The Eastern Sierra; June Lakes Loop and Mammoth Lakes Basin

Eastern Sierra: June Lakes Loop, Mammoth Lakes Basin


Towering peaks, secluded, eerie and stunning scenery…

Where can you travel just over 200 miles, pass through arguably the world’s greatest national park and reach a land of contrasts, deserts split by towering peaks, other-worldly attractions yet offering quiet seclusion?

Your destination is the June Lakes and Mammoth Lakes area in the Eastern Sierra, just beyond Yosemite National Park and in the long shadow of Mount Whitney, California’s tallest peak. John Muir, speaking of this intriguing area, described it in 1864, as “a country of wonderful contrasts, hot deserts bordered by snow-laden mountains, cinders and ashes scattered on the glacier-polished pavement, frost and fire working in the making of beauty”. It’s all that and more.

June Lake, with the snow-capped Sierra and Carson Peak in distance.

A few weeks ago, we made the trip – though Highway 120/Tioga Pass through Yosemite Park was still closed by snow, so we followed Hwy. 88 east. This year the Sierra retained plenty of snow above 7000 feet, and our camping in the June Lake area was a bit chilly with those stunningly scenic, snowcapped Sierra peaks looming in several directions, streams running full and waterfalls thundering.

Make this a multi-day trip, for campgrounds abound along the way, and the towns of June Lake in Mammoth Lakes offer marvelous motel, bed and breakfast accommodations and restaurants a-plenty. There is so much to see and do, you’ll need serval days or more to appreciate all the area has to offer.

Silver Lake with Carson Peak, on the June Lakes Loop.

With Highway 120 now open through Yosemite Park, that’s the scenic option to get you to the Eastern Sierra. Your route will take you through the park, over lofty Tioga Pass and intersect US Highway 395 at Lee Vining. It’s a cute town, with hotel, motel and restaurant options, and lies almost on the shore of the intriguing Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America.

With no outlet, it’s fed by six major streams; infused with minerals over the millennia it’s 2.5 times saltier than the ocean, making it extremely buoyant. Fish can’t live in the alkaline waters but it’s flush with millions of brine shrimp and alkali flies, offering sustenance to thousands of migratory birds. Tour Mono’s shoreline in several places to see the tufa gardens, offering a unique experience like nowhere else.

Mono Lake’s eerie tufa towers rise like ghost ships along lakeshore.

Over eons, springs rising up from the lake floor deposited minerals as they grew upwards. Once 30 to 50 feet under the lake surface, the lake level dropped as Los Angeles water interests siphoned off much of the tributary stream flow, revealing these alien creations. With the lake service lowered by 60 feet, tufa towers rise up along stretches of the lake shore, looking like a ghost fleet and making for a visit that will long live in your imagination.

Continuing southbound on 395, you’ll soon reach the June Lakes Loop, a string of high mountain lakes in the shadow of the Sierra, with picturesque campgrounds and resorts encircling these lovely destinations. We camped at a beautiful forest service campground on the end of Silver Lake, with delightful Silver lake Resort (offering a store, quaint restaurant and fishing boat rentals) right across the street. Fisherman were plying their skills both from the shore and from boats. Circling the loop, you soon reach the pretty resort town of June Lake, named for the nearby lake and offering motels, B&Bs and numerous restaurant options.

Just 20 miles further south on 395 is the town of Mammoth Lakes. Huge Mammoth Mountain Ski Area lies just above, one of the largest ski areas in the west (skiers/boarders schussing the slopes at least until the Fourth of July with the huge snow pack remaining in the Sierra). It’s also a huge Mecca for mountain bikers in the summertime. Climb higher into the mountains Just south of the city to the Lake Mary Loop, offering six lakes and multiple campgrounds at about 9000 feet, all interconnected by hiking and bicycling trails.

Twin Lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin; lots of snow at 8,000 feet a few weeks ago!

The town of Mammoth Lakes caters to tourists year-round with plenty of lodging, retail and sports shops and restaurants for almost any taste. The Mammoth Brewing Company, side-by-side with the aptly named Eatery is one of our must-stops, offering fine craft beers and some of the best brewpub food we’ve seen in our travels. We shared a flat-bread goat cheese pizza, topped with spinach, chicken and drizzled with balsamic vinegar that was truly memorable.

From Mammoth Lakes, follow Highway 203 north, past the ski area, to Devils Postpiles National Monument. Here, a half mile level trail follows a beautiful stretch of the upper Middle Fork San Joaquin River to the postpiles. 80,000 years ago basalt lava flowed from beneath the earth’s surface; as it cooled and contracted, it split into symmetrical vertical, hexagonal columns unique to only a few places in the world. Hike a bit further down the river to Rainbow Falls, plunging over 100 feet. This is near the headwaters of the San Joaquin as it courses through the Sierra, heading eventually to the San Joaquin Delta and into Stockton.

Devil’s Postpiles lie just a dozen miles beyond Mammoth Lakes.
Lake Mary in the Lake Mary Loop, photo taken several summer ago.

For more information: Mono Lake Visitor Center, fs.fed.us/r5/Inyo, (760) 873-2408; June Lake, junelakeloop.com; Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce: mammothlakeschamber.org, (760) 934-6717; Devils Postpiles National Monument, nps.gov/depo, (760) 934-2289. For camping, recreation.gov.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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