Panorama of Convict Lake, California
Convict Lake, California © Mike Richard

36 Hours in Mammoth Lakes, California: Springtime Diversions in the Sierra Nevada

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
–John Muir

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California’s route 395 connects, among other destinations, the Lake Tahoe and Reno areas in the north with Mammoth Lakes in the south. The only way to truly experience this stunning, natural stretch of California is by car where the drive alone between the two areas is worth the price of admission.

The vast, wild expanse of the Sierra Nevada range on either side of the highway is a Xanadu of sorts for outdoorsy and adventurous types. With snowfall possible during any month of the year, skiers and snowboarders look here to get their powder fix almost year round. While during milder months, hiking, backpacking, camping, fishing, rock climbing (… you get the picture) are all options.

The town of Mammoth Lakes beckons them all. As a no-frills ski town, it offers all the outdoor fun and rugged excitement of larger, more popular resort towns (Aspen, Breckenridge, et. al.), but without the pretense. Or the sky high prices for that matter.

The Road to Mammoth Lakes, California
The Road to Mammoth Lakes, California © Mike Richard

We recently spent a few days in Mammoth Lakes and have condensed our favorite must-do’s down to just 36 kickass, outdoor-centric hours of activities for adventure travelers.

Day 1

Let’s assume you’re traveling into Mammoth Lakes from the north (Lake Tahoe/Reno) …

10a / Visit the Ghost Town of Bodie, California

Bodie Ghost Town, California
Bodie Ghost Town, California © Christoper Michel

You’ll want an early start on your first day in the area to allow enough time to stop at the town of Bodie. As the state’s “official state gold rush ghost town”, it has remained frozen in time since around the 1940s and is the best preserved landmark of its kind in California (arguably the country). It’s eerie, fascinating and a must-visit on any trip to the Mammoth Lakes area.

1p / Lunch @ The Restaurant at Convict Lake

The Restaurant at Convict Lake, California

To prep for your afternoon hike, grab a bite at the rustic Restaurant at Convict Lake, located just ten minutes north of Mammoth Lakes. While it’s touted as a “luxury” restaurant, all things in this part of the state are relative. Think: slightly upscale ski lodge.

Hearty entrees and lunch fare (fettucini, rack of lamb, and salmon dishes) are offered alongside finer dining options like Long Island Duck and Beef Wellington. If you’re the casual sort, head to The Lounge where they offer the same menu in a more laid back atmosphere.

2p / Hike Convict Lake

Just outside the restaurant, don your hiking boots and discover why Mammoth Lakes is so well known as an area of many … well, lakes. Convict Lake in particular is among the deepest alpine lakes in the Sierra Nevada range.

Convict Lake Near Mammoth Lakes, California
Convict Lake, California © Mike Richard

A hike around the lake is leisurely and the trail quite level. While it’s not especially challenging, the real draw here is the scenery and photo opportunities which are myriad and stunning to say the least. And the weather can change very quickly, so come prepared. I experienced almost three seasons in as many hours during my recent trip.

Natural Patterns of John Muir Wilderness Near Convict Lake, California
Natural Patterns of John Muir Wilderness Near Convict Lake © Mike Richard

As a bonus, the lake is one of the hottest fishing destinations in the area. The nearby resort offers various, multi-day packages to travelers – most of which include a mix of restaurant credits and marina use.

5p / Visit the California Welcome Center in Mammoth Lakes

John Muir Welcome Sign to Mammoth Lakes, California
Welcome Sign to Mammoth Lakes © Mike Richard

Once you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, head towards downtown Mammoth Lakes and brake for a pit-stop at California’s Welcome Center. Travelers will find a wealth of informational books, pamphlets and resources here and the staff is friendly and eager to talk about the area’s endless outdoor opportunities. Even if you decide to ditch all of my recommendations here, they can provide enough activities to keep you busy for the next six months.

Boo-Boo Black Bear (travel mascot) in Mammoth Lakes, California
Boo-Boo Black Bear (the travel mascot) © Mike Richard

(Plus, the center offers a great gift shop where you can grab a mascot — like Boo-Boo here — to keep you company during your trip!)

6p / Kick Back with a Massage @ The Spa at Sierra Nevada Resort

The Spa at Sierra Nevada Resort, Mammoth Lakes, California

All of this trip focuses on active, outdoor pursuits. Except for one. Since you’ll be busting your arse on the trails for a full day and a half, do yourself a solid and enjoy a massage at (the aptly named) Spa at Sierra Nevada Resort. As you’d expect from a proper, luxurious mountain retreat, they offer a variety of treatment options. You could also mix things up and grab a treatment just before bed – the spa is open until 8pm.

8p / Beer + Food @ Clocktower Cellar

Clocktower Cellar Pub in Mammoth Lakes, California

It’s difficult to imagine a great local/dive bar that’s attached to a hotel. But that’s exactly what Clocktower Cellar is – great happy hour, simple pub food, plenty of amiable Mammoth Lake-ians to chat with, and one of the best beer and whisky selections (150 total!) in town. And it’s always a good sign when the website is little more than a virtual business card. No Facebook links. No Twitter updates. It means they’re not trying to sell you too hard.

Overnight @ The Sierra Nevada Resort

A proper mountain vacation deserves a proper, rustic-yet-luxurious mountain retreat like The Sierra Nevada Resort.

The Lobby at Sierra Nevada Resort in Mammoth Lakes, California
The Lobby at Sierra Nevada Resort

With a prime location in the heart of downtown Mammoth Lakes, you’re minutes from some of the most spectacular hiking and outdoor activities in the country. The shortlist includes: Devils Postpile National Monument, aforementioned Convict Lake, Crowley Lake, Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park.

While a variety of room types are available for just about any budget, we were fortunate to crash in one of their fantastic Fireplace Suites. These luxurious rooms feature heated bathroom floors, heated toilet seats, soaking tubs, large waterfall showers, air conditioning, kitchenettes, fireplaces, real leather lounge chairs, vaporizers, and on … and on.

Fireplace Suite at The Sierra Nevada Resort, Mammoth Lakes, California

If you’re able to pull yourself out of your room (the shower alone gave me reason to never want to leave), the list of onsite amenities is lengthy as well:

  • Duke’s Bar & Fireside Lounge to grab a cocktail or eats from the nearby Rafters restaurant
  • Onsite sundry shop with essentials and other items such as purses, bags, coats, hats, scarfs, gloves, and other clothing
  • Free shuttle with complimentary service available to Mammoth/Yosemite Airport
  • Guest laundry because, let’s face it, you’ll definitely be getting dirty this trip (if you’re doing it right …)
  • Three onsite restaurants with fresh, homemade cuisine from Greece, Asia and America
  • Jaccuzi
  • Onsite rental shop with top-of-the-line rental and demo ski and snowboard equipment by Black Tie Ski Rentals of Mammoth
  • Sauna
  • … plus: they’re pet-friendly! Always the sign of a good business …

Day 2

8a / Breakfast @ Rafters

Rafters Restaurant, Mammoth Lakes, California

Just next door to the hotel is Rafters Restaurant – open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The entire menu looks fantastic, but I opted to keep it simple. Fresh squeezed orange juice and the Sunshine Sandwich – a warm croissant filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, spinach, white cheddar and served with a side of Parmesan hashbrowns. It’s insanely filling and the perfect culinary start to the active day ahead of you!

9a / Coffee @ Looney Bean Coffee

A coffee shop? But didn’t I just eat? You did and you should still stop at Looney Bean Coffee. It’s a funky, indy cafe with a young, hippish, friendly staff, plenty of comfortable broken-in chairs (though you won’t be needing them) to wile away your hours on Facebook, and a diverse menu of coffee and breakfast-related treats. Opt simply for the iced coffee which is among the best I’ve had outside of New England (and we take it damn seriously here!) and prepare for a day of hiking the Mammoth Lakes Basin area.

10a / Hike Panorama Dome, Lake Mary + Beyond

Walk off that heavy breakfast and two-liter bucket of coffee with a moderate hike or three. You honestly don’t need me to tell you where to go. Drive outside of town just until you can no longer see civilization, step out of your car, and start walking. It’s almost literally that easy to find good hiking in Mammoth Lakes.

John Muir Wilderness, Mammoth Lakes, California
© Mike Richard

But since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re interested in more concrete recommendations. For that, grab your camera and head up to Panorama Dome:

A short and eminently worthwhile jaunt, this trail begins from Lake Mary Road, just up and across from its junction with Twin Lakes Road. Wind your way up through low-lying manzanita scrub to the treeless summit of aptly named Panorama Dome, where you will be rewarded with 360-degree lay-of-the-land views of the Lakes Basin, the Mammoth Crest, the southern flank of Mammoth Mountain and, across town, the Long Valley Caldera and the White Mountains, which top out at an impressive 14,252 feet.

The summit is a photo opp you don’t want to miss, particularly in bad weather which makes the scenery all the more dramatic.

Hike or take a drive around Lake Mary which is simply beautiful during the spring thaw (or, I imagine, virtually any time of year).

Lake Mary in Mammoth Lakes, California
Lake Mary (elev 8,910 ft) in Mammoth Lakes © Mike Richard

For even more options, check out this dedicated website to hiking the trails of Mammoth Lakes.

1p / Lunch @ Nik-n-Willies Pizza

Take the short drive back into town and stop at Nik-n-Willies Pizza for a quick lunch before heading back out on the trail. As with everything in town, it’s all about great food in a no-nonsense atmosphere.

I highly recommend the Carnivore’s Delight (a vegetarian’s worst nightmare if ever there was one) – spicy chipotle sauce with sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon and salami. If you’re keen to make it a picnic lunch, get it to go before heading out for the afternoon …

2p / Hike Devil’s Postpile + Rainbow Falls

Devil's Postpile Near Mammoth Lakes, California
Devil's Postpile Near Mammoth Lakes © Greg Balzer

One of the most fascinating hikes in the whole of the range is to Devil’s Postpile. It’s a bizarre, stunning and literally picture-perfect example of Grand Sierra scenery, particular because it’s:

… a rare sight in the geologic world and ranks as one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt. Its columns tower 60 feet high and display an unusual symmetry.

Rainbow Falls Near Mammoth Lakes, California
Rainbow Falls / Remixed from original photo © Grant Montgomery

Bonus: the nearby, 101-foot high Rainbow Falls are simply amazing! Check out Modern Hiker for a full write-up with plenty of practical and planning info.

Sunset @ Minaret Vista

Make sure to pack your tripod for this one as it’s one of the best opportunities for sunset viewing in the area …

Just before sunset, make your way towards the entrance that leads to Devil’s Postpile. Stop at Minaret Vista and take a quick walk up to the viewing platform with various info panels that detail the landscape laid out before you. It’s a breathtaking, panoramic view of the whole Minaret Range, including one of the oldest rocks spires in the Eastern High Sierra Mountains.

Sunset at Minaret Vista, Mammoth Lakes, California
Sunset at Minaret Vista / Photo remixed from original © jcookfisher

Far from the highway and “downtown” noise pollution, it’s as though you can hear the birds sighing up hear. It’s almost literally that quiet.

(A word of note: this is purely a seasonal activity as the road is completely closed due to heavy snowfall in the long winter moths. Call ahead to confirm whether it is in fact open.)

Late Dinner @ Roberto’s Cafe

Roberto's Cafe, Mammoth Lakes, California

After working up an appetite on the trails, massive helpings of awesome (yet cheap!) Mexican food are just what you need. A stone’s throw from The Sierra Nevada Resort, Roberto’s Cafe offers authentic Mexican done right. There are plenty of the usual Tex-Mex dishes, along side traditional offerings such as chile verde, carne asada, carnitas, homemade tamales and huevos rancheros. Bonus: when the weather heats up, check out the outdoor garden patio – perfect for cocktails and apps al fresco!

Overnight @ The Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa

If you did it right, you’ve had a helluva time in the last day and a half in Mammoth Lakes. How’s about grabbing a local beer (Sierra Nevada perhaps) and kicking your feet up by the fireplace back at The Sierra Nevada Resort?

Relaxing by the Fireplace at Sierra Nevada Resort, Mammoth Lakes, California
Relaxing by the Fireplace with a Sierra Nevada at The Sierra Nevada Resort … in the Sierra Nevadas © Mike Richard

It only seems fitting, no?

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