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It’s hard to believe that Jason and I have lived in California for over three decades and just recently made our first trip to the Eastern Sierras and more specifically, Mammoth Lakes. This is a popular ski area, but we aren’t skiers, so we've dismissed this area. Oh boy, were we wrong to do so! As hiking enthusiasts, this should have been on our radar a long time ago. Eastern Sierra hiking is peaceful, scenic and really challenging. There are so many trails that few are crowded, yet many offer lovely views of lakes and waterfalls while simultaneously providing stunning views of the mountains.
After only five days in the area, I can’t begin to offer an exhaustive list of all the hikes. So instead I’ll share our favorites along with some tips for our fellow hikers. (Even if you don't enjoy hiking, there are plenty of other things to do, here's a article about Exploring the Eastern Sierras.)
McLeod Lake Trail–Quick and Steep
Mammoth Lakes hiking (the trails closest to the town of Mammoth Lakes) is plentiful. In fact, according to the Mammoth Lakes Trail system website, there are over 300 miles of trails offered in this area. While I loved exploring trails throughout the Eastern Sierras, there really is no need to venture further than a few miles to have a great day hike.
We selected the McLeod Lake trail which is at the end of Lake Mary Road. We were looking for a short and scenic trail that would provide an ideal location for our picnic lunch. McLeod Lake delivered. The start of this hike is through the charred remains of trees from a recent forest fire. Soon however, we transitioned into hundreds of majestic pine trees that provided ample shade. Fortunately this all uphill hike is short (.5 mile) and concludes with a view of the small lake surrounded by snow capped mountains. The trail then becomes flat and continues all the way around the lake. We enjoyed our lunch while observing passing hikers and a few energetic dogs. For those looking for a greater challenge a few additional trails--including the famous John Muir--can be found near the lake.
Convict Lake Hiking–Highlight of Our Trip
Convict Lake is just a fifteen minute drive Southeast of Mammoth Lakes and offers an ideal two mile trail. We parked at the trail head parking lot, but I wouldn’t do that again since it includes a less scenic and more strenuous jaunt to the lake. Instead, park near the boat launch so that the entire hike will be next to the shore. About halfway around the trail becomes a boardwalk to allow hikers to avoid the muddy ground. This was the highlight of our time at Convict Lake. This trail section is very wooded, scenic and a bit entertaining since even the boardwalk didn’t keep us completely above water. When the boardwalk ended it was necessary to climb some branches and rocks to resume the trail on sandy ground. About three quarters of the way around the lake we stopped to enjoy the spectacular views of the water and mountains. This is a popular lake for fishing, boating and paddle boarding, so we also enjoyed watching all the activity.
Being a curious person, I wondered how this lake got its name. Turns out that in 1871 a group of escaped convicts from Carson City was cornered in this canyon by a posse from the nearby town of Benton. One of the convicts killed a member of the posse, Robert Morrison, and to honor his memory the nearby mountain was renamed Mt. Morrison. This infamous incident also resulted in the new name for Convict Lake.
Fern Lake Trail–For Those Seeking a Challenge
Our hike along the Fern Lake Trail is a cautionary tale for those seeking “moderate” hikes. While visiting the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Center we asked the nice woman staffing the information counter for some scenic and moderate hikes in the area. She recommended two trails in the June Lake area (about fifteen minutes North of Mammoth) and we selected this one. Either she had not recently visited this trail, or she is in such good shape that this very steep trail does not pose a challenge for her. I later read about the trail on some hiking websites, all of which agree this is a “difficult” or “strenuous” hike that should be saved for experienced hikers since it includes a 1578 elevation increase. As a result we didn’t complete this trail, but stopped after about a mile of continuous uphill trek. Fortunately, we stopped at one of the most scenic spots, Fern Creek. Here the water rushes over the rocks creating a noisy, but beautiful scene.
To reward ourselves for this strenuous hike, we stopped at the June Lake Brewing for beer and tacos before returning to our hotel, something I recommend everyone do. This suggestion also came from the nice woman at the Visitors Center, so I suppose I’ll forgive her for the misinformation about the hike.
Devils Postpile Hike–Short But Scenic
We set out early one morning to catch the 7:15 a.m. shuttle to Devils Postpile National Monument with the intention of hiking to Rainbow Falls. (Driving to Devils Postpile is not allowed. Instead, shuttles are available at two locations in Mammoth. The cost is $8 a person round trip.) This national monument was created because of the unique basalt rock formation that looks like pillars of stone rising from the earth. These types of formations aren’t found many places in the world, so if you’re in Mammoth in the summer, be sure to visit.
Unfortunately, due to a forest fire about seven miles Southwest, the air quality (and visibility) was poor and we were only able to complete the Devils Postpile hike which is approximately .4 miles each way. We added on the .25 mile hike to the top as well which I definitely recommend. The views at the top weren’t great because of the fires, but the honeycombed shaped rocks that top the basalt rock formation are fascinating. The San Joaquin River runs next to the trail and provided for some nice photo spots. Even with the poor visibility and air quality, we still enjoyed the scenery. This place is first on our list when we return to Mammoth.
On the day we visited here the bugs were out in force, so I definitely recommend repellent. There are limited services in the area so be sure to bring all that you will need for hiking.
Tips for Eastern Sierras Hiking
Despite the misinformation we received about the Fern Lake trail, I do recommend a stop at the Mammoth Lake Visitors Center. Staff from the Eastern Sierras Interpretive Association (ESIA) are available at the information counter, and are a wealth of information about all activities in the area including hiking. They also have some great maps of trails in the area available for free or a small fee. While we were visiting the ESIA staff were especially helpful with guiding visitors to activities out of the range of the forest fire and the resulting smoke.
For the most popular sites and trails get an early start to avoid the heat and crowds. During our recent visit in June the temperatures rose to the low 80’s in the afternoon. For steep hikes with limited shade, this heat can feel intense. We always enjoy an early start and having trails mostly to ourselves.
When choosing trails also consider the elevation. Jason and I live at sea level in Southern California, so the 7,000-10,000 foot elevation we experienced over five days definitely had an impact on our hiking. We hiked the lowest elevation trail--Convict Lake--on our first day, and then tackled higher ones on subsequent days. At times our breathing was heavy and legs felt sluggish. We did not do any hiking on the day we arrived, but instead allowed time for our bodies to adjust. After our trip we discovered that these were the highest elevation trails we’ve ever hiked.
Finally, stay hydrated and always bring plenty of water while hiking. This is standard advice for all hikers, but it’s even more critical at high elevations. The best advice I’ve received about hydration in high elevations is to start drinking plenty of water even before your trip starts and then keep it up the entire time. For long hikes, consider bringing water treatment tablets or a SteriPen.
Coming Back to the Eastern Sierras
Eastern Sierra hiking proved to be quite challenging for us. Due to busy work lives, we did not take the time for as many training hikes as we would have liked. That was definitely a mistake! However, I fell in love with this spectacular part of California. The range of scenery is impressive and the number of beautiful trails is endless. We will be back, and next time we’ll be better prepared.