Off-Road Travel: Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Aug. 11, 2011 By Jaime Hernandez
Mammoth Lakes, California—where else can you take a packed 4x4 with a dirtbike, snowboard, mountain bike, fishing pole and actually get to use them on the same trip.

One of our favorite spots for cool off-road fun is Mammoth Lakes, California, which is located in the Eastern Sierra mountain range. This picturesque alpine town offers the perfect base camp to over 4,000 miles of dirt roads accessible on 4x4, dirt bike, ATV, UTV, mountain bike or on foot. 

Mammoth had its beginning in 1877 when a group of prospectors looking for the “Lost Cement Mine” found gold in Mammoth Creek. Shortly thereafter, Mammoth Mine opened, along with a 20-stamp mill, which later grew to a 40-stamp. In 1879 there were 1500 people living in three mining camps in the area (Mammoth City, Mill City and Pine City).

A large Iron Flywheel from the Mammoth Mine 40-stamp mill remains in Mill City. The wooden structure was burned down in 1929. (Mill City Photo compliments of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum)

By 1881, the Mammoth Mine had produced $200,000 in gold. This was a hefty sum back in the 1800s.  Even then, the expense to process ore and mine was more than the net return. The Mammoth Mine closed, and the mine settlements dwindled as prospectors moved to the next big gold strike.

The town of Mammoth Lakes is best known for its world-class ski resort Mammoth Mountain. The dormant volcano, Mammoth Mountain, stands tall at 11,053 feet and gets an annual snowfall of 384 inches. In the summer that same mountain becomes an extreme mountain bike park.

Today a new prospector comes to Mammoth Lakes—those looking to get away from the rat race and seeking a simpler, peaceful mountain place that offers wilderness and adventure.

These off-road trails are not extreme or metal bending by any means, but what they lack in difficulty they surpass in beauty.

There are enough trails and adventures to keep you in Mammoth year round. That said, we share some of our favorite places in hopes that you too will get the excitement for adventure and visit Mammoth Lakes someday.

OHVs displaying green or red Off-Highway sticker are allowed in this area. Out-of-state OHVs will need a visitor pass, which can be obtained at the Forest Service office in Mammoth Lakes, CA.

A free OHV map can be obtained from the Mammoth Lakes Visitor center that highlights trails of the area. For a more detailed map with updated OHV trails, we recommend the Mammoth-Mono region map from Sierra Maps available at the Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center and at any good sporting goods store along Hwy 395.

One of our favorite off-road guidebooks for the Eastern Sierra is Sierra Nevada Byways by Tony Huegel. The guidebook includes mile-by-mile directions to historic mining camps, ghost towns, picturesque meadows and lookouts. There is a map for every route and the new third edition includes extensive GPS waypoints. You can either pick this book up through Wilderness Press or at Tony’s site at

This trail is rated easy. The road is maintained. Less traveled side roads and spurs connect active logging roads and livestock grazing areas east of Hwy 395. 

You can either access this trail directly off Hwy 395 on 3S06 or start in the town of Mammoth Lakes.  From the town of Mammoth Lakes, travel on Sawmill Cutoff road 3S08 and then cross under Hwy 395 through access tunnels. The clearance of the tunnels is good for ATV, dirt bike, UTV and some small 4x4s. There is a drive around over Hwy 395 for larger vehicles.

With hidden treasures around every mountain, the majestic Sierra welcomes outdoor travelers with lakes, rivers, historic gold mines and amazing vistas. Lookout Mountain offers a true 360-degree view of the Long Valley Caldera.

Don't be surprised if you find obsidian, a black volcanic glasslike stone, on Lookout Mountain. This area is surrounded by volcanic terrain and even volcanoes.

ATVs on top of Lookout Mountain (elevation 8,352 ft.). From here a 360-degree view of the Long Valley Caldera and the Eastern Sierra Mountains can be enjoyed. 

For those looking for something longer and more challenging, Tony Huegel’s Sierra Nevada Byways lays out a 53-mile run that starts in Mammoth Lakes, passes through Lookout Mountain, and then heads northeast up to Bald Mountain through the Long Valley Caldera, ending on Hwy 120 near the Town of Benton Hot Springs.

The Inyo Craters were formed by volcanic activity million of years ago. A volcano lost its top and left this massive void behind. Today two volcanic explosion pits are filled with turquoise-colored water.  

Inyo craters can be reached via the Mammoth Scenic Loop, which is a paved road. A more interesting way to go is off-road from 3208 Sawmill Cutoff, across the Knolls trail 3S33, then crossing onto 2S22 that leads to the Inyo Craters. The craters can be accessed by 4x4 and OHV. 

The last stretch on 2S22 is maintained, and there is a dirt lot to park for the last one-mile hike to the Inyo Craters.

Taking a side spur up to the Town Overlook on 3S34. This trail takes you up to a 8,000-foot overlook of the town of Mammoth Lakes, with views of Crowley Lake and Mammoth Mountain.

The roads found in this area are mainly old logging roads used today by off-roaders, snowmobilers, mountain bikes and hikers. The terrain will range from dirt, rock and even silt.

We came across a fallen Jeffrey Pine along the trail to the Inyo Craters. contributor Justin Fort shows us how old this tree really is. From the number of rings on the trunk, it was well over 100 years old. That’s old.

Take a drive up to the Mammoth Lakes Basin where the spring-fed Twin Lakes and Lake Mary await.  The historice Twin Lakes Lodge has an interesting and picturesque history with photos and art at the main lodge. From a bridge spanning from one end of the lake, a view of a 100-foot waterfall coming from Lake Mary above is amazing.

Twin Lakes, one of over 20 lakes in the region that welcomes fishing and kayaking.

Follow the road up to Lake Mary for some great fishing. If you’re more of a history buff, put on your miners cap and hike up to the Mammoth Consolidated Gold Mine.

The 100 hp Ingersoll Rand diesel engine that ran the Ore Mill still remains on the foundations set over 80 years ago. Down the road is the miners’ camp with some cabins still standing.

In the 1920s, a regained interest in the area’s gold was captured by A.G. Mahan, who began mining a claim on Red Mountain above the town of Old Mammoth. This gold mine was in operation through the 1980s and still has a good number of wooden structures that include miner’s cabins, a mill, compressors, generators and mine shafts that can be accessed via a short hike. The structures and equipment were donated to the Forest Service, which now maintains the grounds and offers an interpretive tour.

This Ingersol Rand diesel-powered compressor sits on Red Mountain, close to the mouth of the upper mine shaft to the Mammoth Consolidated Gold Mine.

When in Mammoth, make it a point to visit the Devil’s Post Pile National Monument. Large 60-foot pillars with unusual symmetry rise up to the Sierra sky.

Since Mammoth Lakes is a four-season resort town, there are many places to get some good food and beer. One of our new favorites is Base Camp Cafe. You can enjoy good-portion-sized sandwiches, and they even have the local Mammoth Brew on tap. The Double Nut Brown will go good with your meal, but beware of the high elevation. The town is at about 7,900 feet, so beer can definitely give you a quick buzz if you're getting acclimated to high elevation.

For those of you that like to camp, Mammoth Mountain RV Park ( is an off-road friendly park that has full hookups and is located across the highway from the Sawmill Cutoff trailhead. It is also located across the highway from the Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center and Forest Service. 

The town has both diesel and unleaded fuel stations, along with mechanic shops and an auto parts store if you should need to make repairs.

For more info on Mammoth Lakes, visit

You can also learn more about the Eastern Sierra at US Forest Service – Sierras website

Until the next adventure – Happy Trails! Newsletter
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