There’s a saying around here that people come for the winter, but stay for the summer. Come see why for yourself. Snowmelt creeks tumble down the mountainsides, and meadows sprinkled with wildflowers spring up everywhere. This eastern side of the Sierra, including Mammoth Mountain (actually a volcano surrounded by granite peaks) comes alive in summer, a perfect time to head out and explore. While hiking and climbing are top pursuits in the region, you don’t have to lace up beefy boots and load up on energy bars to get your mountain fix; trails lace the region, and there are plenty of low-key rambles, and mountain biking too. Even if you’re not a hiker, it’s easy to enjoy the high-country spectacle of the surrounding Sierra Nevada by riding to the Mammoth Mountain summit (11,053 feet/3,369 meters) by scenic gondola; it runs mid-June through September.
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, folks in this laid-back mountain town know they’ve got a good thing going. It’s a land of serious outdoor lovers, who take to the slopes of signature Mammoth Mountain and nearby June Lakes resorts in winter, then take to the trails when the snow melts to fly-fish in clear mountain streams, hike and mountain bike through wildflowers in high alpine meadows, and dip into natural hot springs. Fortunately, these locals like to share. Come have a craft beer and listen to bluegrass music during a summertime festival, or relax on the deck outside a slope-side lodge for outstanding après ski. For a high-mountain town, Mammoth Lakes is surprisingly easy to get to too, especially during the ski season, when daily flights zoom in from San Francisco area airports as well as Los Angeles. And another Sierra Nevada pearl, Yosemite, is just up the road.
In winter, Mother Nature is good to Mammoth Lakes. Very, very good. The mountain town’s signature peak, Mammoth Mountain, gets, on average, more than 30 feet/9 metres of snow, and lifts and gondolas continue to zoom up the mountain longer than any resort in the state. The nice twist is that even though it’s a winter wonderland here, you’ll still need to layer on the sunscreen. Mammoth boasts some 300 days of sunshine a year, so those après ski chairs out on the sundeck of Mammoth’s mid-mountain complex see plenty of action. The base village hops too, with shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Mix things up with a day on the slopes at nearby June Mountain, a local favourite that’s ultra-relaxed and friendly. Even if you’re not a skier, you can take advantage of Mammoth Mountain’s gondola, which climbs to the mountain’s summit at 11,053 feet/3,369 metres for jawdropper views of surrounding high-altitude peaks.
For quieter wintry pursuits, head over to Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, with breathtaking vistas from trails groomed for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Even if you’re not staying the night at the nearby Tamarack Lodge, you can unwind in the great room with a mug of hot mulled wine by the fire, then stay for supper (ski clothes are fine) at cozy Lakefront Restaurant.
Wintry splurges abound—choose from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the kids. Glide through the wilderness on a dogsled. Get an après-ski massage at area resorts, such as Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa or Snowcreek Athletic Club. Or just enjoy the biggest splurge—free time—and watch the alpenglow blush the mountains at sunset.
Here’s an outstanding drive through ultimate alpine scenery. From Mammoth Lakes, head north on U.S. 395 to State 158, then head west towards the hamlet of June Lake. For roughly 15 miles, the road winds past a series of sparkling glacial lakes, all encircled by snaggletooth peaks that scrape the skies. Pull over and just breathe it in for a while: scenes don’t get much lovelier than this, especially in fall when aspen leaves paint the lower hillsides and shorelines gold. Stick around to enjoy activities offered here, including fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. June Lake has canoes, standup paddleboards, and other watercraft for rent too. If all that activity makes you a little sore, no worries—get a massage at the inviting Double Eagle Resort.
With its regal mountain majesty and alpine hush, it’s hard to imagine that Mammoth Lakes is situated on the edge of an ancient volcanic caldera. Here, some 760,000 years ago, a massive volcano exploded, leaving behind the relatively flat basin now cradling Mammoth Lakes. A wonderful byproduct of this fiery past is the region’s network of natural hot springs. Many of these bubbling hot tubs, some developed for safe dipping, are concentrated between Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes. Stop by the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center (just west of U.S. 395 at 2510 Main St.) for locations and directions. Also check on access; routes may be closed in winter.
Here are three natural hot springs in the region, all safe for soaking.
Benton Hot Springs: In the almost-ghost-town of Benton, relax under shady cottonwoods in one of nine tubs filled with ultra-pure spring water. Each tub has hot and cold taps so you can easily control the water temperature. The springs are on the grounds of the Old House and Inn at Benton Springs, where you can book a stay in a late-1800s ranch house or a 1940s-era lodge room. Springs are located on State Route 120 about an hour's drive northeast of Mammoth Lakes; reservations suggested.
Travertine Hot Springs: Get sweeping views of the east side of the Sierra Nevada while you soak in this natural hot spring. You can pitch a tent nearby, though not adjacent to the springs. Travertine Hot Springs is easily accessed off U.S. 395 just south of Bridgeport (about an hour's drive north of Mammoth Lakes).
Keough Hot Springs: First opened as a medicinal and health retreat in 1919 (the water is said to contain 27 different minerals), these springs are still a great place to soak and relax. There's camping on site, and lodging options include several tricked-up cabin tents, some with queen-size beds and down comforters. From Mammoth Lakes, drive south about 1 hour on U.S. 395 to Keogh Hot Springs Road. Closed Tuesdays.
Looking like lumber pile left over by the gods, the 60-foot (18-meter) basalt columns at this National Historic Monument induce a lot of head scratching and pondering. How did these amazingly flawless columns get here anyway? Truth is, they formed on site, the result of volcanic eruption that sent lava flowing down the mountainside here, leaving behind an impressive wall of columns. Glaciers played a part too, exposing the columns and naturally polishing and enhancing the lava’s natural hexagonal patterns.
No matter how they were created, these columns are cool, and well worth exploring, as are other sites here. Follow the 2.5-mile/4-km trail to breathtaking 101-foot/31-meter Rainbow Falls. Also check out current evidence of volcanic activity at the monument’s soda spring area.
In summer (mid-June through Labor Day), driving into the park is restricted, but it’s easy to catch the shuttle from Mammoth Lakes. In winter, roads are generally closed, so you’ll need to Nordic ski or snowshoe into the park. Other times of year it’s okay to drive in: just know that the parking lot often fills by mid-morning on sunny days and weekends, so get there early.
Does elevation affect your game? Find out in Mammoth, home to California’s two highest courses. At Sierra Star Golf Course, you’ll put your swing to the test. This public, 18-hole championship course sits 8,000 feet/2,438 meters above sea level and is considered one of the most challenging alpine courses around. Your efforts will be rewarded with views of snow-capped peaks in every direction, babbling brooks, vibrant wildflowers, and fairways lined with Jeffrey pines. With several learn-to-golf programs, Sierra Star welcomes newcomers to the sport and offers lessons with PGA professionals.
At the 9-hole Snowcreek Golf Course (Mammoth’s first course, designed by Ted Robinson), players enjoy views of the Sherwin Range, Mammoth Mountain, and the White Mountains. Guests can also practice their swings at the onsite driving range.
There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. This is one of them. At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake, the salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. Over a million sea birds feed on the surface and swirl overhead—AN incredible show of life in this seemingly desolate setting.
Get yourself oriented with a visit to the excellent interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Inside, exhibits shed light on the natural and human history of the Mono Basin, including major environmental challenges caused by water diversions that almost killed the lake. (Huge efforts by the local Mono Lake Committee, with a gift-filled shop in Lee Vining, have successfully saved it.) Wraparound decks offer expansive views of the dramatic setting—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east, and views of the lake and its tiny Wizard Island, an important nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The Visitor Center is closed Dec-Mar.
Trails lace the area; you can explore rehabilitated Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat and the region’s cinder cones, blanketed with with obsidian and pumice, or walk in the South Tufa Area, with close-up views of the lake-trimming calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake water that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free tufa walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayaks.
There's something eerily appropriate about bumping down the dusty desert road that winds the final few miles into Bodie State Historic Park. Round the final bend in the careworn road, drive by the lonely graveyard on the sagebrush-dotted hill on the southwest side of town, and look down upon the tattered remnants of a forgotten time, and a nearly forgotten town. Back in the late 1800s, Bodie was a booming mining community with nearly 10,000 residents. Over time, the townsfolk began to fade away with the gold, and roughly a half-century ago, the final residents packed up and left Bodie, leaving the buildings alone and at the mercy of the dry desert winds.
Today, you can walk the dusty, silent streets of this fascinating ghost town, with shops, hotels, and simple homes carefully preserved to look as they did when Bodie ceased to be. Look for period images on newspapers stuffed into the walls as makeshift insulation. Old trucks and gas pumps, a weathered wood church, and that lonely cemetery paint a picture of life—and death—in this remote corner of California’s high desert.
Be sure to bring food; there are no concessions in the park (though there is potable water). A bookstore is well stocked with interesting information, and the self-guided walking tour is well worth doing.