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I truly believe there is something for every type of traveler in California. Be it a road trip up California Highway 1, tasting cheese on the Sonoma cheese trail, surfing the waves in San Diego, or heading to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to visit Mammoth Lakes.
Having moved to the Sierra Nevada town of Mammoth Lakes a few years ago, I’m partial to California’s Eastern Sierra. But, when talking with our travel planning clients, we find the region is unknown outside of California; we’re on a mission to change that with our Mammoth Lakes travel guide.
Where Is Mammoth Lakes, California?
Located in California’s Eastern Sierra mountain range, this high-altitude alpine town sits in the middle of Mono County, at an elevation of roughly 7,900 feet.
Dating back thousands of years, the region’s first inhabitants were the Mono and Paiute people. Then, European settlers arrived in the area in the late 1800s, searching for gold.
Mammoth got its name from the Mammoth Mining Company, which set up shop there during the mining era. But, the town only took off after Dave McCoy founded the Mammoth Mountain ski resort (read about in the book, Tracks of Passion), and tourism began to thrive.
What Is Mammoth Lakes Known For?
Its location in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains means Mammoth Lakes is a top destination in California for outdoor activities.
The world-class ski resort of Mammoth Mountain is the draw in the colder months, while the Mammoth Lakes Basin – with several alpine lakes – is a must-see in the summertime.
The dramatic alpine landscape is often likened to the Alps, but the numerous geological wonders, from Devil’s Postpile to Hot Creek, are also of note.
Why Is Mammoth Lakes Unique
Though the town may not be as posh, developed, or historic as other ski towns, we’re fans of Mammoth because it has a thriving local community. There are very few chain stores and, beyond the property owned by the ski resort, very little corporate influence. So you can easily support the local businesses when you visit.
How Many Days Should You Spend In Mammoth Lakes?
If you’re planning a road trip up Highway 395, we recommend stopping in Mammoth Lakes for at least a night.
Sure, you could easily day trip and do nothing more than wander the town, stroll the Lake Basin paths, and grab a bite. But, if you have the time, plan to spend a long weekend or a full week so you can get after all the outdoor adventure.
What Is There To Do In Mammoth Lakes?
There are plenty of activities to do year-round across the Eastern Sierra, from golf to fishing. Here are our client’s favorite Mammoth Lakes attractions:
- Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs: Thanks to the region’s geological activity, there are several natural hot springs ranging from the better-known ones you can dip into like Wild Willy’s Hot Springs and Crab Cooker Hot Springs to the look-but-don’t-enter spots like the Hot Creek Geological Site.
- Ride The Gondola: If you’re not much of an adventurer, you can still soak in the panoramic views by doing a scenic gondola ride to the top of Mammoth Mountain.
- Mammoth Lakes Camping: There is everything from car camping available at Coldwater campground to backpacking in the backcountry. Permits are needed, and many are booked six months in advance, so get your camping reservations early.
- Rock Climbing: The region has some of the best rock climbing in California. You can try it out for the first time or the hundredth with a guided service like International Alpine Guides.
- Mountain Biking: Head to Mammoth Mountain for a network of biking trails from beginner to advanced. Or, hit any major sporting goods stores like Footloose to rent an e-bike to easily roll around town.
- Get On The Water: With more than 100 alpine lakes in the region, there are many opportunities to get on the water, be it to float on an inner tube, fish, kayak, boat, or stand-up paddle. A few of our favorite spots are Lake George and Convict Lake.
- Horseback Ride: Hit up any of the handful of outfitters like Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit to discover the lakes basin, Red’s Meadow Resort for sierra pack trips, or McGee Pack Station for rides in the greater Eastern Sierra.
- Hike The Lakes Basin: Check out the Mammoth Lakes Trails System for various day hikes from the flat Twin Lakes Trail to the scenic Mammoth Rock Trail or the short but steep Crystal Lake Trail.
- Ski The Resort: The main winter draw is Mammoth Mountain Resort. As the highest resort in California, the mountain tops out at 11,053 feet and has everything from beginner to expert terrain.
- Cross-Country Ski: If downhill skiing or snowboarding isn’t your thing, head up Lake Mary Road to the Tamarack Cross Country Center to try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
- Snowmobile: Start at Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge and head deep into the wilderness on a snowmobile adventure.
- Moonlight Snowshoe: Keep tabs on the calendar as many special experiences like moonlight snowshoeing happen throughout the season.
- Backcountry Skiing: Go out of bounds with experts like Golden State Guiding, who will take you on trips into the backcountry.
Where To Eat In Mammoth Lakes
One of the things we love most about this town is that, unlike many other tourism-centric towns, there are very few chain restaurants. Head here for our list of the top restaurants to eat local in Mammoth Lakes.
Where To Stay In Mammoth Lakes
During the summer, you’ll encounter through-hikers attempting to complete the John Muir Trail or the daunting Pacific Crest Trail. And, during the winter, you’ll see plenty of van lifers hanging out between ski sessions.
But most visitors to Mammoth Lakes stay in town at a hotel or rental property. The Mammoth Lakes Village (specifically The Village Lodge) is a big draw for families because it’s convenient. Our top picks for lodging are:
Log Cabin Vibes: Tamarack Lodge
This lakeside lodge is nearly a century old which means it’s big on quaintness but small on modern conveniences. Book a cabin for more privacy, and be sure to reserve a spot at their delicious Lakefront Restaurant.
Be Slope-Adjacent: Austria Hof Lodge
During the winter months, book a room at the family-owned Austria Hof, which is walkable to the slopes. It’s more salt-of-the-earth and rustic than other spots, but what it lacks in decor makes up for spirit. Also, the basement bar is one of the more happening spots in town for a no-frills apres ski.
For Families: Juniper Springs Resort
Located near the family-friendly Eagle Lodge area of the resort (read: beginner runs and ski school), this slope-side hotel gets pricey in high season but that’s because it’s uber convenient. It’s also one of the only hotels in town with pools and hot tubs, a major plus after a long day of activity or if you’re traveling with kids.
Day Trips From Mammoth Lakes
This tiny lakeside town is just a 30-minute drive north and worth visiting. The town is named after the main lake, June Lake, but you can drive the June Lake Loop to see a series of smaller lakes like Gull, Grant, and Silver Lake, where you can fish, boat, or swim in the summer.
During the winter, there is the family-friendly ski resort of June Mountain, which is smaller and easier to navigate than Mammoth. During a day trip, go skiing or hiking to work up an appetite.
Yosemite National Park
It’s a roughly 45-minute drive Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Entrance, so it is very much doable for a day trip.
The east entrance gives you easy access to climbing spots like Dozier Dome, the stunning Tuolumne Meadows, or the serene Tenaya Lake. Just note that this is the only entrance to Yosemite Park that closes in the winter so be on the lookout for opening and closing dates.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
Just 12 miles southwest of town is Devil’s Postpile National Monument, which includes the geological formation of Devil’s Postpile, the pack station of Red Meadows, and the beautiful Rainbow Falls.
The hiking trails intersect the John Muir Wilderness, and if you snag a pass, you can overnight camp in places like Ediza Lake and Thousand Island Lake.
The area is only open in the height of summer, and unless you drive in before dawn, you’ll need to take a shuttle to reach it.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Mammoth Lakes, California?
When to visit depends on what you want to do when you get here. Mind you, the town has four seasons, and while the summers are dry and temperature, the winters are freezing and snowy.
Temperatures generally range from 10°F in the middle of winter to 75°F in the height of summer. The nights are almost always chilly, so be sure to pack layers.
The winter sports and ski season generally runs from late October through May, while the height of summer weather is from late June through late August.
The crowds clear out around the shoulder season, so visit in May, June, September, or October if you want to avoid them.
How To Get To Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes Flights
Daily nonstop flights are available seasonally into Bishop airport from San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles, operated by United Airlines.
Meanwhile, you can fly into the Mammoth Yosemite Airport with flights operated by Advanced Airlines out of Carlsbad, Hawthorne, or San Diego. However, these flights aren’t available year-round, so be sure to double-check the schedule.
FAQs For Driving To Mammoth Lakes
Whether it’s friends, family, or our travel clients driving to Mammoth Lakes, these are the most common questions they ask not only when driving in California but specifically for Mammoth:
Is It Hard To Drive To Mammoth Lakes?
If you’re coming from Lake Tahoe or heading north from Southern California, you will drive along Highway 395 to get to Mammoth Lakes.
It is a very well-maintained highway but always check road conditions before you venture. The drive is generally long but not hard so long as you do it during good weather.
Is The Road To Mammoth steep?
When coming from the North, the drive to Mammoth is by no means steep though it does wind along Virginia Creek from Bridgeport to Lee Vining, so that can slow you down if you’re not used to driving windy roads.
When driving from Southern California to Mammoth Lakes, you drive the mostly straight and flat section of Highway 395 through the Mojave Desert. This area can have pockets of no cell service so be sure to have your car stocked with emergency equipment in case you have a breakdown.
Note that as you drive north from the town of Bishop, there is an approximate 3,700-foot elevation gain. This grade is where you’ll most likely need chains during a winter storm or where an older car may overheat during the summer, so be prepared.
Can You Drive Through Yosemite National Park To Mammoth?
Yes! In fact, one of our favorite things to do in the summer is crisscross Yosemite and go from Fresno and Oakhurst or Groveland to Mammoth via Highway 120.
However, note that the Tioga Pass Entrance, the only entrance on the east side of Yosemite, is not open year-round, and, as of now, you need a reservation to pass through the park, so plan accordingly.
Have Us Plan Your California Trip
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Photo Credit: Opening photo by lassedesignen; Kayakers at Twin Lakes by NatalieJean; Hot Creek Geological Site by melissamn; Skiers at Mammoth by NatalieJean; women in Mammoth Village by David Cuhney; June Lake Fall Foliage by lauramorgan4; snowy road photo by MBUS