Mammoth Lakes in California’s Mono County has a far-away-from-it-all location in a valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada, yet remains in the centre of everything. It’s is just a five hours scenic drive from Los Angles, Las Vegas and San Francisco and a mere two hours from Lake Tahoe.
We drove for five and a half hours from Newport Beach (around 40 minutes from Los Angeles) along the CA-203 for 341 miles passing the Sequoia National Forest, the Death Valley National Park and the Inyo National Forest. Imagine the sensational scenery along that route.
We stopped off for a break in the quiet, dusty town of Lone Pine (87 miles from Mammoth Lakes) to check out the Museum of Western Film History – the story of filming in the area from the early days of the Round Up to the modern blockbusters such as Iron Man.
Mammoth Lakes is best known as a ski resort but when the snow finally melts what you get is a vibrant timber-clad village that is simply beyond quaint. It is surrounded by lush forest and bordered by the Ansel Adams and the John Muir Wilderness Areas. You can see the Minaret hills and peaks on the sky line and on the near horizon is the dizzyingly high Mammoth Mountain (11,053ft) that begs to be explored. The mountain is actually a volcano and you can even see steam escaping from its top from some vantage points.
There’s only around 8,000 locals in Mammoth Lakes and they seem unfazed by its elevation of 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) and its thinner air. They spend their time involved in marathon runs, bike tours (bikes are available to rent), kayaking, hiking or some climbing escapade or other when not working. In the evening there are alfresco film viewings in the village and live music and at the weekends a summer food market festival pops up.
Not sure if the term couch potato even exists here and with such a panoply of summer activities you would end up home alone in any case.
Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain
Probably the best way to start exploring is to get oriented with a ride on the Panorama Gondala at Mammoth Mountain. Being whisked on a steep ascent of 11,053 feet (3,368m) to the summit of Mammoth Mountain is an exciting experience and delivers a joyful 360 degree view of the snow speckled Sierra Nevada. Even in June there’s still plenty of snow up there, certainly enough to build a snowman or two.
From here some people scramble up the Ritter range which emerges 13,143 feet/4006m high out of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. It’s a class 2 climb which means it’s mostly upright. I preferred to read about it and the area’s geology and history in the Eleven53 Interpretive Center.
Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls
From the Mammoth Centre there is a 20-minute shuttle transfer to Devils Postpile National Monument. There are several hop off stops within its 324 hectares of lush scenery. We were told that we may spot a black bear. We didn’t.
But we did lose ourselves amid the fir trees and Jeffrey pines (whose bark we stopped to scratch to release its famous butterscotch scent) and the sound of bird song only bouncing back into the moment at the sight of tiny chipmunks and pine martens.
It’s hard to believe that Devils Postpile was naturally created by fire and ice. It is a column of basalt that was formed almost 100,000 years ago by flowing lava which cooled and split forming vertical and symmetrical 18 metres high columns forming an almost perfect hexagon. The columns have been made shiny and smooth by glacial ice.
Further along is Rainbow Falls, a waterfall on the middle fork of the San Joaquin river where it makes a staggering 101 foot (31m) drop. It is the highest waterfall in the area and on sunny days, a delightful rainbow hangs in the mist caused by the plunging water.
An information plaque says that the platy rhyodacite rocks in the surrounding cliffs were created by lava eruptions some 75,000 years ago. These are eroding thanks to the rushing water and pushing the waterfall back. By the time I got there it had already receded 500ft (150m). So no telling where it will be by the time you get there.
Located just off Highway 120 East is South Tufa Grove and this road leads to the south end of Mono Lake. This bizarre desert lake has a stealth-like, silent existence where nothing much moves other than the alkali flies that hover around the lake. Certainly no fish can survive.
The turquoise-hued water, which is two and a half times saltier and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean, has no way out. It can only escape through evaporation. Yet this huge expanse of water has been here for over a million years.
White rocks – made from calcium carbonate and limestone known to geologists as tufa (too’-fah) – frequently emerge out of the water – some tall and strangled others wider but always in unusual forms. Ospreys make their home here and I took a close up look at the clear water and saw tiny white shrimp nestled on underwater rocks.
We entered the Yosemite from the eastern part of the scenic Tioga Park. It stretches an incredible 1,200 square miles yet 95 per cent is considered to be wilderness. The other five per cent is easy to traverse thanks to modern roads.
The highest peak in the park is Mount Lyell 13,114 feet and the lowest point is 2252 feet. That means in just one park you get to experience a staggering 11,000 feet in elevation difference and within that you get to see ancient giant sequoias especially in the Mariposa Grove, the deepest of valleys, waterfalls and huge stretches of meadows.
Environmentalist John Muir came here in 1869 as a sheep herder. He mapped the park and was the first to discover that much of the park was carved by glaciers. We saw some polished granite which looked and felt as polished as the worktop in my kitchen. One sad note is that at one time the area was packed with California Grizzly Bears. The last was killed in 1925 and the only way to see one now is on the Californian flag.