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Scenic wonders abound during summer in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Mammoth Lakes, California

It was the 1940s when avid skier Dave McCoy started a rope tow business at the base of the 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain to help others take advantage of the heavy snowfall in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. In the 1950s, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area became California’s highest lift-served resort, and today the resort is one of the top ski and snowboard destinations in the United States.

  • Enjoy canoeing on Mono Lake, part of Mammoth Lakes. Photo credit Dakota Snider. Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
  • Sunrise at Convict Lake highlights the clear water in the oblong-shaped lake and the backdrop of the 12,241-foot Mount Morrison in the Mammoth Lakes area of the Sierra Nevada. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Devils Postpile National Monument, established in 1911, protects and preserves the Devils Postpile formation and the surrounding pristine mountain scenery. The formation is a rare sight in the geologic world and ranks as one of the world's finest examples of columnar basalt. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • June Lake is one of the largest lakes at 320 acres and one of the few natural ones in the Mammoth Lakes area. Its beach is considered one of the best in the Eastern Sierra, and it has an accessible pathway. June Lake is popular for fishing, paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking, and sailing. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Lake Mary is considered a crown jewel of the Mammoth Lakes Basin, with its clear waters and views of Crystal Crag and Mammoth Crest. Rent a pontoon boat or other watercraft at Pokonobe Lodge or Lake Mary Marina. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Mammoth Lakes Panorama gondola ride. Photo credit Josh Wray Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
  • The 101-foot Rainbow Falls is part of the Devils Postpile National Monument. It is known for the colorful rainbow that its mist creates. Photo by Dakota Snider, courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
  • One of the best views of the Mammoth Lakes Basin is from 11,053 feet atop Mammoth Mountain, which operates a scenic gondola throughout the summer. There is no singular Mammoth Lake; instead there is the Mammoth Lakes Basin with five main lakes: Lake Mary, Lake Mamie, Lake George, Horseshoe Lake, and Twin Lakes, and many smaller seasonal lakes. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • The Mammoth Adventure Center is a summer playground where you can access a world-class bike park, scenic gondola rides, Adventure Pass activities, interactive learning, and the Via Ferrata guided climbing experience; there's action-packed fun for everyone. Photo by Josh Wray, courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
  • Scenic gondolas take you to the summit of Mammoth Mountain. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • The Village at Mammoth is a pedestrian-friendly area with shops, restaurants, and the hub of the town shuttle system. Accommodations also are nearby, including cabins, condos, chalets, hotels, and resorts. Photo by Dakota Snider, courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism.

Thousands visit each winter; others like to plan their stay for May, or as late as June some years, when they can hit a Sierra trifecta of skiing in the morning; then playing a round of golf; and visiting one of the area’s lakes to boat, fish, or hike in the afternoon.

But summer is when the Mammoth Lakes area offers full access to the region’s scenic wonders: The Tioga Pass road to Yosemite National Park’s east gate typically opens by July as does the Reds Meadow Valley Road, the only road to access Devils Postpile National Monument and the nearby 101-foot Rainbow Falls.

Thousands of Southern Californians already know this—they traveled to the area in record numbers during the pandemic last July and August for an outdoor summer getaway that wasn’t far from home. The rest of the world is starting to catch on, too, bolstered in part by further investments in summer activities at Mammoth Mountain by current owner Alterra Mountain Co.

A commercial airline journey from the middle of the country to Mammoth Lakes two summers ago required an overnight stay in Los Angeles. Flying privately into Mammoth Yosemite Airport on your own schedule puts you just a 10-minute drive from the town of Mammoth Lakes. Hot Creek Aviation offers summer flying tips and crosswind guidance.

Among the fun stops in the Mammoth Lakes area for food, drink, and gifts is Mammoth Fun Shop, where they hand-dip ice cream into a variety of sweet treats. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.Using the blanket term “Mammoth” seems to cover all facets of the area, whether you’re talking about the mountain; the town of about 7,100 permanent residents that’s officially incorporated as Mammoth Lakes; or Mammoth Village, the pedestrian-friendly area with shops and restaurants that is the hub of the town shuttle system.

And “Mammoth” accurately describes the scenery, too—mountains, lakes, streams, waterfalls, forests, and geologic marvels. The eastern slope of the Sierra plunges dramatically to the valley floors in contrast to the gentle, rolling terrain west of the Sierra crest. There is no singular Mammoth Lake; instead there is the Mammoth Lakes Basin with five main lakes—Lake Mary, Lake Mamie, Lake George, Horseshoe Lake, and Twin lakes—and many smaller lakes just as breathtaking.

I took the panoramic gondola up to the summit of Mammoth Mountain, where you can take a selfie with the 11,053-foot summit sign and learn about the geologic, natural, and cultural history of the region in the interpretive center. There are hiking and mountain biking trails on top, including options to get back to the base of the mountain on foot or two wheels.

The mountain’s main lodge is home to the Mammoth Adventure Center, with zip and bungee options; access to the Mammoth Bike Park’s 53 trails and 84 miles of single track, from beginner to expert/pro level; and the Via Ferrata guided climbing experience.

At 8,600 feet, Twin Lakes—a single lake with a narrow choke in the middle—is the lowest lake in the Mammoth Lakes Basin and the only one accessible by car year-round. Boat rentals are available in the summer for fishing and recreation. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

From the main lodge, I caught the shuttle to Devils Postpile National Monument. One of the country’s first national monuments, it covers 800 acres to preserve a unique columnar basalt formation believed to have formed less than 100,000 years ago when a cooling lava flow cracked into hexagonal columns. The columns are now about 60 feet high but were once much higher before erosion, freeze-thaw cycles, and earthquakes helped break them apart.

There are 8 miles of trails within the monument’s boundaries. It’s an easy hike of less than a half mile out to the base of Devils Postpile, though if you want to climb to the top of the postpile, it’ll be a little more work. You can also continue about 2 miles farther to reach Rainbow Falls, which cascades over a lava ledge and falls 101 feet. It’s named for the rainbows you often see sparking the falls’ mist in the midday sun.

In the past three years, Reds Meadow Valley Road, the only road to access Devils Postpile National Monument, has opened June 26 (2020), July 4 (2019), and June 16 (2018). Between mid-June and mid-September, a mandatory shuttle bus brings visitors to the monument and the rest of the Reds Meadow Valley including the Rainbow Falls Trailhead as there is very little parking at the site.

There is also free summer bus service to most of the lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, though it’s not mandatory. You can even take your bike uphill on the shuttle to enjoy a downhill ride on the Lakes Basin bike trail.

To get views and history that only someone with ties to the area can provide, book a flight with Ed “Trey” Roski in his Robinson R66 helicopter. He operates SkyTime Helicopter Air Tours, where short flights start at $88 per person. Roski has been flying for for more than 30 years, and his favorite tour is an hourlong flight where you’ll see hundreds of wild horses and about 140 lakes, including Mono Lake's unusual tufa towers, the entire Mammoth Lakes Basin, and the spectacular Convict Lake surrounded by canyon walls.

I spent the last day of my short stay in the area with a private tour operator showing me highlights of Yosemite National Park before flying out at the end of the day. Mammoth Yosemite Airport is the closest airport to Yosemite (42 miles) while the Tioga Pass is open (June 15 to November 5 in 2020, July 1 to November 19 in 2019, and May 21 to November 20 in 2018).

While there’s plenty to do in Mammoth, don’t miss some of these nearby scenic wonders like Yosemite National Park and Mono Lake. Rent a car or find a tour operator through the Mammoth Lakes visitor information website. The Mammoth area is truly a summer playground. Hiking, camping, sightseeing, golfing, horseback riding, rock climbing, and kayaking are only some of the activities that are available.

The sun peeks over snowcapped mountains in the Mammoth Lakes area. Photo courtesy of SkyTime Helicopter Air Tours.

MeLinda Schnyder

Aviation and travel writer
MeLinda Schnyder is a writer and editor based in Wichita, Kansas, who frequently writes about travel and aviation. She worked for 12 years in the corporate communications departments for the companies behind the Beechcraft and Cessna brands.
Topics: US Travel, Travel

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