Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Crystal Lake (Mammoth Lakes)

The Mammoth Crest rises over Crystal Lake
3 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee required

Crystal Lake is a reasonably short and sweet and extremely popular hike to a small alpine lake above the main Mammoth Lakes Basin in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada. The ___-mile round trip hike starts from an incredibly popular trailhead at Lake George and follows the first mile of the Mammoth Crest Trail up forested mountain slopes to some fabulous views of the Mammoth Lakes Basin before arriving at the destination lake. While this is certainly an enjoyable and scenic hike, it is also very busy, so you may want to consider quieter options on summer weekends and holidays. Additionally, while Crystal Lake is pretty, there are also far prettier landscapes nearby- although many of those destinations do require more involved hikes. This is a worthwhile hike, but it may not deserve a spot at the top of your list if you have limited time around Mammoth.

I hiked to Crystal Lake on a July holiday weekend trip to Mammoth with Anna and mom. Mammoth Lakes is a long way from any major metropolitan area, at over five hours of driving from either the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles; you’ll reach the town via US 395 regardless of which direction you come from. South of Lee Vining, exit US 395 for Highway 203 and follow 203 west through the town of Mammoth Lakes; if you drive straight and make no turns, you’ll end up on the Lake Mary Road, which climbs out of the far end of town and then brings you up into the Mammoth Lakes Basin. After the road reaches Lake Mary, turn left for the Around Lake Mary Road just after passing Pokenobe Marina. Follow this road across a bridge over the outlet stream of Lake Mary, then turn right onto the narrow but still paved Lake George Road. Lake George Road winds briefly through the forest to a relatively large, loop-structured parking lot.

It’s important to arrive early at the trailhead: the parking lot at Lake George is one of the busiest in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and can become a traffic nightmare later in the day. Every spot is usually taken and entering and exiting the lot itself can be challenging due to the large number of cars that circle the lot, looking for a chance to park. Get here early to secure a spot and avoid the nuisance of midday traffic.

Before starting the hike, we walked from the parking lot down to the shore of Lake George. Lake George is a stunningly beautiful subalpine lake at the base of Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest; the toothlike form of Crystal Crag from the lakeshore is one of the iconic views of the Eastern Sierra.

Crystal Crag rising over Lake George
After appreciating Lake George, we were ready for our hike. We backtracked to the entrance of the parking lot to find the Mammoth Crest Trailhead, which was marked by a signboard with information for backpackers entering Ansel Adams Wilderness. The trail began to climb immediately from the trailhead, making a steady ascent through forested slopes. For the first 400 meters of the hike, the trail stayed fairly close to a long driveway leading up to multiple houses on the slopes above Lake George. Finally, at a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail passed the end of that driveway; continuing the climb, it soon crested a forested ridge that had some openings delivering partial views of Lake George below and the rocky alpine wall of the Mammoth Crest to the southeast.

Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest
At a half mile, the trail began a moderately steep switchback ascent. While not necessarily difficult, this switchback passage maintained a constant uphill grade over just more than the next half mile, making this the most extended climb of the hike. After a couple of switchbacks, the trees began to thin out slightly, opening views of both the rocky Mammoth Crest above and the many shimmering blue lakes of the Mammoth Lakes Basin down below. Lake George lay directly below and was particularly spectacular; Lake Mary lay beyond and just downhill, with the red volcanic rock of the Sherwin Range bounding the other side of the Mammoth Lakes Basin. The Sherwin Range forms the southern boundary of Long Valley Caldera, the footprint of a massive volcano that formed in an eruption over 700,000 years ago.

Lake George and Lake Mary
After a few switchbacks with lake views, the trail returned to the forest, continuing its constant climb, until the Mammoth Crest Trail met with the Crystal Lake Trail at 1.1 miles from the trailhead. Here, I took the left fork to hop on the Crystal Lake Trail; this trail finally flattened out, traversing a mountain slope and coming out to an open viewpoint atop granite cliffs that rose over 600 vertical feet above Lake George. From this lofty, open viewpoint, we could see Horseshoe Lake and Lake Mamie, in addition to the view of Lakes George and Mary that we had earlier.

Mammoth Lakes
The Crystal Lake Trail continued through the forest to the shore of Crystal Lake, dropping slightly as it approached the lake. At about 1.4 miles, we arrived on the lakeshore, where we had a lovely view of the rock wall of the Mammoth Crest rising behind the lake’s sparkling waters. Crystal Crag rose to the southeast across the lake, although from this perspective it had lost the sharp and more rugged profile that it projects when viewed from Lake George. The first spot where the trail met the lakeshore was quite crowded, with many hikers ending their hike here. We followed the path along the west side of the lake to find a quiet spot to enjoy the lake before returning to the trailhead.

Crystal Crag and the Mammoth Crest rise over Crystal Lake
This was a pretty hike with plenty of great views; however, it was quite crowded as well, with hundreds of hikers on the trail during our hike and a completely jam-packed parking lot both when we arrived and when we left. Crystal Lake can be a worthwhile destination when it’s less crowded, but I’d recommend hikers to tackle the admittedly longer hikes to Little Lakes Valley or the Twenty Lakes Basin before choosing this slightly-too-popular hike.

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