I had planned on seeing a lot more of Mammoth Lakes than I actually did. Unfortunately, my flight from Los Angeles had to turn back – a severe thunderstorm prevented us from landing, and I wasn’t able to book another flight back until two days later.
Take heart if you’d rather fly than drive though – a flight attendant told us that that was only the second time in her 22 year career in which her plane had to fly back to its point of origin.
Mammoth Village – The Adventure Begins
The great thing about Mammoth Lakes is that there are free shuttle services just about everywhere. However, I opted to take the Reds Meadow Shuttle, which cost $7/adult.
The Reds Meadow shuttle has stops at hiking trails leading to Devil’s Postpile, Minaret Falls, Rainbow Falls, etc. There are 10 stops for this shuttle, and passengers can freely hop on and off to their hearts content.
So hike a bit, sightsee, then hop back on the bus for a little break.
The Reds Meadow Shuttle is about five miles from town and if you want to see Devil’s Postpile, you have to take it if you’re visiting between June and October. There are a few exceptions for private vehicle access, but the shuttle keeps down traffic on the one lane road, thus protecting both the fragile environment, and lollygagging tourists driving on unfamiliar mountain roads.
Besides, you’ll have more fun as a passenger – the shuttle driver will point out various landmarks and mountain peaks and you can devote all of your attention to the scenery rather than navigating steep hairpin turns.
To get to the Reds Meadow Shuttle, continue along the 203/Main Street and make a right on CA-203/Minaret Road. Stay on Minaret approximately five miles.
You’ll emerge from the woods and see cars parked along the roadsides – these spaces are free. As you get closer to the scenic gondola, rock-climbing wall, etc. you’ll find parking lots where an attendant will collect $10 per car. Go early if you want free parking.
Devil’s Postpile a Rock of the Tectonic Ages
It’s what’s left of a lava lake estimated to be about 400 feet deep. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, forming the vertical columns. Freezing and thawing cycles over the centuries have sheered off the columns, creating the basalt pillars we see strewn on the ground below.
Signs around the monument instruct you to keep off the rocks – presumably for the same reason you shouldn’t run with scissors. Though I think I’d worry about rattlesnakes too.
Rainbow Falls a Killer Trek for Non-Hikers
The hike to Devil’s Postpile is fairly easy. The trail to Rainbow Falls can be quite another story. Supposedly, this walk is only 2.5 miles from the shuttle stop but it can get pretty steep in some areas.
On my way down I spotted a woman on the trail returning from the Falls on crutches. Then I noticed she was missing a leg. Her group had stopped for a breath, and just as I was passing heard her rally, “Let’s go! The sooner we get to the top, the sooner we can have a beer!” And off she clumped along, her friends surrounding her like a protective posse.
Now who wouldn’t find that inspiring?
Rainbow Falls crashes down about 100 feet, but it had shed its rainbow by the time I got to it. There’s a scenic overlook above the falls where you can watch the massive movement of water and ponder the courage of the crazy souls swimming in the pool at the bottom.
From this overlook you can take a steeper path further down and join the swimmers if you like. I debated. Then I debated some more. Then a few raindrops fell and I took it as a sign from the universe that I should head back to the shuttle.
On the return path, the trail branches off. The path on the left was the trail by which I came: slightly challenging, more or less uphill, but not too bad. The upper trail on the right had a sign for some kind of general store and camping area. I opted for the new trail, which nearly killed me because it was much steeper.
A quarter of the way through it, I was cursing the woman on crutches and all of her beer-guzzling friends.
At the halfway point I figured a knee replacement was in my immediate future, and I had visions of suffocating to death as I could NOT catch my breath. I took many breaks and made it back to the shuttle reeking of sweat and gasping like a fish. You granola groupies would love it.
Ansel Adams Wilderness Razed by Fire
If nothing else, the trail to Rainbow Falls and the Falls themselves are visually worth the aggravation. I can see why Ansel Adams was so smitten by his muse. But I have to warn you, you’ll see a lot of downed trees everywhere along the Reds Meadow shuttle road, and when you stumble across Adams’ Wilderness you’ll find even more.
The burned stumps and leveled trunks are victims of a forest fire that blazed in 1992. You’ll spot some new growth, but the devastating fire really took a toll on the landscape.
And that concludes my one day tour of Mammoth Lakes. I loved it, though my knees are still berating me.
Next up: a trip to Mono Lake, home of surreal beauty, a soul-soothing stroll, and billions and billions of curious little flies.