Family Camping in Inyo National Forest
ne of my earliest camping memories was with my aunt and uncle, sausaged between my cousin and little sister in the back of a Ford Explorer, tugging a tent trailer across the western United States. We collected pen pals and junior ranger badges, rode a helicopter over Mount Rushmore, tasted bison burgers and huckleberry ice cream, hunted for mythical jack-elopes, and explored ancient Indian civilizations built into cliffs. As a kid, all I had to do was show up and have the time of my life.
Now that I'm an aunt, I'm excited to pass on some outdoor fun to my nephew. But first, I needed to get some experience. So I invited my friend Traci and her two girls, ages eight and 11, to go camping with me in Mammoth Lakes. I also invited my friend Jennifer, an educator and science camp veteran, to teach me some tips and tricks.
Located in the High Sierras of California in the Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Mountain is known for its premier ski resort. When the snow melts, the area transforms into a different kind of wonderland, featuring alpine lakes, geothermal hot springs, ghost towns, and granite cliffs.
If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of taking the kids camping, I'm right there with you! But with a few helpful hints, proper planning, and a good “go-with-the-flow” attitude, here's how you can create a memorable experience for your family. And why not start in Mammoth Lakes, California?
Where to Stay
For family camping newbies, Shady Rest and Pine Glen Group campgrounds are conveniently located in town — across the street from the supermarket, Mammoth Hospital, and the Visitor Center. Take a stroll or bike along the paved Old Shady Rest Trail, which runs through the campground.
What to Bring
A four-person tent should comfortably fit two adults and one small child (or one adult and two children) with a little extra room for bags and toys. If this is your first family camping trip, and you’re not ready to invest in gear, Get Outfitted offers a convenient rental with the Family Camper Package, which includes the tent, sleeping bags, and pads for up to four people.
Tips and Tricks
Stay hydrated, wear sun protection, and bring plenty of snacks to avoid side effects of high altitude.
Make sure kids have the right gear, including comfortable hiking shoes, hat, sunglasses and backpack. Kids grow so fast, they might have outgrown the boots you bought them six months ago!
Keep a few activities on hand at basecamp in case of unexpected weather or an upset tummy; think board games, arts and crafts, or puzzles.
Arrive early afternoon at Pine Glen Campground in Mammoth Lakes. Stretch legs with an easy two-mile out-and-back hike to T.J. Lake. Starting from the Lake George parking lot, the trail climbs 350 feet and continues past Barrett Lake to T.J. Lake. Return back to camp for dinner, s'mores and stories around the campfire.
In need of a diversion? Try playing the Chain Story. Start off with a sentence like, “Once upon a time…” Continuing around the campfire, take turns adding a sentence to build the story. It can be as wild and imaginative as you want!
In the morning, take a trip back in time to explore the ruins of Mammoth Consolidated Mine Camp, a one-mile out-and-back hike. The gold mine was active from 1927 to 1933, producing only about $100,000 worth of gold. The site includes the original miners’ bunkhouses and the remains of a diesel-powered ore-processing mill.
Most of the trail is shaded, but the girls were feeling hungry and hot by the end. Reward your little hikers with a picnic lunch and a refreshing dip at Horseshoe Lake, the only lake in Mammoth Basin where swimming is permitted.
Afterwards is a good time to check back in with the group. Are we feeling excited about more adventures, or do we need a nap and some quiet time? You don’t have to accomplish a robust itinerary. As long as the kids are having fun outdoors, you’ve succeeded!
If adventure is on the agenda, here are a few options for afternoon activities:
Hike the 1.8-mile flat loop around Horseshoe Lake. Challenge the kids with a nature scavenger hunt to keep them entertained and the pace slow. Teach a few Leave No Trace principles by encouraging them to draw or paint the found objects instead of collecting them.
Load up the car for a 45-minute road trip to Mono Lake, and hike the flat, one-mile self-guided South Tufa Trail, one of the largest groves of the unusual limestone rock formation on the lake. On the return trip, if the kids still need to burn off some energy, make a pit stop to climb Obsidian Dome, a mile-long, 300-ft tall mound of black glass that is part of the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain.
If all else fails, don’t forget about the Visitor Center and the Old Shady Rest Trail near your campground. Let the kids ride their bikes and find some new penpals.
End your day with a night hike on the Shady Rest Trail. Look at the stars, listen to nocturnal wildlife, and observe how your senses adapt to darkness. The Star Walk app will help you identify constellations. Turn up the volume to hear the space-themed soundtrack.
Let there be pancakes! Breakfast is my favorite meal to prepare in the outdoors and it always reminds me of the comforts of home. (But first, coffee for the adults.)
Pack up camp and head to Hot Creek Geological Site. Take a self-guided tour of the active geothermal springs and geysers, situated on the Long Valley Caldera. Swimming is prohibited here, but Mammoth is studded with secret hot springs. We decided to hunt around, but it was too hot outside to spend much time in them. Take your chances and search for some yourself, or rent a canoe and cool off at Convict Lake off of Highway 395.
Before hitting the road back to Los Angeles, make one last pit stop at Holy Smoke Texas Style BBQ in Bishop. Over lunch, talk about your favorite moments from the weekend — and decide where you want to go next. [H]
Alyx is the adventure guide and s'mores connoisseur behind Shoestring Adventures, bringing California weekend warriors into the outdoors.
She enjoys standing on top of mountains and turning strangers into friends over weekend camping trips.
You can follow her adventures on the Shoestring website and Instagram. Better yet, join Alyx on her next trip!
Images ©: Alyx Schwarz