Hot Creek is a cold mountain stream flowing out of the eastern Sierra. Intense volcanic activity makes eddies of hot, bathable water in the middle of the stream.
For me, Hot Creek is a canonical stop in any trip to the eastern Sierra, as it was recently after I headed over Tioga Pass and before I went down into Owens Valley (view a map of my trip).
Despite fairly heavy usage — on a summer weekend there will likely be hundreds of people in the various pools in the creek, the Green Tortoise makes it a regular stop, and German tourists on Harley Davidson motorcycles visit on a schedule — the place is pretty clean and unspoiled.
Hot Creek lies on U.S. Forest Service land, which calls the place a “geologic feature” and plays down the bathing aspect. Signs at the parking lot at the top of the trail down to the creek report various accidents at the creek (dogs have gone into scalding hot pools, and their owners have been hurt going in after them).
There’s nothing like lolling around in 104 degree water for hours to facilitate pleasant conversations with strangers. One of my companions this time was a risk management professional. His job was to assess risk from things like storms, earthquakes, and volcanic activity for clients like electric utilities.
We chuckled together about a risk management consultant placidly bathing in one of the most active volcanic sites in the country. Then he said something I’ve been thinking about since then:
I know it could blow here anytime, but it’s worth it. As a professional matter, the risks you know about can be judged and calibrated. The risks someone doesn’t know about are incalculable to that person — because they don’t know about them. When something you haven’t thought of that is bad happens, you feel blindsided. But this is not a realistic attitude, because everything has a probability.