From Sanger we planned perfectly for an early drive to Mammoth Lakes. But as we all know by now, plans oftentimes don’t go the way you want them to!
We hit the road early (pre-7 am!) since we knew we had about a 6 hour drive ahead of us. We went north to take 180 over Sonora pass, got all the way to the top, only to discover a massive warning sign:
We pulled into a campground, not sure what to do. We’d already come so far! How bad could it be? We could make it, right? For the record, our 5th wheel is 32 feet, not including the added length of the truck.
We knew we had to turn around, especially after asking some locals what they thought. The resounding consensus was NOPE. Added to the fact that there’s no cell signal (no AAA rescues!), if something were to happen, we would be in quite the pickle. No thanks.
With heavy hearts (but a desire to stay alive), we went back down the mountain and drove north at Sonora through Placerville. We booked a last-minute site at American River Resort in Coloma, which is an absolutely beautiful spot.
Also, just before we turned into the campground, our truck’s rear brakes started smoking and the acrid smell of burning brake pads filled the air.
We didn’t fit too well in the site; I’m not sure if they just didn’t hear me when I said we had 3 slideouts but there wasn’t a great spot to be situated without being too close to the trees on either side and reaching all the hookups. But since it was one evening we didn’t care. Plus we had to figure out what to do about our burning brake situation.
Ultimately we used our best judgement and top notch phone support from my dad, a mechanic in a former life and veteran car junkie, to decide that the brakes had likely overheated from such a long day going down mountains and a lack of engine braking.
Rather than lose another day by going to a mechanic, and considering the braking still felt fine on the truck, we hit the road again super early and made for Mammoth Lakes, this time via I-80 through Reno. It was a long detour, but we arrived safely without further ado.
We stayed at Mammoth Mountain RV Park, a sizeable compound right across from the Visitor’s Center. The grounds are nestled among pine trees; we were in the part of the park that is a massive parking lot enclosed by pine trees.
Pros? They have a hot tub (yaaaay) and great facilities. It’s not that far from the road, but road noise was never an issue, and we were fortunate in that we never had any neighbors next to our front door side save the last day of our stay. It’s quiet and peaceful, so sleeping at night was a piece of cake.
Cons? The paved parking lot didn’t do much to make it feel like we were in a real campsite…the painted yellow lines only added to the sensation that we were in some weird tailgate lot. We could have moved to a premium full hookup site after the first few days, but they actually seemed more cramped despite the more rustic (read: no paved surface) environs. But we decided we liked having fewer neighbors more than we needed to be hooked up to sewer.
Almost every hike around Mammoth includes a lake along the way or at the end, and there’s no shortage of them. We were in heaven. Fortunately the snow pack wasn’t an issue like it was last year (this time last year many trails were impassable due to the unmelted snow). In fact, the warm weather made for plenty of snowmelt, which means bonus streams and water features everywhere.
I hiked to Sherwin Lakes on my own on a Saturday (Travis had work to catch up on thanks to our driving detour getting into town) and it was hands down the best smelling hike I’ve been on maybe ever. All that pine and sap and early season flowers. I think it’s one of my top five favorite smells of all time. I’m not sure what the other four are, I’ll get back to you on that. It was a short, 4.5 mile in-and-back but I spent plenty of time exploring as far around the lakes as I could before plopping down ashore to enjoy the view.
This 2.5-mile in and back was a great hike to squeeze in afterwork. We saw lots of forget-me-nots (my favorite flower!), Lamb’s-ear, and Indian Paintbrush. We walked the entirety of the lake itself and enjoyed the views of the valley from the upper side.
Another post-work shortie hike for me. This one featured a decent amount of snowpack around one side of the lake but thanks to pre-existing footsteps and a hardened top layer, traversing it wasn’t an issue.
Emerald Lake / Skelton Lake
Our last day we did this shortie (also this was the day after our longer Yosemite Hike), which was about a four-mile loop. We had a later start and so saw more people on the trail being that it was Sunday. We had streams to follow up almost the entire way and saw, of course, another spectacular lake at the top.
Less a hike and more a stop, I hit up this cool spring when the temps were hitting the ’80s last week. This shallow, cool spring is ground fed and so is always a consistent temperature. It’s small and there were probably about 15-20 people there already when I rolled up but it felt amazing to pop into the water to cool off after reading in the sunshine for a bit.
The Hot Springs: Crab Cooker & Hilltop Tub
Mammoth Lakes is an area with a lot of volcanic and geothermic activity. The town lies along the edge of a caldera (a volcanic crater), which is where a lot of the area’s natural hot springs are found.
Our pals over at Away We Winnebago recommended Crab Cooker, so we drove through the flat, rocky dirt roads in search of this random ass tub. And it is just that: a tiny, man-made tub in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately the valve that lets you control the flow of hot water was broken, so the tub was more tepid than anything else. Fortunately, it was a pretty hot day in the low ’80s so a tepid tub turned out to be perfect.
I motored over to the Hilltop Tub one afternoon on my own while Travis was still working. I knew it was one of the more popular tubs due to its easy, right-off-the-road accessibility, but as it was a Tuesday at 3:30 I figured I’d give it a shot anyway.
After stopping by the Hot Creek Geologic Site, I drove the dusty dirt roads across to the Hilltop Tub. By the by, this tub, like Crab Cooker, is tiny and wouldn’t fit more than 5 people at once. It’s a good 3 to 4 minute walk from the parking area to the tub, and I could see two people were there but leaving. I had the whole thing to myself for a blissful 15 minutes or so before another couple showed up, followed immediately behind by a family of five. I left once I saw them heading my way.
I’ve been talking about taking fly fishing lessons for about 5 years now. Finally pulled the trigger.
We booked a half-day lesson with Mike Villemaire through the Troutfitter. We spent the first hour and a half learning about the different types of flies and larvae you can cast with (holy biology lesson, Batman!) then practiced casting in the park across the street. Mike was a great teacher and a stickler for form, which I appreciate.
We learned a basic overhead cast and roll cast. We went over how to mend a line and to soften the landing of the fly on the water. We practiced “setting” our rods, ie, what to do once you hook a fish, and the proper way to handle and release them. Respect the fish.
Afterward, we drove over to Hot Creek to put our lessons to good use. My park casts had been baller but as soon as the light breeze was factored in, and the fact that I was casting much shorter than what we had practiced, it took me a minute to get the hang of it. Travis was a respectable distance downstream, while Mike went back and forth checking on us, re-dusting our flies with whatever magic dust makes them float better and giving us tips.
By the end of the lesson, which went by far too quickly, we had each reeled in 3 or 4 fish and hooked 6 or 7! Mike made sure we knew this was not typical noob experience; we had definitely hit the creek on a great day and time…but also apparently we’re not hopeless when it comes to fly fishing.
After casting with a 9-foot reel rod, I switched to a 12-foot Tenkara just for funsies. I loved it and can’t wait to try one again.
Mammoth Lakes is like old-school Snowmass Village and Boulder, CO had a baby in California. It’s very laid back and not fancy (unlike the Snowmass Village and other high end mountain resorts of today) and most of the housing in the town proper consists of condos. Lots of that ’70s and ’80s vibe with painted brown wood exteriors and angler-friendly establishments with neon Coors signs in the windows.
Our first weekend in town we found CJ’s Grill and decided to grab dinner there. Turns out it was the restaurant’s last two nights in business (new owners bought it and will be revamping the place) and since they decided not to renew the liquor license, all the booze was free. We ordered a couple beers on tap, assuming they had kegs to kick, which was true. What we didn’t realize until the following night, when we went back for the best fried chicken sandwiches of all time, was that ALL the alcohol was up for grabs, including bottles of wine. We drank a lot of free wine. Pro tip: if you ever get restaurant freebies, always tip on what the total would have been.
We also ate at Ramenya, a cozy A-frame space a bit tucked away off the main road and perfect for a cool evening after long day of hiking in Yosemite. The Breakfast Club had delicious pancakes and knows what the f**k they are doing when you ask for crispy bacon. Roberto’s Cafe, a Mexican joint, makes duck enchiladas and I’m really glad I got them. I wasn’t sure at first how duck would meld with Mexican fare, but turns out my rich, fatty spirit animal is the perfect enchilada filling.
Mammoth Museum at the Hayden Cabin
This former high-end fishing lodge was built in 1928 and sits right on Mammoth Creek. The suggested donation is $5 per person; they also sell postcards, local art, t-shirts, and other goods. It’s entirely volunteer-run but proceeds from donations are put back into maintaining the cabin. The kitchen is still equipped with an old stove and an icebox that was kept cool all summer thanks to chunks of ice that were hand cut and hauled down from Lake Mary. The rooms are appointed with old maps, photos, and artwork while Native American hand-woven baskets, old cameras, and other memorabilia rest on tables and under glass cases.
I had fun nosing around the rooms but more fun chatting with a few of the volunteers, a couple of whom gave me great hiking recommendations.
Yosemite National Park
Our second Saturday was devoted to Yosemite. We actually skipped Yosemite Valley (for shame, I know) but this was for two reasons: one, it was a 2.5 hour drive to get there from Mammoth. We’re a bit wary of overly long drives given our life at the moment. Two, it was a Saturday, which meant if any part of the park was going to be packed, it would be there.
We opted to do the Mono Pass hike, one of the highest elevation day hikes in the park. It’s about 8 miles round trip and was only a 45-minute drive from Mammoth.
Turns out traffic advisories are already in effect for Yosemite Valley. The newsletter we were given at the gate said to be prepared for 2 to 3 hour delays on top of regular travel times. I’m sad we missed it, but also not sad we skipped that madness.
Thanks to an early start, we hit the trail by 9am. Early starts are always worth it; the only humans we saw going up were at the near top of the trail. Going down we saw 6 or 8 which isn’t too many for Yosemite standards.
The entire hike was scenery from King’s Quest. Pine forests with streams that opened to meadows. Oh, also waterfalls in the distance. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thanks to the early season snow melt, I had to take my shoes off to cross a couple of the streams.
We hiked to 10,599 feet and then went a bit further into the canyon to get a view of Mono Lake from up top. The winds had kicked into high gear by the time we got up top but funnily enough, whatever frogs live up in those lakes were croaking their little hearts out. I’m not used to hearing a symphony of frogs in the middle of the day like that…is that normal?!
Next stop: Yuba Pass/Emigrant Gap outside of Lake Tahoe!