Set just yonder of Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes is a small mountain town in the Eastern Sierras best known for skiing. But during summer this outdoors mecca delivers big-time on 100-mile panoramas, shark-tooth peaks, powerhouse hiking trails, and countless turquoise lakes where you can take it all in. Go big.
You don’t have to go on a multi-day backpacking trip to get to the heart of the High Sierra. Just a few hours of hiking in the June Lake Loop region will lead to a hidden gem—literally. Set at 9,100 feet in the famed Ansel Adams Wilderness
, Gem Lake is a vast oasis encircled by jagged and cascading mountains lightly covered in snow. The 3.4-mile (one-way) hike up to this watering hole via the Rush Creek Trail brings bigger and better scenery with every step—and there are a lot of steps (1,700 feet of elevation gain). Start at the trailhead on the northern end of Silver Lake, where you’ll make your way past rustling aspen trees along a dirt and rock trail. The ascent comes in a series of switchbacks that go over old and eerily steep rail tracks. Slim waterfalls seem to appear out of nowhere while Horsetail Falls stands out with its thick and swift flow. The trail then levels out, passing Agnew Lake before the final push to Gem Lake. Take a rest when you reach the lake or continue along the shoreside trail to snag a picnic spot on one of the promontories. Dip your toes in the crisp, glacier-fed water and kick back to enjoy lunch. This also is an excellent access point for reaching the much-loved (and photographed!) Thousand Island Lake
a few miles (one-way) further.BONUS:
Treat yourself to the perfect après-hike cooler at June Lake Junction, where thick and delicious milkshakes are made with real ice cream. The cookies & cream shake goes down smooth.
From Hwy. 395, follow the June Lake Loop (Hwy. 158). The trailhead starts from a large paved parking area on the west side of the road and the north end of Silver Lake, near the pack station and Silver Lake Campground & RV Park. Dog-friendly!
A giant U-shaped canyon framed by bare granite peaks rising to 12,000 feet creates a dramatic backdrop for Convict Lake. But this beauty has a turbulent past. In 1871, six escaped prisoners from Carson City holed up here and got into a shootout. Although Wild West gunfights are history, this place hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. Carved by glaciers from the Ice Age, Convict Lake is one of the deepest lakes in the Sierra at 138 feet, contributing to its ultra-clear turquoise waters. With 7,850 feet of elevation, the lake is a popular fishing spot (stocked with rainbow trout) encircled by a gentle 3-mile trail. There are plenty of picnic tables along the path. A boardwalk crosses Convict Creek on the backside and passes through a grove of aspen trees. Those looking to get out on the water can rent a canoe or kayak from the marina. Go in the morning, as wind picks up in the afternoon. This convict is one dangerous beauty.The turn off for Convict Lake is 8 miles south of Mammoth Lakes off of Hwy. 395, across from the airport. Follow Convict Lake Rd. 2 miles to the lake. Kayak and canoe rentals are $30 per hour. The trail around the lake is dog-friendly!
Some lakes have intriguing names, others are hard to pronounce, and then there’s Lake George. Don’t let the unassuming name fool you—this George easily dubs as “Gorgeous” George, a crown jewel of the Mammoth Lakes Basin set at 9,250 feet and reachable by car. George stands out for its intimate, hidden setting that packs in dramatic scenery along its tranquil shores. Thank the Sierra ridge that butts up to it: Crystal Crag, a formation resembling a giant cathedral, juts just beyond the cold, clear water. Stroll the shoreline or relax at one of the lake-hugging day-use sites. Fishing is popular, likely because of the solitude it offers compared to neighboring lakes (which are also beautiful but not as off the beaten path). Lake George also has a first come, first served campground—some of the best real estate around for an alpine overnight escape between the forest, glacier-fed water, and the mountains.BEER BONUS: Mammoth Lakes Brewing Company
has a fantastic tasting room (94 Berner St.) offering free samples of their award-winning microbrews. If you like hoppy IPAs, you’ll love the IPA 395 made with local hops, desert sage, and mountain juniper. Pick up your favorite to go!ACCOMMODATIONS:
For a good base camp in town, Snow Creek Resort
offers a variety of condo rentals (including some dog-friendly options). Or go to visitmammoth.com
for a list of other properites in the area.Lake George is located just outside of town in the Mammoth Lakes Basin off of Lake Mary Rd. Camping at Lake George is available from late June until early September. Fees are approximately $18 per site, and all sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Dog-friendly!
Where’s the best place to get to know seals and sea lions in the Bay Area? Hint—it’s not Pier 39. The Marine Mammal Center
in the Marin Headlands cares for hundreds of these magnificent mammals every year, each with a name and a story to share
. Since 1975, the Center has helped more than 17,500 California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals, northern elephant seals, sea otters, and other coastal creatures get a second chance at life in the wild. Admission to the Center is free
, and offers a rare opportunity to witness state-of-the-art marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Watch from the upper observation deck as volunteers tend patients, and then gaze down on sweeping views of Rodeo Beach beside the life-size elephant seal statue in the courtyard. Take a Docent-led Tour, observe food preparation (fish is a popular choice), and learn the heartwarming stories of past patients. For the medically minded, there’s even an observation window offering a view into the necropsy (animal autopsy) room. You’ll leave with an understanding of your connection to your coastal cousins—and of how human health is forever tied to ocean health.BONUS:
Combine your trip to The Marine Mammal Center with a hike to one of the best lookouts in Marin, Hill 88
. The trailhead is just down the road from the Center.The Marine Mammal Center, 2000 Bunker Rd., Sausalito (Fort Cronkhite); 415-289-7325. There is no admission fee but Docent-led Tours are highly recommended (small fee applies but it helps the patients!). The Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.