Winter vs. Summer: Mammoth Lakes, CA
Get ready to swap your snowboard for a mountain bike. Your snowshoes for hiking boots. Your ski poles for kayak paddles. High amid the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes draws skiers and snowboarders from around the world for some serious wintertime magic — but that’s only half the picture. When the snow finally melts and the summer sun lengthens the days, the call goes out to all hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, anglers, and wanderlust-ers seeking waterfalls, lava domes, and easy access to nearby natural wonders like Yosemite National Park and Devils Postpile National Monument.
Here are five ways to tackle Mammoth Lakes — and California’s greater Mono Basin — in both seasons, proving this region is the ultimate “adventureland.” Bag that bargain United flight straight into Mammoth Yosemite Airport, and get ready for a serious rush.
Mammoth Mountain is the main draw for downhill skiers and snowboarders. Its 3,500 acres (with a healthy mix of terrain from beginner to expert), 150 named trails, 11 terrain parks, and annual average of 400 inches of snow could keep you busy for an entire season. Less splashy but equally awesome is the family-friendly June Mountain, a local favorite just 35 minutes by car from Mammoth Lakes.
Of course, you don’t need chairlifts and steep drops to enjoy a great day skiing. The cross-country and Nordic skiing here is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, set against the backdrop of the snow-clad peaks of the High Sierra. More than 140 miles of trails in and around Mammoth Lakes will take you on as casual or as extreme of an adventure as you’re up for.
For more advice on planning a ski trip, including valuable info for families and first-timers, check out Family ski trip to Mammoth Lakes: Everything you need to know.
As the snow melts away from Mammoth Mountain’s trails, the focus shifts to mountain biking. The Mammoth Mountain Bike Park is home to some of the most exciting terrain in the country, its 80+ miles of singletrack comprising jumps, berms, and drops aplenty — not to mention rewarding cross-country riding and adrenaline-pumping downhill. The bike park is open May/June to September, snow permitting.
But look beyond the mountain as well — there are nearly endless options for trails throughout town and into the surrounding Inyo National Forest. Check out the Mammoth Lakes Trail System for length, difficulty, and access info on more than 100 different area trails.
There’s also an extensive lineup of rentals in town, from world-class mountain bikes to fat-tired cross-country bikes and even e-bikes for those who don’t mind a little motorized assistance at elevation.
The Village at Mammoth glows warmly with bonfires and twinkling lights in winter. Kids can sip a steamy cup of cocoa while adults enjoy an apres-ski hot toddy at 53 Kitchen & Cocktails or Shelter Distilling, a craft brewery, distillery, and kitchen.
There are frequent family-centered festivities during winter, like Woolly’s Parade, which happens every Saturday afternoon during ski season. Or take The Village Gondola to Canyon Lodge for Night of Lights, one of the most anticipated events of the season.
Warmer weather and longer days mean more time to explore The Village at Mammoth — you’ll never run out of things to do! Kids (anyone with taste buds, really) can sip thick milkshakes and chow down on ice cream cones from Hugs Ice Cream, which serves two-dozen premium flavors of craft ice creams and sorbets. Adults can hop from mountain-time to island-time with a mai tai from the tiki-themed Lakanuki Bar & Cafe, which also offers coconut shrimp and loco moco. Or grab some uber-fresh sashimi and a cool bottle of sake at the renowned Sushi Rei.
The Village’s events heat up in summertime, too, with foodie extravaganzas and music festivals spicing up the calendar. The Mammoth Food & Wine Experience — one of the summer’s highlights — brings seminars and tastings with world-class chefs, sommeliers, and brewers. And for close to two decades, Mammoth Villagefest has been a Mammoth Lakes summertime tradition. Billed as the “World’s Highest Rib Cookoff,” the event features live music, dancing, and fun for the whole family.
Standing at the edge of this alkaline lake in wintertime, surrounded by snow-packed mountains and little else, the silence is surreal. Surreal is kind of Mono Lake’s thing.
The lake’s signature tufas, spindly columns of limestone that jut out from the silvery water, are there for you to admire year-round, though it’s only on occasional winter days that an ice fog, or “poconip” as the region’s native inhabitants dubbed it, will engulf the lake.
After a big snowfall, cross-country skiers and snowshoers of all ages can explore the lands around the lake. There are no groomed trails, meaning you get to carve your own. One recommended spot, about 15 minutes north of Lee Vining, is Lundy Lake Canyon. You can grab gear, snacks, and more at Kittredge Sports or Footloose Sports, both on Main Street in Mammoth Lakes.
As the weather warms, Mono Lake shifts gears to a stunning, pebble-lined beach perfect for kayaking, paddleboarding, or just strolling with curious, rock-skipping kids. The lake’s South Tufa Area puts visitors up close and personal with the lunar-looking formations. Youngsters can scramble around them and swim near them (just please don’t touch or climb on them).
Swimming is actually encouraged during the summer, when temperatures at this slightly lower elevation can rise into the 90s. The briny water makes you more buoyant, meaning floating is as easy as kicking back and, well, that’s it.
For those looking to go deeper into this extraordinary landscape, Caldera Kayaks offers canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards, along with guided tours and instructional lessons spring through fall.
If you want to experience the best of Mammoth Lakes cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, your first stop should be the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, on the shores of Twin Lakes. Rent your gear of choice and strike out on the 19+ miles of groomed trails that weave through this backcountry paradise. You’ll gain a whole new appreciation for winter in Mammoth Lakes away from the bustle of the ski slopes.
One especially recommended destination is Panorama Dome. The name gives away the prize: A snowshoe trek here leads to 360-degree views of the Lakes Basin. Start from the winter closure at the end of Lake Mary Road, and it’s a 1.6-mile round-trip trek suitable for the entire family.
Lakes + sunny summer weather = let your imagination run wild! Most of the lakes in the Lakes Basin have marinas where you can rent whatever method of waterborne conveyance suits your fancy — kayak, canoe, rowboat, stand-up paddleboard, even motorboat. Paddle the water and explore the nooks and crannies of the lake coves, or cast your line for trout — all of the lakes are stocked regularly.
You don’t have to take to the water to experience the Lakes Basin, of course. A network of hiking trails totaling close to 100 miles weaves among the lakes, with multiple scenic overlooks for views you won’t soon forget. Try the Panorama Dome Trail for a short (0.3 mile) hike to breathtaking vistas, or the Mammoth Crest Trail for a longer (7.2 miles) scenic trek to the edge of the John Muir Wilderness.
After shredding the slopes, Hot Creek will deepen your appreciation for this landscape. The same volcanic forces that created Mammoth Mountain are still visible here, steaming like boiling pots of turquoise water against the cool winter sky.
The road should be passable in the winter, especially for an SUV, but you’ll want to check conditions before heading out.
In warm weather, Hot Creek is an easy stroll from the parking lot and its adjoining picnic area. The paved trail that runs along the south side is the perfect place for families to marvel from a safe distance.
Upstream and down from the pools, anglers can find some of the area’s best trout fishing come spring and summer. If you need a rod and waders, local shops — including Kittredge Sports, The Troutfitter, and Rick’s Sport Center — have all the gear you need for a fly fishing adventure. Or if you’re a beginner, head out with a knowledgeable local guide who can show you the ropes of the sport.