Scenic Highway 395
Having attended a taping of the sitcom ‘Young & Hungry’ in Los Angeles, it was time to hit the road, determined to make the most of our two full days at Mammoth Lakes. This meant one thing only … lots of hiking up mountains and around lakes! Mammoth Lakes is located in Eastern California about a five-hour drive from LA (along Highway 395) and about five hours east of San Francisco. In 2013 we had visited the Telluride in Colorado, which we loved. So we hoped that Mammoth Lakes would provide us with similar mountain wilderness experiences without having to drive to Colorado.
The drive to Mammoth Lakes has to be one of the nicest drives that we have done in the US because the scenery was so varied. Small desert towns like Mojave wee soon replaced by the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Along the way, you pass through places with names like Big Pine and Lone Pine as well as the more unexpected Aberdeen and Zurich! Our hotel for our three nights was the Village Lodge, which – despite the name – was actually quite a large complex right in the heart of Mammoth Lakes. It offered accommodations ranging from studios right up to three bedroom apartments. We were there in late May, which is low season, so prices were quite reasonable for our spacious one bedroom suite with full kitchen and balcony. Being the low season, the choice of restaurants was slightly limited. Some either weren’t open or only opened on certain days but we never struggled to find a place to eat.
I wanna see a bear!
Low season in the US, unlike back home in the UK and Ireland, does not need to have any implications on the weather. It actually worked to our advantage and we enjoyed perfectly warm and sunny weather for the duration of our stay at Mammoth Lakes. The crisp early morning mountain air was already heating up when we drove the short distance to Schat’s bakery/deli to buy some lunch for later on. Prior to travelling, Nigel likes to have a few cafe and dining options researched and Schat’s was a real must! We ended up going for supplies every day of our stay, so good were their sandwiches. Their cakes tormented us every time we were in but cakes and hiking don’t go together too well. And so we set off with sandwiches (and a free cookie each) to the main lake area a short drive away. It was whilst driving that Martha recorded a short instavideo in which she announced that she wanted to see a bear. Bears had been seen in the area recently and Martha thought it would be very cool to see one – from a safe distance – in the wild. Nigel, who was going to be carrying the sandwiches, wasn’t feeling quite as enthusiastic about bumping into any bears!
A video posted by Bay Breezin’ (@bay_breezin) on
Not so lucky Horseshoe Lake
We stopped at Lake Mamie, from which there were some great views, overlooking some of the lower lakes. Horseshoe Lake was to be our first walk of the day and about a two-mile round trip. It took in some really surreal scenery. The area is beautiful to begin with, surrounded on all sides by snow capped mountains. But the area close to the lake is unlike anything we had ever seen before. Mammoth Mountain is a volcanic area and carbon dioxide gasses in the ground around Horseshoe Lake have killed off most of the trees, leaving behind their contorted carcasses. It’s perfectly safe to visit but camping in the area wouldn’t be advised and swimming in the lake might not be the wisest move either. Three ski patrol workers actually died in 2006 when they were overcome by fumes after falling into a fumarole on the slopes of a surrounding mountain. As well as the poisoned trees, there was also evidence of lightning strikes on nearby trees. One tree was particularly twisted like a piece of fusilli pasta. Some snow still lay close to the shore of the lake, which made the perfect backdrop for our picnic lunch.
Not quite the Expert Hikers
Arriving back at our car after Horseshoe Lake, we drove to Lake George, where we tested the water temperature to just past ankle level … brave, huh? We can confirm that melted snow is very cold! Lake George wasn’t what we were here to see however. Our receptionist back at the Village Lodge had suggested we check out Crystal Lake. In hindsight, we should have asked many more questions about how to get to it. All that we had was a small map in a leaflet of the area which showed us that Crystal Lake was three centimetres from Lake George with a squiggly dotted line between the two. What could possibly go wrong?
At this point we should tell you that we don’t have a great track record whenever it comes to hiking – in forests especially. We somehow keep thinking that leaving main paths (and going more off piste to use a skiing term) is a wise move. Ironically, this tends to leave one of us more pissed off than off piste … you can probably guess which one of us, the never optimistic and occasionally grumpy one ;-). One time in Sweden, we ended up stumbling through a dense forest around a large lake, unable to find a path. We went to the lakeside and waved at people on a passing pleasure boat who thought we were being friendly and waved back. It was actually more of a ‘please rescue us’ wave! You’d think we would learn – but no! Back home in Northern Ireland, we were walking through a nearby forest and once again went off piste. We eventually had to resort to the sat nav on Martha’s phone to get back …
In search of Crystal Lake
Anyhow, back to Crystal Lake and we were determined that this time would be different. There was a sign for Crystal Lake and we followed it religiously for some distance, along the base of the mountain. Eventually, we had to come to the conclusion that we were going in the wrong direction. Retracing our steps, we saw a trail leading up the mountain so decided to follow it. We assumed it was a trail at least but began to wonder if it was perhaps just made by wild animals. We kept losing the trail under blankets of pine needles and as we climbed higher we encountered a bigger problem….snow! We were now quite high up and the views were amazing but the already well-conceiled path was now also covered by snow – still no sign of Crystal Lake. We were dressed in lightweight summer clothes and sneakers, as we hadn’t envisaged what which was now partly knee-deep snow drifts. It was now impossible to follow any trail. Nigel had visions of mountain rescue teams being required – apart from us having no phone reception and nobody knowing we were even there! At one point he even tried to convince Martha that we had reached Crystal Lake, when clearly we were looking at Lake George again, just from a different angle. Martha however remained irritatingly optimistic and convinced her new husband to push on and try one last path. Amazingly, we stumbled across a small sign for Crystal Lake, which resulted in jubilant scenes, especially from Nigel. We finally emerged from the snow and began to descend down the other side of the mountain.
About two hours after setting off, we arrived at Crystal Lake. And what a sight it was! It really was one of those scenes and experiences you never forget. There was nobody else there and – apart from the sound of bullfrogs on the far shore – there was total silence. We celebrated as only we can with an apple and some trail mix! We would have loved to have explored the lake shore further but time was against us. Even Martha was not too keen on on trying to find our way back in the dark. So – after some photos – we started our climb back up the mountain before descending once again through the snow. At least going back proved somewhat quicker (50 minutes) than getting there as we now knew that we had to stay close to the side of the mountain for the shortest route.
It had been quite a day of walking and exploring some pretty amazing countryside. After all of our exertions and fresh mountain air, our dinner that night at ‘Burgers Restaurant’ back in Mammoth Village was devoured faster than you could say ‘beware of the grizzly’! The following day was to be yet another day of exploring the beauty of Mammoth Lakes with our day at Rainbow Falls/Devils Postpile which you can read about here.
As real lake lovers, we cannot wait to return to California to explore the remaining lakes the Golden State has to offer. These “15 Best Lakes in California” sure will keep us busy for a while.
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