Some 300 miles north of Los Angeles, California, along U.S. Highway 395, this 11,053-foot peak is the centerpiece of a year-round playground. Amidst this alpine region in the Inyo National Forest, numerous lakes and streams and geological wonders await the visitor and offer countless recreational opportunities. In the summer, backpacking, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, bouldering, boating and fishing top the list of activities enjoyed here. In spring and fall, seasonal beauty offers special allure for hikers, photographers and artists. In winter, a snowy cloak drapes the landscape, beckoning sports enthusiasts to the area’s world-famous Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, and to nearby cross-country ski and snowmobiling trails. And numerous public and private campgrounds in the area offer year-round camping, making it a favorite destination of many RVers.
Depending on the visitor’s interests, an RV tour of Mammoth-Mono country can be approached from different locations and during any season. As a sample tour to introduce the area, begin your visit at the Inyo National Forest Mammoth Visitor Center, the first right as you’re coming into town on State Highway 203. The center has books, maps, leaflets, displays and helpful rangers to assist visitors in planning itineraries and to issue wilderness permits for overnight wilderness backpacking trips. The center also sponsors ranger-led hikes and evening programs.
Unless you’ll be camping in the Devil’s Postpile area, you’ll have to take a shuttle bus between 7:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily to get there. Instituted to alleviate traffic congestion in this very popular area, the bus cost $8 per adult or $4 per child ages 3-15, free for children under 2 years of age, round-trip service. Bus rides between stops in the canyon are free. If you’re going to camp in the Middle Fork Canyon of the San Joaquin River, you should know that the road from the Minaret Summit to Agnew Meadows is curvy, steep and scarcely more than one-lane wide. The shuttle is free after Labor Day into October.
The trailhead at Agnew Meadows are packed with the vehicles of hikers, and the meadow is even more packed with flowers. Horseback trips into the wilderness start at a pack station near here. Both hikers and riders visit such places as Shadow Lake, which the guidebook Mammoth Lakes Sierra called “one of the jewels of the Sierra, particularly because of its setting below the peaks of the Ritter Range.” It is a moderate 3-mile hike.
At Devil’s Postpile, you’ll see a jumble of talus of the Postpile (something like giant, polygonal Lincoln logs piled in the corner) made when basalt lava filled this place to a depth of 400 feet. As the basalt cooled, it cracked to form a honeycomb of columns – in fact, one of the best examples of columnar-jointed basalt in the world.
But volcanism was only one part of the story here and in the Mammoth-Mono area. Glaciers were another. After hiking to the top of the Postpile, you’ll see the tiled floor finish of the column tops. A glacier 4,000 feet thick left not only polish, but also parallel scratches called striations. The glacier also plucked 100 feet worth of basalt off of this formation, although the columns are still another 280 to 300 feet and go straight down.
From the Postpile you can reach the end of Highway 203 at Reds Meadow. The meadow is a resort with a general store, cafe, cabins and pack station offering horse or wagon rides. Just before reaching the resort, you can camp at a Forest Service campground and luxuriate in it’s free hot-spring-heated bathhouse.
Also in this area is the trailhead for Rainbow Falls. The hike is only 1-1/4 miles and re-enters the national monument. The San Joaquin River broadly plunges 101 feet over a lava ledge and partly atomizes into a spectral-colored mist, which is best seen at midday. The rainbow in the mist of the falls is a daily occurrence, as long as the sun is shining.
This canyon is snowed in during the winter, but Mammoth Mountain is open all year. This inactive volcano is home to one of the country’s grandest downhill-ski areas. The skiing terrain is a healthy mix of 30% beginner, 40% intermediate and 30% advanced. Thirty-two lifts and 150 trails covering 3,100 vertical feet serve skiers of all abilities. For the borderline suicidal, there are advanced to expert runs (i.e., cliffs and near cliffs) from the summit, which a gondola reaches in 20 minutes. That gondola is also open for summer visitors who want to hike across the summit to enjoy the scenery from probably the best, most easily reached vantage point around.
Returning to the village, turn right on the Lake Mary Road to get to the Mammoth Lakes. The distinctive granite spire called Crystal Crag dominates this glacier-scoured basin. The cluster of lakes here is sprinkled with campgrounds. Mammoth Mountain RV Park is one of the most popular and is open year-round. In addition to camping, visitors can enjoy fishing, boating, horseback riding and hiking.
From Horseshoe Lake, the farthest one you can drive to, you can hike to McLeod Lake in a half-mile, then on over Mammoth Pass to Reds Meadow. For a memorable meal, picnic at the Twin Falls Overlook, where the outlet of Lake Mamie tumbles over volcanic boulders 300 feet to the Twin Lakes below.
Heading back to U.S. Highway 395 and turning right (south), you can visit more Mammoth attractions. Convict Lake, a 10-minute drive from Mammoth Lakes Village, offers camping, fishing, horseback riding and hiking, including a level, one-mile long trail around the north shore, and trails into the John Muir Wilderness. Mount Morrison looms over the southside of Convict Canyon, and aspens in the campground put on a show in the fall.