Twin Falls was rumbling and there was talk of trout near its base. It was all the excuses Randy Mayer needed.
Mayer put on his Dodgers hat, rounded up his sons West and Van, jumped in a skiff on Upper Twin Lake and kicked off a little family adventure in Mammoth Lakes.
“It’s the best here in the summer,” said Mayer, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Mammoth. “Most people don’t know that. You can hike to a different lake each day.”
Winter is what made Mammoth famous, and it still makes the Mammoth Mountain resort a big chunk of its money, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of travelers who set off from Los Angeles with snowboards and skis. But summer actually brings more visitors to this part of Mono County — hikers, anglers, birdwatchers, mountain bikers, and multi-sport families like the Mayers.
The pandemic has underscored this fact. As this summer begins, thousands of Southern California families arrive or return here to play on the Sierra slopes, forests and lakes surrounding the town of Mammoth Lakes (population: approximately 7,300) and resort neighboring Mammoth Mountain. Although fishing has been the area’s summer mainstay for decades (and remains an option now), many never take up it.
In addition to hotels and motels, the Mammoth area includes a large number of vacation rentals (mostly condos), as well as thousands of nearby sites for RVs and tents during the warmer months.
To get there from Southern California, you’ll likely take US Route 395, whose small towns and mountain views make for a quintessential California road trip. It’s not a fast ride – about 310 miles from LA City Hall to Mammoth via 395 – but parts of it are spectacular.
Here are six summer adventure ideas within 50 miles of Mammoth Lakes.
Mammoth Mountain Biking and Hiking
Start at Mammoth Mountain, about five miles west of town on Minaret Road. Founder Dave McCoy (1915-2020) built it in the 1940s as a place for skiers only. Nowadays, when the snow is scarcer (skiing stopped on June 5 this year), mountain bikers take over the chairlifts. About 80 miles of single-track trails cover the slopes of the park, following different routes than the ski slopes. (Helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, gloves and eye protection are recommended).
By the time I reached the mountain in late June, legions of cyclists, many of them families, were spinning through the trees and descending the dirt trails from chair 11. Tourists lined up for the Panorama gondola, which leads at the 11,053 foot summit of the mountain. (where cafe Eleven53 serves lunch). Two more chairlifts and the gondola are scheduled to open to cyclists on July 1.
The Adventure Center complex (directly across Minaret Road from the lodge) serves as a clearinghouse for booking activities, including (for kids) a nearby ropes course, rock climbing wall, zip line and a bungee trampoline. On the mountain, six guided via ferrata climbing routes (steel cables, iron rungs, suspension bridges) await adventurers aged 12 and over.
The hike also takes place on Mammoth Mountain, including, if you’re up for it, a strenuous five-mile trail to the summit.
Near the adventure center is the Yodler, the Bavarian-themed restaurant that has been attached to the lodge since 1959, offering après-ski drinks and snacks. I was concerned that this was a quantity over quality situation, especially when I saw the $2 beers being offered to Bike Park ticket holders. But my lunch there – Black Forest ham sandwich with salad for $17 – was tasty and filling. Want a more ambitious menu? Think Toomey’s, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner; or the Lakefront Restaurant, a longtime dinner-only destination for fine dining.
Float the Lakes Basin
If you haven’t taken Lake Mary Road south out of town, you might not understand why the place is called Mammoth Lakes.
The first body of water you reach is Twin Lakes, where you’ll find a campground, general store, and the yurt containing Tamarack Bike & Paddle. The Tamarack Lodge and its three dozen cabins are also close to the water’s edge.
Upper Twin Lake, where I met the Mayers launching their boat, is fed by Twin Falls (aka Mammoth Creek). And at the top of Twin Falls – where I had a great time scrambling over rocks, taking in the white water from different angles – is Mamie Lake.
From there, the aqueducts continue: Lake Mamie, Lake Mary, Lake Horseshoe and Lake George, with various campgrounds, marinas, general stores, lodges and trails nearby. The Lakes Basin Road, a 5.3-mile paved route that connects Twin Lakes, Mamie Lake and Horseshoe Lake, is a favorite route, open to hikers and cyclists.
To reach the basin area from the village, or simply explore the basin, find a parking space for the day, then ride the Mammoth Lakes Basin Trolley, a free service that operates from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but only in summer . (There are performers on board on weekends.)
Explore Devil’s Postpile National Monument
The basalt-on-basalt columns of the Devil’s Postpile National Monument are only about 10 miles from Mammoth Mountain. The area around the formation makes for a nice hike once you take the $15 shuttle to the Red’s Meadow area from Mammoth Lakes or Mammoth Mountain. Additionally, Rainbow Falls (101 feet high) is just 2.4 miles from Devil’s Postpile Rocks. With a 3.4 mile hike, you can do both, then continue to Red’s Meadow Resort and take the shuttle to Mammoth.
Relax on June Lake
June Lake is about 20 miles from Mammoth and is popular for fishing, fall foliage, a sleepy setting (and in the winter, a small kid-friendly ski mountain). Even if you don’t have time to stop, the June Lake Loop (aka Highway 158, closed in winter) will take you past June, Gull, and Silver Lakes before rejoining the 395. If you have time , Silver Lake Resort at Silver Lake Resort The cafe is open daily (7am-2pm; three-egg omelettes), as is the general store (7am-7pm). Also, there are two campgrounds, including Oh Ridge (its views may explain the name) on the east side of the lake.
Hike the high country of Yosemite National Park
During the summer months when open, State Route 120 leads to great things. It stretches from 395 west across Tioga Pass, allowing drivers to head into Yosemite’s high country – beautiful territory that sees little to no crowds that can clog Yosemite Valley. (In winter, the snows close and bury Tioga Pass.)
First, make sure you have a reservation for the night or a day trip to enter the national park – it’s a requirement (to limit crowds) until September 30. Then take the 120 west to Lee Vining (which overlooks Mono Lake) and you can reach the green expanses of Tuolumne Meadows (21 miles) from the park in about half an hour. Lake Tenaya (picnic, swim, canoe) is another seven miles to the west, and Olmsted Scenic Point is two or three miles beyond.
A few caveats: If you’re heading into Yosemite Valley from Lee Vining, it’ll take about two hours (75 miles on mountain roads). Also, Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds are closed until 2024 or 2025 for an infrastructure overhaul. And the road to Glacier Point (and its stunning view of Half Dome and the valley) is closed year-round for repairs.
Eat, sleep and shop in Bishop
If you’re driving from Southern California to Mammoth, Yosemite’s high country, or Lake Tahoe, chances are you’ll stop in Bishop, whether it’s for a meal or a night’s sleep. To join a long history of hungry passers-by, step into Erick Schat’s bakery, long known for its breads, sweets and family atmosphere. You won’t be able to miss Schat’s two-story building at 763 N. Main Street (although now that the family empire also includes a roadhouse and wine cellar a few blocks away, you’ll find plenty of Schats around the city).
For dinner, consider Holy Smoke Texas Style BBQ (772 N. Main St.), which offers tender and tangy pork and brisket and tops the city’s restaurant charts. For something more beer-centric, head to the Mountain Rambler Brewery (186 S. Main).
The Creekside Inn (725 N. Main St.) has 87 rooms, 39 of which face the hotel’s smart landscaping along Bishop Creek (including multiple fire pits). The rooms are spacious and comfortable, the walls are covered in glossy images of the Sierra by Bishop’s late photographer Galen Rowell, and the hotel’s overall design is always Western, never kitschy.
If you have time to shop, a good option is Toggery (115 N. Main St., for hats, jeans, boots, blankets, Breyer horses, and other paraphernalia), which dates back to 1922. Another is Spellbinder Books ( 124 S. Main St. for a wide selection of books and gifts, including many volumes on local history).
By the way, another tip 395: it’s a long, straight route, with 70 mph limits for much of the way. But if you break the 25 to 35 mph speed limits as you pass through Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop, a CHP officer may be out to catch you for speeding.
But wait, there’s more
There is no way to be exhaustive here. Still less than 80 km from Mammoth, the Sierra and Owens Valley offer dozens of other attractions and surprises. The strange tuff towers and migrating birds of Mono Lake. Cabins, marina and fishing at Convict Lake Resort (whose owner recently took over the nearby McGee Creek Lodge). The ghost town of Bodie. The painful history of Manzanar National Historic Site. The rustic steam baths of Travertine Hot Springs near Bridgeport.