It's the contrasts that most inspire during the warmer months in the Eastern Sierra. The almost sharp-looking granite standing watch over soft pine forests. The deep, icy lakes shimmering in the bone-warming sun. The abundance of natural life--deer, hawk, marmot, trout and bear--and the vast spaces in which that life can disappear.
Conventional wisdom says you need to spend three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to experience that grandeur. But it's accessible even to small kids who can't hike more than half a mile, let alone backpack. With a home base at Mammoth Lakes, families can experience the Sierra in all its soul-stirring, high-altitude glory, then toddle home to a cabin or condo with comfy beds, a well-stocked kitchen and a reader-friendly front porch.
Mammoth has the quiet charm of small-town life--folksy and comfortable, the sort of place where Patagonia-clad neighbors chat with one another at the Looney Bean coffeehouse, at the town's lone market or movie theater, or at its two bookstores.
Where you set up shop depends on what you like to do. If fishing and lazy lake time hold appeal, head for a cabin at Wildyrie Resort on the shores of Lake Mary. If you're the tennis, golf and feed-the-ducks-in-the-creek kind, Snowcreek is the place to be. Active types will be happy at Mammoth Mountain Inn because just outside is the Adventure Center. The truly outdoorsy can pitch tents at one of more than a dozen Sierra campgrounds.
In summer, the lakes are where it's at. There are 15 in the vicinity of Mammoth, 400 more in the surrounding Inyo National Forest. Most of the lakes in town are easily accessible, with parking, rowboat rental, tackle shops and cabin rentals. One of the most popular resorts is just to the south at Convict Lake, where larger cabins often host three-generation family groups (many of which book a year in advance). Whether or not you stay here, take the two-hour horseback ride.
The hub of active life is the base of the ski mountain and the Mammoth Mountain Inn. That's where you'll find the Adventure Center, with a good climbing rock, a short zip line (for ages 13 and younger), a mountain-bike park and the gondola, which will take you to the 11,053-foot summit for soul-stirring views and a stop at the new Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center. It has telescopes and modest displays on the range's history, geology and science.
At the Adventure Center, you can also catch the shuttle to popular Devils Postpile (an astonishing geologic formation of towering columnal basalt) and Red's Meadow, which is closed to passenger cars during the day. Walk the easy trail to splashing, boulder-lined Minaret Falls--you'll be able to say you hiked both the John Muir and the Pacific Crest trails. Then hop back on the shuttle to check out Rainbow Falls (yes, you're likely to see rainbows), then hop on again for the ride to the end of the line at Red's Meadow, a rustic back-country resort where you can have grilled-cheese sandwiches at the Mule House Cafe.
Save for another trip the more far-flung Eastern Sierra adventures: Mono Lake, Bodie State Park, Rock Creek Lake. There's a rowboat on Lake Mary that's waiting just for you.--
WHERE TO STAY
Convict Lake Resort, Convict Lake Road, off U.S. 395; (800) 992-2260, www.convictlakeresort.com. Double cabins from $139; discounts for weekly stays. Snowcreek Resort, Old Mammoth Road; (800) 544-6007, www.snowcreek.com. One-bedroom condos start at $170. Wildyrie Resort, 4071 Lake Mary Road; (760) 934-2444, www.mammothweb.com/lodging/wildyrieresort. Cabins from $142.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant at Convict Lake, Convict Lake Road; (760) 934-3803. Entrees $19 to $40. Roberto's Cafe, 271 Old Mammoth Road; (760) 934-3667. Entrees $7 to $17.
THINGS TO DO
For information on the Adventure Center, Mammoth Mountain Bike Park and the Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center, call (800) 626-6684 or go to www.mammothmountain.com.
CALIFORNIA FAMILY VACATIONS