Yosemite May Be The Nation’s Crown Jewel of National Parks, But If You Look In Its Shadow You’ll Find a Mammoth Gem
Photographs & Story by ©Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images.
Images registered with US Copyright Office. For licensing, please contact info [at] ToddBigelowPhotography [dot] com
It’s tough growing up in the shadow of a legend. To millions of Americans, Yosemite is a household name that evokes visions of grand granite outcroppings, beautiful waterfalls and Aspens aglow in the fall amid endless hiking trails. Then there’s Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite’s next door neighbor, which hardly holds the same national name recognition despite sharing the attributes along with the same wilderness where John Muir and Ansel Adams once roamed.
To get to Yosemite, many drive right by the single exit for Mammoth Lakes, CA en route to the eastern gate to the national park. Although Mammoth is quite literally next door to Yosemite, it is on the eastern side of the Sierras, not the western side where Yosemite’s iconic Valley, Half Dome and El Capitan are located. Some even joke that Mammoth is on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, but the beauty of the Sierras is that it extends far beyond any manmade entry gates into the wilderness. If you’re looking to enjoy the meandering trails leading to alpine lakes and waterfalls without the hordes flocking to Yosemite, try taking SR 203 into Mammoth.
Mammoth was incorporated in 1984, 94 years after Yosemite. Its majestic mountain and pristine beauty began drawing visitors nearly a half-century before incorporation, though, after Dave McCoy, a bit of a hell raiser from the Los Angeles area considered the founder of Mammoth Mountain, rigged a rope to his car in 1937 and charged skiers 50 cents to be towed up the snowy slopes. McCoy, who died in 2020 at the age of 104 after living nearly his entire life in the Sierras, saw the potential to develop the mountain into a destination to challenge Yosemite’s grandeur. He succeeded beyond expectations.
At its core, Mammoth is a quiet blue collar town far less interested in fame and far more interested in enjoying the mountains to the fullest extent possible. It’s a place where a blizzard is an opportunity, not a storm, and summer thunderstorms are to be embraced for their replenishing power and for the chance to take in jaw-dropping sunsets. Truth is, Mammoth locals know the region’s supreme beauty will draw visitors necessary for financial stability, especially Californians who are privy to the town’s offerings, but they clearly want to avoid the national notoriety that leads to massive crowds. Yosemite can have the spotlight, many locals have privately remarked, because Mammoth is fine offering first rate mountain experiences quietly in its shadow.
It’s hardly uncommon to see hikers with tripods strapped to their packs en route to Duck Lake, Ruby Lake, Parker Lake or along Agnew Meadow, Mammoth Creek, Rush Creek, McGee Creek, Rainbow Falls or the Owens River, to name just a few. That’s why so many photographers harking back to Ansel Adams himself have called the Sierra Nevada mountains home. One never really sees the Aspens lit up in their fiery glow during fall, or the pristine lakes with native trout tickling the surface, the same way no matter how many times they’ve hiked by them. The light is different, a storm’s moving through, the wildflowers are blooming or the reflection in the still water is like a mirror. It can’t get old because it’s always new.
The bonus of Mammoth’s location is the ability to actually visit Yosemite for a couple hours while avoiding the crush of tourists in Yosemite Valley. It’s a easy 40 minute drive up Tioga Pass that offers an amazing view of nearby Mono Lake and, if driven in late September through mid October, a landscape of fall colors that defy words, before one enters through the eastern gate of Mammoth’s famous neighbor. Rest assured the eastern, upper elevation of Yosemite is gorgeous with meandering trails and granite monoliths, so if your heart is set on Yosemite, you can be in Tuolumne Meadows with views of Lembert Dome and hiking galore while staying in Mammoth. It’s that close.
I’ve been fortunate to call Mammoth my second home after forty years of visiting the Eastern Sierras. Below are a few examples of what I’ve come across while navigating the region with camera in hand.
Todd has spent much of his life taking his Subaru up to the Eastern Sierras to hike, fish, kayak, snowboard, photograph and otherwise explore Mammoth Lakes. His love of the Sierras and Mammoth was solidified when he borrowed his parent’s Ford LTD station wagon upon graduation from high school and camped his way for weeks down the Sierras from Lake Tahoe to Bishop. His favorite hike is the one he’s on, but he’s partial to the Duck Lake hike. His work from Mammoth has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, AARP and Sports Illustrated. He’s a contributing photographer to Contact Press Images. All photographs ©Todd Bigelow.