounds like something out of American Ninja Warrior! After the creek, the trail climbs up and begins to pass a few larger campsites suitable for group camping. Turn right and head up an unmarked trail if you’d like to camp closer to the springs.
Take some time to really look around here and nab that perfect campsite. It can feel like a wild goose chase at times, tramping up and down a trail-less, grassy meadow, but if you stick with it, you may be able to find one of the elusive campsites right next to a pool.
Once you’ve set up camp, it’s time to soak those tired bones. Look for a steep use trail leading uphill to the left of the campsites. I would not recommend making the mistake I did and wearing flip flops for this next bit. Keep your boots on and hike up the steep dirt path towards the hot springs.
There are several small pools as you make your journey uphill, each one getting hotter as you ascend. Don’t be afraid to peek into the trees as you climb – some of the best pools are well hidden. At the very top of the use trail is a small, shallow pool that’s almost too hot to sit in, but it boasts an impeccable view of the entire valley you just hiked. It’s a spectacular place to watch the sunset with a cold beer and a good book.
After you’re done soaking, simply head back the way you came, climbing up the steep switchbacks and traversing the huge, granite slabs on your way towards Rainbow Falls and Reds Meadow.
Iva Bell might just be the Eastern Sierra’s best-kept secret. It’s a burly trek to get there, but adventurous souls will be rewarded with secluded, warm pools and a spellbinding view.