U.S. Highway 395 runs from the Canadian border all the way down to Southern California, and approaching the Eastern Sierras going north on Highway 395 in California is one of the most beautiful drives you will find. Nestled between the mountainous Yosemite National Park and the Nevada border sits Mono County, an outdoor buffet of swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking, running and sightseeing.
Alas, like most road trip destinations in NorCal, this area is a tale of two seasons. Its winter season contains a myriad of world-class winter sporting opportunities, with the famous Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain sitting a mere 20 minutes away. Its summer season, though less talked about than its rival, may have more to offer a visitor with its mountains and lakes serving as a paradise for the outdoor inclined. Hiking is probably this area’s most sought after treasure, with hundreds of miles of trails that meander through the Inyo and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, including the John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Hoover Wilderness areas.
Whenever you would like to visit this utopia, you are likely to be surprised by its sheer beauty. It would be impossible to detail all of the incredible activities and sightseeing you could do in this hidden gem they call Mono County. So we’ll start by giving you the essentials.
There is a reason Mammoth Mountain is world-renowned. It’s 150 trails on 28 lifts across 3,500 acres gives it the broad appeal to bring mountain-enthusiasts from around the world to admire its beauty. With its incredible terrain parks intertwining with beginner to expert runs, this mountain literally has something for all skiers and snowboarders.
When the snow leaves for the year, Mammoth Mountain does not follow. The Mammoth Mountain Bike Park was named the top bike park in the U.S. by Outside Magazine. This park is made for everyone from beginner to professional riders, and the trails make up 80 miles of track across the entire mountain.
June Mountain may be the lesser-known ski resort in the region, don’t add that up to it being inferior. This 1,400 acre mountain is the picture-perfect destination for a family as kids 12 and under ride for free. June’s 27 trails and seven lifts give its riders more than enough to move around and the village can be much more inviting and cost-efficient than those resorts owned by large corporations.
Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere. Known for its mystical beauty and beautiful background of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this lake covers 695 square miles and sits front row center of some great hiking trails and outdoor features. This lake is unique for many reasons, most notably for its eerie tufa towers-mineral structures created when fresh-water springs bubble up through the alkaline waters of the lake. These are best viewed up close in a kayak.
This lake also features two volcanic islands right in the middle, Negit and Paoha Islands. Negit Island is the smaller of the two, though it’s much older, as it formed around 1,700 years ago due to volcanic eruptions in the lakebed. Paoha Island, formed around 350 years ago, is much larger and centralized in the lake. Both of these islands add the mystical feel of the lake with Paoha Island being documented in Mark Twain’s 1872 book, Roughing It.
Mono Lake’s salty water not only helps the buoyancy of any swimmer, but also, is the reason for the lakes trillions of Brine Shrimp who attract millions of migratory birds looking for a shrimp feast. Birdwatching is a popular activity of Mono Lake-goers, and the Annual Bird Chautaugua in June offers birdwatching field trips and seminars to enthusiasts.
The June Lake Loop is a 14-mile mountain hideaway that features four beautiful lakes – June, Gull, Silver and Grant. With more tourist destinations than Mono Lake, these lakes feature more traditional outdoor activities like campgrounds, boat rentals and horseback riding adventures. A distinct trait of the June Lake Loop (and all of Mono County for that matter) is its fall colors.
Due to the area’s range in elevation, from approximately 5,000 to 10,000 feet, the trees change colors at different times, meaning that there is always a corner of the area experiencing fall colors. The stark contrast of bright orange, yellow and green make some parts of the area seem animated at times.
The Hot Springs
When the many activities have rendered your body sore and you need a day to rest, the five hot springs in Mono County are a great way to relax and enjoy a natural, outdoor Jacuzzi. These hot springs range from the super-natural to the reinforced-with-fiberglass, though what they all have in common are their natural, geothermally-heated groundwater emerging from the crust of the Earth. The five hot springs include the Travertine Hot Springs (closed during the winter), Buckeye Hot Spring (closed during the winter), Benton Hot Springs, Hilltop Hot Springs and Wild Willy’s Hot Spring.
The Yosemite National Park east entrance is about an hour drive from Mammoth Lakes and can be much less crowded at times than the main entrance to the park.
The best place to explore on the east side of Yosemite is Tuolumne Meadows, which does not have the famous tourist attractions of Half Dome or El Capitan, but it does include many other stunning features. In Tuolomne Meadows, you can hike on the Pacific Crest Trail or John Muir Trail. You can walk up to Tenaya Lake, a picturesque High Sierra lake, surrounded by soaring granite domes. You can even explore the Tulomne River, which magnificently descends down Waterwheel Falls and eventually into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The possibilities are endless.