MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — In the shadow of Mammoth Mountain, remnants of an old volcano are revealed below Hot Creek Gorge in Mono County. The steaming turquoise water billowing out of ground is known as the Hot Creek Geological Site and according to geologist Noah Randolph-Flagg, the water is a result of ancient volcanic activity.
“Mammoth formed about 50,000 years ago, and this whole caldera below us formed about 760,000 years ago and the water is still forming now,” Randolph-Flagg says.
A short quarter-mile paved path will get you to the hot springs, but take note of signs warning visitors to stay behind the fence. You do not want to go swimming in this water.
“The water is very close to boiling temperatures and sometimes it is boiling,” Randolph-Flagg says.
At last count, 14 people have lost their lives since 1968 because they got too close to the hot spring.
“Some of the ground you see across the way is hot and it is unstable and you could fall in,” Randolph-Flagg says.
The bubbles and steam you see along the Hot Creek drainage are created when snow melt from the Sierra seeps down through cracks in the Earth's crust then gets heated by 430 degree molten magma.
“This is a volcanic hot spring. I think the way to think of this is when you heat up water on a stove. It rises,” Randolph-Flagg says.
As the heated water rises through cracks in the Earth, it picks up minerals like calcium carbonate, which gives the water a bright blue look when sunlight hits it. Pungent volcanic gasses also make their way up.
“Here we have sulfur which prefers to be in steam from rising up, and that’s what we smell,” Randolph-Flagg says.
The dangerous hot springs and Hot Creek are separate from each other. Fish and aquatic life can survive here because when the hot spring and the creek mix it becomes lukewarm bath water.
Hot Creek Geological Site is operated by the US Forest Service and is open everyday from sunup to sun down. Admission is free. Learn more at their website.
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