Yosemite Is The Nation’s Crown Jewel, But If You Want Sierra Splendor Without The Masses, Mammoth Is The Answer
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 endless hiking trails. Then there’s Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite’s next door neighbor, which hardly holds the same national name recognition despite sharing the same wilderness where John Muir and Ansel Adams once roamed. If you’re hoping for a more pristine outdoor experience during the summer tourism crush, look to Mammoth.
The Covid pandemic deeply impacted tourism worldwide and especially in California, home to nine national parks, more than any other state in the country. Yosemite draws hordes of visitors each summer to see Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan and getting around the park can resemble a trip to Disneyland with snaking lines at every bend. And that’s during a normal summer. But the summer of 2021 is anything but normal as national parks are overwhelmed by pandemic fatigued visitors fleeing into the wild after a year of lockdown.
What alternatives are there if you want to bask in Yosemite’s natural beauty without joining the masses? Can you enjoy relative solitude, visit waterfalls, hike, fish and see wildlife in the same Sierra Nevada mountains without dealing with the masses? Yes, if you’re willing to venture just outside Yosemite.
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 the exit 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.
Mammoth, at its core, 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 the replenishing power they offer and for the chance to take in jaw-dropping sunsets. Truth is, Mammoth knows the region’s supreme beauty will draw visitors necessary for financial stability, especially Californians who are privy to the town’s offerings, but it clearly wants to avoid the brighter spotlight that leads to massive crowds.
Mammoth’s real identity can be seen in the battered Subarus and homey 4th of July parade that meanders down Old Mammoth Road each year. There’s a renegade, do-as-you-please attitude that permeates within and can be traced to the founder who is said to have speeded along US 395 on a yellow Harley Davidson as a youth. John Muir, regarded as the father of National Parks and especially Yosemite where he did his most important work, has a wilderness named after him that stretches 100 miles along the Sierras including through Mammoth and Yosemite. Trails leading into the John Muir Wilderness are accessed from many Mammoth locations and meander past alpine lakes, through the Inyo National Forest and by sweeping vistas of the Minarets. Yosemite can have the spotlight, many locals have privately remarked, because Mammoth is fine offering first rate mountain experiences with a no-nonsense flair.
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 or lakes 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 and avoid the crush of tourists in the Valley. It’s a quick 40 minute drive up Tioga Pass that offers an amazing view of nearby Mono Lake 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.
After a year of being confined to your home during the pandemic, are you looking for a crowded outdoor vacation or one closer to serenity where you can visit waterfalls and hike the Sierras without waiting in line? To put it another way, are you interested in posting the same photo from Yosemite’s Tunnel View as everyone else, or are you willing to peak into the famous park’s shadow to discover the beauty of the Sierras in its quiet glory?
Todd has spent much of his life hiking, fishing, kayaking, snowboarding, photographing and otherwise exploring Mammoth Lakes with friends and family. 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.