Soaking and Skiing in the Sierra
How to find the sweet spots away from the crowds
There are few things that are better than soaking in hot springs after a day of skiing powder. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. As more people have found respite in the outdoors during and because of COVID, we have seen lift lines at our favorite ski resorts grow, backcountry trails turn into major thoroughfares, and hot springs look like Daytona Beach during spring break.
All of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The outdoors are for everyone, not just the few who hold the keys to the sweet spots. This type of gatekeeping—not revealing the location of “secret spots” that coincidentally, all exist on stolen Indigenous land, or equating beginner recreationalists with trash-loving destroyers of open spaces—is what truly harms our outdoor spaces.
Despite the boom in outdoor recreation over the past year, there are still ways to find that solitude and peacefulness you are looking for in the outdoors. As someone who has spent decades camping under the stars in a tent, I wanted to experience a bit more comfort and ease, particularly during the winter. Rather than book a hotel or AirBnb or spend a below-freezing night in a tent, I opened for a home on wheels.
Home on Wheels
While the outdoor adventure vehicle of choice may be the Sprinter, I personally love the quaintness of vintage trailers. You can rent them on Outdoorsy, and look for ones that are under 16 feet. Rosie, the 1962 vintage Aristocrat trailer that we rented is light enough to tow behind most SUVs and standard trucks. It was an absolute gem, and the owner, Alixandra of Tahoe Petrichor, stocked it with some of her locally sourced, small batch wildcrafted herbal products (that I may or may not have rubbed all over my body the entire trip).
What I realized on my three-day trip through the Eastern Sierra is that a home on wheels gives you a few things that tents don’t:
- Warmth. Three or four season camping is qualitatively a million times more comfortable when you have a trailer, not only for the protection from the elements but also those handy, small heaters that you find inside. Sure, you can buy a four season tent, but that sort of struggle fest isn’t something that everyone wants to endure.
- Space. It’s such a joy to be able to move freely rather than crawling around on your knees or ducking to keep your head from hitting the roof of your tent. The self-contained nature of trailers, with a space to cook, eat, and sleep feels luxurious.
- Comfort. I have slept on the ground for months on end, and I love it. But again, not everyone is up for the suffer fest. Trailers are incredibly comfortable with built in beds and cozy couches.
- Accessibility. People with disabilities may find that the amenities inside trailers or adventure vehicles make camping not only possible, but way more fun.
First Stop—Benton Hot Springs
We started in Reno, NV and made our way down Highway 395. There’s a reason why they say 395 is an experience and not a highway—anyone who has traveled this stretch of road knows that the scenery along this route is breathtaking. Dare I say magical? Even in 24 hour out-and-back trips you return home feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
Our first stop was Benton Hot Springs, a 1,255 acre family owned ranch in Benton, CA. Benton Hot Springs feature 12 hot tub sites that are fed by natural hot spring water. Each site has a private hot tub. Let me say this again: each site has a PRIVATE hot tub. They run about $70 per site, so it’s certainly not cheap. But this sort of solitude is priceless. Benton Hot Springs is relatively undeveloped, so don’t expect much in the terms of facilities besides a picnic table, fire grill, pit, and toilets (which are very clean and heated). If you are looking for showers, walls, and the like, then consider booking a room at their hotel.
Given that it was February, our vintage trailer was perfect. After soaking under the stars for a few hours, we had a warm and cozy bed awaiting us. Waking up in the morning also was a treat and sure beat leaving warm sleeping bag to venture out into below freezing temps just to make coffee or use the toilet.
The History of Benton
The history behind this resort is fascinating. Benton is one of the oldest existing towns in Mono County, home to the Paiute people. Benton became a stopping point in the 1860s for for white settlers and miners traveling throughout the west.
When silver was discovered by white men in 1864, the population of Benton quickly grew to nearly 1000 people. Buster and MaBelle Bramlette moved to Benton after Buster's father Bill Bramlette purchased Benton and the surrounding area in 1928. The couple operated a store, gas station, and hotel as well as a cattle and alfalfa ranch six miles north of Benton. After they both passed away in the 1990s, their grandson Bill Bramlette and wife Diane Henderson took over the care and restoration of Benton. Their vision has been to keep the original town character and historical integrity alive for guests to experience and enjoy.
Today, the Historic Benton Hot Springs nonprofit assists the owners with the preservation of Benton's rich history and historical features. Currently, 70 percent of the 1,255 acre ranch is included in a conservation easement in cooperation with the Eastern Sierra Land Trust to preserve the property from subdivision and unwanted development in perpetuity.
Next up—backcountry skiing in the Sierra
I could have spent a lot more time at Benton Hot Springs but we only had reservations for one night. (They book up fast so plan your trip well in advance.) After a leisurely morning soaking, we made our way from Benton to Tom’s Place, one of the only places we found where we could easily park the trailer on a pull out that was somewhat secluded and where we wouldn’t get a ticket for parking on the side of the road. It was too late to head out for a backcountry tour, so we spent the afternoon reading and relaxing.
The next morning we made the quick drive to Crowley, a small community just south of Mammoth Lakes, CA. The entire point of this trip was to avoid humans, so rather than skiing at the resort, we were looking for accessible backcountry terrain that was also safe to travel in after the recent storm that delivered heaps of snow and high winds.
The avalanche danger was high that day, and while it was tempting to ski something big, it’s just not worth the risk. We opted for a low-angle tour that we felt confident on, both touring up and skiing down. My goal is to always have fun and be outside, and you can do that on just about any type of terrain. It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t going to get to ski a sick line—I wanted to be as safe as possible. And we were. The hike was relatively straight forward and simple, and the ski down made me smile.
One last stop
Rather than make the final push back to Reno after our ski, we made the drive to Bridgeport and camped near the Travertine Hot Springs. We were lucky to find a nice, large pullout on the road that made it easy to stop to camp and have an easy out in the morning.
There’s no camping allowed at the actual hot springs, a policy in place to try to preserve and protect the springs. Unfortunately there were about two dozen people who didn’t think that this applied to them. The upper parking lot was worse than an In-And-Out drive through line, the bathroom was a no-go, and there was trash strewn throughout the lot. Just because you can park your Sprinter or roof-top tent anywhere doesn’t mean that you should. Having access to these springs is a privilege, and we should treat it as one. Respect camping boundaries, pack out what you pack in, and in general, don’t be a dick.
Despite my disappointment in humans (how will we ever go back to socializing in large public gatherings again??), we were able to find a quiet, small spring to soak in just after sunrise. As always, the views were majestic and the water was just right.
All good things must come to an end
Our three nights of camping in this vintage trailer was just what we needed. We enjoyed most of the comforts of a hotel or AirBnb, but we had access to wide open outdoor spaces. Glamping in the winter in the Eastern Sierra is definitely something that I’ll be doing again, and you can too.
Check out the 1962 Aristocrat vintage trailer we rented on Outdoorsy here. Book your stay at Benton Hot Springs here. Check the avalanche forecast in the Eastern Sierra here. And shop Tahoe Petrichor here.