California: The Short, Sweet Summer of the Eastern Sierra

Whatever the day brings in the Eastern Sierra, it’s likely to be better than you imagined. Plus Celebration Traveler Guide: Summer Recreation: Mammoth Lakes, California.

by Donna Peck

When you most want to be somewhere else, open a portal in your mind to the Eastern Sierra. You are atop a 11,034-foot summit with granite peaks as far as the eye can see. Next you’re at an immense alpine lake in the high country, sprinkled with tiny islands. Last, imagine a glittering night sky filled with constellations.

Summer in the Eastern Sierra is far too short to leave to your imagination.

Last summer, I drove to Mammoth with three friends, following the warm wind blowing over the eastern escarpment. The boughs of Jeffrey pine, white pine and red fir stand free of snow. Mammoth Creek races with a lusty edge as if to say, “No time to waste.”

The yearly explosion of activity has begun. We spent a week biking, hiking and kayaking. From the first day to the last, we forged an abiding love for the steep Sierra Nevada.

At Mammoth Mountain Bike Park

Mammoth Mountain is a mecca for recreational bikers who have discovered the excitement of using ski lifts to descend through the forest, glades and open hillsides along single-track trails.

Winding through the forest on beginner trails gets a family vacation off to a good start.

We rented mountain bikes and prepared to embrace the mountain and the dirt. Over the next few days, the entire mountain became familiar turf.

That is except for the extreme trails. We shared the gondola cabin the first morning with two action sport junkies, caked with dirt but grinning with obvious pleasure. They had just completed—for the umpteenth time—a double-black- diamond run, which includes jumps and steep drops. From the gondola, you can watch them bumping (and tumbling) down Kamikaze. They wear full helmets, shoulder pads, chest guards and shin pads. Mammoth is a magnet for this particular breed of mountain biker.

My favorite trail began at at the summit. Before us lay a vast sweep of the central Sierra Nevada. It’s the most expansive view you can get in California. The interpretive center has viewing scopes trained on the major peaks, so we knew their names.

Later on, at Angel’s restaurant the waitress delivered our turkey burgers and asked how I scraped my arm. I told her I slipped on the sharp porous rock. She lifted up her pants leg, showing long, deep scrapes from a spill she took on a sharp bend. Angel’s is like that, a good place to share stories of your heroics. Don’t think you will have one up on the locals.

Narrow escape

We struck up a conversation with Doug who was rescued from the back-country a few years ago. He tipped back his bush hat, sipped lager and told us about being trapped in a tent for seven days during an early October snow storm.

What did he do for a week? “I read a Stephen King novel and sponged water out of my tent,” he said. He had been hiking in shorts. On the eighth day, someone walked down to his campsite and radioed for a helicopter pick-up. No one had missed him. At the time, he worked for the Forest Service Fire Department and had lied about where he was going. His co-workers thought he was in Colorado visiting his brother. He said he made up an excuse to get the time off.

Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas

Thousand Island Lake at the foot of Banner Peak enjoys a short, sweet summer.

To get a taste of the backcountry during the benign summer, we hiked from Doug’s starting point, Agnew Meadows. The 8-mile ascent to Thousand Island Lake wasn’t too strenuous. We were near water most of the day. Rivulets ran alongside the trail. Views opened to alpine lakes and waterfalls across the valley. The snow melted into the smooth, still Thousand Island Lake, sparkling at the foot of Banner Peak. A few brave souls jumped in, yelping in shock from the icy water. In the mountain air, it sounded like they were right beside me.

A more pristine wilderness you couldn’t hope to find.

Count your lucky stars

Stargazing was the undisputed highlight of our trip. Starlight illuminated the distant peaks of the Eastern Sierra at Minaret Vista. I picked out five languages from among the hundred or so stargazers gathered for the monthly star party. We all uttered the same oohs and aahs, struck by the piercing loveliness. The big dipper (Ursa Major) hung just above eye level. We were looking for meteor and I was lucky: I saw a gold flash and streak for the briefest second.

Suddenly, the astronomer whooped with excitement. We watched in awe as the international space station flew like a bright, fast-moving bullet at 17,240 miles per hour.

The chance sighting engendered a sense of the transcendent and satisfied a craving so deep I didn’t know it was there.

One of the benefits of a resort town like Mammoth Lakes is that even though you are far from the urban environment, you can still find the comforts of home. We stayed in Juniper Spring resort, a 216-room condominium hotel tucked into the hillside less than a mile from the Village.

No matter which magic portal you take, by day’s end, you’ll be bone tired. A heated swimming pool and a Jacuzzi while a magenta sunset lit up the peaks is all that we could manage. After dinner, it was easy to fall into a hypnotic reverie in the rocking chairs on the deck, looking for shapes in the clouds roiling over the Mammoth Crest. A giant feather quill morphs into a topical bird, its plumage filling the eastern sky.

One thing is certain: you’ll need more than a 16-oz. water bottle. Keeping hydrated is the best way to keep up your energy in the high altitude.

Photography by Donna Peck, Kenny Karst and Mammoth Mountain Bike Park.

The author at Minaret Summit suited up for an easy ride down Vista Trail.


  1. Donna –

    Your story reminded me of that old lesson – don’t go into the woods alone!

    Fun article and good advice.

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