“Climb the mountains and… Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” –John Muir
High on a mountainside near the Mammoth Lakes ski resort, I stood without a care as a breeze gently tussled the pines surrounding me, creating a sweet but melancholy melody among the trees’ needles. My sense of peace at that moment made me grateful to be in Mammoth that summer day, and later again 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, because I only associated it with skiing, which I don’t do. But what I’ve discovered after both visits is that this Eastern Sierra region, stretching from Bishop to near the Nevada border, offers a great deal to see and do for fishermen, hikers, bikers, kayakers, climbers, California history buffs and nature photographers during the “non-snow” months.
For my first visit to Mammoth in June, I flew from Los Angeles to Mammoth’s bite-size airport, just ten 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 last lake of the “Mammoth Lakes” loop.
Fortunately, the 9000-foot altitude didn’t bother me as I gleefully 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 the renowned Mono Lake, a place that beckoned 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 surrounded 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 one day as I prepared to leave the lake, I joined a line of tripod-toting photographers hoping to capture an iconic sunset photo, but thick, gray, 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 mountain faces like Heavenly swords, 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 lakes reflecting the surrounding mountains, and twin waterfalls cascading towards 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 view.” Sitting in the eponymous Eleven53 Café, named for its 11,053-foot elevation, I surveyed the valley below and the ominous cloud 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 over 2100 feet.
Despite the fires raging a few miles away, I was determined to visit to the renowned 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 “the world’s finest example of columnar basalt,” towering over 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 fall-color “leaf peepers” who come from near and far to savor, and photograph, nature’s color show.
I recommend that fall color seekers combine a multi-day 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 mirror-like 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 as North Lake. 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 surrounded us on three sides, 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 greenish-yellow, light lemon and mostly rich, dark egg yolk yellows.
“A tour of the Mammoth region isn’t complete unless you also visit Bodie, the West’s best-preserved gold mining ghost town,” exclaimed Jeff Simpson, an area expert with Mono County Tourism. Following his advice, we found that the 1 ½ hour drive to the Bodie State Historic Park allowed us to view Mono Lake’s 13-mile expanse from a distance, and to see a more aspens sprinkled among the tawny grasslands, hills and mountains. Bodie proved to be a historic gem. In its heyday, which only lasted from 1877 to 1882, Bodie had over 8,000 residents and boasted 60 saloons and 30 different mines, Today, only 110 structures and a bedraggled cemetery remain, providing an eerie glimpse into a long-gone era.
Our quest for the ultimate in 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 bit off and we found good but not spectacular foliage. Nonetheless, each day brought to us bountiful natural beauty that made every outing 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 looming in front of us. 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.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug_hansentravel.
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; email@example.com.