Climate change is not only causing steady increases in average global temperatures but also increasing the frequency with which extreme heating events occur. These extreme events may be pivotal in determining the ability of organisms to persist in their current habitats. Thus, it is important to understand how quickly an organism's heat tolerance can be gained and lost relative to the frequency with which extreme heating events occur in the field. We show that the California mussel, Mytilus californianus —a sessile intertidal species that experiences extreme temperature fluctuations and cannot behaviourally thermoregulate—can quickly (in 24–48 h) acquire improved heat tolerance after exposure to a single sublethal heat-stress bout (2 h at 30 or 35°C) and then maintain this improved tolerance for up to three weeks without further exposure to elevated temperatures. This adaptive response improved survival rates by approximately 75% under extreme heat-stress bouts (2 h at 40°C). To interpret these laboratory findings in an ecological context, we evaluated 4 years of mussel body temperatures recorded in the field. The majority (approx. 64%) of consecutive heat-stress bouts were separated by 24–48 h, but several consecutive heat bouts were separated by as much as 22 days. Thus, the ability of M. californianus to maintain improved heat tolerance for up to three weeks after a single sublethal heat-stress bout significantly improves their probability of survival, as approximately 33% of consecutive heat events are separated by 3–22 days. As a sessile animal, mussels likely evolved the capability to rapidly gain and slowly lose heat tolerance to survive the intermittent, and often unpredictable, heat events in the intertidal zone. This adaptive strategy will likely prove beneficial under the extreme heat events predicted with climate change.