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Shoulder Season Ski Town

I had this crazy idea to drive all the way out to California and back between my Colorado stay and flying out of Denver to Japan just so I could summit some more 14ers and then visit Death Valley for the first time, but sometimes plans change a little bit. First, Death Valley shut down because of flooding. Second, after talking to Joe about the eastern Sierras and getting sick of being in hotels, I decided to rent a two-bedroom condo in Mammoth Lakes instead of a hotel in Bishop, which would have been much closer to the 14er trailheads.

I'm so, so, so glad I changed my mind. I'd never heard of Mammoth Lakes before and was a bit dubious about because it's a ski town, and I'm not a fan of Breckenridge or Vail or other ski towns in Colorado. But Mammoth Lakes is amazing. I fell in love with it immediately. It has everything I want in a vacation destination: short beautiful after-work hikes, long stunning weekend hikes, paved running paths, epic trail running trails, interesting geological features, lots of camping, dog-friendly spaces, huge challenging summits nearby, ghost towns and history, a national park nearby, hot springs everywhere, and so many lakes for kayaking and fishing.

Everything is super accessible, though it probably helped a lot that I visited after Labor Day (kids back in school, no families on vacation) and before the snow started swirling and bringing in the huge ski crowds. There simply aren't a lot of people in mid to late September. It probably also helped my experience that I stayed out of the town center, somewhere nice and peaceful, though all the town amenities were just a five minute drive away.

Anyway, I love Mammoth Lakes. This is crazy to say, but this is the kind of place that could turn me into one of those people who vacation in the same spot year after year. For real. I'm already planning on coming back at the same time next year. I did a lot but barely scratched the surface.

In Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes sits around 8,400 feet and is surrounded by incredible trails. If I were training for another crazy mountain run, I would totally come here to train. But as it was, I had just finished Imogene Pass and was in rest and relaxation mode, so I could simply enjoy nature while I was here. 

There are quite a few short and simple walks that anyone would enjoy. Inyo Craters is one of those. It's under two miles round trip, even if you go around both the craters. This was the first thing I did in Mammoth Lakes and the whole experience reminded me so much of my stay in northern California two years ago. Everything, from the way the forest roads are constructed to the massive trees to the enormous pine cones...I had some serious nostalgia for the Shasta-Trinity area.

I also went to the quarter-mile earthquake fault line trail, which was really impressive to see.

I got to imagine for a minute that I'm the type of person who does multi-week hikes.

And of course, I loved all the namesake lakes.

I didn't get to hike in Devil's Postpile National Monument because it was closed for some reason when I was there. That was annoying, but I was only there for two weeks and had plenty of other things to do. I did find a bench to sit and enjoy the sunset over the mountains at Minaret Vista, which is right near the Postpile entrance.

South of Mammoth Lakes

There is a unique ancient bristlecone pine recreation area outside of Big Pine. It's a long drive from Mammoth Lakes, but worthwhile. There are several different hiking trails, great camping options, and scenic overlooks. I had a picnic lunch and wandered the short trails at Patriarch Grove after summiting the 14-thousand foot White Mountain, which is just four more miles up the road.

North of Mammoth Lakes 

Slight over an hour north of Mammoth Lakes is the spectacular Bodie ghost town. This is a state park ($8 per adult fee) that is well worth it because it is the most expansive ghost town I've ever been to. There are easily 50 buildings plus the old cemetery, so you could spend a long time exploring here. But be sure to bring food and water because there are no services.  

I took a million photos, so I put some into collages below. The buildings are so well-preserved and it's strange to me that these people left so much stuff behind. I realize it would have been expensive to move their things, but also, things were expensive. They didn't have throw away junk like we do now. It felt like people left in a hurry because of some apocalyptic event, not that the gold rush died out. 

The only bummer about this place is that you can't go into any of the buildings. I'm surprised they were all closed off. For that reason, I enjoyed Granite Ghost Town in Montana a bit more because getting to wander through all those buildings really put me in the residents' shoes and got my imagination running wild. But Bodie was still incredible.

Salty Mono Lake (three times saltier than the ocean) sits between Mammoth Lakes and Bodie, so you can do both in a day. Walk the two-mile loop around Panum Crater or go straight up to the core. Either way, the views are spectacular.

And be to sure do the quick mile-and-a-quarter loop at Tufa State Nature Preserve. The tufas (limestone columns) in the water are lovely and I went at sunset when there were tons of birds in the water. It's so peaceful and beautiful.
Finally, be sure to check out the June Lake / Grant Lake / Silver Lake / Parker Lake area. You'll probably want to spend more than a day because there's so much camping, hiking, kayaking, fishing, and good eating to be done.