Benton might seem a tad bare at first blush, but there are ghosts of the Wild West in them thar hills. This off-the-beaten-path destination is tucked against the majestic White Mountains and is surrounded by natural hot springs, fascinating architecture, and historical remnants and stories of Wild West mining.
Benton was settled by the Utu Utu Gwaitu Paiute Tribe, which translates to the "hot water place people." But like many spots in the West, Benton started booming in the mid 1800s when gold and silver were found.
Today, the magic that draws visitors is in the soothing waters and seemingly limitless outdoor adventure that awaits.
Benton is a solid enough road trip from San Francisco. Weighing in at 370 miles and 6 hours, 30 minutes, it's a day's run from the Bay to the mountains. But oh the contrasts. When it's done, you're in wilderness, baby.
Cross the Bay on I-80 and head for Sacramento. At that point, you've got a decision to make: stick with I-80 and roll wide to hit Reno, play the blackjack tables and sneak into Benton from the Nevada side of the line, or exit onto US-50 to keep heading east. The drive through Reno will add only about 40 minutes surprisingly.
If US-50 is your pick, you will romp into the El Dorado National Forest, looking for CA-89 at a little spot called Meyers. Soon enough you'll turn onto CA-88 and bend until you catch US-395. That's your fast lane down past Topaz Lake, past the east entrance to Yosemite National Park, and past Mammoth Lakes. A little further and you'll turn east on CA-120. That's your homestretch to Benton.
The Vagabond Inn is the perfect choice for budget travelers who may need a little more privacy. The rooms are basic but super clean, and the atmosphere is friendly and professional. Guests love the Inn for its free wi-fi, outdoor pool, and delicious continental breakfast. Bringing Fido along? They’ll be more than happy to have him. With unbeatable rates and a fabulous central location, it’s no wonder that many guests are here for their second, third, or tenth time!
The Hostel California is the place to be for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts on a budget. The friendly staff and shared accommodations make it easy to partner up for your big adventure. Staying here is like staying with family. The centrally located, charming bungalow features a spacious porch, fully-equipped kitchen, and a plethora of books celebrating the region. Parking is free, so leave your car and take advantage of the free bicycle rentals for a quick jaunt into town.
The Joseph House Inn is an adorable B&B with gracious hosts, a lovely property, and thoughtful amenities like bathrobes and a terrace or patio in some rooms. Your hosts will greet you with a glass of wine, which you can enjoy from an Adirondack chair overlooking the pond and lush gardens in the backyard. The rooms are a bit old-fashioned but comfortable. A good night’s sleep and the incredible made-to-order breakfast will have you ready to hike for miles.
This family-run restaurant is a block off the main drag and a little out of the way, but has a cult following among locals. The mother-daughter duo who run the joint serve up Mexican favorites with a smile. The elote (corn slathered in crema and cotija with a sprinkling of chili powder) is not to be missed. Share a platter of spicy nachos and then cool down with a horchata, fresh fruit salad, or frozen yogurt. Antojito’s Hipocampus opens daily at 11 am.
Benton Station Cafe is a casual diner that, let's be straight, is the only table in this out-of-the-way town. Give the burgers and fries a try. Some rave about the friendliness of the staff and the bang for the buck. And, we'll be honest: some don't. But this is an adventure to a small spot where few roam, so buckle up and have fun. Bishop is just down the road when you're ready to try something new.
Mountain Rambler Brewery is the place to see and be seen after a long day enjoying the great outdoors. The convivial atmosphere and extensive selection of local beers are just the icing on the cake. The real draw here is the food. From juicy burgers cooked to perfection to hearty brats with kraut to unforgettable seasoned fries… is your mouth watering yet? The menu here also features delicious salads and house-made hummus if you’re eating light. Mountain Rambler is clean, comfy, and open seven days a week.
Bristlecone pines are the oldest living trees on Earth. The most ancient is found on Methuselah trail and has survived an estimated 4,743 years. The full hike will take about 3-4 hours with plenty of stops to admire the breathtaking views. Even the most seasoned hikers walk away in awe of the majestic power of the Bristlecone pines. Just getting there is a journey in itself – it’s a treacherous hour drive along winding roads that end at an elevation over 10,000 feet. Once you’re acclimated, choose from 3 trails. There’s a visitor’s center but don’t forget to pack a lunch.
You can leave your towel in the car for this one, if you're looking for natural springs. If you want to pop into the Inn, you can pay up for a sit in their hot springs-fed tubs. Either way, Benton Hot Springs has some history worth stopping by to see and shoot a few selfies with. The town saw its heyday from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for nearby mines. Water there was said to hit 135 degrees Fahrenheit, so a bit more scalding than your toes would have liked in the wild, anyway.
Bishop’s Pass is a popular 9.6-mile trail just outside of Bishop. Unfortunately, the stunning views of the beautiful basin and the tranquil lakes along the way may not be accessible to beginner hikers. The elevation of almost 12,000 feet at the peak is dangerous if you haven’t properly acclimated and the switchbacks can be treacherous when the weather is bad. However, if you’re up for a challenge, the exhilarating hike through Bishop’s Pass is not to be missed. You’ll see why it’s one of the most popular routes in the Eastern Sierras.
The Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center may be small, but it’s a worthwhile stop that is culturally significant. Most visits take less than a few hours, but there’s so much to learn at this tiny museum on the grounds of the Paiute reservation just next door to Bishop. Check out lovingly restored artifacts alongside exhibits that tell the history of the Paiute Natives in the region. You’ll also learn about the tribe’s ongoing conflict with the LA water department and what you can do to help. The cultural center is open year-round.
Exhausted from a long day hiking the trails? Take an afternoon off and delve into history at the Laws Railroad Museum. But it’s more than just a museum. This destination is a veritable village of more than 20 separate buildings, each featuring artifacts and exhibits that show, rather than tell, visitors what life was like in the old mining town. You’ll see a doctor’s office filled with the medical equipment of the time, an ore-processing mill, and even a church that features an impressive library. Children and adults alike will delight in the “Slim Princess” locomotive that still stands proud at the restored depot. Free admission.