There are many reasons why the overuse of hot springs is problematic, including threats to human safety, but the core issue is the fact that the land cannot repair itself fast enough to keep up with the damage that people are causing.
So, are hot springs threatened by overuse and constant visitation? Hot springs are sensitive areas, and they have experienced a surge of popularity within the last few years. They are not able to sustain the amount of people that want to enjoy them. An unfortunate fact is that many visitors are making an impact on the health of the area by littering or polluting. When hundreds of people are leaving a trace, it adds up. Read on to find out how hot springs are impacted by human use, and a few ways that we may be able address the issues.
One Saturday night in March, my partner and I were driving around the surrounding wilderness by Mammoth Lakes. We ended up near the trail heads for several popular hot springs. As we drove through, I couldn’t believe the number of parked cars and people that we were passing. They were lining the sides of the road. It seemed endless. “Are all of these people here for the hot springs?” I wondered aloud, concerned.
Maybe there was some other attraction out this way that I didn’t know about, some other reason for there to be so many cars parked along the side of this road in the middle of nowhere. I hoped.
He confirmed my suspicions. I wasn’t missing anything. What we were seeing was the new reality in an age of social media and information at our fingertips. I kept staring out the window as we passed by car after car, watching the groups of people all heading to the same place. I had heard that this particular spot had become wildly overused the last few years. I didn’t realize how bad the problem actually was.
Environmental Impact on Overused Hot Springs
Trash and pollution are some of the biggest problems. It can range from broken glass in the water, to mismanagement of human waste from illegal campers, to just general litter. Particularly in the summer, many people are polluting the water with toxic chemicals from sunscreens. All of these things are dangerous to local flora and fauna.
The rise of overnight camping has also been known to lead to destruction of nearby resources for firewood, destroying wildlife habitat. Campfires outside of designated areas are damaging to the land and are wildfire hazards in drought-prone areas. There have been far too many human-caused wildfires in California, and in many other places in the west.
Most of these issues could be addressed by encouraging visitors to Leave No Trace. By taking only pictures and leaving only footprints, the environmental impact on hot springs could be significantly reduced.
Cleaning Up and Restoring the Area
As always, when we are out in nature, we should be practicing Leave No Trace. Following those guidelines and urging others to do the same is one of the ways that we could minimize the damage to hot springs. Make sure to always clean up after yourself, and never leave any trash behind.
Unless you’re on private property at a hot springs resort, there are most likely no accessible trash cans by the pools themselves. Garbage frequently gets left behind. Even just bringing a trash bag along with you when you visit and picking up any litter you see can make a difference.
If you’re interested in getting involved on a larger scale, local organizations may have volunteer opportunities.
- Check in with the Forest Service or nearby environmental nonprofits to see if you can organize clean up days for popular spots in the area.
- For the Mammoth Lakes area, Friends of the Inyo, Sierra Club’s Range of Light group, or the Mono Lake Committee may be able to point you in the right direction.
Would a Permit System Fix the Problem?
Hot springs are generally not that large. There just isn’t room for fifty people on a Saturday night. If you’re visiting hot springs to have a secluded, quiet experience in nature, you’re out of luck. That isn’t happening anymore. The impact on the feeling of wilderness is pretty significant.
Within the past few years, White River National Forest in Colorado has implemented an overnight permit system for one of their most popular hot springs. This location, similar to many others like it, was seeing a rise of littering, human and animal encounters, and impacts from campfires.
Day use is still available without a permit, but any hikers seeking to camp out are now required to acquire a permit to do so. By only allowing 17 campers per night in designated areas, the Forest Service is able to limit the amount of strain on the landscape.
Permit systems would be more complicated around Mammoth Lakes. Land ownership in the eastern Sierra is a jumbled mix of the Forest Service, BLM, private property, and a surprisingly large percentage that belongs to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Most of our local hot springs are on BLM land, which is why overnight camping without permits is generally allowed. BLM does occasionally offer permits for certain types of land use, but these tend to be on an annual basis.
They don’t have the infrastructure in place to offer daily permits. Unfortunately, we will need to come up with an action plan and another solution to cut down on visitation for many spots in the eastern Sierra.
However, many other places in the west may be able to implement permit systems as a way to manage their local hot springs. National Forests already offer backcountry permits for many places, so it would be an easier process to require permits on Forest Service land. While permit systems are frequently a controversial subject, they are a proven way to protect popular areas.
Many National Forests and National Parks have successfully cut back on overcrowding by requiring permits for some of their most loved hikes. If we could protect hot springs in the same way, they may have a better chance.
My Feelings as a Mountain Local
I am very outspoken on this issue in my local community. It became a running joke in the information center I supervised last summer – if a visitor was asking about hot springs, I always seemed to appear at the front counter from wherever I was. It was like I had a sixth sense. Really, I was just grateful for the opportunity to protect something that is ultimately unsustainable. Their fragility is something that many visitors to our beautiful mountain homes don’t think of.
Sometimes, visitors would ask me if I frequent the hot springs myself. It’s a fair question. It was our organization’s policy not to share the locations of nearby hot springs, not my personal decision, but it was something that I backed up wholeheartedly. I was telling everyone that I can’t give them any information, so it’s not out of the question for them to wonder if I was just trying to keep local secrets.
The truthful answer, however, is that I don’t visit them.
When I was less informed, and before overuse really surged, I visited hot springs in Colorado a handful of times. The last time I visited over a year ago, it was so overcrowded that my friends and I didn’t even go in. There wasn’t enough space. It was absolutely packed full of people, there were unattended dogs running loose, and people were leaving trash everywhere. That was when I really started to realize how much of an issue it was becoming.
The first time I ever went to a hot spring – it was actually the same one – several years previously, we had it almost entirely to ourselves. There was one other small group that joined us during the few hours that we were there. There were no crushed beer cans littering the sides of the pool. I wasn’t picking up trash on the trail. Unfortunately, things have changed since then.
I don’t believe that living here makes me any less a part of the problem than visitors from outside of the mountains. Until visitation calms down (if it ever does, and hopefully it will), I don’t feel as though I should perpetuate the overuse of these spaces. I know that I will practice strict Leave No Trace principles and try to minimize my impact as much as possible, but it seems to me that if I am encouraging others to give hot springs a break, I should be following the same rules.
There are only so many genuinely wild places left in the world. It is our duty, as lovers of the outdoors, to also be stewards of the land. I want to give these special spots a chance to take a breath, so to speak, and have some time to rest from the constant flow of visitors. My hope is that others will take the same stance.
If you do decide to visit hot springs in the mountains, you can make a positive impact by protecting their integrity. Hopefully, we can create a future where hot springs are able to be enjoyed in an environmentally responsible way.
Related content: What Are the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace?