Emily & Silent Partner
In the late Spring of 2017 I was beginning to hear signals from my employer they would want all remote workers back in the office. We made a trip from Colorado down to Arizona so I could take a meeting and at the end of that fateful day we found ourselves with a sad decision to make. The die was cast – we would only have a few months left of precious freedom before going back to cube-land. Full timing was near its end.
So how best to spend the time?
California of course! We’d always meant to go there, it was close, and full of our favorite thing – mountains. While we were in town we driveway surfed at Fred’s house. That evening drinking beer and sitting by the pool Fred said, “Why not Mammoth Lakes?” We’d never heard of it. A quick trip to the Google revealed an alpine village chocked full of mountain biking and skiing. The destination was set!
For our stay in Mammoth Lakes we decided on New Shady Rest Campground. For reasons we don’t entirely understand, this campground seems to be first come first served for most of the summer. We arrived at the beginning of June so the sites had just opened up and we got a sweet spot at site #93. Later in the year, reservations can be made at the federal portal here.
Like any mountain destination that early in the year, Mammoth Lakes was beautiful one moment.
And brutal the next. That is snow.
By any measure this is an enormous campground, and that doesn’t even include Old Shady Rest Campground across the street. Sites are somewhat narrow but heavily forested and well groomed. All pads and roads are well maintained pavement, though the roads are nerve-mockingly tight and we witnessed more than one 5th wheel scraping the trees. Traffic was moderate and noise was middling. Oddly we found campfire smoke from surrounding sites to be especially bad here, but we did stay on the east end – maybe prevailing winds take the smoke there.
Water is available in a number of locations along with an RV fill-up and dump station at the entrance to the campground. Bathroom facilities were old but well maintained and clean. While we were staying there the dump station was temporarily closed but a self-service station is available at the Mammoth Lakes Community Water District just down the street.
On the reservation front, I can only speculate, but I wonder if the no-reservation policy is to keep booking fair, since Mammoth Lakes is essentially between the two megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Whatever the case, it worked to our advantage and we had a glorious two weeks there.
Choose Your Path Wisely
In all our time towing the trailer, I think we’ve really only had two genuine misfires. One time was getting ourselves stuck in a rural road in Moab, and the other was my fateful decision to follow the “scenic” route from Phoenix to Mammoth Lakes.
Little did I know that CA 168 was a curled up intestine of death worthy of only the most hardened RVers. I found out, of course, when we crossed from Nevada into California and I started to see signs like, “Vehicles over 30′ not recommended”. By then we were committed so we soldiered on.
Though obviously we lived, that drive was some of the most intense mountain driving I have ever done with the Airstream, even more intense than the Rocky Mountains. The road alternately shrank to one lane and offered up sharp corners and steep inclines. Thank god it was little traveled so I had plenty of room to maneuver. If I had to do it again, though, I would take the Los Angeles route, trading near death cliff-diving for horrible traffic.
Amenities & Activities
City of Mammoth Lakes
The City of Mammoth Lakes is a remarkable little Ski/Mountain Bike town characterized, for me, by the extremes. On our drive to Mammoth Lakes we drove through Bishop and it was 110° F (43° C) and entirely given over the cactus and desert.
In 20 minutes we were in pine trees and aspen groves at 72° F (22° C).
That June had also capped off a record setting snow season. So much so, Mammoth mountain was entirely off limits to bikes because of this stuff.
Incredibly, just a short way down the mountain the snow was gone and trails were open. This water was of course, going somewhere – look at this intense whitewater we saw when we left Mammoth Lakes.
Mammoth Lakes is a tourist town but it seems to get rather sleepy in the summer months. Still there are plenty of restaurants and shops waiting for customers. We found good pizza at Giovanni’s Pizza, even better at John’s Pizza Works and good coffee at the Looney Bean.
Footloose Sports near the campground offered a very good selection of mountain biking gear and rental bikes. Directly next door you can find Rite Aid for your apothecary needs and a DIY Home Center for your hardware needs (ahem, rivets).
Curiously Mammoth Lakes forms part of the Los Angeles water shed. I find that amazing because LA is hundreds of miles away. But anyone who’s lived out west knows Whisky’s for ‘Drinkin and Water’s for ‘Fightin.
Ah yes, mountain biking – my favorite topic. Owing to the strange snow season Mammoth Mountain and the surrounding trails were closed. Still we found plenty of options that made for a thoroughly rewarding set of rides.
Big Smokey Loop
The Big Smokey Loop is a 15 minute drive east of town and slightly lower elevation than Mammoth Lakes. We discovered one constants about riding the Sierra Nevadas is sand, lots of it. We struggled through unending piles of the stuff on this ride, which taught me a 29+ might be the better way to go next time (see Fred’s review of the Trek Stache 5).
The trail is all fire roads and is rated at blue-green. I would normally consider this is green ride but the loose sand, squirrely climbs and steep descent near the end pushed it into blue territory.
In retrospect it was an interesting ride but I would likely stick to the Knolls Loop area and explore more there next time. It was hardly a waste though, the view of the distant Ansel Adams Wilderness et al was second to none.
Mammoth Creek Trail
Mammoth Lakes has a splendid bike path circling the entire town and Mammoth Creek Trail forms the southern leg. The ride in total alternates from trail to bike path to streets and offers a great tour of the city. Though rated green I found the climbs totally satisfying as the altitude does make pedaling a little harder. It’s also fun to see how the other half lives as you climb through some exclusive neighborhoods and ski resorts.
Knolls Loop was our go-to trail while staying in Mammoth Lakes and we rode it easily a half dozen times. The trailhead is found just outside of camp and takes you on a 10 mile (16km) tour of the Inyo National Forest.
As with Big Smokey Loop the trail consists mainly of forest road and lots and lots of sand. When takes clockwise, however, we found most of the sand to be on the downhill sections making a ride on standard 29ers thoroughly enjoyable.
The eastern portion of the ride is somewhat of a lung-buster but rewards the intrepid rider with awesome views.
The roads back in this area are incredibly complex and it pays to take a mapping application such as MTB Project or a printed map. There’s also a serviceable map of this hairball here.
What Could Go Wrong
Strangely we discovered our satellite dish died at the beginning of the Mammoth Lakes stay. We talked it over and decided we did want it fixed before our return to Phoenix in three months so we called ahead to Bay Area Airstream Adventures. This led to an unplanned week-long stay in Vacaville and a couple trips to the dealer to get things sorted out.
Bay Area Airstream Adventures
Even though I was annoyed at being blown off course, this was pretty cool. Have you ever seen so many Airstreams?
Also I think I saw the second Airstream love of my life there.
I’ve always thought it would be awesome to get a 35′ Airstream and refurbish it. They’re relatively uncommon though. Speaking to one salesman I learned the long frames have a tendency to crack and the triple axles make them hard to park. The models with slides also had uneven tire wear due to the odd weight distribution.
Besides all that just look at it – gorgeous!
Also a quick shout out – these guys were so nice and accommodating. We waited in the lounge with our dogs all day and they kept checking on us and making sure we were ok. Very cool customer service.
Vineyard RV Park
While alternating between taking the Airstream in for repairs and waiting for parts we stayed at the Vineyard RV Park. In all ways this was a great park with friendly people, good staff, excellent sites and a nice pool.
Also, we met Nola the pig there!
Another kick about staying there was the wild turkeys and their babies.
We even made it into San Francisco for a day.
Alas the Airstream was eventually fixed and we went on our way to the Redwoods, but that’s a story for another blog.
Mammoth Lakes was awesome. We’re even mulling going back there this September – we’ll see if the winds of change allow that to happen. But we thoroughly enjoyed the people, the campground and the riding. Mammoth Lakes definitely has “it” and we highly recommend it.
As for the satellite repairs – in retrospect, our temporary path through Sacramento/Vacaville was a hoot. We enjoyed the hell out of our stay and we got to meet Nola! So I guess it played out in the end.