Tucked right in the middle of a set of volcanic peaks in California’s iconic Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes is revered as a mecca for skiers and snowboarders the moment winter hits the slopes. But, the area is also home to hundreds of spectacular day hikes and backpacking trails just begging to be explored in summer and fall. The craggy teeth of the Minaret Range, pristine sapphire waters of dozens of alpine lakes, hot springs, and colorful bursts of wildflowers create a wonderland for weekend warriors, often without braving the crowds of nearby Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Though there’s no shortage of spectacular hikes in the area, these five are a darn good place to start. From massive, cascading waterfalls, to huge spires of rock, to lakes so gorgeous you just have to jump in – Mammoth is a town that truly has something for everyone.
Thousand Island Lake
You know it, you love it, you’ve probably seen it on a zillion Instagram posts. Thousand Island Lake is often cited as the crown jewel of the Minaret Lakes, perched at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level and bordered to the west by prominent Banner Peak. It’s an 8-mile (one way) trek up the River Trail or 9 miles via the High Trail, and both are full of magnificent views of Mammoth Mountain, Shadow Creek Falls, and the most incredible, gnarled juniper trees you’ve ever seen. Due to its huge popularity, permits fill up quickly for both trails, so book well in advance if you’re hoping to backpack up to this gem.
Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls
Full of strange geology and fantastic views of the surrounding high peaks, this trek to Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls is a moderate day hike suitable for the whole family. Beginning at the Devils Postpile shuttle stop, a gentle stroll along the San Joaquin River brings hikers face-to-face with a fantastic example of columnar basalt. From here, scramble up to the top of the columns if you’re feeling frisky before continuing on to the roaring, 101-foot tall Rainbow Falls. There’s a great viewpoint further down the trail of the lower falls with an opportunity to dip your feet into the cool water on those hot summer days. Hike back up the hill and catch the shuttle from Reds Meadow or backtrack they way you came in. Pro tip: In early summer months, call ahead to make sure the road is open and snow-free.
The trail up to Duck Lake is simply magical, with giant, rust-colored peaks, aquamarine water, and fragrant pine trees everywhere you turn. This challenging day hike or moderate backpacking trip is a fantastic way to escape the hustle and bustle of the town of Mammoth, as it’s only a short drive to the trailhead. Along the way, hikers will pass several enchanting alpine lakes – Arrowhead Lake, Emerald Lake, and Skelton Lake are just off trail. Overnight backpackers (permit required) will want to head towards the adorably named Pika Lake once they hit the top of Duck Pass to score a perfect campsite with easy water access. From here, there’s a wealth of multi-day options, including a side trip to the alluring Iva Bell Hot Springs.
The trail up to Minaret Lake is nothing short of spectacular. There’s hardly a bad view for the entirety of the strenuous, 7-mile (each way) trek. Wind through white pine forests, climb switchbacks at the edge of a lacy waterfall, and get up close and personal with the shark-toothed ridge of the Minaret Range. A permit is required for overnight treks, and, in our opinion, that’s the best way to explore this incredible alpine tarn that’s every bit as scenic as nearby Thousand Island Lake and not nearly as crowded. Watch the sun set over the craggy spires from the many slabs surrounding the lake and fall in love with the Ansel Adams Wilderness. In early summer months, call the ranger station to check on lingering snow levels.
Convict Lake Loop
The gently graded 3.3-mile loop around the shoreline of Convict Lake is fantastic year-round, but this trail really shines during autumn months, when the thickets of cottonwood and quaking aspen trees turn brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. It’s a warm-toned rainbow not to be missed, and an easy hike that even the littlest family members can enjoy. Drive a mere 2 miles off Highway 395, park in the adjacent parking lot, and enjoy some seriously epic views of Mt. Morrison and Laurel Mountain as you make your way around the lake. Those looking for a more challenging hike can head up Convict Canyon towards Lake Dorothy and get a closer look at the rust-hued peaks of the area.