Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammoth Lakes Basin

Jul 14, 2021

The Mammoth Lakes Basin is a nature lovers dream come true! Located partially within the John Muir Wilderness Area and only minutes from town, the Lakes Basin provides unbeatable access to one of the earth’s most spectacular offerings. Protected by the dizzying heights of the surrounding Mammoth Crest, Sherwin Range, and Mammoth Mountain, the Lakes Basin is an ecological oasis of towering pine forests, clear blue lakes, and cold mountain streams.

The Mammoth Lakes Basin has an interesting and complex geologic history. Over the past several million years, mountain uplift, faulting, and volcanic activity projected massive bodies of rock high into the air. More recent glacial advancement and retreat carved the rock into it’s current configuration, including the deep depressions that are now lakes. The Friends of the Inyo, a local nonprofit group, offers weekly to biweekly interpretive earth history hikes of the Lakes Basin. Visit their website at www.friendsoftheinyo.org for more information.

The Ecosystems:

Ecosystems of the Mammoth Lakes Basin are controlled by elevation and water availability. Upper montane forest ecosystems found from 8,500 ft. to around 10,000 ft. in elevation are characterized by mature stands of red fir, Jeffrey pine, western juniper, and most commonly, lodgepole pine. This ecosystem is able to support a wide variety of wildlife including large mammals, fish, and a diverse bird population. Most of the recreational opportunities of the Lakes Basin are within this ecosystem, including a majority of the lakes.

Encompassing the lofty, talus-strewn mountains surrounding the Lakes Basin, the sub-alpine forest ecosystem extends from around 10,000 ft. to up to 11,500 ft. in elevation. Tree growth is limited at these elevations within the basin, although hardy examples of high-altitude lodgepole and whitebark pines may be found. At these heights, harsh winters combined with intense winds and limited summer precipitation keep the rocky slopes barren of most plant life. Many of the hiking trails in the basin eventually wind upward into this ecosystem.

Found along the banks of the mountain streams and bodies of water in the Lakes Basin, riparian ecosystems provide living conditions ideal for organisms that are not suited for the prevailing dry, desert climate of the Eastern Sierra. Large stands of quaking aspen and alder surrounded by expansive plots of wildflowers and wild onions commonly characterize this ecosystem in the Lakes Basin. The influence of elevation and climate is less noticeable and riparian forests may extend into the high elevations of the upper montane biotic zone. This is the ecosystem to visit in the fall, as the deciduous trees lining the streams display vivid yellows when the seasons are changing.

With a base elevation of around 8600 at the mouth of Lower Twin Lake, the basin does experience winter conditions that may last upwards of 7 months of the year. Surprisingly, the harsh winter climate does not noticeably limit organism diversity. Hundreds of different animal and plant species survive and thrive in the Mammoth Lakes Basin region.

We have provided a brief guide to animal and plant inhabitants of the Mammoth Lakes Basin. For more information, stop by the Visitor’s Center on the way into town for comprehensive wildlife guides and advice from National Forest Service staff members.

Plants: Trees:

A majority of the Lakes Basin falls within the upper montane ecosystem, which is dominated by lodgepole pine and red fir. Lodgepole pine trees have a very scaley, cornflake-like bark and branches containing long, thin needles. Red fir are protected by moderately thick, maroon red bark and have stout branches with short needles that resemble pipe cleaners. Surrounding some of the lower lakes, Jeffrey pine may be found. Just look for large pine cones and jigsaw or furrowed-style brown bark.

Common riparian trees include deciduous species of quaking aspen, mountain alder, and willow. Because they are deciduous, the leaves of these trees will change color in the fall, making for a spectacular experience when hiking one of the many streams or lakeside trails in the Lakes Basin during the months of September and October.

Flowers:

For wildflower viewing, the Mammoth Lakes Basin has few rivals. Colorful larkspur, paintbrush, and lupine stand out in contrast against the grays, browns, and dark greens of the mountainous background. Additional species of wildflowers commonly found within the basin include white yarrow, yellow monkeyflower, yellow balsamroot, red skyrocket, and Sierra tiger lily.

In June and July, lower riparian zones and the meadows flanking the Heart Lake trail are teaming with wildflowers in bloom. Later in the summer the high elevations of Sky Meadows and Emerald Lake, whose trailhead is found at the end of Cold Creek Campground, often erupt in a vivid display of yellows, pinks, purples, and greens. For the best wildflower viewing, hike just after a rain shower or remain near moist areas.

Mammals: Large Mammals:

Mule Deer – The Mammoth Lakes Basin is home to a wide variety of large mammals. The most commonly seen within the Lakes Basin are the herbivorous mule deer. These copper to rust brown and gray quadrupeds migrate to the Mammoth Lakes Basin and higher altitudes in the summer in order to find adequate forage and to escape the desert heat. Throughout the summer, the males (or bucks) have developing antlers covered in live skin or velvet. Once the fall season arrives the bucks shed their velvet, revealing their bone-white antlers. This coincides with the breeding season, as male mule deer utilize their antlers in displays of mating dominance.

Look for mule deer near riparian zones and wherever there is green grass, especially in the mornings and evenings. When driving through the Lakes Basin, remember to remain alert for these large mammals crossing the roadways.

Black Bear – A relatively common wild resident of the Lakes Basin is the North American black bear. These surprisingly nimble large mammals may reach upwards of 400 pounds in size and will eat almost anything. Don’t let the name fool you, as black bear have fur coats that may range in color between jet black, coppery brown, and even light chestnut.

As omnivores, black bear have a natural diet that is comprised of over 80% vegetation. The remaining percentage of their diet is often supplemented by carrion (dead animals) and fresh meat from the occasional kill. Near population centers, bears have rapidly adapted to scavenging or stealing food scraps and garbage. Being intelligent creatures of habit, bears that become dependent on these sources of food bridge the gap between wild and dangerously domesticated.

Having the opportunity to view a black bear in the wild can be very exciting. Being nomadic, encountering a bear is often up to chance and at all times, do not approach any bear in the wild. It is highly recommended that a safe distance be maintained and that the bear’s intentions are not disrupted. For more information on Mammoth’s black bears, visit the local wildlife officer’s website at www.thebearwhisperer.com.

Big Horn Sheep – If you ever have the opportunity to see a Sierra Nevada big horn sheep, consider yourself very lucky. These graceful mountain climbers live above 10,000 ft. in elevation and survive in the harsh high-alpine ecosystem. Equipped with thick gray fur and powerful legs capped by small hooves, Sierra Nevada big horn sheep are built for the steep rocky terrain they call home.

Around 500 to 600 Sierra Nevada big horn sheep remain in the wild today and the species has U.S. federal endangered species status. Decades of population mismanagement throughout the early 20th century combined with disease and natural predation caused the total herd to dwindle to just over 100 in the early 1990’s. Since that time, preservation efforts have contributed to the slow rebound of the total population to current levels.

As mentioned, viewing a big horn is a very rare phenomenon. If hiking in the high-alpine region around the Lakes Basin and do see a big horn, please report your sighting to the NFS for record keeping. Be aware that during the Sierra Nevada big horn migratory season, the federal and state governments may close certain wilderness for human travel in order to eliminate the potential for interference.

Mountain Lions – The North American cougar (or mountain lion) is one magnificent creature. With long, razor-sharp retractable claws and gorilla-like strength, mountain lions occupy the role of top predator in the Eastern Sierra. Reaching up to 200 pounds in size, these cats are able to drag full grown deer carcasses high into the tree canopy.

Mountain lions are incredibly stealthy and chances are, they see you and you do not see them. In fact, mountain lions remain unseen over 99% of the time. Being intelligent and cunning, mountain lions often size up their prey before attacking. While there are no accounts of mountain lion attacks on humans in the Lakes Basin, it is advised that small or elderly dogs remain close by, especially around rocky or heavily vegetated areas. Mountain lions may also defend their kill sites, so remain aware if you happen to stumble upon a freshly killed deer while hiking.

There have been reported sightings of mountain lions within the Lakes Basin and according to local fishermen, a den site exists near one of the basin’s highest alpine lakes. This is no reason for concern, as mountain lions almost always prefer to avoid any and all human interaction.

Rodents:

While not the most glamorous group within the animal kingdom, rodents are a vital link in the chain of life. In the Mammoth Lakes Basin, rodents are a source of seed dispersal, predator nutrition, and soil amendment. Without rodents, the upper montane and alpine ecosystems would be dramatically different.

Common rodents found within the Lakes Basin include marmots, squirrels, pikas, rabbits, and chipmunks. Yellow-bellied marmots, which live in and around rocky talus slopes above treeline, are large ground squirrels that may be upwards of 12 inches in length. Like the much smaller American pika that lives in the same environment, the marmot hibernates throughout the winter in deep burrows and emerges once the snow recedes and plant life begins to flourish.

Birds:

From the curious mountain chickadee to the bold and stately golden eagle, a wide variety of feathered friends make the Mammoth Lakes Basin their home. Within the forests surrounding the lakes, expect to see Clark’s nutcracker, stellar jays, warblers, sparrows, mountain bluebirds, and juncos passing through the pines. Soaring high above the tree canopy, predatory red-tail hawks, eagles, and the occasional osprey quietly hunt from their lofty positions.  

For more information and for bird watching events in and around the Mammoth Lakes Basin, contact the Eastern Sierra Audubon at www.esaudubon.org and don’t forget to stop by the Visitor’s Center for a bird watching guide

Fish:

The thriving fish population within the Mammoth Lakes Basin has drawn anglers for the past century. Prior to European man’s arrival, the lakes within the basin were devoid of the diverse collections of trout that are now commonly reeled in by fisherman visiting the area. Early prospectors and settlers, anxious for food and sport, imported fish utilizing milk cans and mules into many of the Eastern Sierra waters.

Today, the lakes and streams of the Lakes Basin teem with Alpers, brook, brown, and rainbow trout. The Alpers, brown, and rainbow trout prefer the larger, lower elevation lakes while the hardy brook trout thrive within the small mountain streams and upper elevation lakes.

For the most up-to-date fishing report covering the Lakes Basin, visit www.visitmammoth.com/things-to-do/fishing/fishing-reports.

The Mammoth Lakes Basin is located only 5 minutes from downtown Mammoth Lakes. If driving, follow the Lake Mary Road uphill (heading west) to one of the many public parking areas. Don’t feel like driving? Take the free trolley, complete with a bike-friendly trailer, into the basin from the village. For those interested in burning some calories, a paved bike path leads from the Village at Mammoth into the heart of the Lakes Basin.

No matter how you arrive, one of Mother Nature’s finest works is awaiting your exploration!

Jason Abplanalp

Jason Abplanalp first discovered the Eastern Sierra lifestyle six years ago and after brief tenures in Colorado and Idaho, Jason returned to the mountain town he truly loves, Mammoth Lakes, CA. As an avid skier, mountain biker, hiker, and fisherman, Jason believes there is no better place for his family to call home. Jason has…

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