High on a mountainside near the Mammoth Lakes ski resort, I stood without a care as a breeze gently tousled the pines surrounding me, creating a sweet but melancholy melody. My sense of peace at that moment made me grateful to be in Mammoth that summer day, and again on a return visit in the fall, discovering what this world-famous ski destination offered without snow.
Despite being a California native, I hadn’t ventured to Mammoth, the country’s third most visited ski resort, since I associated it only with skiing, which I don’t do. But what I’ve discovered after two visits is that this Eastern Sierra region, stretching from Bishop to near the Nevada border, offers a great deal to see and do during the warmer months for fishermen, hikers, bikers, kayakers, climbers, California history buffs and nature photographers.
For my first visit to Mammoth last June, I flew from Los Angeles to Mammoth’s bite-size airport, just 10 miles from town. Using the dog-friendly and attractive Westin Mammoth Hotel as my base, I began my exploration by renting a mountain bike in the Village Plaza and taking a free, bike-toting trolley up to Horseshoe Lake, the farthest lake on the “Mammoth Lakes” loop.
Fortunately, the 9,000-foot altitude didn’t bother me as I pedaled around the lake and headed downhill on an exhilarating ride along soft woodland trails, past the twin waterfalls and the historic Tamarack Lodge, before careening down the five-mile, paved bike path to the center of town.
The next day, a forest fire in the nearby mountains blanketed the air with thick, brown smoke, so hiking was temporarily out of the question. Instead I opted to visit Mono Lake, a place that interested me ever since I first saw “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers decades ago.
Sitting in a treeless basin 30 miles north of Mammoth, Mono Lake is flanked on three sides by volcanic hills and mountains that kept the smoky haze at bay. Signs along the path leading to the lake’s edge graphically portrayed how the lake almost disappeared as Los Angeles diverted much of its water over several decades. Fortunately, a determined local effort saved the lake, which is now slowly recovering. Despite its water being three times saltier than the ocean, the lake supports throngs of migrating birds that feed on teeming alkali flies and brine shrimp.
Late in the day, I joined a line of tripod-toting photographers hoping to capture an iconic sunset photo of the lake, but thick clouds smothered the scene until, suddenly, just as the sun reached the tips of the westerly mountaintops, golden shafts of light pierced through the gloom and splayed across the dark mountains, creating bright sparkles in the lake’s rippled surface and silhouetting the craggy tufa towers near the shore. It was my photo nirvana.
Sunrise at the lakes near Mammoth’s town center provided more photo opportunities of mirror-like surfaces reflecting the surrounding mountains, and twin waterfalls cascading toward a long, tree-studded valley. Later, one of the frequent shuttles took me to the main ski and biking center, where a gondola ferried me to the top of Mammoth Mountain for a “lunch with a view.” Sitting in the eponymous Eleven53 Café, named for its 11,053-foot elevation, I surveyed the valley below and the ominous clouds of smoke towering above the not-too-distant fire.
With a touch of envy, I watched as mountain bikers streamed from the gondolas like Medieval warriors in their protective gear, before careening down dirt trails that snaked down the mountainside for miles. Nearby signs explained that the mountain’s next big attraction will be the “Mega Zipline” — the longest and fastest zipline in the U.S., with riders zooming 60 miles per hour as they drop more than 2,100 feet. It’s scheduled to open later this summer.
Despite the fires raging a few miles away, I was determined to visit to the Devils Postpile National Monument. In the late afternoon, when the light was best for photography, the smoke cleared enough to provide a good view of what’s described as the world’s finest example of columnar basalt, towering more than 60 feet high and stacked hundreds of feet across like neatly arranged, hexagonal toys. I didn’t have time to hike to the 101-foot-high Rainbow Falls, but it’s on my to-do list for next time.
During my summer visit, I frequently heard Mammoth-savvy visitors say, “You shouldn’t miss the fall colors in this area, especially the yellow aspens.” This advice compelled me to return in mid-October with my wife, Shirin, to join the “leaf peepers” who come from near and far to savor and photograph nature’s color show.
I recommend that fall color seekers combine a multiday stay in Bishop and in Mammoth, as we did. Using Bishop as our initial base for two days, my wife and I drove to two of the most colorful places of our tour, North Lake and McGee Creek. Each season the fall colors will vary greatly from one place to the next, and from one week to the next, but, in a stroke of luck, we arrived at North Lake early in the morning when the water reflected sharp-edged mountains draped with in blazing hues of yellow, green and orange foliage.
Our next foray to McGee Creek proved almost as gratifying. Again starting early, we drove up the winding road through the mountains until we reached the trailhead, where we donned heavy coats and gloves and began our hike up the canyon. Angular mountains with undulating contours nearly surrounded us, while the sky above shimmered with light blue intensity; soon we reached a grove of a few hundred aspens nestled in the middle of the valley, with leaves that displayed various shades of yellow.
“A tour of the Mammoth region isn’t complete unless you also visit Bodie, the West’s best-preserved gold mining ghost town,” advised Jeff Simpson, an area expert with Mono County Tourism. Following his recommendation, we found that the 11/2-hour drive to the Bodie State Historic Park allowed us to view Mono Lake’s 13-mile expanse from a distance, and to see more aspens sprinkled among the tawny grasslands, hills and mountains. Bodie proved to be a historic gem. In its brief heyday, which only lasted from 1877 to 1882, Bodie had more than 8,000 residents and boasted 60 saloons and 30 mines. Today, only 110 structures and a bedraggled cemetery remain, providing an eerie glimpse into a long-gone era.
Our quest for fall colors led us to a number of other popular spots, including Convict Lake (with a pleasant 3-mile trail around it), Rock Creek, the Mammoth Lakes and the June Lake Loop. While we found patches of colorful aspens in these areas, our timing was a bit off; we found good but not spectacular foliage. Nonetheless, each day brought us bountiful natural beauty that made the outings worthwhile.
We ended our journey with a sunset drive to Minaret Vista, 8 miles from Mammoth’s center. Situated near the entrance to Devil’s Postpile, this lookout provided one of the best views in the Eastern Sierra. We arrived just as the sun started to recede behind the imposing sawtooth peaks of the Minarets. Gray shadows crept across the broad valley below as the sky assumed a crimson glow that tinted the surrounding peaks in soft pink hues.
In the presence of John Muir’s “Cathedral of natural beauty,” we felt grateful to finish our Mammoth-area tour in such a memorable manner, and we departed without a care in the world.
If you go
Bishop Area Visitors Bureau: (760) 873-8405; bishopvisitor.com
Mammoth Lakes information: www.visitmammoth.com
Bodie State Historic Park: www.parks.ca.gov/bodie
Fall color updates: Californiafallcolor.com
Lodging: Westin Monache Resort Mammoth, 50 Hillside Drive, Mammoth Lakes; (760) 934-0400; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mmhwi-the-westin-monache-resort-mammoth
Creekside Inn: 725 N. Main St., Bishop; (760) 872-3044; firstname.lastname@example.org
Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug_hansentravel.