Exploring the Early History of Mammoth Lakes: Top 3 Day Hikes Near Town
Do you enjoy hiking in the legendary and scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains? Are you a history buff interested in the early development of the western U.S.? If you answered yes to either (or both) of these questions, we have three short walking adventures around Mammoth Lakes just for you. So lace up your boots or sneakers, grab a camera and some water and be prepared to become immersed in Mammoth Lakes’ early history.
Mammoth’s first settlers were prospectors, whose search for precious metals brought them from the depleted gold fields of California’s western slope. Upon finding gold and silver-bearing veins cutting through Red Mountain in the mid-1870’s, these hardy men battled the ferocious mountain elements in the pursuit of wealth. Mammoth’s mining was short-lived and relatively unprofitable and by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, tourism became the region’s number one industry.
The Old Mammoth loop and the Mammoth Consolidated/Heart Lake out and back hikes described below explore the remains of the once bustling mining districts of Mammoth Lakes. These hikes allow visitors to experience the living conditions and appreciate the persistence of these early settlers. The Mammoth Lakes town (with a stop at the Hayden Cabin Museum) walk provides the opportunity to tour the early development of Mammoth Lakes, from mining camp to world-class tourist destination.
Old Mammoth Loop
The birth of Mammoth Lakes began at the base of Red Mountain (also known as Mineral Hill), near the monolithic spire of Mammoth Rock. In 1877, four prospectors hunting for the famed riches of the Lost Cement Mine stumbled upon gold and silver-bearing quartz veins at the flanks of the Sherwin Range. Within less than a year, General G. Dodge of San Francisco purchased a majority of the mining claims and consolidated them under the Mammoth Mining Company. This clever name was used in reference of purported vast mineral wealth, which brought investors and businessmen to the district, and had no relation to prehistoric remains of extinct mastodons.
General Dodge’s Mammoth Mining Company only lasted for 2 to 3 years, when excessive spending combined with the harsh elements and an overall weak mineral deposit forced the company into bankruptcy in 1880. Although short-lived and likely unprofitable, the company did complete several engineering feats, some of which remain today.
Ruins of the boom-to-bust mining are found at the upper end of Old Mammoth Road, which is around 2.5 miles from downtown. From the dirt parking lot near the gate, a short and well-marked hiking trail leads to the former Mammoth Mining Co. stamp mill site. Aside from stone building foundations, the only remaining remnant of the massive mill is the twenty-foot diameter cast iron flywheel standing on a masonry base. This flywheel was powered by the Knight water wheel, which is now located near Snowcreek Resort along Old Mammoth Road.
Fast Fact: Built in 1878, the stamp mill was very modern for the time and was larger than necessary for the size of the mineral deposit. The Mammoth Mining Co. mill was likely built at this scale to assist in the acquisition of investor money, as a large mill was necessary for processing the ore from a large deposit. Little ore was processed by the mill before bankruptcy and the wealthy investors (primarily from San Francisco) probably lost money in the endeavor.
Above the mill ruins, a dirt footpath winds up the hillside near the route of the old rail tramway. This 0.4-mile path leads back to a switchback on Old Mammoth Road, which has great views of the town and Long Valley below. From this point, the hike may be shortened by heading directly up to the Old Mammoth town site along the road.
To continue onwards, take the Panorama Dome hiking/mountain biking trail. This popular trail is located to the west of the overlook and winds for 1.1 miles through a forest of mature lodgepole pine to the outlet of Twin Lakes. At around mile 0.4, the trail crosses a wide diversion ditch constructed to supply water to the stamp mill. This ditch runs over a mile in length and was engineered to provide a free flowing source of water from the mouth of Lower Twin Lake. The wooden bridge near the beginning of the trail spans the original channel that fed gravity-charged water from the diversion ditch to the Knight wheel at the mill. At the end of the Panorama Dome Trail, take the paved bike path back into the Lakes Basin (left) for 0.8 miles to the top of the well marked Old Mammoth Road. Make sure to have your camera handy, as the bike path offers great views of the basin below.
From this point, it is all downhill through the 1880’s Mammoth town site. Several stone foundations line the roadway, evidence of the town’s peak population of around 1,500 people between 1879 and 1880. A masonry historical marker and brass plaque indicates the center of town. On the steep hillside above the road, waste rock piles reveal the location of the mine’s adits or tunnels. These were driven deep into the mountainside and the ore was transported downhill to the mill by the rail tramway.
To get back to the parking area, follow the Old Mammoth Road back to the gate.
Average Hike Time: 2-4 hours
Hiking Distance: Less than 1.0 to up to 3.5 miles
Trail Surface: Dirt, paved
Public Transportation Option: Gray Line to Red Fir (stop no. 68) – then walk up Old Mammoth Road around 0.7 of a mile.
Restroom Facilities: The nearest restrooms are located at the Twin Lakes Campground, located on the Lake Mary Road above the Old Mammoth Road.
Additional activities: Mountain biking, rock hounding, wildlife viewing (popular mule deer area), auto tours, road biking, photography, trail running
Mammoth Consolidated/Heart Lake Out and Back
In 1927, A.G. Mahon and a collection of business partners started the Mammoth Consolidated Mining Company. They purchased several mining claims on the southern flanks of the Sherwin Range above Lake Mary. After acquiring positive assay results high in gold and silver, a mining camp was quickly constructed and two mine adits were driven into the side of the mountain. The two 800 ft. long tunnels were connected by a vertical raise, which provided natural ventilation and allowed miners to dump ore from the upper tunnel to waiting ore carts below. A diesel-powered mill, located near the lower adit, crushed and processed the ore.
Up to 14 miners were employed by Mammoth Consolidated and several bunkhouses were constructed to provide shelter. These bunkhouses had no electricity or running water and wood stoves were used for heat and cooking. The miners cleared $4.00 a day at the time (around $75 today) after room and board, which was a good wage at the time.
The operation continued until the Great Depression combined with milling issues and low metal costs caused the project to be abandoned in 1933. The Mammoth Consolidated mined around $100k worth of gold and silver, which was probably less than the total invested in project. Overall, it is unlikely that any of the mines of the Mammoth Lakes area made much of a profit.
Fast Fact: The Mahon family donated the Mammoth Consolidated property to the town of Mammoth Lakes in 1989.
Today, the Mammoth Consolidated mining camp is preserved in a state of “arrested decay” and informative signs provide historical details and maps of the site. Located along the shady banks of upper Mammoth Creek, a visit to the small ghost town nestled in the pines offers an easy and educational break from the summer sun.
To get to the ruins of the mining camp, follow the Lake Mary Road to the Around Lake Mary Road on the left, just after the pack station above Twin Lakes. Turn into the Coldwater Creek Campground and head uphill to the day use parking lot, which is at the upper end of the campground. The trail head and information kiosk are located near the northeast corner of the upper lot.
The trail crosses a winding stream and quickly passes through the remains of several bunkhouses and the owner’s log cabin. Walking the 0.4-mile loop clockwise, hikers will come upon the location of the Mammoth Consolidated’s diesel-powered mill. Although the mill’s building was destroyed in an avalanche long ago, the massive 110 horsepower single cylinder cast iron engine remains in its original position. Unlike Old Mammoth’s water-powered mills and workings, the Mammoth Consolidated utilized oil and steam powered engines to extract and process the ore.
Nearby, visitors are able to peer into the grated lower adit. A blast of cold air should be expected, as natural ventilation draws outside air into the upper adit and cools it before it exits through the lower tunnel. Adjacent to the upper adit, the rusty remains of the mine’s mighty air and water compressors stand on a concrete pad. The miners would have used air (pneumatic) powered drills and tools, as the mine had no electricity.
The buildings and ruins are well marked and wooden signs along the trail provide direction. For a side trip, follow the signs and hike up the trail to Heart Lake (1.1 miles each way with 500 ft. in elevation gain/loss). This hike provides expansive views of the Lakes Basin as it traverses the mountainside. Expect to see wildflowers along the path and healthy populations of brook trout in the stream and lake. The steep, wooded slopes around Heart Lake hide the short adits and prospect pits of long-ago miners. Imagine being a miner walking this trail with mule or donkey in tow!
Fast Fact: In 1934, A.G. Mahon had enough and decided to change industries. He bought the Red’s Meadow Pack Station and transitioned into the tourist trade.
Average Hike Time: 1-4 hours
Hiking Distance: Less than 1.0 to 3.0+ miles
Trail Surface: Dirt
Public Transportation Option: Orange Line from the Village at Mammoth to stop number 100 (Lake Mary Marina/Cold Creek Campground). Walk uphill through campground for 0.2 miles to the Pine City/Duck Pass Trail parking lot.
Restroom Facilities: Restrooms are found at the parking lot and water is available in the campground.
Additional activities: Fishing, wildflowers, photography, camping, picnics, trail running
Early Mammoth Lakes Tourism Walk: With Stop at Hayden Cabin
By the end of the 1910’s, a majority of the mines had played out and a new, long-lasting industry emerged. Tourists, arriving by automobiles and charged with a sense of adventure and freedom, began discovering the solitude, beauty, and recreational opportunities of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These early visitors would make the grueling two-day drive from Los Angeles to reach the pine forests and grassy meadows around Mammoth. It may have been gold that put Mammoth Lakes on the map, but it was fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, boating, and mountaineering that made the region famous.
In the early 1920’s, the small town of Mammoth Camp was established in order to provide services to the steadily increasing number of summer visitors. An automobile garage, hotel, rustic rental cabins, bakery, general store, and post office were constructed near the banks of Mammoth Creek. During the winter months, the population drastically dropped and limited mail service was provided by dogsled.
Fast Fact: The meadow at the base of Mammoth Rock, to the southwest of the Snowcreek golf course, had a dairy and orchard near the turn of the century. Water was provided via irrigation ditch from the Lakes Basin above.
The Mammoth Lakes history walk begins at the Snowcreek Lodge and heads into town via the paved bike path. Within minutes, visitors will pass the Knight water wheel, which is located adjacent to the path. In 1902, this heavy wheel was transported by timber sled and mule team from Old Mammoth to its present location, which is the site of the former Wildasinn Hotel and Mammoth Camp Lodge. The water wheel was utilized to generate electricity for the popular mountain resort throughout the 1920’s and one of the hotel’s original log cabins remains nestled in the aspen trees behind the water wheel.
Far behind the water wheel, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area towers above town. This ski resort, started in 1945 by Dave McCoy, is now one of the top ski and snowboard destinations in the world. In the evenings the sun sets behind the mountain, making for dramatic photo opportunities from this vantage point.
Continuing along the bike path and crossing Minaret Road, the trail passes the Snowcreek golf course and driving range on the right (southwest). This is the location of the former Mammoth Camp village. The path winds adjacent to the cool water of Mammoth Creek before crossing the stream near Old Mammoth Road. Remaining on the bike path, pass under the road and look for signs to the Hayden Cabin, which requires crossing the stream again on a bridge near the restrooms. This historical museum has a fantastic collection spotlighting early Mammoth, with displays and antiques throughout the restored 1930’s hunting and fishing cabin property. Visits are free, although donations are encouraged, and the staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.
From the museum, it is possible to easily return to town or continue onwards to Shady Rest Park and the Mammoth Lakes Visitor’s Center. To catch the Red Line/Town Trolley bus, head back a short distance into town to the bus stop across from Salsa’s restaurant. To continue onwards, cross Mammoth Creek and quickly take the bike path that intersects from the left (north), heading up the hill toward the town’s library. Follow the Sierra Park Road for 0.3 miles and cross State Route 203 (Main St.) to arrive at the Shady Rest Park and Mammoth Lakes Visitor’s Center. Shady Rest acquired its name from the early tourism days when weary and worn travelers pulled into the forested flat land and set up camp in the shadows of the mighty pines. It was a most welcome break, especially after multiple days of traversing the rocky and primitive desert roads of the Mojave and Owens Valley.
Average Hike Time: 1-6 hours
Hiking Distance: Less than 1.5 to 4.0+ miles
Trail Surface: Mostly paved, limited dirt
Public Transportation Option: Take the Red Line/Town Trolley to it’s terminus at SnowCreek (Stop 1). Walk down the paved bike path toward town, passing the fire station.
Restroom Facilities: Many restrooms are available, including at the Hayden Museum, along the trail, at the Mammoth Lakes Library, and at the Visitor’s Center at Shady Rest.
Additional activities: Fishing, photography, picnics, shopping, food/beverage, bicycling, Hayden Cabin historical museum, auto tour These hikes allow visitors a chance to explore the region’s early progression from a resource based economy to a tourist-based economy. For more information, inquire at the Hayden Cabin Museum or the Mammoth Lakes Visitor’s Center.