Sightseeing at the Inyo Craters

Oct 15, 2020

Rising above the Eastern Sierra forest canopy like mighty pyramids of pumice, the Inyo Craters are a unique natural phenomenon that record some of the earth’s most violent forces. Located at the southernmost end of the active Inyo-Mono crater chain, these incredible conical landforms were shaped only around 600 years ago when unbelievably powerful underground steam explosions ripped apart the forest floor and created a beautiful, lunar-like landscape. Today, this uniquely sculpted volcanic terrain is easily accessible from Mammoth Lakes and offers an unforgettable sightseeing adventure.

The Inyo Craters were formed when groundwater contacted a large body of partially magmatic rock deep within the earth, generating steam and extreme amounts of pressure. The resulting cataclysmic explosion shot rocks miles into the air, wiped out the surrounding forest and left deep crater-like depressions as permanent scars on the landscape. It’s no coincidence that the Inyo Craters align with the volcanic remnants of nearby Obsidian Dome and the active Mono Craters—they are all part of the same geologically active system.

Getting to Inyo Craters does require a short hike, although the family-friendly trail to the craters maintains a relatively mellow grade and winds through stands of huge, old-growth ponderosa and Jeffrey pine. 0.7 miles from the parking area, the trail emerges from the forest onto the chalky white rim of the southernmost crater. In the background, legendary Mammoth Mountain and the jagged Minaret Range loom majestically. Flanked by steep cliffs, a small lake of turquoise-green water remains trapped in the bowels of the 200 foot-deep crater, colored from dissolved minerals leaching from the surrounding volcanic rock walls. The second crater, which is slightly less photogenic, is just uphill from the first. Watch carefully when hiking through the forest as the area is home to a variety of wildlife, including a diverse collection of birds and a frequently sighted herd of mule deer.

To get to the Inyo Craters from Mammoth Lakes, travel west on State Route 203 heading toward the Mammoth Mountain Resort main lodge area. After the roadway passes through the Village at Mammoth and winds a short distance uphill, turn right onto the Mammoth Scenic Loop. In 2.5 miles, the Inyo Craters Road is on the left and the large parking area for the trailhead is an easy mile from the turnoff. At the U.S. Forest Service-maintained trailhead, a pit toilet is available and the path to the craters is well marked.

The road is not plowed in the winter and parking may be limited during periods of heavy snow. This is a great place to cross country ski or snowshoe, as it is sheltered from cold winds. In the fall, huge stands of quaking aspen turn bright yellow in a rare, stunning display of high desert deciduous magnificence.