While we all agree that 2020-21 has been a wild ride, I have found it beneficial to focus on the good things that have happened, rather than the obvious challenges. One of our highlights was camping in the Eastern Sierras in October 2020 — just about exactly a year ago. I hadn’t realized just how good that camping trip would be for the both of us.
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Our base was Mammoth Lakes, CA — only about 6 hours away from our home in San Diego. We arrived on a Friday evening and checked out of the campground Monday morning to return home. I was surprised with how much we were able to do in an extended weekend while camping in the eastern Sierras. It was possible because there are so many amazing sights within a short distance, making Mammoth Lakes the perfect hub for exploring this area. Here’s what we did while camping in the Eastern Sierras:
Mono Lake is a unique saline-saturated sea with tufa towers. Because the salt sustains an abundance of brine shrimp, the lake attracts many different species of birds who prey on the shrimp. It’s a great place for birding, as well as kayaking or canoeing on the lake. We brought our sit-on-top kayaks to do some exploring. However, when we arrived, fires had burned along the south shore where it’s easiest to launch. Instead we drove around to the north side of the lake and had to haul our kayaks over 1/4 mile to get to the water.
The wind kicks up in the afternoon and there are lots of warnings about going out on the lake when it’s windy, as it can be dangerous. We opted to stay very close to the shoreline so as to not be blown out across the lake! I loved sharing this adventure with my husband even if it was a little out of my comfort zone. Mono Lake has a wild beauty, especially with the backdrop of the mountains surrounding it.
- Bring more water than you think you’ll need – at least a litre.
- Use sunscreen liberally – you will be very exposed to the sun.
- We used sit-on-top kayaks with dry bags for our valuables. The bags protected our camera and phones from both water and salt.
- You might want to have a good hand lotion with you. The salt dries you out like crazy!
June Lake Loop
The June Lake Loop actually takes you to four separate lakes (June, Gull, Silver, and Grant Lakes) as it curves away from US Route 395 for 16 miles. This area is known as California’s oldest resort community, and photos will certainly show why it’s resort-worthy. We made the drive, stopping at June Lake to take photos. The fall foliage only added to the beauty. We definitely could have spent more time here than we did, but we sure enjoyed the scenic drive.
Read an interesting story about June Lake and the legend of the one-arm bandits — apparently in the 1930’s, when the demand for illegal gambling slot machines waned, the last of them were hastily dumped in June Lake before an imminent raid by State Revenue Agents.
Mammoth Lakes is a small town known for amazing skiing in the winter. But it’s also a great place to visit during the rest of the year. There are several lakes: Horseshoe, Mary, George, Mamie, and Twin Lakes. There are also several waterfalls: Rainbow and Lower Rainbow, Minaret, and Twin Falls. You can fish, kayak, or swim in any of the lakes here (although the water is very chilly!) Hiking is also very popular because the views are spectacular.
Unique rock formations that you’ll love checking out are the Hole in the Rock and The Devil’s Postpile. You can see the Hole in the Rock from the highway and hiking trails will take you to it if you want to get close up. We were unable to see The Devil’s Postpile while we were there because there had been fires in the area, but these basalt columns look so cool!
If you are planning to visit Mammoth Lakes, the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center at 2510 Main Street is a great resource. Stop there for answers to all of your Mammoth-related questions. You can also check out their website to learn about special events, lodging, things to do, where to eat, and where to shop.
Hot Creek Geological Site
This is such a cool site to see — much more impressive than my photo! Boiling water literally bubbles up from the creek bed. You’ll see steam rising from the water and a gorgeous turquoise color where the water is the hottest. There’s a trail above the creek — and an interpretive center, too. A large parking lot and restrooms make this an easy stop to check out the hot springs.
As tempting as it may be, it is very dangerous to get into the water, as the temperatures can change rapidly. New hot spots spring up all the time as the area is still geologically active.
Convict Lake might be my favorite lake in the Mammoth area. The lake got its name from an incident in 1871 when a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City, NV. This is where they were found and re-captured. But that’s not why I’m enamored. I just love the amazing backdrop of mountains, the colors reflected in the lake, and the beautiful fall foliage in October.
The lake also has an easy 2.5-mile hiking trail all the way around the lake. Just park at the Convict Lake Marina and follow the path along the lake. We found thicker foliage and a raised boardwalk at the west end of the lake, where the trail crosses over two forks of Convict Creek. A walk around the lake takes about an hour. It is quiet and serene here and a wonderful place to spend time enjoying nature and taking photos!
- Wear good walking shoes and dress in layers
- Bring plenty of water (I brought my camelback)
- Don’t forget a camera — the views are stunning! (We also saw several deer)
McGee Creek Trailhead
McGee Creek is the name of a campground and a trailhead. Our family has camped at the campground in the past, and the best part of that visit was watching them stock the creek with trout. It’s a good place to fish for that reason.
But on this visit, we drove to the trailhead parking lot, past the campground. The trail is well-marked and widely used. My husband and I saw several others hiking while we were there, although it wasn’t too busy. The trail roughly follows the creek, at least part of the way, until you come to a valley that spreads out before you. It is very majestic, and in the fall, there’s plenty of fall foliage. It’s a grand place that makes you feel small in comparison, but happy to be in the midst of it!
You can hike several miles, past Big and Little McGee Lakes and on to McGee Pass (14.3 miles) if you’re up for the longhaul. But the first few miles are quite nice and relatively easy — just turn around when you start getting tired.
Where to camp
While I can recommend the McGee Creek Campground, my husband and I stayed at the New Shady Rest Campground right in Mammoth Lakes for this getaway. It made a perfect center point for seeing all the other sites. New Shady Rest is a beautiful campground with towering pines and plenty of space to spread out a bit. During the pandemic, it wasn’t fully booked, so we had even more space to ourselves. It is walking distance to town and the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.
While camping here, we cooked our own meals, but you could easily get food in town if you prefer. We had a pretty nice set-up with a roomy tent, air mattress, warm sleeping bags, and a power station for our lights and recharging phones/cameras. Nothing primitive about this camping trip. We even watched a movie at our campsite!
I enjoyed seeing the deer and squirrels that live in or near the campground, but it did raise the hair on my neck to see a black bear. Check out this review I found online:
“Very relaxing campground. Serene, quiet, and clean. The sky at night is beautiful and the camp hosts and managers were all nice people and take their posts seriously. Fair warning though, the bears around Mammoth are VERY friendly. We were warned and given strict instructions by the fee collector about “bear-proofing” our campsite. We did take him seriously and did everything he asked, our only mistake was we thought bears would not approach if we were still out and about the campsite. Not the case. PLEASE take the bear regulations seriously and also lock up ALL food after sundown. My friend and I feel awful for contributing to the bear problem, but I’ll redeem myself by putting the word out about the problem. This goes for any camping in Mammoth, and bears are getting very crafty. Please take precautions!” — online review by Paige Lynn
I can testify this is true because it’s exactly what happened to us. The bear walked right up and grabbed our trash bag as we were still preparing and eating dinner. There are bear lockers provided at each campsite. Use them religiously. Just don’t let fear of bears keep you from visiting! Here’s a guide for staying safe around bears.
Why you should go camping
Just in case my list and photos haven’t persuaded you…
Especially during the pandemic but really anytime, a camping trip makes a lot of sense. It’s probably the most affordable way to enjoy a getaway. Connecting with nature lifts your spirits and makes you feel more alive. Hiking, camping, kayaking, and exploring new sights are all very therapeutic and helps you to “escape” from the stress of everyday life. (And during the pandemic, camping in the eastern Sierras made me feel like life was almost normal again!) This is such a picturesque area, and there is so much to see and do. You can’t go wrong!