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The sad story behind the Travertine Hot Springs Instagram hotspot | Bartell's Backroads

Decades ago it was a spiritual place for Native Americans. Today it is often treated like a bathtub by tourists.

BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — The Mono Basin is rich with geothermal activity, but one hot spring that seems to be visited and photographed more than any other: Travertine Hot Springs.

The springs are located just outside the small town of Bridgeport in Mono County. It has become a popular Instagram hotspot, but few know the story behind it. The hot waters once belonged to the Paiute Native American tribe. That was after European settlers pushed the native people off their hunting grounds, their acorn groves, and their fishing holes.

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Joseph Lent is a tribal historian for the Bridgeport Indian Reservation and he knows the history well. 

"In the early days of creation, one of the overseers of creation, his name was Isha and Isha was the person who established the way this place is. It's always been a very sacred place to the people," Lent said.

Today this sacred spot is known as Travertine Hot Springs. It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and often treated like a bathtub by tourists. 

"Isha made this hot water on purpose. We have cold water everywhere. We even have burial grounds here," said Lent. "Today, people leave underwear laying around, they leave toilet paper in the bushes."

Travertine has gained a lot of attention from travel magazines in recent years, but this geothermal hotspot was desecrated by non-natives many years before it became a tourist attraction.

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US Forest Service geologist David Risley is based in nearby Bridgeport. He said the reason we call it Travertine Hot Springs today is because of the minerals that boil out of the ground. 

"Travertine is a type of Limestone. A calcium carbonate," Risley said.

About 60 tons of Travertine was mined here in the mid-1890s and used for construction in high-end buildings. San Francisco City Hall is made with travertine from this site. 

"This particular material being very rare was used on the inside facings of construction," Risley said.

Currently, there isn't mining at Travertine. The Bureau of Land Management has it set as a critical area of environmental concern, but that doesn’t protect this sacred land from people who don't see it as sacred. This land is here for everyone and it should be seen and visited by everyone, but this land, like any land, should be respected. 

“This ground underneath us is a certain point of spirituality that one comes to be a part of," said Lent, the tribal historian. "No one seems to see it that way. The native people do, but we are so far removed from the picture that no one seems to care."

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