Mammoth Lakes is the Eastern Sierra’s busiest resort destination and an unbeatable spot for year-round outdoor fun. But this mountain town ringed by granite peaks and lake-filled basins is more than just a nature lover’s playground. It’s also a geological showpiece, a volcanic landscape marked by easy-to-spot evidence of its explosive past.
See Mammoth’s volcanic forces shaking and boiling in real time at Hot Creek Geologic Site, a wonderland of hot springs, fumaroles, and unpredictable geysers, all neatly framed within a narrow, rock-strewn gorge. Steaming aquamarine pools may look like a perfect place to soak, but swimming is prohibited—for good reason. Hot Creek’s scenic canyon is like a mini version of the geothermal marvels at Lassen and Yellowstone, with water temperature often topping 200 degrees, heated by a pocket of magma lying three miles below the creek. The earth’s surface is in flux, too. New hot pools appear overnight, and boiling geysers erupt without warning.
Admire the photogenic pools and steam clouds from a safe distance by following the paved trail downhill from the parking area to the canyon’s edge. Then hike along the creekside path to some of the eastern Sierra’s best wild trout waters. Like nearby Crowley Lake, Hot Creek is a top-notch fly-fishing destination, holding an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 rainbow and brown trout per mile. Fishing is catch-and-release only with artificial flies and barbless hooks. Anglers vie for the chance to stay at Hot Creek Ranch, a private fishing resort downstream of the geologic site, where only guests are allowed to fish on the property. The ranch’s nine guest cabins dot a huge meadow cut by a meandering spring creek.
Volcanic activity is responsible for many other Mammoth landmarks, including the fascinating Inyo Craters on Mammoth’s Scenic Loop, Obsidian Dome on Glass Flow Road, and the skier’s paradise at Mammoth Mountain. The ski resort sits on the rim of the 760,000-year-old Long Valley Caldera, where moving and shaking underneath the earth’s crust continues to shape the landscape. The volcano hasn’t been active in thousands of years, but geologists don’t rule out a future eruption. Still, that’s the farthest thing from the minds of thousands of skiers and riders who arrive for Mammoth Mountain’s opening day, usually in the second week of November. With snowfall averaging more than 30 feet per year, dedicated snow lovers can keep skiing laps into July.
If winter isn’t your season, Mammoth still has you covered. In summer, the mountain’s ski slopes convert to a mountain bike park, and the ski gondola transforms into a sightseeing joy ride that tops out at 11,053 feet. Riders get an eagle-eye view of the High Sierra without breaking a sweat. At the gondola’s upper station, an interpretive center features exhibits on the mountain’s volcanic history, plus a view of the Minaret Range, Mono Lake, and 400 miles of the Sierra’s highest peaks. Take a walk around the bald, windswept summit, then grab a bowl of chili at the highest eatery in California, the Eleven53 Café.