Seeing is believing in Mammoth Lakes, California
Though the town of Mammoth Lakes, California is not especially large, it’s part of a region endowed with more natural riches than many places 100 times its size. Set at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, about 250 miles due east of San Francisco, you’ll find a tightknit community whose backyard is a landscape filled with volcanic craters, otherworldly tufa towers, hot springs and alpine lakes. In the winter, adventurers flock here for the mountains of powder where they can ski, snowboard and snowshoe to their hearts’ content. In fact, it was just named #1 Best Ski Town in USA Today's 10Best Readers' Choice awards for 2022. But Mammoth Lakes is stunning in any season — a fact countless nature photographers know, and their photos prove, no filter needed.
But as with all of nature’s majesty, not even the most jaw-dropping photography compares to actually standing in the midst of all this splendor. Luckily, finding yourself here is easier than you might think, since Mammoth Lakes’ two nearby airports (Mammoth Yosemite on Advanced Air and Eastern Sierra Regional on United) are accessible by plane from hundreds of cities across the U.S.
Here are some things you’ll begin to comprehend only after a trip to this unreal, and yet very real place.
Mammoth Lakes is the ultimate playground for winter sports
If you're a powderhound, you probably already know this fun fact about the local "point" of pride, Mammoth Mountain: At 11,053 feet, it's the highest chairlift-serviced peak in the great state of California. This alone demystifies why Mammoth Lakes is a pilgrimage site for downhill aficionados across the U.S. and beyond.
But even prior knowledge of the mountain's magnitude can't prepare you for the experience that awaits before you take your first ski or snowboard run: the surreal views from the top. The snow-covered expanse dives into a cavernous valley, rises into an imposing stretch of mountainous ridges, and appears again in waves of seemingly endless peaks that rise like ghostly echoes to the limits of your vision. You'll want to take a mental picture, because neither an Instagram post nor a panoramic snapshot will do it justice — though no one will blame you for trying.
Tip: Depending on nature's whims, ski season may last into April or May in Mammoth Lakes, so if you're flexible, you may score exceptionally good deals for ski trips during the winter-spring period.
The mountains here are literal playgrounds for little ones, too. Families can careen down a slick groomed snow lane at Woolly's Tube Park, then build a snowman, ride a surf sled or try the tubing version of a merry-go-round at the onsite snow play area. Warming up with a cup of hot cocoa on the heated deck post-run is a perk no one should skip.
Whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned pro, Mammoth Lakes is also a prime spot for a snowmobile adventure. There are more than 100 miles of tree-lined trails, open meadows and stunning geological sites to explore, and a guided tour through the High Sierra is a popular way to ensure you make the most of it.
Walk on water — well, a form of water — in a pair of snowshoes, and venture to wilderness areas via trails that would otherwise be off-limits in the deep of winter. Shady Rest Park, with trails snaking through forests of towering old-growth Jeffrey pines and across volcano-formed hills and domes, is a local favorite.
Or cross country ski through the Mammoth Lakes Basin via 19 glorious miles of freshly groomed, tree-lined track at the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, where the only sounds you're likely to hear are the rhythmic "whoosh-whoosh" of your own movements and the occasional fortitudinous bird. You can take a lesson there, too, if you're a first-timer. Whichever way you enjoy this staggeringly beautiful place, keep in mind you're reckoning with nature and that preparation is key to staying safe.
And speaking of primary needs, refueling after all this winter fun is clearly a must — and, true to its propensity to awe visitors, Mammoth Lakes harbors a rich dining scene. There are dozens of restaurants in downtown Mammoth Lakes, where you can find anything from hearty comfort meals to European foodie fare so meticulously plated, it could be displayed in an art gallery. For the latter, make a reservation at Skadi, where refined Alpine dishes like savory crepes layered with mushroom duxelle and Jarlsberg Cheese pair as well with the mountain atmosphere as they do with the curated wine list.
The Stove is a top choice for a casual, rib-sticking breakfast or lunch (guests rave about the cinnamon swirl French toast), while beer aficionados will want to plan a stop at Distant Brewing. Its microbrews are tagged with nature-inspired names like Sky Pillow (a hazy IPA), Leaf Peeper (a Dutch-style lager) and Honey Baked Amber (a dark lager). All are good choices for washing down smoking-hot chicken skewers or a Philly steak panini (just two of the items on their surprisingly extensive food menu) on a chilly winter's day.
Beauty is always in season here
With all this awesomeness awaiting, winter is clearly a standout season for trips to Mammoth Lakes. But so are spring, summer and fall in this all-seasons adventure-land. Travelers looking for extra elbow room and especially compelling lodging offers may want to target the quieter spring or fall seasons for their getaways, and consider midweek or extended stays for even better value.
In April and May, the snow melts to reveal a region awash in colors that hardly seem to originate from Mother Nature's palette. And this technicolor phenomenon continues through summer and into fall, when flamboyant hues seep across the vast landscape.
Also revealed with the thaw are the vibrant turquoise pools that occupy the Inyo Craters, formed by explosions of volcanic steam only about 600 years ago. You can reach these 200-feet-deep pools via a drive down the unpaved Mammoth Scenic Loop, followed by a short uphill hike.
Spring and early summer are also the seasons for wildflower viewing. Richly pigmented purple larkspur, firework-like red paintbrush and sunny yellow monkeyflowers are just a few of the varieties you might spy. And you don't have to go far to see them (though you can certainly spot many on the trails), as Snowcreek Meadow in the heart of downtown Mammoth Lakes lights up with them each year.
There are barely words to describe what awaits sightseers at Devils Postpile National Monument, located a meandering 30-minute drive west of town, followed by a 1-mile roundtrip hike. The 60-foot-tall rock formation looks entirely too geometrically perfect to be real; some say it resembles a tidy lumber pile assembled by giants. In reality, the towering hexagonal basalt columns formed courtesy of an anomalous combination of a prehistoric lava surge, followed by the arrival of glaciers that cooled, cracked, carved and polished the postpile to its current state some 90,000 years later.
And as if one geologic wonder were not enough for one outing, the staggering 101-foot Rainbow Falls is located in the same park, a 2.5-mile hike away. A mandatory shuttle to the protected site operates mid-June to mid-September, but visitors can access the area via their own cars until the road closes in October.
Mono Lake is hardly the last "see it to believe it" sight on the long list of Mammoth Lakes marvels, but its intriguing composition and biodiversity make it especially worth experiencing. The waters here are saline, and home to trillions of brine shrimp that attract millions of nesting and migratory birds each year.
But even more mind-boggling than the volume of sandpipers, ibis and terns you may glimpse on the lake are the curious tufa towers that jut from its surface. Resembling giant, motley melted candles, these limestone towers formed through a chemical reaction sparked by subterranean spring water meeting saltwater.
Preserving a place this astoundingly beautiful is paramount
If you dream of coming face to face with some gnarly tufa, you can do so by boat — as long as said boat runs on human power (canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards, for example). Motorboats are prohibited on the lake in order to preserve its remarkable biodiversity, and this is just one of many steps Mammoth Lakes has taken to #KeepMammothUnreal for the long haul. (Another one of those steps is asking visitors never to climb the fragile tufa towers so they stay intact.)
Of course, in a region that gives so much in the way of joy-sparking natural beauty and wonder, abiding by simple promises to leave no trace, respect water and wildlife and be prepared in the wilderness seem like, well, second nature.