Dispersed Camping - A Mammoth Lakes Adventure

I find that when I come back from time up in the mountains in the eastern sierras I am completely at peace and full of zen. Sitting in traffic for the first few days back after a trip commuting to and from work usually doesn't even bother me - I'm still on my high from alpine air and pine trees. This past weekend was a planned backpacking trip in Mammoth Lakes, but as Robbie Burns writes "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

McGee Creek Trail, Mammoth Lakes

Our plan for the Fourth of July weekend was to spend the weekend in Mammoth Lakes, specifically hiking the McGee Creek Trail, camping for two nights on the trail and spending another night in town after we came down from the mountains.

Bailey made sure he wasn't going to get left behind when we were packing.

Bailey made sure he wasn't going to get left behind when we were packing.

Convict Lake

Our first night in Mammoth was spent outside of town at our favorite spot, Convict Lake. We've been there countless times, but had never camped at the campground before and after this trip we'll definitely be returning.

Even though it was the Fourth of July weekend and the campground had been fully booked for several months, it felt incredibly private, quiet, and peaceful. As always the lake was incredibly beautiful and magnificent.

Convict Lake

Convict Lake

Convict Lake Campground

Convict Lake Campground

McGee Creek Trail

Our plan was to get up early on Saturday and get on the trail right away to beat the heat of the day. We were successful and managed to get on the trail by 7:30am. The day was already starting to warm up, but it was absolutely beautiful.

McGee Creek Trail

McGee Creek Trail

The trail leads into the John Muir Wilderness, which is dog friendly, and you only need a permit if you plan to camp overnight on the trail. You can get a permit at Recreation.gov here and then pick it up in Mammoth Lakes at the Welcome Center. As always when backpacking in the wilderness in California you'll need a bear vault for your food and a camp stove permit if you plan on using one to make meals. You can get a California Campfire Permit here for free and its good for the entire state. 

Packed Bear Vault

Packed Bear Vault

Our plan was to make it to Big McGee Lake, about 6.3 miles up the trail. We planned to base camp at that lake and spend the weekend day hiking around to all of the other lakes in the area.

McGee Creek Trail to Big McGee Lake

McGee Creek Trail to Big McGee Lake

The trail has a gentle incline the entire way - it was much easier than hiking the Convict Creek Trail we did last year, but we did start to feel it about a mile in. That being said, it was a much easier incline up and into the mountain pass. We passed amazing fields of wild flowers and crossed run off streams from the snow still melting from the mountains above us. After a few miles in we came on the "creek", which was more of a rushing river.

About three miles in we were about to enter a small forest of trees, much to our relief to get some shade from the sun, but another couple who started out on the trail before just emerged and told us what was ahead. Apparently we had another "creek" crossing coming up and a beaver dam to bypass, but even before we got there we were warned of the flies and mosquitos up ahead - it was so bad they had decided to turn back. The amount of flies on the the trail had increased the further up we got and any time we stopped we had to continue to flap our hands in front of our face and around our bodies to keep them away. Poor Bailey he was covered in flies as soon as he stopped as well. After some discussion we decided to stop before continuing on to come up with a game plan to either fight through the bugs or find a spot to camp where we were. We climbed up a steep hillside next to the trail and briefly put up our tent on a flat to try and avoid the bugs. Unfortunately, we were pretty exposed in the sun and our tent was making us sweat while we were inside. After about an hour of debating and sweating and watching the thunder clouds build above us, we decided to pack it in and return back to the car.

Our weekend up in the mountains was thwarted and while we were disappointed to be heading out so soon, we were glad to be escaping the bugs, heat, and oncoming thunderstorm that started about 20 minutes after we made it the hour and a half hike back down to the car (always faster going down than up!). But now that we were back in the car we were semi-homeless, we had our tent, but every campground and hotel in the Mammoth Lakes and Bishop area were completely booked for the next two days. Thankfully, Tom had done some research and we started figuring out where we were going to disperse camp for the weekend.

Dispersed Camping Mammoth Lakes

Dispersed camping means camping anywhere inside a National Forest where it is allowed and outside of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no facilities (no trash, no bathrooms, no picnic tables, no fire pits). Dispersed camping is basically the same as backpacking for us - packing out all trash, keeping our site clean, and storing the bear vault far away from where our tent is. You can hike in to dispersed camping areas, or luckily for us, we found some off the side of a road so we didn't have to carry our heavy packs down another trail for the second time that day.

We finally found home eight hours later alongside Mono Lake.

We finally found home eight hours later alongside Mono Lake.

Mammoth Lakes is surrounded by the Inyo National Forest and nearby Mono Lake. We stopped at the Mono Lake Visitor Center where the rangers were incredibly helpful and provided us this map, which you can also get online here.

Inyo National Forest Dispersed Camping Map

Inyo National Forest Dispersed Camping Map

The most important thing to remember when dispersed camping (and backpacking) is to leave no trace - be respectful of your surroundings and for those who will come after you. Then you will all get to enjoy the beautiful surrounds and views like these:

While we were bummed we didn't get our full backpacking trip in, we were happily surprised at the new camping spots we did come across. We were able to explore more of the Mammoth Lakes area, outside of town, and some of June Lakes as well. If you can backpack you can easily disperse camp and still find yourself completely alone on a busy holiday weekend among all the beauty nature has to offer.