Ohh The Places Maps Will Take You…
Story and Photos By: Betsy Fessler
I like maps. I have electronic maps on my computer, map books, and paper maps, and I’ve studied maps of the Mammoth Lakes area many times because it is a spaghetti bowl of trails with many things to see. It is a popular off-road destination, and one that I didn’t have an opportunity to tour until recently.
My friend Sam bought a Polaris General, and he follows several off-road Facebook groups including one for the Sierra Stompers. Last fall, the Stompers posted an upcoming ride at Mammoth Lakes, and knowing that Mammoth was on my bucket list, Sam invited us and a few other friends to come along.
Mammoth Lakes is in eastern California. It is within the Inyo National Forest, northwest of Bishop, off of Highway 395. It is also home to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, which is a popular winter destination for people in the SoCal area. At around 9,000 feet of elevation, we definitely felt it even when just walking around.
Our rides originated from The Mammoth Inn, https://www.themammothmountaininn.com/, so we booked a one bedroom condo with a loft there. It was a perfect choice because it had a kitchen, family room and multiple bathrooms to accommodate all of us. Fostering camaraderie, we cooked meals there and were able to hang out together comfortably. The Mammoth Inn also has hot tubs and restaurants. They allowed our trucks and trailers in their parking lot, and we were even able to park our UTVs in their covered parking.
An afternoon ride was planned the day we got to Mammoth. Our leader Mike took us to Obsidian Dome, which is a hill full of broken chunks of black obsidian stone. Obsidian is black and looks like glass, and is so sharp that Indians used it for their arrowheads. We worried about the obsidian slashing our tires, so we were careful not to get our cars too close.
From Obsidian Dome, Mike took us to the beautiful Laurel Lakes. The trail to Laurel Lakes is moderately difficult and sometimes narrow. It follows Laurel Creek 9 miles up and back through Laurel Canyon. We climbed 3,000 feet along the way. During the trip up the canyon I really enjoyed seeing nearby aspen groves displaying their spectacular fall colors.
We rode 60 miles that day. It was completely dark when we arrived back at the inn, and I looked forward to what the next day had in store.
Sam planned day 2, and led us north of Mammoth. We drove to the Devil’s Punchbowl, which was a little disappointing. l expected it to be a huge crater with colorful water in it. Instead, it was a moderately sized hole in the ground, covered with trees and bushes. We took photos and continued on.
Throughout the morning we meandered in and out of pine groves. At one point we drove up a hill and found the base for an interesting old control tower. There were amazing panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and Sierra Mountains. Continuing on, we eventually reached the south end Mono Lake and the Mono Tufas.
I’d driven past Mono Lake on my way to other off-road destinations. But I had no idea that there was such cool geology there. The Mono Tufas are really unique in that they are rough looking limestone towers that rise from the water. They originally formed under the surface but after water was diverted from the lake in the 1940’s, they were revealed.
We spent a few hours at the tufas eating lunch and walking the trails, reading and learning from the different interpretive panels. I took some time to photograph the towers and their surroundings.
On our way back to camp, we stopped to see the Inyo Craters. We could only see one of them from the trail we were on, but it was a huge volcanic crater filled with unique blue-green colored water. We clocked just under 100 miles and had another great day exploring the area between Mammoth and Mono Lake.
During dinner that night, Sam made a suggestion. He proposed that instead of spending our last day in our UTVs that we jump in our trucks and tour popular Mammoth destinations that are only accessible by street cars. It was a hard choice, but we opted to spend the day in our trucks.
Sam first took us to the Devil’s Postpile National Monument. Even though we got there early, there were many tourists already there. The best way to see the Devil’s Postpile is to take the short hike that leads you in front of, then up to the top of it.
Devil’s Postpile is a pile of hexagonal basalt rock columns that formed when a lava flow cooled and cracked about 100,000 years ago. Sometime after it cooled, a glacier ran across its top, flatting and smoothing it. When you walk to the top of the postpile, you can clearly see the polished column tops as well as views of the surrounding area. It was really cool to see it in person, as I had only seen pictures until then.
From there Sam led us to the very unusual Horseshoe Lake. Arriving in the parking lot, we immediately noticed the lack of trees at one end of the lake. Sam explained that the trees died because there is too much carbon dioxide seeping from the ground. This phenomenon began in the 1990’s, and has killed over 120 acres of trees. Today, there are signs everywhere warning of the dangers of the excessive CO2 levels. The visitors there didn’t seem to be worried though. There were a lot of people there, some with dogs playing on the beach.
It was another amazing day discovering the Mammoth Lakes area.
If you’re considering a trip to Mammoth Lakes, keep in mind that because of its elevation there are large amounts of snow there in the winter. The trails there are inaccessible by UTV generally from November to April. Trails at higher elevations such as the Laurel Lakes trail can have snow blocking the trail as late as July. So make sure you have all the equipment you may need to be comfortable and safe. When you arrive you’ll be glad you made the effort to go. Just like we did, you’ll think Mammoth is worth the trip.