Mammoth Lakes, California has so much cool geology to experience. It’s a great ski and hiking destination, but there are lots of hot springs and earth phenomena that make the region itself a fascinating place to visit. A trip to Mammoth Lakes is a lesson in geologic time and science!
I love being a geology nerd. Geology rocks! We incorporate as many scientific activities and sights in our travels as possible. It’s one of the ways we make sure the learning continues, either during summer break or when we pull the kids from school for travel. The geologic sites around Mammoth Lakes are AWESOME for either sightseeing or learning. Here are eleven spots to experience earth science at Mammoth.
What you'll find...
- Best Places in Mammoth Lakes to See Geologic History
- Unique Geologic Features in Mammoth Lakes
- Hot Springs to Visit at Mammoth Lakes
Best Places in Mammoth Lakes to See Geologic History
My mind is blown when I think about geologic time, and one of the coolest things about visiting Mammoth Lakes is how visible it is there. Geologic sites abound and you can literally see moments in time and the progression of geologic history. California’s mountain towns, like Mammoth, are built very near some of the most active parts of the earth’s crust. I love it!
Top of Mammoth Mountain
This is an easy place to start when it comes to seeing and understanding the geology of Mammoth Lakes. Take the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain from the ski center at the bottom. As you climb to 11,053 feet in elevation, you’ll see the various mountain ranges and valleys around you. From the pointed spires of the Minarets to the granite domes of the rest of the Sierras, the view is epic.
To visit: catch the Mammoth Mountain gondola from the Adventure Center in the main ski resort area. You can also hike to the top, but that’s a BIG elevation gain you may not have trained for.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument Hike
Have you ever looked at a rock and just been able to picture the force behind its creation? That’s what I love about Devil’s Postpile National Monument’s main feature. The basalt flow that rises and bends upwards is pretty amazing. Between the crumbling cliffside and the resilient columns, it’s an impressive display of geologic time.
To visit: take the Eastern Sierra Transit shuttle to Stop 6 and do the short hike to Devil’s Postpile. Other hiking options from here include Minaret Falls (gorge) or hiking through to Rainbow falls, one of our favorite things to do in Mammoth Lakes!
Mammoth Fault Line
Before somebody else gets all “geologish” on me, the Mammoth Fault isn’t a true fault. There aren’t plates moving past or under each other here, but this is a fissure. This 60 foot deep crack in the volcanic rock is several hundred years old (estimated around 600 years) and formed after one of the many earthquakes California is known for. The Mammoth Lakes area has a crazy amount of geologic activity, including craters from volcanic activity, so it’s believed that the Mammoth Fault formed during one of those episodes.
To visit: park at the Mammoth Fault trailhead and hike just over a quarter mile into the forest. You can also bike to this point, but it’s quite the uphill leading to the trailhead.
Unique Geologic Features in Mammoth Lakes
I love either stumbling across geologic anomalies or seeking them out. Mammoth Lakes has a lot of really unique geologic features that aren’t commonly found, even in other highly active hotspots, including Yellowstone National Park or even nearby areas like Reno-Tahoe or Eastern Utah. Mammoth Lakes has some gems! (I love puns, FYI)
Crowley Lake Stone Columns
I first learned about the Crowley Lake Stone Columns when I was researching places for kayaking in the Eastern Sierras. This unique geologic feature is unlike any other I’ve seen in California or anywhere else. The Crowley Lake Stone Columns showed up only after the Long Valley Dam was built for managing the Los Angeles water supply. With the damming came erosion and the columns were exposed.
The Crowley Lake Stone Columns were formed after volcanic eruptions deposited layer upon layer of ash and rock. Time, compression and erosion have formed what you see today, which are small caves, colonnades and cliffs unlike you’d expect to find so near the granite landscape of Yosemite. These aren’t caves like the Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park, but more of carve-outs.
To visit: you can access the Crowley Lake Stone Columns by boat only, going from the nearby marina. Either power boat or kayak are good for reaching them, but if you are paddling, plan to go either very early or late in the day, as it’s a hot paddle with no shade.
Mono Lake Tufa Areas
Another totally unique geologic feature, the Mono Lake Tufas are from another world, straight out of a science fiction landscape. What look like piles of kinetic sand or crusty, white bird poop piles, the tufas are actually petrified hot springs. That’s right: hot spring fossils. Both rising out of Mono Lake and all over the shore areas at the west end of the lake, the tufa formations are bizarre and beautiful.
Since Mono Lake is extremely salty and full of minerals, the shore is quite delicate and the minerals evaporate out, so do not try to get in the water. The stillness of the lake makes for awesome photography though, so enjoy nature’s art as you visit this unique California geology site!
To visit: drive to either the North or South Tufa Area and do the nature trails. Stay on the path at all times, both for your own safety and to preserve the fragile crust.
The Panum Crater
It’s thought that the Panum Crater at Mono Lake formed around the same time as the Mammoth Fault. Plan to visit both sites for a more clear picture of both geologic history and how interconnected events in the earth’s crust are. The Panum Crater is both an area of an explosion and upheaval. Some craters you’ll see in the world drop down into the center and some have an upheaval or dome in the middle. And that’s what you’ll find here. It’s smaller than, but similar to, Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
To visit: drive the gravel road from Highway 395 to the trail head. It’s a short walk and can be visited in conjunction with a stop at the Mono Lake South Tufa Area.
Black Point Canyons
While slot and box canyons aren’t uncommon in the American Southwest, they certainly are in a volcanic area like Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierras. The Black Point Canyons are kind of difficult to get to because of the terrain being desert-volcano, but once you’re there and able to see the rock layers and formations, you’ll be glad you made the almost 1 mile trek.
Formed by an underwater eruption when Mono Lake was much larger, cooling volcanic rock and erosion have made the fissures the unique geologic sight to see on your Mammoth Lakes trip.
To visit: hike .8 miles on the Black Point trail, which is moderately maintained. Bring an offline map in case you get disoriented for the walk back to your starting point.
Hot Springs to Visit at Mammoth Lakes
Hot springs are such a treat to visit, whether they’re well built up or extra rugged… or just pretty to look at. The hot springs near Mammoth Lakes vary greatly in terms of the experience, but each is a unique way to see earth science up close. Not all hot springs experiences are created equal though, so keep that in mind as you plan your visits to the hot springs around Mammoth Lakes.
Hot Creek Geologic Site
We really enjoyed visiting Hot Creek Geologic Site. Due to the chemical composition of the springs at Hot Creek, these are NOT for soaking in and it’s actually illegal to touch them. They are very dangerous, but also beautiful. The Hot Creek springs are very much like what you see at Old Faithful or Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. They’re crystal clear, beautiful blue and have gorgeous terraces to flow down. They’re small, but are chef’s-kiss-pretty.
You can either park at the overlook or you can park further west and do the hike along the stream. The scenery is very nice and it’s an easy hike if you’re in the mood. You can also visit during the winter when it’s covered in snow!
To visit: park at the upper lot and stay on the maintained path to the creek level. Do NOT go off the path due to fragile crust areas and unexpected steam vents in random places.
Wild Willy’s Hot Springs
The best hot spring to visit near Mammoth Lakes, California is Wild Willie’s Hot Springs. This area is maintained by the BLM/National Forest and actually has a nice trail. Park and then walk along the boardwalk to the hot springs. Wild Willie’s Hot Spings consists of several natural pools that you can actually get into. They are mildly built up with rocks to make the pools, so they do cool a bit after exiting the earth’s surface.
When I say that Wild Willie’s Hot Springs is built up, I want to be clear in that it is roughly built up, not formally constructed. If you’ve been to Sol Duc Hot Springs at Olympic National Park or Carson Hot Springs in Carson City, NV then you’ve seen full facilities, and they’re basically hot swimming pools. This is not that.
To visit: drive on the long gravel road and show up already in your swimwear. This is a popular spot, but not everyone gets into the springs, so arrive early or very late in the day.
Note: there are sanicans at the parking area of Wild Willies Hot Springs, but not other facilities.
Crab Cooker / Shepherd Hot Springs
Shepherd Hot Springs is funny. On maps it’s called Crab Cooker Hot Springs area, but in person it’s called Shepherd Hot Springs. It is a small spring that has been built up just enough to make a small pool to sit in. It’s not flowing swiftly, so there is algae that grows. If you’re feeling super au-natural you might feel inspired to get in, but we weren’t. The images online made Shepherd Hot Springs look rustic and perfect. Nope. We arrived and it was surrounded by cows and NOT appealing. Crab Cooker Hot Springs is nearby and is a bit nicer.
To visit: it’s a long, bumpy gravel road from Highway 395 south of Mammoth Lakes. We won’t be visiting this spring again, so keep that in mind if you were planning to visit.
Hilltop Hot Springs
I’m chuckling as I type. I love that somebody connected a pipe and built a soaking area. Someone’s heart was in the right place. It’s very similar to Shepherd Hot Springs in that Hilltop Hot Springs is not very nice and it has a substantial amount of algae. If you’re into it and feeling earthy, maybe you’ll enjoy it. We did enjoy the short hike to get there, as it’s through a nice field with a mineral stream and rough boardwalk, but the springs themselves aren’t great.
To visit: park at the first parking area, not the end parking area, and enter the trail through the wire fence. It’s an easy quarter mile to the springs.
Did you know there were so many unique geological features around Mammoth Lakes, California. You could plan to visit all of them and make it an epic science field trip weekend or just enjoy the sights as a nice change of scenery. We loved our time in Mammoth Lakes, both for the fun things to do and the great food to eat in Mammoth.
If you have additional sites you think we should include or if you have questions about visiting Mammoth Lakes, leave a comment or send us a note. Happy traveling!