Explore the spectacular east side of the Sierra
By Lauren Gregg
Bordered to the north by the eastern entrance to Yosemite and surrounded by the vast Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness, Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding eastern Sierra is the perfect destination for both an adventure-filled vacation as well as a peaceful and serene getaway.
Visitors are enchanted by the strangely beautiful landscape created by the region’s geologic history. Mammoth Mountain and the surrounding eastern Sierra was sculpted by volcanic eruptions, now quiet for 50,000 years. The area boasts unique geologically active features that give it an other-worldly feel; steam rises from the ground and hot springs bubble from the earth as reminders of the ancient volcanoes that formed the landscape.
Mammoth has a fascinating history … the wildness of which can be felt to this day. In 1857, after rumors that gold had been discovered in the area, a Mammoth Mining Company camp rapidly grew into the town “Mammoth City.” Poor yields and severe winters closed the mining operations, but the rugged and dramatic beauty of the area left a mark on people’s hearts and imaginations.
The roots of Mammoth as an outdoor playground began as automobiles became popular. Travelers started crossing the high desert for the two-and-a-half day journey from Los Angeles to enjoy the fishing, hunting, and camping in the area. Mammoth was for only the adventurous, especially in the winter when supplies were delivered by dog-sled.
The construction of Highway 395 in 1937 was the birth of modern Mammoth, bringing summer visitors as well as hardcore alpine skiers who used portable tows powered by Model A Ford Motors. In 1945, one of those skiers, Dave McCoy, sold his Harley motorcycle for $85 to buy supplies to install a permanent rope tow on Mammoth Mountain. Within ten years there was a lodge and the mountain’s first chairlift and the town grew around what is now one of the premier ski resorts in North America.
Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,000 ft, Mammoth Lakes is a great central location to set up basecamp. The eastern Sierra is an outdoor junkie’s paradise. The region’s world-famous fly fishing and renowned natural hot springs can be experienced year-round, and horseback riding can be enjoyed much of the year as well. In the summer, the Mammoth area boasts hiking, camping, climbing, kayaking, one of North America’s best mountain bike parks and some of the finest fishing on the west coast. In fall, autumn displays of golden aspens in the rugged canyons offer some of the best fall color viewing anywhere. And then there is the glorious winter – full of perfect snow, epic downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
Before the snow arrives is an excellent time to climb, and the area just south of Mammoth boasts some of the best climbing in the country. The opportunities are very diverse with climbs for beginners as well as crags to challenge the most advanced climbers. The Gorge is one of the favorite spots, nine miles north of Bishop.
As the season progresses, climbers can take it to the ice. The Mammoth area showcases two of California’s premier ice climbing locales: June Lake and Lee Vining Canyon. June Lake is an ideal place to learn and build skills due to the variety of terrain and favorable climbing conditions. For more advanced ice climbing, Lee Vining offers icicles and pillars that range in steepness from 70 degrees to vertical. Sierra Mountain Center offers a variety of ice climbing courses and programs to suit all skill levels and objectives, and they provide the necessary equipment as well.
The skiing and snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain is truly world class. Boasting 3,500 acres, 28 lifts and 150 trails and legendary high Sierra snow, Mammoth is one of the largest ski/snowboard areas in North America.
Cross country skiing is also popular. Tamarack Cross Country Center has 19 miles of groomed tracks around the stunning Lakes Basin. During winter full moons, try out their full moon ski and snowshoe tours. Inyo National Forest offers excellent terrain for ski touring and telemark skiing, with trails clearly marked with blue diamonds on the trees. Popular destinations in the forest include the Inyo Craters and Obsidian Dome.
Snowmobiling is another popular winter activity. Explore the 80 miles of groomed tracks in the area. At DJ’s Snowmobile Adventures, located between June Lake and Mammoth, rides depart daily from Smokey Bear Flat Snowmobile Park on Highway 395.
Snow biking is another fun way to enjoy the Mammoth snow as advocates are hard at work opening more single track trails. At this time, biking is not allowed on groomed trails due to a decades-old forest order that states “no wheeled vehicles on groomed trails.” This is keeping riders from accessing countless miles of prime trails. Sierra Eastside Mountain Bike Association (SEMBA, formerly Fat Bike Mammoth) is an IMBA chapter actively working to get the forest order amended to allow fat bikes with tires 3.8” and wider, and in the meantime packs authorized single track with snowshoes, keeping a number of trails accessible pretty much all winter. SEMBA also preps and maintains loops in the meadows by Snowcreek and Camp High Sierra, and has an agreement with Sierra Star Golf Course to host special group rides and events throughout the season as well. In addition to these single track options, there are plenty of unmaintained roads that get packed down by snowmobiles and offer good snow riding as well. Visit fatbikemammoth.com for more information. Fat bikes can be rented at Eastside Wide and The Bike Maven is open throughout winter for parts, service, etc. for all bikes.
SAMPLE MAMMOTH ITINERARY
Get a little taste of everything this winter wonderland has to offer
Winter Guided Fly Fishing
After pre-booking your winter trip with Sierra Drifters Guide Service, meet your friendly and knowledgeable guide. Spend the day fly fishing on the beautiful Owens River, arguably one of the best trout fisheries in the Eastern Sierra. After a full day of fishing, head back into town for dinner and beers at Mammoth Brewing Company. They’ve been brewing award-winning beers since 1995 and serve up delicious food as well.
Rent a fat bike from Eastside Wide and take its beefy tires to the snow for a fun shred on the popular Uptown/Downtown loop. This 3.8 mile “short” loop goes up to the Earthquake Fault Junction and is minimally technical with moderate climbing and fast descents. Park at the Village Parking Lot on Minaret Rd/Highway 20, ride up to the trailhead at the intersection of Minaret and Forest Trail.
For a longer ride, if you have a Mammoth Mountain park ticket, you can take on the full loop (see bike park map). Another option is to cross Highway 203 at the Earthquake Fault Junction and continue climbing up Mountain View Trail (a great out and back that is also free to the public without need for a bike park ticket), and then connect back with Downtown. Can’t get enough snow riding? Check out fatbikemammoth.com for additional recommended routes.
After your morning ride, stop by Stellar Brew & Natural Cafe for a hot beverage or soup made from scratch to warm you back up. Stellar Brew also offers breakfast burritos, sandwiches, wraps, salads and more – all made with organic, unique ingredients.
From lunch, head out for a soak in one of the area’s numerous hot springs. Although many are inaccessible once the snow falls, there are still many to explore. Pick up Hot Springs of the Eastern Sierra by George Williams as a guide to the popular as well as hidden springs in the area.
Head north on Highway 395 to the Smokey Bear Flat Snowmobile Park between Mammoth and June Mountain. DJ’s Snowmobile Adventures will get you set up on a snowmobile for a self-guided tour following marked trails through the beautiful area.
Head out on the Lookout Mountain trail that encircles the mountain, with views that extend to the south peaks of Yosemite. Bring a pack lunch to eat at the top of the trail. Vista Point is breathtaking and has been the site of many marriage proposals.
When dinnertime rolls around, check out Slocums, one of Mammoth’s finest haunts, for delicious comfort food. Choose from an extensive list of craft beers, wines by the glass, and artisanal cheese boards. Be sure not to miss their legendary macaroni and cheese.
Cross Country Skiing
Head to The Tamarack Lodge and rent a pair of Nordic skis or snowshoes. Enjoy a guided tour through the beauty of alpine lakes and ancient forest on over 19 miles of world-class groomed trails.
After a lovely day in the snow, stick around the historic Tamarack Lodge and eat dinner in their charming dining room with a beautiful view of Twin Lakes. Their menu changes seasonally and features fresh, locally-sourced selections.
Start your morning off early with a delicious breakfast at The Stove, a Mammoth tradition for over 40 years. The classic country favorites are their speciality, but they now also offer lighter fare like Greek yogurt and gluten-free granola.
From breakfast, head to the Main Lodge at the base of Mammoth’s famous gondola, snap a quick photo in front of the giant Mammoth statue, and take off up the mountain for a fabulous day skiing /boarding the epic and vast mountain. With 3,500 acres of rideable terrain, you could spend days never riding the same run twice!
End your day at the Village in the Clocktower Cellar at the Alpehof Lodge to recount the day’s adventures over a beer or a warm drink. —LG