By DENNIS WYATT
MAMMOTH LAKES — Mammoth Lakes is the Eastern Sierra’s answer to Yosemite Valley.
It’s got worldly mojo, is surrounded by seemingly endless wonders, and is even crawling with people during peak seasons.
And while it doesn’t quite experience gridlock as Yosemite Valley does, it is just as difficult to get the feel of being in the Sierra wilderness with two Starbucks, fast food havens, as well as trendy dining and stores, it is definitely more urban than back country when compared to the much trampled Yosemite Valley.
Nothing ruins a day of hiking past pristine lakes below ragged peaks than passing by places offering fast food burgers as you return to where you’re bedding down for the night.
Cutting Mammoth Lakes some slack, it is a year-round city of 8,000 people that is at the base of a world-class ski resort. And if the getaway you are seeking is a couple of notches above backpacking or staying in a low key lodging in a place in the Sierra when the only night life after the sun goes down is nocturnal wildlife and still be in easy striking distance of wilderness, then Mammoth Lakes is perfect for you
Regardless of the Sierra experience you’re seeking then fall in Mammoth Lakes fits the bill.
After Labor Day, the crowds thin out, the Times Square feel of “The Village” where many visitors to Mammoth flock mellows, and lodging costs drop. And as the season progresses you can enjoy a concentration of earth tone rainbows of striking fall colors tough to replicate elsewhere in the Sierra.
There are numerous hiking options across the spectrum from easy and moderate to strenuous.
If you just want to hike, I could fill pages singing the praises and describing trails in the Mammoth Lakes region. The relative lack of people and the abundance of hiking options into the high country is what I like about Mammoth in the fall.
But assuming you are looking for a resort-style experience here is what Mammoth Lakes has to offer during the fall:
* Helicopter tours that are arguably the best option for grabbing incredible aerial photographs in the Eastern Sierra short of chartering your own helicopter.
* Inspiring views from the Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain ride.
* The endless mountain and road bicycling options. Although the Mammoth Mountain Bike Park known for its downhill trails and technical features closes for the season after Labor Day, hitting trails and roads on a self-powered two wheeler won’t disappoint.
* There’s plenty of events on the fall schedule (check out Outside on the Eastside events at www.visitmammoth) from symphonic concerts and repertory theatre to an Oktoberfest and various arts and craft endeavors.
* Most of the popular restaurants now stay open in the fall making dining an easier experience without long lines and waits. An example is The Lakefront — a popular dining spot that is difficult to snag a reservation given it has just 10 tables.
* Not only is lodging less expensive but most campsites and cabins that are hard to come by in summer are available into September and even into October, weather permitting.
But more important there are less people — a lot less people.
The trailheads for some of the popular destinations have shuttle bus service that is mandatory to use during certain times because of the crowds drawn to what nature offers in the Mammoth Lakes region. In the fall the numbers drop off.
Among the many wonders of nature that await at Mammoth Lakes are:
* Devils Postpile National Monument that is open into October. A one mile round trip hike allows you to take in a unique geological formation created 100,000 years ago featuring thousands of hexagonal columns created when lava flow slowed, cooled, and cracked.
* Rainbow Falls that’s also late of the national monument. The 101-foot fall often produces a large rainbow at midday as the sun strikes the descending water. The round trip hike is a moderate 5 mile hike.
* Hot Creek geological site accessed by a 0.4 mile round trip to see hot springs and gas vents.
* The earthquake fault fissure area where you can see cracks in the earth.
* There are literally more than a dozen hiking trails into the high country to fish, and take in the stunning vistas that Mother Nature offers.
And if you don’t want to stay put in the immediate area, there are countless attractions within an hour or just a little more.
* The largest ghost town in the West — Bodie Historical State Park.
* Mono Lake with its unique ecosystem including the eerie lunar like tufa towers.
* Numerous Eastern Sierra canyons offering fishing and hiking in relative solitude.
* The Owens River Gorge with stunning vistas and year-round fishing.
* The Yosemite National Park high country with the eye-popping Tuolumne Meadows.
* Benton Hot Springs that offers 15 camp site style “rustic” spots to soak in the earth’s hot tub waters.
But the real fall treat in Mammoth Lakes and nearby are splashy and intense reds, yellow, browns and oranges that start popping up by mid-September. It is why USA Today included the area on its list of five best road trips in the fall and Lonely Planet has named it as one of the 10 best United States travel destinations. What fall color you typically see in Yosemite Valley in early November pales when compared to the Eastern Sierra from mid-September through the end of October.
The Mammoth Lakes Visitors Guide has created a fall color guide to the Eastern Sierra that will have you dreaming about California’s best kept fall travel trip as opposed to pining to pay a king’s ransom to try and tour New England in the fall.
Mammoth Lakes is accessible via Tioga Pass that requires a $35 Yosemite National Park entrance fee that’s good for a week. It takes just two road changes after you head east on Highway 120. You turn right to head south on Highway 395 outside of Lee Vining and then turn right to take Highway 203 east into Mammoth Lakes.
For more information go to www.visitmammoth.