Hilltop Hot Springs (Pulkey’s Pool) – Mammoth Lakes, CA

While the nearby ski resort Mammoth Mountain may be the most popular outdoorsy destination in the area, that doesn’t mean its neighbors in Mammoth Lakes aren’t worthy of exploring. In fact, one of the best ways to relax after a day on the mountain is to soak away your sore muscles in the natural hot springs found on nearby Minaret Summit.

While there are several hot springs in the Mammoth Lakes area (this guide also details how to find Tahoe Hot Springs, which are located just outside of Stateline), Minaret Summit is home to two of the most easily accessible spots: Hilltop Hot Springs and Pulkey’s Pool. The latter is one of California’s most famous swimming holes, thanks to its stunning aqua blue water and deep natural pool.

Hilltop is a bit more secluded but just as easy to access once you know where to go (and it boasts a much more natural setting). The nine-mile round-trip hike is considered easy and should take you less than three hours. If you’re looking for an easier way to get there, consider jumping in one of these rental boats and paddling across the lake or renting a bike for an easy pedal.

Hot Springs Pool

Hilltop Hot Springs (Pulkey's Pool)
Hilltop Hot Springs (Pulkey’s Pool)

Pulkey’s Pool is one of the most popular man-made swimming holes along the Long Valley Caldera, one of the world’s largest calderas. It is located above geothermal waters that escape from the subsurface at a scorching 130° F. The water then flows through a pipe into Pulkey’s Pool at temperatures ranging from 100° F to 110° F.

The temperature of Pulkey’s Pool varies according to the season you visit Hilltop Hot Springs. For example, in the summer, you may expect hotter temperatures and a beautiful, panoramic view of meadows and mountains.

Winter temperatures may decrease somewhat, but it’s a nice respite from the frigid, snow-covered plains. Soaking in the winter brings with it a spectacular view of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains, producing a scene that appears more like a picture than real life.

California Hilltop Hot Springs

Regardless of the season, you can expect two things: adjustable water temperature via gate valves and a tiny, clothing-optional tub. That’s right, no clothes are required at Pulkey’s Pool. In a tub that can hold up to six people and is two feet deep, you may find yourself in cramped quarters with little privacy.

Camping and lodging options nearby

Unfortunately, there is no camping in the immediate vicinity of Hilltop Hot Springs. Those who choose to tent, on the other hand, will find plenty of basic camping choices nearby. Those traveling in RVs or seeking for hotel accommodations will welcome the fact that Hilltop Hot Springs is only a 15-minute drive from Mammoth Lakes.

Brown’s Owens River Campground and Mammoth Mountain RV Park are two nearby possibilities. They each have alternatives for tent campers as well as travel trailers.

When to Go

When exploring the Mammoth Lakes area, there are a few things to keep in mind as far as the best time to go. First, keep in mind that this region is very reliant on the weather (and snowpack). If you’re looking to hit the slopes and don’t want to risk any inclement weather, book your stay early and be prepared to possibly leave early if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

As for hot springs, you’ll likely find the most solitude if you visit during shoulder season. If you’re looking for a more serene experience, avoid major holidays and popular weekends (such as President’s Day Weekend or Spring Break).

While the water temperature at Hilltop is fairly consistent all year long (between 95 and 100 degrees), weather does play a factor. The pools are closed if there is any chance of rain or if there’s snow on the ground. Additionally, Pulkey’s Pool is closed from October 1st through May 1st.

Since Hilltop Hot Springs is a hike, it’s best to go during the warmer months when snow has melted and the trail is clear. From late May to early October, you can visit, but in the winter months the access road is closed and you won’t be able to access this spot.

As mentioned, there are two main areas that are easily accessible to soak in the Mammoth Lakes area. The first is Hilltop Hot Springs (aka Pulkey’s Pool), which sits on Minaret Summit at the end of a nine-mile hiking trail. To get to the hot springs, you’ll want to hike about 2.3 miles up the hill from the road leading to the trailhead and then another 6 miles along the ridge line. The trail is marked with yellow blazes, so it’s easy to follow. Be sure to bring plenty of water—even though this hike isn’t considered difficult, it still adds up quickly and you’ll want to stay hydrated on your way up and back down.

When you get to the hot springs, you’ll find a rocky basin that holds several pools of varying temperatures created by natural rock formations. You can choose whichever pool suits your mood and soak away your sore muscles after a day on the slopes or a long hike. This spot is extremely serene—you’ll be far away from any crowds or city lights, and you may feel as if you have the entire area to yourself if you visit during off-season months or weekday afternoons. It’s also possible that a few fishermen may be in the area as well, as fishing is allowed in this portion of Lake Mary.

How to get there

Soaking in Hilltop Hot Springs
Soaking in Hilltop Hot Springs

The hike to Hilltop Hot Springs starts at the same trailhead as the hike to Pulkey’s Pool (though you can also take the road to Minaret Vista, park, and hike from there). From Highway 395 in Mammoth Lakes, take Main Street west toward the mountains. When you reach Old Mammoth Road (Highway 203), turn right and follow it for about a half mile before taking a left onto Lake Mary Road. The road will become Minaret Road, then Minaret Summit Road.

Continue up this road for about nine miles until you reach the signed Minaret Vista parking area on your right (if you reach the signed North Lake Picnic Area, you’ve gone too far). Park here; this is where the trails to both Pulkey’s Pool and Hilltop Hot Springs begin.

To get to Hilltop Hot Springs from here, follow the trail for about a quarter mile until it splits in two. Take the left fork toward Minaret Lake. You’ll pass a small campsite on your left before coming to a trail junction with an old wooden sign that points toward Hilltop Hot Springs. Take this right fork and follow it down through a forested area for about 0.2 miles until you reach the large pool at the base of a waterfall.

From Highway 203 in Mammoth Lakes, head east on Minaret Road toward Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. You’ll drive 7.2 miles up this road and then turn right onto Lake Mary Road. As you approach the lake you’ll see a parking lot on your left. This is where you’ll park to start your hike.

From here, you’ll look for the trailhead (it’s called Lake Mary Loop Trail) that heads down to the left, just after a series of picnic tables. You’ll follow this wide dirt trail for about a half mile (as it circles Lake Mary) until you come to a sign that points you to the left, toward the hilltop hot springs.

From here, it’s about 1.1 miles to the springs themselves. This part of the hike is well-maintained and easy to hike. The first 0.4 miles are covered by a wide dirt trail that is well-groomed and easy to walk. The next 0.7 miles are more difficult as you climb over rocky terrain, but it’s not too challenging.

Just after 1.1 miles, you’ll reach your destination: Hilltop Hot Springs. There are several pools of varying temperatures scattered around this area (which is private property). Some have been created by people while others are natural formations. The pools are all clothing-optional so feel free to strip down and jump in!

The Hike to Hilltop Hot Springs

Boardwalk to Hilltop Hot Springs
Boardwalk to Hilltop Hot Springs

The trailhead for Pulkey’s Pool and Hilltop Hot Springs is found at the end of Minaret Summit Road, a nine-mile road that splits off from Highway 120 as it heads west toward Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. The trailhead is actually located at the last parking lot on the road, which is also the end of public access to the area.

From here, hike west along the Blue Lakes Trail for about two and a half miles. (You’ll pass by Blue Lake on your right and then cross over several bridges.) You’ll know you’re getting close when you come to a fork in the trail; take a right here and stay on the main trail. The trail will then veer left, heading toward an open ridge. After about one mile, you’ll reach a false peak; after another mile, you’ll reach the top of Minaret Summit at 9,200 feet.

From here, turn right and head toward Pulkey’s Pool. (If you want to visit Hilltop Hot Springs, turn left and continue along the ridge.) After about another mile, you’ll find Pulkey’s Pool on your left. There is no official parking lot; just pull off along the side of the road. This section of road is narrow and windy but suitable for all cars; just drive slowly and safely.

From the parking lot, head east on Lake Mary Road for about a quarter mile before turning left onto a dirt road (this dirt road can also be accessed by driving into the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area parking lot). Continue straight until you come to a gate, which you’ll have to unlatch before continuing up the road. You’ll pass a couple of cabins on your right but don’t let that deter you—you’re allowed to hike here as long as you’re respectful of these homes and their neighbors (which means no parties out here!).

The trail continues for another 0.4 miles before coming to a fork in the road; take a right onto the smaller road and continue for another mile or so before reaching a second gate (this one will be closed). From here, continue hiking down hill for about two-tenths of a mile until you reach your destination! Pulkey’s Pool Pulkey’s Pool is one of California’s most stunning swimming holes, thanks to its deep blue waters that are fed by Hardy Creek (the creek runs through an underground spring).

It’s also known for providing plenty of opportunities for cliff jumping—though use caution if you decide to do so! The pool itself is located at the top of a waterfall; while swimming in it isn’t prohibited, it’s important to stay away from the base of this waterfall because it’s extremely dangerous there due to strong currents. The water temperature ranges from 68°F (20°C) in summer down to 44°

The hike to Hilltop Hot Springs is best done as an overnight trip. While you could technically hike in, set up camp, and swim for the day, you’ll want to plan this trip so you have time to enjoy the hot springs after a day of exploring the trails around Mammoth. And don’t forget to pack a headlamp; while there are plenty of stars to gaze at while soaking in the hot springs, it’s even more magical when you can look up and see them twinkling above you.

For your hike back down to your car, start by following the same trail you hiked up on in the morning. You’ll be hiking downhill for about two miles before reaching your car—but be careful not to rush so you don’t injure yourself. If you’ve got a camping stove with you, cook some dinner back at your campsite before crawling into your sleeping bag and calling it a night!

Bottom line

Exploring the Hilltop Hot Springs (Pulkey’s Pool) in Mammoth Lakes, California is an experience that you won’t soon forget. From sunbathing on the rocks to the refreshing sensation of the hot springs, there is something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day or a fun family adventure, Pulkey’s Pool is the perfect place to enjoy a wonderful day outdoors.

With its breathtaking views, peaceful atmosphere, and natural beauty, Pulkey’s Pool is sure to leave you feeling refreshed and invigorated. So why not take a trip to Pulkey’s Pool and explore one of Northern California’s hidden gems? You won’t regret it!

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Local information

Address: M676+H6, Mammoth Lakes, California
GPS: 37.663972,-118.789407
Season: Year-round
Clothing: Optional