If you’re looking for fall in California, you can’t beat the Eastern Sierras and the town of Mammoth Lakes.
When to Visit:
If you’re looking for fall in California, you can’t beat the Eastern Sierras and the town of Mammoth Lakes. When the aspens turn, entire hillsides come alive in a blaze of warm gold. For a festive, fall weekend, I recommend visiting in mid-September or October. If you want to be sure to plan your trip around peak foliage, keep an eye on the helpful ‘Fall Color Report’ maintained by Mono County’s Tourism Commission.
How to Get There:
If you’re flying to California, I recommend flying into San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose. From there, you’ll drive approximately 5 hours 30 minutes to the town of Mammoth Lakes. Yes, it’s a long drive but it’s all part of the experience. If you time your departure right, you can follow Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park and stop off in the park for lunch or a quick hike. Then, continue on to Mammoth Lakes to arrive in time for a late afternoon cocktail.
Alternatively, you can fly into Los Angeles and drive north approximately 5 hours 15 minutes to reach Mammoth Lakes.
The Ideal 3-Day Itinerary for Fall in Mammoth Lakes:
Day One: Friday
9:00am: Drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite National Park. (driving time: 3 hours 15 minutes).
12:30pm: As you drive through Yosemite National Park, stop along the way for a picnic lunch or a quick hike.
3:00pm: Follow Highway 120 up and over to the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains and you’ll arrive in the quaint little town of Lee Vining. After a few hours on the road, you’ll be ready to stretch your legs. Drop by Mono Cone for the best soft-serve ice cream you’ll ever eat. Order the chocolate and vanilla swirl and enjoy your treat in the nearby park next to the quirky Upside Down House.
3:30pm: Take the scenic route as you head south from Lee Vining to Mammoth Lakes by driving the June Lake Loop (start here). The road is sandwiched between a number of small lakes and towering mountain peaks, making for picturesque and dramatic scenery. Once fall hits and the aspens shift to golden, their fluttering leaves add seasonal drama to the already beautiful basin.
4:30pm: After a long day on the road, you’ve made it to the town of Mammoth Lakes! Check in to your accommodations or head straight to Mammoth Brewing Company for a refreshing pint. Try the Double Nut Brown or opt for a seasonal brew. Pair it with a basket of waffle fries as you take in the views of craggy mountains and dramatic rock faces.
6:00pm: End the day with a leisurely takeout dinner from Giovanni’s Restaurant and Bar. Order a large Greek Salad and vegetarian pizza, then slip into your pajamas and curl up for an at-home movie night.
Day Two: Saturday
9:00am: Start your day with breakfast from the whimsical Stellar Brew. The cafe is locally-owned; the founder and owner was born and raised in the Eastern Sierra. She noticed the absence of restaurants serving healthy, organic foods, and Stellar Brew was born. Grab a breakfast burrito or Stellar Sammie from the case and enjoy breakfast on the patio.
10:00am: After breakfast, take a drive out Sherwin Creek Road towards Sherwin Creek Campground in search of fall colors.
As you head back towards town, pull off at the end of the Mammoth Rock Trail. Follow the trail through meadows, forests, and along the rocky edge of a mountain until you reach the towering Mammoth Rock. As you hike, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the basin below and Mammoth Mountain above. Once you’ve had your fill of the refreshing views, hike back to your car the way you came for a total hike distance of approximately 5 miles. You can follow this route on AllTrails, just be sure to start from at the lower end of the trail so that Mammoth Rock is your destination.
12:00pm: It’s time to go in search of more fall colors! Pick up lunch from Shea Schat’s Bakery before you head out on your next adventure. Order a veggie sandwich with everything, select from a number of bread options, and ask for the spicy mustard for a little bit of an extra kick. The full sandwiches are pricey but huge, so you can easily share one sandwich between two people. As a bonus, each sandwich comes with a pickle and a chocolate chip cookie!
With your sandwich in hand, head south to Convict Lake (driving time: 15 minutes). Convict Lake is superbly beautiful, a perfect pool of deep blue water nestled beneath towering peaks. Find a picnic spot on the edge of the water to enjoy your sandwich before your hike.
Get moving post-lunch with a hike on the Convict Lake Loop Trail. The ~3-mile trail is mostly flat as it runs around the edge of Convict Lake. Make sure to stop along the way to take in the scenery - the rocks that look as if they were watercolored to perfection, the glittering golden aspens, the frothy whitecaps on a windy day.
2:00pm: After spending a couple of hours at Convict Lake, it’s time to hit the road again. Next up is Reds Meadow Valley and Devils Postpile National Monument (driving time: 45 minutes). Reds Meadow Valley is breathtaking, with crystalline streams, lush meadows, and meandering forests. Devils Postpile is a geologic wonder that’s not to be missed. The infamous “postpile” is the product of a whole lot of lava, a gigantic glacier, thousands of years, and the mesmerizing properties of cooling basalt. At one point, there was a proposal to blast out the valley to form a dam but early conservationists had the foresight to protect the one-of-a-kind valley. Take some time to wander around and be sure to hike down to the San Joaquin River where you’re likely to find aspens and cottonwoods dressed in their autumn best.
Fun Fact: The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the valley along the edge of Devils Postpile National Monument, so you can walk a few steps on the infamous trail!
5:30pm: After a long day of exploration, it’s time for a cocktail. Drive 30 minutes back to town and head straight for Shelter Distilling in Mammoth Village. Whether you like your drinks sweet, savory, herbaceous, or spicy, there is something for everyone on Shelter’s extensive cocktail menu. Try ‘The Crib’ - a fantastically balanced drink made from blue agave infused with jalapeño and serrano, lime, grapefruit, agave nectar, Diablo bitters, and salt. The drink leads with a deliciously smoky aroma, follows with bright citrus and sweet agave, and finishes with a slow-to-build heat.
6:30pm: Once you’ve worked up an appetite, walk through the Village back to Mammoth Brewing Company. Yes, you’ve already sampled their beer but have you paired it with their Pub Salad and Damn Good Veggie Burger? Fuel up on their hearty fare and rest your legs after your busy day of autumn adventuring.
Day 3: Sunday
9:00am: Start your day with a hearty breakfast from Old New York Deli & Bakery Co. in Mammoth Village. Select from bagel sandwiches, omelets, breakfast burritos, and more.
9:30am: For one final glimpse of the Eastern Sierras’ breathtaking colors, drive to Lundy Canyon for an invigorating fall hike (driving time: 50 minutes). The trailhead can be crowded, so be prepared to wait for a spot if needed. The 5.9-mile out-and-back features shimmering aspen groves, sparkling alpine lakes, crumbling rock faces, and a meandering canyon that beckons you to continue on through its beauty. The lowest part of the trail is the most crowded; if you keep hiking, you’ll soon be immersed in beautiful wilderness.
12:30pm: After your hike, it’s time to wrap up the weekend. If you’re heading back to the Bay Area, pop on a good podcast and settle in for the 5-hour drive.
Responsible Travel in Mammoth Lakes:
Where to Stay: Airbnb or VRBO can be a wonderful option when visiting a new place. Whenever possible, look for Airbnbs where the owner lives onsite to avoid supporting foreign landlords and local displacement.
If you’re traveling with your furry friend and want to be located close to Mammoth Village, the Westin Monache Resort is a great option. They provided a dog bed and bowls in our room and have a few small trails around the grounds that are perfect for morning and evening walks.
Environmental Consciousness: The town of Mammoth Lakes is remote, situated on the edge of expansive wilderness, meaning an environmental consciousness is important for locals and visitors alike. When you visit, be mindful of water consumption, reduce your use of single-use items, and eat locally when possible to reduce transportation and cultivation impacts. Take advantage of the local shuttle buses to reduce your driving impact. When hiking or exploring, practice Leave No Trace and stay on trails so as not to damage the fragile alpine habitats.