Mammoth Lakes Trip Log

Well, we are back on the road again... Fully recovered from our "Discover Nevada" trip and ready to explore some new territory. This time we thought it would be nice to see what we could find in the Eastern Sierras. The Mammoth Lakes area was chosen because of its relative closeness to Pahrump (~250 miles) and because it was known to be scenic and very good fishing country. Bing and Betty had been to Mammoth Lakes in the past, but it had been many years and then, only in the winter to ski. They had not seen the area in summertime. The following picture is of "Good ol' Boy" and "The Silver Bullet" taken the evening before our departure. Note the rising moon between the car and trailer.

Good ol' Boy


Day 1 (Tuesday, June 29, 1999)

It was going to be a hot trip… The Las Vegas weather report was forecasting a high of 110. We pulled out of the yard at around 8:30 am and headed north. Because of the expected heat and the weight of the trailer, this was to be a trip without air conditioning. Our route kept us in Nevada for a large part of the trip. Near Goldfield we headed west towards California. By this time the temperature was well over 100 and we were feeling it. We entered California at Oasis and started ascending a pass that would bring us into the Owens Valley. None of us had traveled this road before and did not know what to expect. Had we known, we probably would have selected an alternative route. Not that it wasn't pretty or anything like that, but the pass was very steep with narrow winding roads. Not a good choice when pulling a 6,000 pound trailer.

There were posted grades of 8% but Bing said he knew it was greater than that because Good ol' Boy kept dropping down into low gear… something it doesn't do at less than 10% grades. It was a slow passage. Twenty five miles-per-hour was the rule. Before we got to Oasis we had been getting glimpses of the snow capped high Sierras in the distance but as we crested Westgard Pass, there they were in their full splendor. The green Owens Valley spread before these majestic mountains. One couldn't help thinking of the first settlers coming west and the impression such a sight would have had on them. Coming out of the barren dessert and seeing the green of the valley below with that backdrop of snowy mountains, they surly would have knew that they were entering the promised land… Since leaving Pahrump, we had seen nothing but high desert with sage, creosote, and little else. We too were enjoying the sight before us.

As we descended into the Owens Valley and into the town of Bishop, we noticed something else… we were picking up some humidity to go with the hundred plus temperature. We were really missing that air conditioner. We stopped in Bishop to gather some information from a fly shop. The information was good… seemed like everyone was catching fish everywhere… or at least that is what the salesman told us. I purchased a couple of fly's that we could use as patterns if we decided to break out our fly tying equipment and then we got back on the road. It is some 40 miles from Bishop to the Mammoth Lakes area… all up hill. We would climb from 4,000 feet to over 8,000 feet in this distance. However, it was a 4-lane highway and mostly straight. As we climbed, we lost all the humidity and much of the heat. By the time we reached Mammoth Lakes, it was very comfortable outside. We had gained something too... Trees. Lots of them. Conifers of all types... Lodge Pole Pine, Spruce, Red Fir, Ponderosa, Mountain Hemlock and others I didn't recognize. The town of Mammoth Lakes is a ski resort. It is located at the base of Mammoth Mountain and is California's largest ski slope. It has the flavor of a Swiss Alps village and is really geared to handle large numbers of tourist. It even has a flourishing summer crowd that gathers to enjoy the great outdoors the area has to offer. Just above the town are several lakes linked together by a stream… It was at one of these lakes we hoped to find a campsite.

As we left town and started the 3 1/2 mile clime to the first of these lakes, it was like entering a new world for us. We had been in hot, desert country and now we were ascending into alpine meadows intermixed with tall fir and pine trees. As we rounded a bend in the road, a magnificent vista opened before us…

Twin Lakes (actually 3 small lakes closely chained together) with a backdrop of a spectacularly tall waterfall and the distant Sierras. It was really like something out of a story book. If Disney were to develop a site for a mountain campground, it would certainly look something like this. Twin Lakes is surrounded by beautiful campsites, rustic rental cabins, a lodge and a general store. While there were lots of people around, the campsites were extra large and very well laid out. Each site was setup so that it could handle both RV's and Tents. As this was the Tuesday before the 4th of July weekend, we weren't sure we would be able to find an empty spot as we crossed the bridge and entered the campground. We were lucky. Only about 1 in 3 sites were taken and we were able to locate a very nice one just a short walk from the lake and in the midst of a large grove of lodge poll pines. We looked at one empty site that was right on the lake but decided against it because it was marshy and full of mosquitoes. We unhooked the Silver Bullet and headed back into town looking for fishing licenses and something to eat. Returning to camp, we decided that there was enough sunlight left to do a little exploring so we continued past Twin Lakes up to the higher lakes in the chain. These lakes, which are above the falls flowing down into Twin Lakes, are some 500 feet higher and still had patches of snow around them. They also had campgrounds, but not many campers. These sites were also smaller than the ones on the lower lakes. We were still dressed in shorts having just come from the desert and were really feeling the cooler air. It was dark when we returned to the camp. We retired early… it had been a long day.

Betty and Twin Lakes Panarama

Betty with a panorama of the Twin Lakes Campground in background. Our camp was under the tall pines on the far right.

Day 2 (Wednesday)
Our Home at Camp

Twin Lakes Campground is one of those places where one can be happy doing nothing… After sleeping in late, we spent most of the morning just hanging around the camp and chatted with some of our neighbor campers. It was a beautiful day and the fresh smell of mountain air was all a body needed to be content. Although it is just a National Forest Campground, Twin Lakes is setup and managed more like a National Park. We walked throughout the campground and down along the lake shore where everyone fishing seemed to be having good luck. We saw people fishing from the shore, from float tubes and from canoes and boats, (both of which can be rented from the general store). You might think that all these successful fishermen might have sent us scurrying back to get our float tubes and tackle. However, this was to be a day of exploration for us. There were a couple of other areas we wanted to checkout before rushing in… While searching for information about the area on the Internet, we had found recent articles about great fishing at Hot Creek and the San Joaquin River. It was early afternoon when we headed off to find Hot Creek. It, we had been told, was "the" place to catch trophy sized trout in the Eastern Sierra. Fishing is restricted to fly fishing with barbless hooks only. All fish must be released. Hot Creek is a cold water mountain stream that flows through a gorge containing small, volcanic hot springs.
Hot Creek Swimming Hole

These springs are mostly within the creek itself which warms the water as it flows through. Below the fishing area, there is a public swimming hole that we were trying to find. This would mark the downstream limit of where we could fish. As we drove down the unpaved road, past a private fishing lodge and past the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery, we started to see small parking lots with several cars in each. At the end of the road we found the swimming hole. There were perhaps a dozen cars parked there but we could not see the creek from the car. It was down in a steep gorge. Looking down, we saw 2 groups of perhaps 15 people swimming. We wanted to get a closer look so we started down the winding path that led to the bottom.

Signs on the path gave notice of potential dangers… The water temperature coming out of the springs is supposed to be around 200 degrees F. and where it mixes with the cold water, makes for some decent swimming temperatures. However, swimmers have to be careful. From some of the comments we were hearing from the swimmers, it could be freezing cold or too hot and it was tricky trying to balance the two. There was also the faint odor of sulfur everywhere along this stretch of the creek. We walked several hundred yards above the swimming hole to where we could see a fisherman. As we approached, he caught and released about a 14 inch trout. He assured us that the fishing had been good for him but that it now seemed to be slowing down some. I should note that we were now out of the forested mountains and back into Owens valley about 10 miles south of Mammoth Lakes. We were in the sagebrush country and, even though we were still above 7,000 feet in altitude, it was quite warm. We decided to return to the car and to drive upstream to one of the other parking lots and check out the situation there. Just as we parked, a guy carrying several fly rods came up out of the gorge and passed us as we were preparing to descend. We struck up a conversation with him and discovered that he was a guide from one the fishing tackle stores in Mammoth Lakes. He told us that there had been a good hatch from around 10 to 12 that morning but that the fish had stopped feeding for the day. We decided not to try out luck but to wait for the next day. We would get there around 9 am in plenty of time to catch the hatch.

We headed back into town stopping at the Forest Ranger station to get some information. We had heard that some restrictions had been placed on the road that led to the San Joaquin river. The Rangers informed us that this was true… Due to the heavy traffic of tourists on this road which also led to the Devil's Postpile National Monument, it had been closed to private vehicles carrying less than 14 people between the hours of 7:00am and 5:30pm daily. Access was by shuttle bus which left every hour. However, a shuttle is not very convenient if one wants to carry fishing tackle. We decided to return to camp and wait till 5:30 and then to make the 15 mile trip and check it out.

This road circles north around the far side of Mammoth Mountain from where we were camping. As we rounded the mountain and started up, we passed by some of the ski facilities that makes Mammoth Mountain a world class ski resorts. This mountain has 31 ski lifts, 150 named trails and over 3,500 skiable acres. The mountain is 11,053 feet high and has an annual snowfall of 335 inches. The town has some 5,000 permanent residents and with over 35,000 residents in the winter, not counting the transient tourist. Just then, it was pretty slow but one could see signs that they were geared for heavy crowd control. Shortly, we were on a narrow winding road going across the crest and then dropping down towards the San Joaquin River. We could see why there had been a need to restrict traffic on this road. For most of the 13 miles from the crest down to roads end, it was single lane… there was not enough room for 2 cars to pass except were there were infrequent turn-outs. Signs said to yield to uphill traffic. It was very steep and winding. Also, this was the only road in and out of this valley.
Bing on San Joaquin River

Although there were campgrounds below on the river, Bing didn't seem too thrilled about trying to pull the Airstream down this road. It did pass through some magnificent red fir forests. There was also an occasional lake with its turquoise blue water… usually with 1 or 2 float tube fisherman plying their skill. We saw a sign for Soda Spring Campground and decided to take a look. This is another National Forest Campground and we found it almost empty. I guess there are others that have the same feeling about trying to get an RV down into that valley. However, there were several rigs parked there that were bigger than the Silver Bullet so it can be done. The campground was situated right on the San Joaquin River. Its size and condition surprised us. We had been told that it was high and "off color" and might not be fishable. Not so. This river was crystal clear and well within its banks… a beautiful sight. It is certainly a river we want to fish.
Devil's Postpile

While we were down in the valley, we decided to take a short hike and see the Devil's Postpile National Monument. As it was getting late, there was only a handful of people there. A little less than 100,000 years ago, dark, molten lava of a type called basalt poured through Mammoth Pass and flowed down the canyon of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Here the liquid rock cooled, solidified, contracted and cracked to form columns having from three to seven sides. Later, glaciers scraped the tops of these vertical columns and left a beautiful, tile like surface of glacial polish that can still be seen today. Near this spot, the San Joaquin River flows through a lush meadow which was full of wild flowers.
Alpine Shooting Stars

Massive stands of Alpine Shooting Stars were everywhere. As we returned to the car, long shadows were engulfing this deep valley… It would be dark here before it would be back at camp. There was still enough daylight left when we returned to the trailer to get the chicken half cooked before full darkness closed in.


Day 3 (Thursday)

This was to be a fishing day... We had decided to try our luck at Hot Creek first and were at streamside by 9:30 am... We were not the first to arrive. Looking down into the gorge, we could see fisherman spaced about every 100 yards along the creek. We wasted no time descending to the water. A hatch of Pale Morning Dun's (PMD's) was just starting and we could see fish rising to them. We were ready. I think Bing was the first to land a fish but I wasn't far behind. These were not small hatchery trout.
Me with Trout On

They were all wild and the ones we caught were each better than 12 inches long. Since this was a catch-and-release fishery, we returned them all for others to enjoy.
Bing's Big Fish

It really didn't seem to make much difference where on the creek we fished... there were plenty to be caught. We continued the catch and release until around noon when most of the feeding had stopped. We headed back to our camp to get some lunch and rest a bit. It had been a productive morning of fishing. Later in the afternoon, we decided to break out the float tubes and give Twin Lakes a try. We donned our waders and carried the tubes about 200 yards from the trailer to the lake where we launched. It was a little windy and at first the fish were not biting. I finally found a spot behind some tall reeds that protected me somewhat from the wind and started catching fish.
One of the Twin Lakes

Fish were feeding on midges at the surface and, while not as big as the trout we caught at Hot Creek, were around 11-12 inches and hit hard and fought good. The fish I landed while fishing the lake were all Brook Trout while those we had caught earlier in the day on Hot Creek were Rainbow Trout. I released them all. We fished until nearly dark returning to the trailer for a meal of black beans and yellow rice… All is well with the world (I think). We have not heard a news report since leaving Pahrump.

Day 4 (Friday)

Me at Work

I was the first one up this morning… Everyone else was sleeping in so I took the opportunity to do a little work on this log. My bedroom is the living room couch so after folding it up, I lifted the table in front of it for the computer and got to work. Yesterday had been a busy one and a little rest and relaxation was needed by all. It was very enjoyable listening to the wind through the trees. Not many of the other campers were up yet either. We have been pleasantly surprised with this campground. Even though it filled up early Thursday afternoon for the long weekend, it has been an unusually quiet crowd. A few quite generators can be heard in the middle of the day, but none in the evening or early mornings. As the sun came up I could see some of our neighbors start to stir. We have as many tents around us as we do RV's. There are lots of kids and dogs. I think we are about the only campers here without a dog. Many have as many as 2 or 3. The campsite just next to us has 3 tents, 2 dogs and about 15 people… most of them young kids.

By 10:00am, everyone is up and we have had our breakfast. We decide to stay near the campground today and see what it has to offer. Bing suggests we walk around the lake a ways to see if we could get a better look a large cave we had seen up high on the mountain cliff behind the camp. We followed a well worn trail for a distance of about a quarter mile till we were under the cave. It turned out not to be a cave, but an open arch. Blue sky and grass could be seen on the other side of the opening when viewed from this vantage point.

We decided to walk a little farther, but came upon a large rock slide that would have taken some real climbing to cross. We turned around and decided to walk to the other end of the campground where the big waterfall flowed into the lake.

The path took us up past some quaint little cabins which a ranger had told us were available for lease from the Forest Service. Twenty year leases are available, but these all seemed occupied. Never did find out how much a lease cost. The fresh mountain air here is really something. As we walked, odors of camp fires and cooking bacon would mix with it creating even richer smells.

Every now and then we would walk through a bright, sunny patch that would be lush with green grass and wild flowers of all colors. We were not the only people on this trail. Most were carrying fishing tackle and we suspected we would see a crowd at the base of the waterfall. We were not to be disappointed. We had hopped to get a good picture of the waterfall from its base, but this was not to be either. There was too much low brush in the area to get a good view. You could hear them good though and we did get a good view of the lake from here.

We returned to the trailer and Betty took the car and went into town for some shopping. Bing and I decided to take another hike. We had seen a sign that said "Bottomless Pit… 3/4 Mile". We wanted to take a look at this bottomless pit. It turned out that this 3/4 mile was to be all uphill. The trail started just behind the trailer and immediately started climbing at a pretty good grade. We were walking through some magnificent stands of Red Fir, Lodge Pole Pines, Spruce and, as we got higher, either Ponderosa or Jeffery Pine… we were not sure as our books say they are similar and hard to tell apart. As we climbed higher, it got cooler and windier… Before long, we were passing patches of snow in the deeper, darker gullies we entered. Every once in a while, we would catch a glimpse of Twin Lakes far below us. It was slow going. I am sure Bing would have made it faster if he had been alone, but at this altitude (we were probably above 9,000 feet) I was having to stop and catch my breath frequently. We were not even sure we were on the right trail. There had been several points where other trails branched off and no signs to guide us. We stuck to what we thought was the most used trail but that was hard to tell sometimes. We reached a point where we broke out of the tall trees and the trail continued up through some low bushes and stunted Aspen.

View from above the camp

In this stretch, the wind really howled. I would guess we had sustained 35 mph winds with gusts close to 50. Below we could see all three bays of Twin Lakes and before long we were looking down on 2 of the upper lakes above the falls as well. The only big trees now were a few Spruce and the Ponderosa or Jeffery Pine (whichever). As we crested a small ridge, we could see the Arch below us. This was the same arch (or hole through the rock) that we had seen below and had first thought a cave. It turns out that the "Bottomless Pit" was not a deep pit without a bottom, but a hole in a wall called a pit that had no bottom (one could see through it). Our attempts to get good pictures of it were only half successful as all the good vantage points put one on a steep slope "at the edge". One small slip and it would have been a short trip to the bottom.

Bottomless Pit

It was very windy up there. At one point, I sat down on a large boulder to catch my breath. This bolder was about the size of a Sherman Tank. As I sat there, I felt it move. Not once, but several times. As it was near a steep drop, I thought it best to move. As I stood and watched it for a few minutes, I noticed the Spruce tree growing out of its bottom was being whipped so hard by the wind that it was leveraging against this big rock with enough pressure to cause it to shift. We moved on. The descent was slow. This 3/4 mile hike took us most of the afternoon to complete.

Day 5 (Saturday)

 Today we did the tourist thing. Mammoth Lakes Village had a weekend festival going on so we thought we should check it out. Starting yesterday afternoon and continuing through the night into today, the wind has really picked up. We probably have sustained 20 mph winds with guests into the 30's. Fishing would not be fun under those conditions. Otherwise the weather is fine… A little on the cool side, but not a cloud in the sky. A festival in Mammoth Lakes is about like a festival anywhere, USA. Arts & Crafts fair and sidewalk sales. Most of the stuff offered for sale had something to do with skiing, hiking or fishing. There was also a Celtic Music Fair but we didn't make that. We spent most of the day in town returning to the trailer mid afternoon. The remainder of the day was spent in camp enjoying just being there. We would be leaving early the next morning for the return trip to Pahrump. Back for some R & R before our next trip.

For those of you that are interested in the Mammoth Lakes area, here is a web link to some good information on the area:

Mammoth Lakes

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