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 monoliths, beautiful waterfalls and Aspens aglow in the fall amid endless hiking trails and jaw dropping landscapes. Then there’s Mammoth Lakes, situated in the shadow of Yosemite, which lacks national name recognition while sharing countless trails and awe inspiring wilderness with its far more famous neighbor.
To get to Yosemite, visitors enter from any one of five locations. Four are situated on the western side of the Yosemite (the park is so large it spans the Sierra Nevada range) and one is on the eastern side along Tioga Pass. With the vast majority of park visitors opting for the west entrances that offer almost immediate access to the legendary El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley, it’s en route to the far less crowded eastern entrance that has many driving right by the single offramp for Mammoth Lakes.
Although Mammoth is quite literally next door to Yosemite, its location on the eastern side of the Sierras makes it the premier outdoor playground for those who know. While some may even joke that Mammoth is on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, the truth is that the beauty of the Sierras extends far beyond any manmade entrances into the vast Sierra Nevada wilderness. Besides, if you spend time with locals in Mammoth, you’ll quickly discover that they’re fine with being seen as the working class suburb of Yosemite. They know full well that meandering trails leading to alpine lakes and cascading waterfalls are at their fingertips and are more than happy to let their famous neighbor draw the hordes with its bright national spotlight.
Mammoth was incorporated in 1984, 94 years after Yosemite. Its majestic mountain and pristine beauty began drawing visitors, and researchers such as John Muir and Ansel Adams, nearly a half-century before incorporation 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 area into a destination to challenge Yosemite’s grandeur. He succeeded beyond expectations.
At its core, Mammoth is a quiet blue collar town where residents are 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 to avoid, and summer thunderstorms are to be embraced for their replenishing power and for the jaw-dropping sunsets viewed from any number of vistas. Truth is, Mammoth openly welcomes visitors drawn to its beauty and world class outdoor adventures because it provides financial stability for the small community, but avoiding the national notoriety that leads to overcrowded hiking trails and trout fishing streams is fine too.
The Sierras has long beckoned photographers harking back to the legend Ansel Adams himself who called called the Sierra Nevada mountains home. It’s hardly uncommon to see hikers today with tripods strapped to their packs en route to Duck Lake, tiptoeing around Agnew Meadow’s wildflowers or setting-up to capture a rainbow emanating from Rainbow Falls. No matter how many times photographers, myself included, have ventured out for a photo along trails traveled for generations, they never really see the Aspens in their fiery glow, or the pristine lakes with native trout tickling the surface, the same way. The light is different, a storm’s moving through, the wildflowers are blooming or the reflection in the still water is like a mirror. Photographing in Mammoth can never be routing because it’s always changing. It’s always new.
The bonus of Mammoth’s location, as mentioned above, is the ability to actually visit Yosemite via the eastern entrance for a couple hours while avoiding the crush of tourists on the west side. It’s a easy 40 minute drive from Mammoth up Tioga Pass that offers an amazing view of nearby Mono Lake and, if driven in late September through mid October, a landscape chock full of fall colors that defy words and will slow your trip down considerably as you pull over for photos. Just keep in mind that starting in May all visitors, regardless of where they enter Yosemite, require a reservation (yes, even if visiting for the day to hike), so make sure to plan in advance. Rest assured the eastern, upper elevation of Yosemite is gorgeous with meandering trails and granite outcroppings, so if your heart is set on Yosemite, you can be in Tuolumne Meadows with views of Lembert Dome and hiking galore while staying a short distance away in Mammoth. It’s that close.
Along with mountain ranges nationwide, the Sierra Nevada range has seen the impact of climate change and Mammoth is no exception. Like a yo-yo, the area has gone from devastating droughts to all time record snowfalls and back to extreme drought and fires in the manner of just a few years. Lakes that only a few years ago were full are now mere puddles in comparison and often shrouded in smokey light as the ever present wildfires wreak havoc annually on the Inyo National Forest.
I’ve been fortunate to call Mammoth my second home after forty years of visiting the eastern Sierras. I’ve hiked, fished, kayaked, climbed, biked, snowboarded and taken in complete silence amid the towering trees. It’s all the splendor of Yosemite without the crowds. 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.