A First-Timer’s Guide to Mammoth Lakes, California

Southern Californians love Mammoth—and it’s easy to see why.

A First-Timer’s Guide to Mammoth Lakes, California

Mammoth Lakes comprises several alpine lakes east of the Sierra Nevadas.

Photo by Umomos / Shutterstock

You see an oddly shaped “M” on the back of a lot of cars in Southern California. It’s elongated into a kind of double “M”, actually, and its peaks are craggy like a mountain. It’s somewhat enigmatic, especially compared to some of the more in-your-face bumper stickers some drivers display. It’s a sign that the passengers are part of the cult of Mammoth, a place of peaks and lakes tucked into the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas that inspires endless love—and often a cabin purchase—by those who’ve been.

The reasons Mammoth Lakes, the town, and Mammoth Mountain—and the whole region—inspire such devotion are legion: abundant summer fun, top-notch winter sports, crisp air and scenic views, friendly people and decent food, plus easy access from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and beyond.

Here’s a primer for your first visit to the area.

What to do in Mammoth Lakes in summer

Get your bearings early on by taking a ride in the mountain’s gondola, which ascends to 11,053 feet and offers expansive views in several directions. At the top there’s a café and interpretive center, and you can hike or mountain bike back down via several routes (dogs are welcome on a leash during the summer).

Hiking and biking opportunities abound. Two-wheeled adventures run the gamut; you can rent road bikes in the village and cruise around the town, or get more adventurous with a climb up to the Mammoth Lakes Basin, where several lakes—Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Mamie, and Horseshoe Lake—lie in close proximity and are connected by paved trails.

There are miles of mountain biking trails to be explored and several hikes to lesser-known alpine lakes. The Devil’s Postpile National Monument is a rewarding short walk that reveals imposing 60-foot basalt columns.

Save some energy to paddleboard or kayak around that pristine water, too, or rent a pontoon boat at Lake Mary Marina. The singularly picturesque Mono Lake nearby is well worth the short drive out of town. Here, at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, calcium carbonate rock tufas stand proud amid highly alkaline water in an otherwise arid, desert environment. Mono Lake is a big stopover for migratory birds: 1 to 2 million stop and rest here annually. Bring binoculars. Park on the south side and walk the boardwalks to the water for some seriously stunning views.

If rock (or ice) climbing is more your thing, the Sierra Mountain Center has a variety of programs year-round.

Mono Lake is half an hour north of Mammoth by car.

Mono Lake is half an hour north of Mammoth by car.

Photo by turtix / Shutterstock

What to do in Mammoth Lakes in winter

With an average of 300 inches of snow a year and a long powder season (which extended into June in 2022), it’s likely that you’ll spend some of your time on skis or a board—or at least a sled. Grab rentals at either Canyon Lodge or Main Lodge, and book lessons if you want a refresher. Be warned: Group lesson instructors won’t wait if you’re not there on time. For snowshoers or cross-country skiers, there are miles of groomed trails and acres of wilderness to explore.

For kids, head to Woolly’s Tube Park. Here, tiny toys can play in the snow and brave a fairly mild sled run, while older children can hurtle down much more intimidating downhill lanes on inflatable tubes.

Where to eat and drink in Mammoth Lakes

A great day in Mammoth begins with a Rainforest Alliance espresso or latte at Black Velvet Coffee and ends with a local IPA at Mammoth Brewing Company. Or perhaps it’s bookended with a smoothie and breakfast burrito at Stellar Brew and a pizza and Moscow mule at Mammoth Rock ’N’ Bowl. Then again, you could begin proceedings with something from the bakery at Bleu Market and Kitchen and finish with Paso Robles pinot at the Daou Lounge on the mountain. You have options.

Tips for visiting Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes is a short drive from U.S. Highway 395, which runs north/south along the east of the Sierras. It’s five hours from Los Angeles but a fairly pleasant ride on a two-lane road through towns like Bishop and Lone Pine. Or you could fly into Mammoth Yosemite Airport seven miles away (and offset the carbon). Mammoth hasn’t made the same sustainability commitments that we’ve seen at many other ski resorts, but the region does encourage responsible tourism and has listed a number of organizations at which travelers can give back and tips for volunteering while you’re in the area.

Where to stay in Mammoth Lakes

If you want to be right in the village, try the Village Lodge, which is right in the heart of the action by a gondola and offers condos of various sizes. Or if you’re after a taste of Europe in California, check out Alpenhof Lodge.

Book now: Village Lodge

Book now: Alpenhof Lodge

There are also abundant rentals in the area, which may work better for larger families with loads of activity gear. We like Snowcreek Resort, where individual homes are set among 449 acres within Snowcreek Meadow Preserve, a short drive or bike from the main village. Rentals include access to a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, pools, and a spa.

Book now: Snowcreek Resort

Next: 8 Classic California Road Trips

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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