As a lifelong Lake Tahoe devotee it felt a little naughty venturing south to go camping in Mammoth Lakes, California. After a few days in Lake Tahoe I bid the beautiful Tahoe adieu and cruised down Highway 395 to Mammoth Lakes. I set off with low expectations, how could anything be more wonderful in the summer than Lake Tahoe?  However, within twenty minutes of my first hike in Mammoth, I was completely smitten.

The Mammoth Lakes area is indeed mammoth. There are so many incredible trails for hiking and biking, not to mention waterfalls, hot springs, and lakes. You would need at least a week to begin to feel like you’ve experienced the area. There are tons of cozy accommodation options but if you really want the full nature experience, aka smelling like campfire and having s’more goo stuck to the bottom of your shoe, give camping in Mammoth Lakes a try…

lake george mammoth lakes
One of the many beautiful lakes in Mammoth.

Camping in Mammoth Lakes

If you don’t mind some dust and want to save a few bucks, camping is a very economical way to stay in Mammoth Lakes. We had an idyllic site at Coldwater Campground, a great campground for hikers. If spending time paddling or fishing in Mammoth Lakes is your priority, you might enjoy Lake Mary or Twin Lakes Campgrounds. These campgrounds have sites that are a stones throw away from the water.

If you’ve camped in Lake Tahoe then you’re familiar with Sierra camping challenges such as bears, limited availability, and variable weather. If you’re a newbie to this type of camping, read the section below! Then read it again…

  • Reserve your site in advance. Popular campgrounds fill up six months in advance, especially for summer weekends. I was online at 7am in January and still wasn’t able to get a site at my preferred campground.
  • It gets cold at night, really cold. The campgrounds in the Lakes Basin area of Mammoth have an elevation of around 8,000+feet. This means is gets surprisingly cold at night. I had read that it gets chilly at night but I was still shocked by how truly frigid it could get after dark. Our kids ended up sleeping in a long underwear set, sweat pants, a down jacket and a beanie. And they were in hefty REI sleeping bags.
  • You’ll be dusty. When you’re camping at this elevation in the summer months you are going to get a nice coating of alpine dust on you.  Swimming in a lake will wash the dust off… for a few minutes.
  • Showers. If you do want to attempt to get clean and your campground doesn’t have shower facilities, not many of them do, head to the General Store in Twin Lakes Campground. It’s not free like swimming in a lake but sometimes you just need a hot shower.
  • Wood is a bit pricey. We bought a bundle of wood from our very friendly camp hosts. It was $7 and burned fast. $7 for a bundle wasn’t unreasonable, it’s just that with the cold nights you want a sizable stack of wood. You could easily go through a bundle or two in an evening if you get carried away roasting s’mores.
  • Bears. Bears are a big issue when camping in Mammoth Lakes. All the campsites have bear boxes. Make sure you keep all your food in the bear box and don’t leave anything that even smells edible in your car or tent. If you do encounter a bear, make noise and they should run away.
  • Dogs are allowed. Not only are dogs allowed in the campground, they’re allowed on most of the trails too! We found Mammoth Lakes to be one of the most dog friendly camping trips we’ve ever gone on.
camping in Mammoth Lakes
You’ll definitely want to warm up next to a campfire when camping in Mammoth Lakes

Things to Do in Mammoth Lakes

Hikes

You must take at least one hike on your trip to Mammoth Lakes. Even if you’re not an avid hiker, or you’re traveling with young children, there are plenty of great hikes that are less then two miles. Just keep in mind that with the high altitude, even a short hike can leave you feeling winded if you’re not acclimated to the elevation.

Heart Lake: A mellow, gradual uphill  hike to a small lake. While the lake isn’t anything particularly noteworthy the views along the way are fantastic. Much of the trail is along an exposed ridge, however in the evening the trail transforms from sun-baked to sun-kissed.

Getting to the Trailhead: The trailhead is in Coldwater Campground. When you enter the campground continue along the road to the large parking area.

Length: 1.1 miles (one-way)

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heart lake near cold water campground in mammoth lakes
More a pond than a lake, hiking to Heart Lake is all about the views 
hiking to heart lake near cold water
Big views on the trail to Heart Lake

Duck Pass: Chose your difficulty level on the journey to Duck Lake. If you go all the way to Duck Lake be prepared for a challenging eleven mile round-trip hike. If you’ve got the time and the energy, I highly recommend going all the way to the lake. It’s an absolutely spectacular hike. The majestic views at Duck Lake and the valley below make the final mile of hot uphill trekking worth it.

If you want something a little easier you can take the Duck Pass trail to Arrowhead Lake (about 1 mile from the trailhead) or Skeleton Lake (about 1.5 miles from the trailhead) . These lakes are great for fishing and a quick, crisp swim. Be prepared to walk uphill for the first part of the trail to Arrowhead Lake. If you continue on from Arrowhead Lake to Skeleton Lake the trail flattens out a bit. Don’t be surprised if the relative ease of getting to Skeleton Lake inspires you to keep hiking further!

Getting to the Trailhead: The trailhead is in Coldwater Campground. When you enter the campground continue along the road to the large parking area.

Length: About 11 miles round-trip

hiking in mammoth lakes duck pass
Climbing up Duck Pass
arrowhead
Clear water and good fishing at Arrowhead Lake

Rainbow Falls: You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Yosemite when you’re standing at the base of Rainbow Falls. The trail to the falls isn’t anything amazing, especially in comparison to other trails in the area, but the beauty of the falls makes up for the lackluster trail.

It is possible to swim in the pool at the base of the falls, just be aware that the rocks are slippery. If you are planning on getting in the water it might be a good idea to bring a pair of water sandals.

If you feel like hiking a bit further, it’s definitely worth the effort to continue on to Lower Rainbow Falls. Most people turn around at Rainbow Falls so the lower cascades are much less crowded. These falls are miniscule in comparison to Rainbow Falls, the main draw is jumping off the adjacent boulders into the icy water… and finding a little space from the crowds.

*You can also get to Rainbow Falls from the Devil’s Post Pile. Accessing the falls from the Devil’s Post Pile Trailhead is a longer hike, but you will get to see two attractions in one great hike. If you do hike to Rainbow Falls from Devil’s Post Pile it is about six-miles roundtrip. 

Getting to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead: from the town of Mammoth Lakes and the campgrounds in the Lakes Basin area it’s about a thirty minute drive to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. The road is winding and narrow, some sections are one-lane. There is a fee collection kiosk along the way.

Length: 1.7 miles one-way

rainbow falls in mammoth lakes california
A rainbow at Rainbow Falls
lower rainbow falls
Lower Rainbow falls is all about jumping off boulders and swimming in the snowmelt stream

Devils Post Pile: Checking out Devils Post Pile is one of the most popular things to do in Mammoth. If you are able to find parking and keep in mind that what you’re hiking to is basically a fancy pile of rocks, you will be impressed. Taking the time to read the informative signs along the way will give you a better appreciation for the wonder of this particular pile of rocks.

devils post pile national monument in mammoth
One of the Sierra’s most unique geological wonders

Horseshoe Lake Loop: An easy, flat trail that goes around Horseshoe Lake. This probably won’t make it into your “Top 10 Favorite Hikes” list but it’s a safe, kid friendly, toddler doable trail.

Getting to the Trailhead: the trail starts next to the lake where the Mammoth Lakes Basin bike path ends. There is a large parking lot across from Horseshoe Lake.

Length: 1.7 miles

horseshoe lake in the
Shallow and sunny, Horseshoe Lake is one of of the warmer lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin area

Biking

There are all sorts of options for bikers in Mammoth Lakes. Whether you’re looking for a pretty route along a paved path or hoping to get your adrenaline pumping on a dusty downhill, Mammoth is biking paradise. If you can’t bring your bike there are rental options in town.

Lakes Basin Bike Path: If you know how to ride a bike you must take a ride on the Lakes Basin Bike Path at least once on your Mammoth vacation. The bike path starts in town and goes up a long hill to the campgrounds and lakes. The views eastward from this section of the bike path are phenomenal. Once you get past Twin Lakes Campground the path becomes more of a rolling up and down rather than a continuous climb. And you’ll pass by several scenic lakes within a few miles of easy riding.

Don’t feel like riding your bike up a huge hill? There is a free Mammoth Lakes shuttle  that is popular with bikers. Catch the shuttle in town, load your bike onto the rear rack, and get driven up the hill. Then ride around to the different lakes or simply turn around and have a long breezy ride back to town.

Mammoth Mountain Bike Park: In the summer months the ski area transforms into a mountain bikers playground. Like skiing there are different trails of varying difficulty. The concept is the same, take the chair lift up and ride down.

riding bikes in mammoth lakes is a must when camping
Cruising along the bike path in Mammoth Lakes

Fishing

Full disclosure: we didn’t catch anything while camping in Mammoth Lakes. However, I think that was more due to lack of skill by our six-year old than lack of fish. If you’re willing to hike, Arrowhead Lake is a popular spot with anglers. Otherwise try your luck at any of the more accessible lakes.

fishing in mammoth lakes
Bring your fishing pole along on a bike ride and try your luck at your favorite lake

Paddling/Boat Rentals

Want to cast your line a little further from the shoreline? There are several places you can rent a boat or canoe in Mammoth Lakes. Conditions are the best in the morning or evening. Frequently afternoons can get breezy, making it a less than ideal time to be out on the water.

Lake Mary Marina: Located off Highway 203 you can rent a small boat, fishing gear, paddle boards and canoes. A half day boat rental costs about $65.

Twin Lakes General Store: At the general store in the Twin Lakes Campground you can rent a rowboat, canoe, or kayak by the hour. This is the cheapest boat option if you’re looking for a quick jaunt out onto the lake.

twin lakes in mammoth mountain
Twin Lakes is one of the largest and prettiest lakes in Mammoth

Mining Camp

Probably the only people that would find this worthwhile are history buffs or families with young children. My family fits both those criteria so we really enjoyed looking at the collapsed buildings and abandoned mining equipment.

To get here it’s the same trailhead as Heart Lake ( located in Coldwater Campground). To check out the mining camp it’s a five minute detour on your way to the lake. Just keep your expectations low and you might be pleasantly surprised.

camping in mammoth you can visit the old mines
Peering into an abandoned mine near Coldwater Campground
exploring the mammoth wilderness near cold water campground
Find pieces of mining equipment and try to guess what it was used for

Horseback Riding

Channel you’re inner frontiersman, or frontierwoman and go on a horseback ride. Expect to get a bit dusty. Nevertheless if you’re camping in Mammoth Lakes you’re perpetually dusty so what’s a little more dust?

There are a couple different options for horseback riding in the area. Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit is easy to find and on Lake Mary Road, just a few minutes from town. The minimum age is 7 years old and an hour long ride will cost around $50.

horseback riding is another thing to do in mammoth lakes when camping
Give your legs a break from hiking and explore the trails on top of a horse

What to Bring Camping in Mammoth Lakes

Here are a few things that I found to be super helpful for camping in Mammoth Lakes:

  • Tarp for under the tent. This gave us a relatively clean place to take off our shoes before entering our tent. It also helped keep the dust out of the tent.
  • Water Container. We brought a two gallon water container with us. Having water available right in our site was a good reminder to stay hydrated.
  • Warm layers for cold nights: Thermals, hats, down jackets etc.
  • Screened Easy-Up Tent: Mosquitos weren’t a huge nuisance but it was nice having a refuge from the bugs.
  • Hand Soap/Hand Sanitizer. The bathrooms were very clean but didn’t have any hand soap
  • Bikes. If you have them bring them!

Getting to Mammoth Lakes

Driving to Mammoth Lakes

One of the reasons Mammoth Lakes stayed off my radar for so long is that there just isn’t an easy, quick way to get there from the California coast. However, if you are driving to Mammoth Lakes from Northern California chances are you will get to drive on Highway 395. I’ve driven all over California and this section of highway is one of the most scenic in the state.

Some theoretical driving times are:

Driving from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes: about 5 hours

Driving from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes: about 6 1/2 hours

Driving from the Bay Are to Mammoth Lakes: about 6 hours

Driving from Lake Tahoe to Mammoth Lakes: 3 hours

Flying to Mammoth Lakes

There is an airport with a few commercial airlines that service Mammoth Lakes. United Airlines and Alaska Airlines both have flights to Mammoth. The airport is about a ten minute drive to Mammoth Lakes.

driving to mammoth lakes on highway 395
Mono Lake, one of the many scenic spots to stop along Highway 395 on the way to Mammoth Lakes

The Bottom Line: If you love California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, and don’t need a lot of frills, then you’ll love camping in Mammoth Lakes.  

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Further Reading on Camping and Outdoor Adventure

Discovering Lassen Volcanic National Park

The Best Hikes in Lake Tahoe

Glamping in Santa Barbara, CA

The Perfect Summer Weekend in Lakes Basin, CA

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