by Lee Foster
Fans of California’s Mammoth Lakes region in the eastern Sierra argue persuasively that it competes for the honor of one of the most diverse outdoor summer regions of the Golden State.
The scenery is stunning, starting with the basalt columns at Devils Postpile National Monument. A traveler arrives at Mammoth right in the mountains, with no foothills as prelude, and with many small alpine lakes as a setting.
The natural history of the region intrigues, especially at Mono Lake, immediately north of Mammoth Lakes. Remnants of volcanoes and earthquakes, tufa formations, and an abundant food supply for birds make Mono Lake special.
Day hikes or ambitious backpacking can easily take a visitor into the wilderness, such as the John Muir Wilderness, perhaps on the John Muir or Pacific Crest trails. In few places will a traveler find so many accessible trails.
The most elaborate horse-packing outfits in the state can remove the huff and puff from traversing this granite terrain, between 7,000-12,000 feet. A full-day pack trip, for example, takes you six miles into the wilderness to Duck Lake, revealing a backcountry wilderness that only a hiker in superb condition could experience on foot.
Mountain bikers delight in the region, partly because of the numerous bikeable roads, and partly because the great winter mountain, Mammoth, so noted for its ski runs, becomes a mountain-biking park in summer. You take the gondola to the top and then bike down the switchbacks, through the trees, to the bottom.
Fishermen get the style of trout fishing they desire. Some seek out the edible trophy trout in Crowley Lake. Others fish for the numerous, planted “catch-ables” in the several Mammoth Lakes. Purists angle with barbless hooks in world-class catch-and-release Hot Creek.
A traveler will find the requisite tourism infrastructure in this modern, little, mountain town of 8,000 people. Abundant mid-range condos, such as Snowcreek, serve the needs of the family traveler and can be arranged through a central reservation service. Local restaurateurs offer individualistic menus.
All considered, Mammoth has appeals that equal its famous competitors, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. Both those regions are better known than Mammoth, partly because they are more easily accessible. Already popular as a winter ski destination, Mammoth now attracts more summer visitors. Summer travelers tend to echo the comments of the transplants in the local population, who say, “I came for the winter, but stayed for the summer.” Mammoth is a six-hour drive from San Francisco or from Los Angeles.
Everywhere you look in the region, the pleasure of rugged mountain scenery greets you. Mammoth Mountain dominates the area. A gondola ride to the 11,000-foot summit, summer or winter, reveals a panoramic vista. Another favorite view, near Mammoth Mountain, is the overlook to the Minarets, spires to the west, which looked like Muslim churches to the early explorers. This sawtooth effect was created by the freezing and thawing of water in the stone, gradually using the expansive force of ice to crack off the sides of the rocks. From the Minaret Vista you get a sweeping view of the eastern Sierra, including the start of the San Joaquin River.
The choice scenic area is compact, encompassing Mammoth Mountain, the Minarets Vista, and Devils Postpile National Monument. Early morning light is the most satisfying time to see the Minarets, from the vista turnout between Mammoth Mountain and the National Monument. A shuttle bus then takes you into the National Monument, where short and level hiking trails lead to the two principal features, Postpile and Rainbow Falls. Postpile amounts to geometric, blue-grey, basalt columns, 40-60 feet high, formed when a vertical lava flow cooled quickly. Geologists feel this event occurred about 100,000 years ago. Rainbow Falls is a sharp 101-foot drop in the San Joaquin River, where sunlight causes a rainbow in the spray. The optimal time for viewing both Postpile and Rainbow Falls is early afternoon.
The town of Mammoth Lakes has an alpine lakes district on its edge. The lakes are popular camping places. Campers tend to be fishermen eager to catch the stocked rainbow and brown trout.
The terrain north from Mammoth to June Lake contains one of the largest forest stands of Jeffrey Pine, noted for its vanilla-smelling bark. Walking through these stands on a warm, summer afternoon reminds one of a cookie-baking operation.
The morning sun on the mountains to the west and the sunset light on the eastern peaks put a glow on each day at Mammoth.
Mono Lake, just north of Mammoth, is the major natural history attraction in the region. The Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over the lake, maintains an interpretive center at the south edge of the lake. Be sure to stop in to see the exhibits, get maps, and learn about the lake, especially the tufa spires, those other-worldly formations of minerals that now extend above the surface of the lake. The spires are visible due to the receding level of the water. The tufa towers are limestone deposits created from calcium-bearing freshwater springs bubbling up through the lake’s carbon-rich, alkaline water.
The best place to see the tufa formations is at the South Tufa site. Rangers on duty lead periodic hikes there. You’ll be amazed at the density of the non-biting flies, called brine flies, which make up the base of the animal food chain here, allowing for abundant bird life. Brine flies and brine shrimp attain explosive populations at Mono Lake. The Native Americans of the area, called the Kuzedika, lived by eating the pupae of the flies. More than 70 species of migratory birds feed on the flies. The populations of the migrating bird species here are huge, including about 150,000 phalaropes in July-August and 800,000 eared-grebes August-October.
Efforts to save Mono Lake from being drained by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which had purchased the area water rights, eventually led to a Supreme Court settlement calling for restoration of inbound streams and stabilization of the surface level of the lake. A higher lake level gives more protection from predators to birds nesting on the islands and insures that the alkalinity of the water, which has already doubled, will not change further, negatively affecting the ecosystem.
The main political controversy in the Mammoth Lakes region was, is, and always will be over water and the rights to control its use. It could be argued that this is the central political struggle that will always be ongoing in all of California.
With an orienting map in hand, available from the Visitor Center in Mammoth Lakes, you can choose easy or more strenuous hikes in the region. Keep in mind that the elevation is high, starting at 7,000 feet, so allow a day to get adjusted, drink plenty of water when hiking, and be advised that underestimating your capacity is the mark of wisdom.
Enjoyable and easy hikes are available in the Devils Postpile Monument to see the principle features, as mentioned. The hike to the Postpile itself is only a quarter-mile. The hike to Rainbow Falls is a mile-and-half, but even young children do this level hike, taking their time. The National Monument has other hikes to be recommended, such as a wildflower walk at Agnews Meadow or a view of beaver dams at Sotcher Lake. You witness the effect of avalanches shearing off forests to create open space. You also see lakes, such as Starkweather, gradually progressing to become meadows.
Many hikes can be made from the lakes area at Mammoth Lakes. Behind the town, tucked amidst the mountains, are Mary, Mamie, George, Horseshoe, and Twin lakes. The area is laced with hiking trails, which become the cross-country ski trails of winter, with headquarters at Tamarack Lodge on Twin Lakes. In summer, the alpine forests of lodgepole pine, the reflective waters of the lakes, and the granite mountains are the hiking impressions. This is also a jumping-off point for ambitious horse-packing or backpacking trips into the John Muir Wilderness.
Nowhere in California is horseback-riding or horse-packing into the mountains offered more extensively than at Mammoth. Each of the four main areas around Mammoth has its own pack outfit.
The oldest packing business here is Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit, started in 1915, making it also the oldest packer business in the eastern Sierra and one of the earliest businesses in Mammoth. Packers carried in mining supplies to the gold miners in the region before the pleasure traveler came onto the scene. The Summers family started the business.
A pack trip on horseback puts you in the capable hands of a wrangler, such as Larry Maurice, who knows the horses and the trail. Maurice understands well the mystique of the Eastern Sierra and happens also to be a cowboy poet. Maurice led our party on a four-hour trip into the back country, past Barney Lake, and on to Duck Lake and Pika Lake, crossing 10,750-foot Duck Pass. Within a day on a horse you can see terrain that only a hiker in expert condition could traverse.
Nothing surpasses an immersion in this wilderness as an antidote to citified malaise. A day of horseback-riding in this back-country will leave you with memories of lodgepole and red fir forests, granite vistas still dotted with snow in summer, trout rising to take flies in remote lakes, clean air in a pristine setting, and surefooted horses on the edges of precipices.
The horse-packing season runs June through September. All kinds of trips can be arranged, from a one-hour scenic loop along Mary Lake, suitable even for young children, to a week-long “spot” trip, meaning you are left out in the wilderness. One popular option is the “inclusive” trip, meaning the wrangler and horses stay with you, and the wrangler does the cooking.
Mountain biking has exploded here because of the many miles of country roads, such as the Scenic Drive road north from Mammoth Lakes, plus the rare opportunity to bike right down Mammoth Mountain.
The ski areas of winter become a bike park in summer. You ride up the gondola with your bike and then embark for a ride down the mountain on specially-designed bike trails. Gravity replaces pedal power as the energy source in this down-the-mountain adventure, which extends the potential appeal even to a bicyclist who would otherwise be classified as a couch potato.
At the base, Mammoth Mountain Bike Park will rent you a bike and the required helmet. The bikes are tough models, as they have to be, to take the beating of rides down the bumpy, stony trails. A ride down can be a two-hour jaunt, traversing switchback trails adroitly laid out for biking, with names like Over the Bars, Brake Through, and Paper Route.
The biker can choose a desired pace, ranging from a leisurely tour, with stops for enjoying the views, to a hell-bent careening intent on setting a speed record in this rocky terrain. The latter style appeals especially to high-testosterone males under 30. A cult of down-the-mountain racing has led Mammoth to organize several summer biking events.
Several strains of trout, but mainly rainbow and brown, are the prize in the Mammoth Lakes region.
Crowley Lake, actually a man-made reservoir, is in a class by itself because of its trophy trout. The mineral fertility of the lake produces an abundance of fly and shrimp growth that enables trout to gain weight fast. This reservoir, part of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power operation, has a marina managed by Sierra Recreation Associates, where you can rent a boat or engage one of the expert guides. Anglers troll with Rapalas or Needlefish for the five strains of rainbows and browns in the lake. Still fishermen use nightcrawlers and “power bait”, a synthetic bait, while bottomfishing. Crowley has many two-pound trout, some five-pound trophies, and did yield a record 18-pound brown trout. The season runs end of April to end of July. Crowley is stocked each autumn for the next season’s fishing.
Mammoth Lakes, the cluster of small lakes near the town, provides good fishing from shore or small boats, which can be rented. The lakes are stocked weekly in summer.
Hot Creek provides a different type of fishing. Hot Creek is a special scenic area where boiling fumaroles and heated springs enter a creek, reminding everyone of the volcanic presence beneath the Mammoth region. In certain areas of Hot Creek the public is invited to soak in the hot water. Hot Creek is also preserved as a special trout stream, considered world-class, sometimes rated by fishermen as one of the 10 best in the world. Anglers at Hot Creek must use dry or wet flies with barbless hooks. The style here is catch-and-release. Hot Creek attracts the sport fisher, not the meat fisher.
On the road to Hot Creek, be sure to stop in at the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery, one of three main hatcheries in the state. There you can see, in the raceways, thousands of the two-pound broodstock trout used to create the eggs for the state’s fish-planting program. You can even feed the fish with the pellets they eat, creating a frenzy on the surface. The sight of lunkers at the Hot Creek Hatchery can excite the pulse of even a nascent fisherman. From this hatchery, about 20 million trout eggs, four million fingerlings, and 800,000 catchables enter California fishing waters each year.
Mammoth’s Tourism Infrastructure
Getting to Mammoth by car takes about six hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The drive from Los Angeles crosses the Mojave Desert and then moves up Highway 395 on the east side of the Sierra.
The route from San Francisco is Highway 120 across the Tioga Pass in Yosemite or Highway 50 to Tahoe, then turning south on Highway 395. Visitors from San Francisco can enjoy driving different routes coming and going to add scenic interest.
Both the drive from Los Angeles and from San Francisco rate high for traveler satisfaction. From San Francisco, for example, the crossing of Yosemite’s high country (in “summer” only, winter means snow) is a mix of granite starkness and the lushness of Tuolumne Meadows. The Highway 395 route emphasizes the drier side of the mountains, the east side, with cattle-grazing flatlands, small wood-frame towns such as Markleeville, trout fishermen along the East Carson River, alternate chaparral terrain and dense aspen groves, some rapid eight-percent-grade descents, and the smell of sage.
Once you arrive in Mammoth Lakes, the Visitor Center on Main Street is a good first stop. You can obtain maps and all desired info on the region. Across the road from the Visitor Center is Mammoth Properties, which handles many of the lodging bookings for the region. Overall, the town has a clean, new, and modern feel, rather than the old false-front mining town one might expect. Four small shopping centers anchor the town.
Memories of Mammoth
Mammoth Lakes is one of those special California places that confirms how satisfying the Golden State can be for travelers. Unlike Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, with their focused identity, conjuring up immediate images of El Capitan or the blue lake, Mammoth Lakes offers a more diffused range of impressions. This may be a marketing problem, from the point of view of the destination’s identity, but it is a plus in terms of the way people actually travel today. Today’s traveler is a difficult person to define, who may want scenery, natural history, hiking, biking, horse-packing, or fishing on a trip. Mammoth responds effectively to the ever-increasing range of these personalized approaches to travel.
California’s Mammoth Lakes Region: If You Go
For full information, see the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau website at www.visitmammoth.com.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s book Northern California Travel: The Best Options. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The book is also available on Amazon in Chinese as an ebook. See all of Lee’s books on his Lee Foster Author Page