Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
Impossibly picturesque vistas encompass everything the eye can see while serene glacial lakes greet the towering mountains, densely packed trees, and sporadic chair lifts, creating a scene you might expect to see in Hallmark movies rather than in real life. Brilliant hues of sapphire and azure fill the spaces between the cerulean sky and the blankets of white snow, as a refreshing chill blows across the landscape. Coming from the temperate climate of the Bay Area or the warmth of Palm Springs and Death Valley, you’d never guess that Mammoth Mountain was waiting around the corner from Yosemite National Park. With so many things to do in Mammoth Lakes, this is how we would prepare for and spend a weekend here.
Given the wide variety of things to do in Mammoth, figuring out what to pack can easily turn into a cumbersome activity. Between spending hours on the mountain, grabbing a bite to eat in The Village, hiking through the region’s exquisite landscape, and relaxing at the cabin, there are several items that shouldn’t be forgotten.
From the rocky crags of Mount Whitney to the monumental redwood trees rising out of the earth at the Whitney Portal trailhead, the scenery along the 395 keeps you guessing as to what lies ahead. Jumping on the highway in Lone Pine, just east of the natural wonders you recently experienced, the terrain changes drastically; beautifully dense foliage is replaced by extensive desert plains, forest greens give way to the beige and sage shades of arid landscapes, and the lush moisture of the mountains seems to be vacuumed from the skin almost immediately. Yet there is an intense and inexplicable sense of wonder in these wide-open spaces that allows the mind to wander, uninhibited by the restraints of reality.
As the mountains draw closer, the brush starts to disappear and the dirt becomes dusted with fresh layers of snow, so it’s easy to mistake the new landscape for a new state. But the beauty of Mammoth Lakes is contained within California’s borders, just a two-hour drive north of Whitney Portal—or a bit farther if you take the time to enjoy the wonders of Bishop Creek Canyon first. Thanks to its perch amongst the high-altitude mountaintops, Mammoth Lakes gets to celebrate wintertime before the rest of the state; unlike Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area, which are still experiencing fairly warm temperatures, Mammoth Lakes received its first snow of the season back in September, so winter is already in full swing.
Your first adventure will find you about 15 minutes before you get to Mammoth Lakes. When you turn off the highway onto Convict Lake Road, the vacation finally begins to feel real, though the looming peaks and the outstretched wilderness still seem impossibly scenic along this two-lane road. As the road starts to gently wind around the spectacular landscape, it seems as though you could blissfully drive forever in this unexpected destination. But as soon as these thoughts begin to swirl, the majestic emerald lake appears beneath the barren branches and the crystal clear waters shimmer as you stare in wonder.
Set off on the three-mile Convict Lake loop to see just how impressive the water is, marvel at the massive peaks, feel the shade of the aspen trees, and get acquainted with this inland region.
While Mammoth Mountain is primarily filled with man-made snow this early in the season, the white slopes still provide the picture-perfect scenery you’ve been dreaming about. But now that you’ve arrived in Mammoth Lakes, California, it’s time to stop dreaming and start exploring.
Though it’s tempting to set out for the mountain as soon as you get to Mammoth Lakes, a filling brunch sounds too good to pass up, so you’re off to The Stove for some country cooking and small-town vibes. Go with the country-fried steak and eggs or the breakfast burrito—stuffed with eggs, potatoes, bell pepper, and sour cream—for all the protein you’ll need to conquer your fears and experience the marvelous Mammoth Mountain. If you’re feeling more like lunch than brunch, order The Stove burger with a veggie patty, avocado, and sautéed mushrooms. But no matter what you get, make sure to end the meal with a slice of cinnamon-swirl French toast.
Fueled by adrenaline and a big breakfast, it’s time to rent a pair of skis (or a snowboard) and learn how to traverse the Mammoth Mountain ski area. Though the fluffy, powdered snow looks gorgeous from afar, it’s surprisingly intimidating to take in from the bottom of the hill. The idea of gracefully sliding and gliding down the mountain is vividly simple, yet the reality is much less put-together than it sounds. After several attempts to stay upright, plenty of flailing, and a few bruises, you finally get the hang of it. While there’s no way you’ll be joining the pros on the advanced slopes anytime soon, you can officially say that you’ve skied—and at California’s highest chairlift-serviced peak, no less.
Feeling accomplished and exhausted after all of that hard work, a large cup of hot cocoa is in order. Taking off the snow gear instantly makes you feel 10 pounds lighter, and as the chill of the snowy air hits your skin for the first time, the beads of sweat turn into goosebumps almost instantly. After warming up, the time has come to check in to your Mammoth Lakes lodging—but standing proves to be more difficult after working every forgotten muscle.
The Village Lodge is located in the heart of Mammoth Lakes, right near the city’s boutiques and eateries. While the enticing down comforters and luxurious fireplaces of the hotel call for attention, there is still a bit more to see before tucking in for the night.
End the perfect day with an incredible gastronomic experience at Nevados. Begin with the crispy, panko-fried crab and shrimp cakes served with house-made tartar sauce. Continue on with the decadent goat cheese–stuffed, applewood bacon–wrapped Medjool dates paired with nectarines, arugula, and a drizzle of balsamic syrup for a culinary journey you’re sure to dream about. If it’s available, order the cioppino as your main dish; its chunks of lobster, scallops, shrimp, and calamari complement each other and mix beautifully with the luxuriously rich tomato broth.
Once you’re full to the brim with sumptuous bites, return to the Village Lodge for a relaxing evening. After lounging by the fireplace and taking a dip in the hot tub, grab your s’mores fixings and head out to the firepit by the pool to roast some marshmallows. It doesn’t get much better than sitting under the stars with the snowy mountains enveloping the horizon.
With a restful night’s sleep successfully under your belt, you’re ready to round out your adventures near Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort—though it’s hard to leave such a comfortable bed, even with all of the excitement bubbling up. The idea of coffee, however, always seems to rejuvenate the body. So throw on a nice sweater, wrap a scarf around your neck, wiggle into your winter boots, and head out to Black Velvet Coffee to start the day off right.
Order an oat-milk latte or a cortado to pair with your Belgian waffle, and enjoy your breakfast in the quaint coffee bar as you prepare to take on the day. Before you leave, get a matcha latte to go so you can extend the experience as you drive to Earthquake Fault. Caused by the movement of tectonic plates, this 60-foot-deep, 10-foot-wide fissure has intrigued more than just geologists over the years. Spend some time looking at the massive gap in the earth, and remember to take a photo or two while you’re there.
Next, head back toward the hotel to get a better look at The Village at Mammoth. This destination offers a great look at the town and features one of the largest commercial centers near Mammoth Mountain. After wandering around the boutiques and restaurants that comprise this quaint location, it’s time to return to the great outdoors. In mid-November, it’s best to stick to skiing, snowboarding, and sledding, but if you arrive later in the season, check out the ice rink and the Mammoth snowmobile excursions.
Though it has arrived too soon, the time has come to check out of the Village Lodge and decide between staying in town and heading out on other adventures. Either way, it’s worth visiting the Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain to fully take in the sights from high above the ground. Grab a bite at the café to experience the highest eatery in the state, and take plenty of photos from the summit.
Spend the rest of the afternoon swooshing down the mountain or exploring the nearby Hot Creek Geological Site, where you can witness the naturally bubbling waters. To get to these cauldrons, drive south on the 395 for about 5 miles, then follow the signs to the Hot Creek Trout Hatchery. Drive another 2 miles on the gravel road, and you will reach the Hot Creek parking area. Finally, make the short hike down to the creek and canyon to see the beauty firsthand.
But take note: You can’t enter this California hot spring. The water temperatures can change extremely quickly due to the magma lying about three miles under the earth’s surface—and it is not uncommon to see a geyser erupt here. The green and blue hues of the steamy water are also visible thanks to a 700,000-year-old volcanic explosion, and earthquake activity is known to open up new pools throughout Hot Creek.
While there is still so much to see and do in Mammoth Lakes, it’s time to continue the adventures and hit the road. But another trip is undoubtedly necessary in order to experience the Mammoth Lakes campgrounds, which are only open from October through May; see the Devils Postpile National Monument’s 60-foot tall basalt columns crafted out of lava (which are viewable from mid-June through mid-October, weather permitting); take a tour around Mammoth on a snowmobile; view the rugged landscape from inside a helicopter; and grab a few unbelievable desserts from Dessert’D Organic Bake Shop.
As the drive from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite begins, the ideas begin to formulate for future cross-country skiing and snowshoeing adventures, and the unusual opportunity to climb a frozen waterfall seems too intriguing to write-off entirely. Though it seems as though you have only just arrived in Mammoth Lakes, the bitterness of leaving is replaced with fond memories and the anticipation of new adventures.
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