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Searching for EJ's Hot Springs

When you want info on off the map local gems, your best bet is to make friends with the camp host.

By: Aaron Rickel Jones + Save to a List

I’ve never met a camp host quite like EJ.

He’s 30 years old, has a glint in his eye that makes you wonder whether you should take anything he says seriously, and holds an open grudge against the “LA folk” who come to stay in the campground’s new luxury yurts. The campground itself has been there forever, but it recently sold and rebranded to cater to the glamping market. You can imagine what the locals have to say about the change.

My wife and I earned a few points with EJ when he learned we were roughing it in a tent. Our friend Pauline booked one of the yurts, complete with freestanding bath tub and robes, earning a sideways glance from the camp host. But she was 1) also a local and 2) celebrating her 30th birthday, so he cut her some slack too.

When we pulled in he told us we could take whatever tent site we wanted to—we were his first tent campers of the season. He welcomed us to Hope Valley, asked if we wanted any firewood (“it’s free, which is pretty cool cause not every campground does that you know” he explained) and then, with a dramatic flair as if our whole arrival had been leading to this pinnacle question, cocked his head and asked: got any good jokes?

I haven’t been asked if I know any good jokes since, I don’t know, middle school? My brain whirred for a second before quickly confirming that indeed, no new content had been added to the joke catalog since the mid 2000s. The only joke I’m able to recall is a fart joke I heard in elementary school. I don’t even think of my go-to classic “why did the chicken cross the road? Why? To get to your house. Knock knock. Who’s there? The chicken.”

EJ gives me a second to think by explaining that he keeps a book of jokes in his trailer. They help keep him company during the week when the campground is empty, and he gets to share his favorites with the campers. Then he proceeds to set the stage with a joke of his own, the setup to which is unfit to reprint. Suffice it to say, I’ve never seen my wife’s eyes roll harder. It immediately became clear what kind of joke EJ was looking for, and I had nothing for him. Even if I could have remembered a good joke, it wouldn’t have involved quite the level of anatomic detail and off color slang that EJ was after.

Needless to say, I punted and admitted I was fresh out of jokes. BUT, I promised if he let me sleep on it and came by in the morning I would give him one. EJ reluctantly agreed, but made sure I knew how disappointed he was that he had to go back to his trailer sans joke. He may have mumbled something about LA folk on his way out, but I can’t be sure.

The next morning, just as I was pouring my second cup of coffee EJ rolled back into camp and, of course, I still hadn’t come up with a joke. Fortunately, our friend Mike stepped up and told one that got EJ laughing. I’ll leave the actual joke for the pages of EJ’s book, but it was apparently funny enough to earn us access to a few local secrets.

EJ started talking about the area listing off swimming holes, campsites, and other off-the-map gems he had scoped out over the years. He told us about another book he kept that contained every road in Nevada. He kept it religiously updated with highlights, notes, and markers of all the places he’d been—which was seemingly everywhere in the state. All of our ears perked up when he started talking about some great hot springs just a quick drive away and a two mile hike in. We had only planned on hiking that day, but this insider knowledge sounded like a worthwhile change of plans. When the universe hands you a natural spa, you say yes and go for it.

Service in Hope Valley is pretty spotty, and EJ’s directions were even spottier (he told us himself he either drank a six pack or a smoked a bowl almost every morning before 9am. Sometimes both.) Needless to say, we gathered a few additional sources. We ended up piecing together the basics of a map that took us a few miles off the highway on dirt roads until we arrived at a stand of pine trees and a trailhead.

The hike headed out through the burn area from the 2021 Tamarack and East Fork fires. All the skeleton remains of blackened trees covering the hillsides are eerily ornate, but aren’t the most scenic landscape to hike through. Plus, they provide almost zero shade. An easy two mile walk through the forest quickly turned into a grayscale slog through a midday oven. (In classic fashion, I didn’t take a single picture in the burn area)

After hiking down a long steep ravine, we arrived at a shady camp area next to a bend in the river and started poking around for the hot springs. A cursory glance through the reeds revealed nothing, but sometimes the pools can be difficult to find. We followed a few promising trails up and down the river, but they all petered out within a hundred yards. No cairns, no sulfur smell in the air… no sign of any hot springs at all.

Forty five minutes of searching turned up nothing, so we hiked all the way back up to the top of the steep ravine to get more cell service and consult the map. We seemed to be in the right place, but even zooming way in on google maps, we couldn’t see anything that looked like it might be hot spring pools.

After some hemming and hawing and one final hike back to an overlook of the river we decided to cut our losses and, disheartened, started the hot trek back through the burnscape to the car.

We tried to stay optimistic while retracing our path back through the burned hills, but a thick cloud of “this sucks and we know it” hung in the air. Before EJ had told us about the hot springs, our plan for the day was simply to go on a hike. Which is exactly what we ended up doing. But after hiking for an hour with the image of an all natural riverside jacuzzi resort growing in my mind, there was no way around it. We had failed, and now we were doing the walk of shame. We started wondering whether this had all been a big practical joke.

Later, as we rolled back into camp hot and tired, and as if on cue, EJ showed up and asked how our day was. So we told him the truth: we just went for a hike.

Fortunately for our egos, he didn’t ask any follow up questions. Although something tells me that if we had told him the truth, he would have pulled out his tattered guide to every road in Nevada, flipped through the pages until he found the exact location marked with an old, faded X. And then, just as one of us took out our phone to snag a picture, he would have snapped the book shut and demanded we tell him a joke first.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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