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Enjoying the Cool, Thin Air of Mammoth Lakes, CA

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

USA
Some of nature’s greatest artwork can be found at California’s Mammoth Lakes. Frozen rivers and lakes snake around stone minarets and snow-covered, gray and rust colored, granite masses. Forests and waterfalls are everywhere. From a helicopter soaring at about 10,000 feet, the landscape is magnificent.

Mammoth Lakes borders the lower Sierra Nevada Mountains (the Sherwin Range). Though Yosemite National Park is its neighbor, many people have never heard of this place, let alone been there. That is their loss.
Skiers know the area as a great downhill destination. Ski trails are often open until July. On warmer days, discover the area via horseback or explore the many hiking and biking trails. The lakes are filled with fish. But even if you are not an active person, there are other things to enchant you.

The land locked, saline soda Mono Lake is one of them. Looking like fossilized creatures, tufa towers (very much like stalagmites) eerily rise from the water and the surrounding land when the saltwater recedes. The lake doesn’t support much life except for brine shrimp and alkalai flies. The flies lay their larva on the tufa. Flies and shrimp are an all-you-can-eat food fest for 300 species of migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. The migration extends from the Bering Straits to South America. If you visit in early spring or late summer, you’ll hear the cacophony of chattering birds. At other times, you will be greeted with the sounds of silence.

An upside-down house sits down the road in Lee Vining. Though she never lived in it, silent film star, Nally Bly O’Bryan built it herself. She worked with Charlie Chaplin. Next door, the Mono History Museum, a former, one-room schoolhouse, displays some of her memorabilia as well as artifacts of the Native American Kutzadika’a Paiute, plus the pioneer and mining heritage of Mono Basin.

East and a bit south is Devils Postpile National Monument. The unique hexagonal columns were formed by every natural force that comes to mind - volcanic flow that hardened into molten rock, erosion, glaciers and earthquakes. They are quite unique but they do resemble the columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

It’s a flat easy trek to Rainbow Falls, about two miles downstream from Devils Postpile. These cascades thunder down 101 feet into the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Around mid-day, a rainbow often appears alongside the falls.
Travel South on Route 395 to June Lake. The town itself has some old lodges, art galleries, restaurants and accommodations. In the summer, fishermen and paddle boaters love the area. Drive the June Lake Loop to see the area’s four lakes - Gull, Grant, Silver and June.

June Lake Brewery offers tours and tastings. I don’t do beer but the food that complements it is amazing. It comes from Ohanas 395, a food truck parked outside. Rena McCullough, a self-educated cook, serves up very tasty and succulent morsels. Because her husband is from Hawaii, she specializes in Hawaiian soul food. Her offerings include cheese quesadillas, Kalua pig, home-made won-ton chips, pineapple salsa and sweet potato hummus. Asian noodles are one of her most popular offerings. She is very particular about her product. Much of it is organic. On any day, you might find her daughters, cousins or any relative she can get to help. The truck stays open until there is no more food.

Mammoth Lakes Village itself is very small. At night, with the lights twinkling off the snow, it looks like something out of the pages of a fairy tale. The Westin, built into the mountain almost overshadows the hamlet. These comfortable lodgings are a cross between rustic and modern. Keep in mind that the village sits at an altitude of 7,880 feet. So, if you are prone to altitude sickness be sure and get a prescription for Diamox before coming.

Across from the hotel is the gondola. You can take it to the top of Mammoth Mountain (12,000 feet). The view is of mountains and more mountains for as far as you can see, in every direction. McCoy Station, a great place to warm yourself or get a bite to eat, is a part way down. On the outside terrace, a baby brown bear is scourging for food. One of the workers comes out and shoos him off into the trees.

I had not heard much about Mammoth Lakes before I came. I am happy I did. The scenery is spectacular and places like Mono Lake are fascinating.

For more information: www.VisitMammoth.com
Helicopter rides are $88 and well worth the money. www.skytime.com

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