The temperature rose and the sky remained a cloudless cerulean as we began our adventure to the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Dry golden grass that hugged the hills of CA-120 was replaced by pines and the sweet smell of high altitude air as we entered Stanislaus National Forest. As Stacia and I meandered up the mountain, rugged snow covered peaks appeared before us, a beautiful reminder of the unpredictable weather in the High Sierra.

Our arrival at Sonora Pass, the second highest pass in the Sierra Nevada, marked the first milestone of the journey. The intensity of the sky and our sense of wonder heightened with the altitude. As the sun soaked our bare arms we paused momentarily to watch the skiers play in the remaining snow.

Descending from 9,623 ft (2,933m), Stacia and I made our way toward US-395S and our next destination, Mono Lake. The pines faded once again as the mountains rose and hugged us in a beautiful bowl of wilderness. The color palate of Stanislaus National Forest dissolved behind us and Mono County opened up like an earth toned watercolor painting.

Mono Lake, a saline soda lake said to be one of North America’s oldest, lay before us. The only audible sounds were the rustling of migratory birds and our feet on the wooden pathway. The walk to the water’s edge was marked by signs engraved with the water levels of the past. (Los Angeles Aqueduct was connected to Mono Basin in 1940 leading to a 69% recession of surface area over 40 years). Once we arrived at the end of the pathway the tufa columns came into view and embellished the surreal beauty of the landscape.

Mono Lake, a saline soda lake said to be one of North America’s oldest, lay before us. The only audible sounds were the rustling of migratory birds and our feet on the wooden pathway. The walk to the water’s edge was marked by signs engraved with the water levels of the past. (Los Angeles Aqueduct was connected to Mono Basin in 1940 leading to a 69% recession of surface area over 40 years). Once we arrived at the end of the pathway the tufa columns came into view and embellished the surreal beauty of the landscape.

Considering we were making reasonable time, and all good road trips are accompanied by impulsive decisions, we decided to take a quick detour through Mammoth Lakes. We drove higher and higher, seduced by the snowy peaks and enticed by the winding road. Each lake we passed exhibited pristine clarity and extremely frigid temperatures. As much as I desired to swim amongst the snowy peaks and alpine beauty, I was not willing to submerge my body in an ice bath. So, after gazing at the glorious scenery, it was time to get back on track and into some hot springs.

Given it was our first time visiting Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, and we were a bit unsure how to get there, we consulted the internet for further instruction. Shocked and delighted, we found our destination on Google Maps. As we twisted and turned down the road less traveled, a touch of doubt filled our minds. The route had led to an unusually steep descent where an element of fear arose for the fate of our little car. Eventually we ‘arrived’ at our destination and looked across a locked gate to cars congregated in the distance. They certainly didn’t trust Google in their quest for hot springs.

The golden hour had bathed the entire landscape in warmth and magnificence. With our eyes saturated by the boundless beauty, Stacia and I decided that even if we didn’t find the hot springs, this view was worth all our efforts. We walked across the grass toward the cars where a long pathway presented itself. Within minutes we found ourselves in the presence of not one, but three unadulterated hot springs. Just before the sunset we submerged our bodies into the healing water. Raindrops fell to commemorate our arrival as I admired at the majestic world around me, not wanting to be anywhere else.

The clouds turned from gold to magenta, light faded from the sky, and time vanished faster than either of us hoped. We knew if we didn’t leave immediately and take advantage of ambient light, we would be forced to spend the night. Reluctantly, we left the hot springs, returned to the car, and retraced our route. The impossibly steep path from which we came appeared insurmountable. Another set of well worn tracks materialized in the headlights and we continued on Exit Plan B as twilight took over.

The well worn tracks of Exit Plan B quickly and unexpectedly transitioned into a sand and the car stopped dead. For about an hour we alternated, one pushed the front of the car while the other slammed it in reverse. Nothing worked. We were stuck in the sand, with no light, unreliable cell signal, and minimal resources. We toyed with the possibility of a tow truck but none would help us until morning (and it would cost a small fortune). The temperature continued to drop as the stars blazed brightly above. We were stuck in the most beautiful place imaginable, if only we had gotten stuck closer to the hot spring.

It was so cold that neither of us got much sleep, yet the morning sun provided a promise of hope and possibility. In the daylight we found three pieces of wood, none more than a foot long and roughly four inches wide. We wedged the wood in front of the tire, rolled the car forward, leveled the sand, removed sand from behind the tires, placed the remaining piece of wood behind the tire, and prayed. When everything was in position I knelt down in front of the car and pushed with all of my weight as Stacia reversed as far as the sand would allow. We repeated this strategy for roughly two hours, inch by inch, foot by foot, before we made it out of the sand bank and our first obstacle.

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Photo Credit: Lydia Berwick

Next came the insurmountable hill, our only option. In our desperate attempt to ascend we drove like outlaws but the car resisted and stopped half way. We reversed a bit and tried again. Denied. Again. Total failure. With no other options I got out of the car and Stacia reversed to the bottom of the hill to channel her inner rally car driver. I watched anxiously from the sidelines as she drove at full speed, dust clouds shot in every direction. The car shook violently, slowed down, and struggled with the steep grade before it continued victoriously to the top. We screamed and jumped triumphantly, draped in dust and jubilation. Neither of us could believe it.

Full of triumph and exhaustion, Stacia and I made our way to Mammoth to celebrate with excessive coffee and pastry consumption. After we were fully nourished, we retraced our path past Mono Lake, back over Sonora Pass, and finally to Groveland. I was elated to return to my magical home in Groveland, understanding the splendor of Mono County, and possessing one wild story of an adventure to the Eastern Sierra.


Travel Tips: Groveland to Eastern Sierra via Sonora Pass

*Check the conditions of Sonora Pass before you go (and on the way depending on the time of year). Conditions change rapidly and unpredictably at high altitude. Do your research to avoid disappointment. Tioga Pass is an alternative route to the East side.

*Get coffee at Mountain Sage in Groveland before embarking. The next stop for decent coffee and local advice is far (and substantially less charming).

*If you have the time for a slight detour en route to Sonora Pass, Grocery Outlet in Sonora will save you some cash on camping food/snacks/booze.

*If you’re hungry as you approach Mono Lake, stop at the Mobil station and indulge at Whoa Nellie Deli. The infamous Gas Mart also has concerts, often on Thursday and Sunday.

*Do NOT follow the directions of Google Maps to arrive at Wild Willy’s Hot Springs. There is an easier way that limits the abuse to your vehicle. Trust me.

*Sunset and sunrise are ideal times to submerge your body in a hot spring with a glorious view.

*The nights are cold. Plan accordingly.

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