Mammoth Mountain is a playground for people who like to go downhill – namely, skiers and mountain bikers. This mountain is about speed: get to the top as fast as possible using a lift or gondola in order to get down as fast as possible. That’s not how I like to do mountains. I’m not a skier or a mountain biker. I prefer going UP the hills over going down (my knees especially). Because of that preference, Mammoth Mountain was always a drive-by peak on my way to other hikes and climbs.
I never gave it a second thought, until I found myself hanging out in Mammoth Lakes for a rest day between peaks. And what does a peak bagger do on a rest day? She finds a slightly easier peak to climb!
After a bit of morning research, I was surprised to find out there was a hiking trail up the southeast ridge of the mountain. This ridge is known as the Dragon’s Back and is dotted with rocky outcroppings that contrast with the smooth volcanic ashy slopes towards the summit. At approximately 3.5 miles one way with 2500 ft of gain, this looked like a great option for a ‘rest day’ hike.
The trickiest part of this hike is finding the trailhead. Drive through the Twin Lakes campground past the shop until you reach the picnic area. Don’t cross the bridge to the back half of the campground. Instead, park at the picnic area which has clearly marked “Day Visitor Parking”. Walk across the bridge and towards the back of the campground. Look for the trailhead to the left of campsite #40.
The trail switchbacks up the hill through the trees. For the first portion, you’ll be climbing towards something called the Bottomless Pit. I had no idea what to expect until it was in front of me. A deep depression in the mountainside bordered by an arch was a nice scenic surprise to find along this trail!
Past the Bottomless Pit, the switchbacks continued until I finally reached the Dragon’s Back ridge at about 2 miles and 1300 ft of climbing into the hike. Occasionally, I would find gaps in the trees and get a peek at the smooth summit slopes above.
I could see mountain bikers bombing down the hill above me, and that was where I had my first concern – did I have to share this trail with mountain bikes? I didn’t want to come around a corner and be face to face with someone coming downhill at a much higher speed. It turns out that this doesn’t need to be a concern on this trail at all. The Dragon’s Back trail continues up the mountain as a single track hiking trail only, separate from the single track mountain biking trails. Slow uphill hikers and fast downhill bikers can freely enjoy the mountain without worrying about running into each other.
The Dragon’s Back trail crosses the mountain biking trails, but always in spots where there is plenty of visibility to see if anyone is bombing downhill. Towards the summit, where the paths all converge, everything is well signed to keep walkers and bikers safe.
The final 500 ft climbs through an ashy wasteland. No trees block the view, and there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the view in every direction. I wandered up to the actual summit, and shared it with some folks who had taken the gondola up. I got some funny looks when I said I’d hiked up the mountain. “You know, you can just ride the gondola up here? It’s much easier?” Some people don’t get it.
The views were similar to what I had taken in a few days back when I hiked San Joaquin, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed them any less!
After wandering the summit area for a while I decided to head down. It’s a bit of a slog on the way up but down goes quite quickly. I was back in town early afternoon, with plenty of time to enjoy the new outdoor patio at Mammoth Brewing! I’d say this was a successful rest day!
In and Out day hike on trail
7 miles round trip from Twin Lakes campground
+/- 2500 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
Drive through the Twin Lakes campground past the shop until you reach the picnic area. Don’t cross the bridge to the back half of the campground. Instead, park at the picnic area which has clearly marked “Day Visitor Parking”. Walk across the bridge and towards the back of the campground. Look for the trailhead to the left of campsite #40.
There are many campgrounds in the Mammoth Lakes area, including at the trailhead for this hike. If you preferred dispersed (i.e. free) camping, there are many spots on the National Forest Land to the east of highway 395.