Two Favorite Family Day Trips from Mammoth Lakes

Oct 20, 2020

It’s back-to-school time and fall is just around the corner. We’re still enjoying plenty of great weather here in the mountains and late summer and early autumn is a terrific time to Visit Mammoth. Mammoth Lakes is centrally located to a number of amazing attractions, and the amenities here make it an ideal base for your family vacation or weekend getaway. You can explore the surrounding area throughout the day and return to Mammoth’s wide array of family-friendly lodgings and restaurants when it’s time for a break. Here are a couple of unique and educational day trip options that are favorites of my family.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is about a 2-hour drive from Mammoth Lakes and well worth visiting to check out the world’s oldest trees, ranging from around 3,500 to 5,000 years old! It’s also a nice trip for accessing the remote, tall, and scenic White Mountains.

Getting There

Take Highway 395 south through Bishop and make a left on Highway 168 east just north of Big Pine. Follow 168 for 13 miles and turn left on White Mountain Road. Drive 10 miles to arrive at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center at 10,000’ elevation. These roads are paved but winding and steep in sections, and there are no gas stations or stores once you make the turn onto Highway 168. Keep an eye out for desert bighorn sheep on the high rocky outcroppings along the way.

What to Bring and When to Go

Be sure to bring water, food, warm clothes, and sun protection with you as this is an extremely remote area at high altitude with limited amenities and no running water available. There is a small fee of $3.00 per adult to a maximum of $6.00 per vehicle to access the area, and all federal lands passes are accepted. Note that the visitor center is generally open from late May through the end of October and that White Mountain Road closes from approximately November through April. Call 760-873-2500 for current road conditions and visitor center hours.

What to See and Do

Be sure to spend a few minutes checking out the Schulman Grove Visitor Center and speaking with the rangers there. The new building opened in 2012 and is completely solar powered. You’ll see some trees from the parking lot, and the rangers can recommend an appropriate hike for your family. There is the short, 1-mile Discovery Loop or the considerably more strenuous 4.5-mile Methusaleh Grove Trail loop that passes the very oldest trees, although these are not identified for their own protection. For something in between, consider the Bristlecone Cabin Trail. It’s just over 2 miles long and has beautiful sweeping views across the Owens Valley and also passes the old mining cabins for which it’s named.

Taking a shorter trail or getting a very early start allows enough time for the drive to the Patriarch Grove, site of the largest bristlecone tree. To reach the Patriarch Grove, continue 12 miles on White Mountain Road, which becomes a well-maintained dirt road above Schulman Grove and climbs to 11,000’ elevation. The landscape here becomes starker as you approach treeline and look out toward the Great Basin. Two short loop trails, the Timberline Ancients Nature Trail and the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail, are relatively easy (be mindful of the very high elevation) and offer good interpretive signage.

While it’s a long day trip, visiting the ancient Bristlecones is a special experience that may leave you contemplating all that these majestic trees have witnessed. After our first visit, my family became really interested in checking out some of California’s other famous trees. We’ve since explored giant sequoias and coastal redwoods for a trifecta of oldest, largest, and tallest trees!

Mono Lake

Ancient Mono Lake covers more than 65 miles and is over a million years old, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake has no outlet, so water leaves only through evaporation, causing the lake to be 2.5 times saltier and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean. In 1941 Los Angeles began diverting water from the streams that feed the lake, causing lake levels to drop precipitously. Conservation efforts and litigation to reduce water exports in the last two decades have succeeded and today the lake has come back from its historic low, although prolonged drought continues to keep lake levels down and reinforces the need for water conservation throughout the state.

There is a lot to explore here that is easily accessible by car from Mammoth within 45 minutes to an hour of driving. You may choose to spend an entire day visiting various sites around the lake, or combine a shorter visit to the lake with a trip to the ghost town of Bodie or the eastern entrance area of Yosemite National Park.

South Tufa

If you only have time to make one stop at Mono Lake, visit the South Tufa State Natural Reserve. From Mammoth Lakes, take Highway 395 25 miles north to Route 120 east. Continue 5 miles and follow signs for the South Tufa. Park in the large lot and pay the small fee of $3 per person for adults over 16 or follow the directions for displaying your federal lands pass if you have one. Bring water and sun protection because there is little to no shade here.

Take the easy 1-mile, self-guided nature trail and be sure to read the interpretive signage to fully understand the history of the lake and importance of its ecosystems. You’ll see the tufa formations that are a result of freshwater springs bubbling up through the alkaline lake water. Calcium from the freshwater combines with carbonates from the lake water to make the limestone formations. At the water’s edge, huge numbers of alkali flies swarm harmlessly around your ankles and you may also see tiny brine shrimp swimming in the water. Both of these species play a crucial role in the huge bird migrations for which the lake is known. Free, hour-long guided walks take place at 10:00am, 1:00pm, and 6:00pm daily through the summer months. Guided <a href= title=“canoe”>canoe tours<a/> are also available on summer weekends through the Mono Lake Committee for $25.00 per person. No experience is necessary, but everyone must be over the age of 4 and reservations are required.

If you have more time, you may also wish to visit Navy Beach, the Old Marina, County Park, or Panum Crater. There is also a beautiful overlook on the left-hand side of Highway 395 as you drive north toward Bridgeport that’s a great place to catch the colors of the lake at sunset.

Visitor Centers

There are two excellent Visitor Centers located in Lee Vining whose friendly staffs can provide information about the area, current conditions, and programs and things to do during your visit. On the east side of Highway 395, the Mono Basin Scenic Visitor Center is a regional visitor center managed by the United States Forest Service in partnership with the National Park Service and Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association and open Thursday through Monday from 9:00am-4:30pm from April through November. Phone 760-647-6595. Be sure to check out the excellent 20-minute film Ice and Fire: A Portrait of the Mono Basin for a brief but comprehensive overview of the area.

In the center of town on the west side of Highway 395, the Mono Lake Committee operates their Information Center and Bookstore from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily, phone 760-647-6595. The Committee formed in 1978 as a non-profit citizens’ group dedicated to protecting and restoring Mono Lake. Here you can view the 27-minute film The Mono Lake Story and get information about the lake and its history and become involved in current conservation efforts. My daughter especially likes viewing the small tank of brine shrimp here.

Lee Vining

The small town of Lee Vining offers plenty of shops, restaurants, and services as well as stunning views of the lake. The Mono Basin Historical Society operates a small history museum on Mattly Avenue. Call 760-647-6461 for hours and information. Young kids will get a kick out of the Upside-Down House and can also enjoy the playground at Gus Hess Park next door. It’s a perfect place to unwind with an ice cream from Mono Cone at the end of your day!

Have you had the opportunity to be inspired by ancient trees or marveled at the Mono tufa? Did something you explored while traveling prompt your kids to make further inquiries, request another trip, or make lifestyle changes? Please share–I’d love to hear all about it!

Betsy Temple-Truax

Betsy loves living and playing in Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierra with her active family and friends. A passionate advocate for community recreation, Betsy never turns down an opportunity to swim, ski, paddle, travel or let someone else cook.

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