This is a quiet and carefree time of year for visitors to Mammoth Lakes. With the first snowfall, perhaps as early as mid-October, thousands of Southland skiers will begin the winter migration to Mammoth Mountain on the eastern side of the High Sierra.
In the meantime there's plenty of motel and condominium space available, and rarely a wait at any restaurant. But the lure in autumn is invigorating alpine air and splendid scenery.
Surrounded by Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Lakes is an ever-growing resort town that takes its name from a group of picturesque lakes a few miles away. Campgrounds and rustic rental cabins around their shores make the lakes popular retreats for nature lovers and fishing fans.
You can drive or hike around sparkling natural reservoirs at 8,000 feet. They were scooped out by glaciers during the Ice Age. Along the way the vibrant leaves of aspen and willow trees in fall colors wink a welcome to visitors.
Mother Nature's handiwork in the Mammoth Lakes area includes an eons-old geological oddity called Devils Postpile, now a national monument. You also can peer into a 50-foot earthquake fault and explore a hill of solid volcanic glass known as Obsidian Dome.
If you go to Mammoth in the next two weeks or so, detour off the main highway through Owens Valley to view the annual foliage show along rivers and creeks that flow from the Sierra Nevada range. Enjoy it more by taking a fishing pole for a dinner of rainbow trout.
From Los Angeles, head north on Interstate 5 and California 14 to join U.S. 395 near the Inyo County line. (Or go east on Interstate 10, then north on Interstate 15 to pick up U.S. 395 beyond Cajon Pass.)
That state scenic highway flanks the entire eastern Sierra and presents ever-changing vistas of granite peaks. Near Lone Pine look for the tallest mountain in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, rising to 14,494 feet.
If you have plenty of time, explore one or more of the side roads from Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop that wiggle up the mountainsides into Inyo National Forest. An easier alternative for a close-up of fall color is to detour beyond Bishop on two roads that parallel the main highway.
Paradise on the Water
Go about nine miles to the left-turn exit from U.S. 395 to Lower Rock Creek Road. That back road crisscrosses a tree-lined stream several times before returning to U.S. 395. Rock Creek also flows under the Paradise restaurant, popular for dinner (Wednesday through Sunday).
After a mile you can exit left again onto Crowley Lake Drive, another scenic back road that parallels and then rejoins U.S. 395. The next exit to take is California 203 to Mammoth Lakes.
On the way into town, look for the forest service visitor center where you can get camping, fishing and hiking information; a Mammoth trail guide booklet costs $1. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The ranger phone is (619) 934-2505; call (619) 934-6611 for recorded weather and road information.
For lodging and dining information, make your next stop the Mammoth Lakes Resort Assn. It's open daily except Sunday in the First Sierra Bank lobby in Old Mammoth Mall; turn left from California 203 (Main Street) on Old Mammoth Road and go one block.
Ask for an area map and about special events, such as the Oktoberfest scheduled for next weekend. You also can phone ahead for accommodations, toll-free (800) 367-6572.
However, during this off-season reservations are hardly needed to get one of the resort town's 30,000 beds or a table in any of its 45 restaurants. It's a different story once the snow falls and Mammoth Lakes plays host to more than a million skiers.
You can see the object of their attraction by driving through town on California 203 to the base of Mammoth Mountain and the main lodge, ski area and inn complex.
Then continue on the narrowing road as it winds over the forested slopes to Devils Postpile National Monument. A short path from the parking area takes you to a remarkable formation of lava that cracked while cooling and formed towering basalt columns nearly a million years old.
At road's end in Red's Meadow you can follow a one-mile trail to Rainbow Falls, where the middle fork of the San Joaquin River plunges 100 feet into a gorge. It's deer hunting season, so hikers are advised to wear bright clothing.
Returning to town on California 203, turn right on Lake Mary Road that curves around the mountain to the Mammoth Lakes Basin. During the fishing season (through October), it's a favorite area for catching rainbow, brook and brown trout.
Several of the lakes boast resorts with accommodations in rustic cabins, but only Tamarack Lodge at Twin Lakes operates all year. The forest service campground at Twin Lakes remains open until late October or the first snowfall; no reservations.
Trails in the Mammoth Lakes Basin entice visitors on long and short hikes in the crisp autumn air. (Take a warm jacket or sweater because the weather is changeable.) There are scenic picnic places, too; one is across the road from Lake Mamie near the waterfall that cascades into Twin Lakes.
If you decide to eat back in town, O'Kelly & Dunn Co. and the Swiss Cafe are favorites for breakfast and lunch. Try Berger's restaurant for Mammoth's best burgers, fries and coffee. Popular dinner houses include the Mogul, Roget's, Ocean Harvest and Whiskey Creek. The pizza gets praise at Giovanni's.
Return to Los Angeles via U.S. 395.
Round trip from Los Angeles for the peaceful pre-ski season at Mammoth Lakes is 630 miles.