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Mammoth (Nothing More, Nothing Less)

Mammoth Lakes is not terribly far from Los Angeles (4 hour drive), but it feels worlds away. My folks joined us from Texas on this vacation; it was them that dragged us here for the first time (probably whining as we wondered why we could not stay home playing video games or watching TV) almost 30 years ago. Mammoth, which includes the drive up through Lone Pine, Big Pine, Independence, Bishop, and all the small (and sometimes forgotten towns) that dot Highway 395, is an experience of natural beauty and wonder, bakeries, diners, film museums, and history. 

I’ve always said that the real drive starts once you hit Red Rock Canyon State Park -the splendor of the canyons, the bluffs and buttes are awe-striking. Our First stop was at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center just outside of Lone Pine. It was a chance to recharge, stretch the legs and take in Mt. Whitney. From this point, considered a “gateway” you can head north into the Sierras, west into Kings Canyon and Sequoia, or east in Death Valley; it truly is the “place where desert meets mountain and forest.” History and points of Interest here includes the Alabama Gates (“the” point where Los Angeles county takes the water from Owens Valley) and Manzanar (Japanese Internment Camp).

Once you are in Mammoth Lakes proper the adventures are limitless. A trip to the summit, a leisurely drive or hike through the lakes, or a mandatory stop at Schats Bakery!

Day 2 was an intake of historical lore, starting at the Mammoth Mountain Visitor Center. This, is the staging point for the rest of your vacation. Get your maps, hiking gear, and every bit of information (from fishing reports to wind-speed at the summit -case you want to brave the Gondolas!). From there we took a quick jaunt into Old Mammoth to the Southern Mono Historical Museum and Mammoth History Museum -the salvaged original Hayden cabin. From here we meandered to Mammoth City (site of the original Mammoth Lakes city prior to its permanent closure do to the blizzard of 1878 and then kept driving to “the white picket fence” -a solitary grave site commemorating Julia Townsend who perished in the blizzard of 1882. The site is serene and devoid of noise, surrounded by dense forest and the occasional sound of a passing car. 

The rest of the day was spent fishing on Lake Mary. Lake Mary is the largest of the 7 lakes and the Lake Mary Marina is where to rent your boat (or pontoon in our case). I recommend that you call in advance and get there early to grab parking. As per tradition, we packed the pontoon with an assortment of picnic items, fishing poles and bait (get your license at Rick’s Sport Center). And as per tradition, we caught absolutely nothing! However, the flock of ducks following the bread trail off our boat where more than delighted! Per Christine’s recommendation, next time we’ll go catching!

With a full day ahead of us, we made our way to the summit and promptly took a trip to the tippy-top of Mammoth Mountain via the Gondola. A summer Gondola ride is just a little different than the winter ride; whereas in winter the ground is hidden by the 20+ feet of cushy snow, during the summer you are subjected to the barren mountain and teams of dirt-bikers racing down one of the many paths. It is a sight to see! Once at the top you can step out onto the deck and take in a 360 degree view of the valleys and the Minarets. I continued out the back doors of the interpretive center and towards the highest point of Mammoth Mountain from where you can see all seven lakes and beyond. Be careful, at 11,053 feet the air is thin (you will feel really exhausted) and really windy and chilly. Before heading back down, we grabbed a beer (because, hey why not at 11,053 feet) and took in the majesty of what we where looking at. 

On Day 3 we decided to keep moving north. We went to the Mono Lake Visitor Center and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. From the visitor center, in Lee Vining, you can take in the splendor of Mono Lake, vegetation, species, and geology. Its shear size is amazing. Once done, backtrack a little to the South Lake Tufa Area where you can get up close to the monoliths. Take cash as there will be a small fee (state park) to pay. After a leisurely stroll we made our way to June Lake. 

In June Lake we stopped to have lunch and then took in the scenic interior loop. We stopped at June Lake Beach, because of the heat, decided to take a dip in the ice cold lake! Not bu 20 minutes into our “dip” we where quickly ran off the lake and beach by a passing rain storm -thankfully we already had our bathing suits on. This prompted an opportunity to continue through the June Lake Scenic Look stopping at the “Legend of the June Lake Slot Machine.” Although we did not hit the monetary type of jackpot, the day was amazing and the time spent with family was the reward. Continuing through the loop, the winding road, pine forest, and scenic waterfall vistas, we stopped at Frontier Pack Train for a horseback ride. This is no ordinary horseback ride, the hour long ride takes you up the ridge and then through a trail next to the river. It is calm and picturesque and completely worth the time (take cash; you are in the middle of nowhere and internet for credit cards is not something they have!).

Having said goodbye to June Lake, we stopped at the Mono Craters and later Obsidian Dome. Neither site should be missed. The craters are the geologic history of Inyo-Mono Counties. The Obsidian Dome (a tough hike) is a wonderful trek through a glass lava-bed leading to the mouth of a volcano. 

Day 4 found us back at the summit where William undertook the obstacles courses prior to our leaving for the Devils Post-Pile. After a short (30 minute) bus ride into the valley you are dropped off at the visitor center. From there, a short 1/4 to 1/3 mile (very easy) hike you arrive at the stone columns/monoliths (columnar basalt). The staircase (if it can be called that) leads to the top of the columns and a vista of the valley. The columns are naturally hexagonal and a site to see. You can access the John Muir trail from here, as well as the 2.5 mile hike to Rainbow Falls. I recommend that you take the bus to the trail head of Rainbow Falls; it will cut about 2 miles for those that have mobility issues. Upon coming back up from the valley we plopped down at The Yodler to have a beer and a giant pretzel while the kids tried rock climbing, bungee-jump, and the obstacle courses. 

Having refreshed ourselves, we made our way to the Mammoth Consolidated Gold Mine. Walk around the ruins of a formal mining camp and the lower adit before starting the climb to the upper adit (mine shaft). It was not an easy climb, or return, but the vista and the ruins are spectacular. William and I slowly trekked down from the mountain with huge grins on our faces. And since we had made our way this far, on the way back down we stopped at Horseshoe Lake. The lake, after a recent earthquake experienced (and continues to do so) high levels of CO2 resulting from newly created fissures. It has killed the trees (left them standing) but stripped them of color. It is seemingly a walk through white giants -and really eerie. 

We left Mammoth early Sunday, after a wonderful breakfast and stopped in at Manzanar. This continues to be a place of amazing history and sadness. In the 30 years I’ve been going to Mammoth I have seen this site grow from nothing into a full blown representation of the camp, its inhabitants, and its history. There is little to be said about the site itself, it evokes such sentiment that only a visit can honestly bring description justice. 

Whether it is to summer or winter, hike or ski, fish or enjoy geology, Mammoth is an awe-striking place. It is little changed in all the time I’ve been going, and I hope it stays that way. The outdoors are closer than you think; you should take the time to explore such majestic locations. 

Lastly, a word of appreciation for the E. Clampus Vitus group. Their appreciation of the location’s history and dedication to its demarcation and upkeep is commendable (how’s about an invitiation y’all!). Finding a lot of the historical and points of interest was made easier by your dedication to its preservation. 

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