Camping Guide:Mammoth Lakes, CA

mammoth lakes, surrounded by forest

The small, boujee town of Mammoth Lakes is bigger than its britches in more ways than one. With a population of just around 8000, it features a world class ski resort (and accompanying village), so respected by the town’s residents that many of the children dedicate an entire day of school every week just to learning to ski and snowboard. Weighing in at a whopping 25 square miles in total area, the town hosts dozens and dozens of restaurants. A multitude of hot springs, mountain vistas, giant red fir forests and all-you-can-see deserts surround Mammoth Lakes. All of this action packed into such a small place also comes with a high price tag. So how can one experience everything this upscale community in the Eastern Sierras has to offer and still save a pretty penny or two?

Fortunately, the area is loaded with places to camp (some 75 or more!), the majority of which are free and, even better, stunningly exquisite.

We’ll leave the exploration of town up to you, but to make life easier, we’ll show you all of the best places to camp in the area, so you can sort through the rocky rumble and get straight to those toes-out-the-back-door scenic vistas so many a traveler comes to Mammoth Lakes to enjoy.

Before we do though, a quick note on “free camping.” In the United States, millions of acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management property are open to the public. You know the song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land?” It’s exactly like that. All of us own it, and we’re fortunate to have so much free space to pitch our tent–or in this case, our Trail Mix Class B RVs!–and enjoy the natural features of this nation. But while it seems like a right, it’s actually more of a privilege. It’s our responsibility to take care of the places we camp, and we’ll touch on more of those principles throughout this article.

If we all take care of our natural, public lands, then we ensure they’ll be here for us, and our great-grandchildren, to enjoy for millennia to come.

Free RV Camping Near Mammoth Lakes, California

Camping for free near Mammoth Lakes is that special kind of priceless free. There are so many options, from wide open desert to forested mountain to access to hot springs, which are often also free. The area is sandwiched on both sides by mountains, with the stunning Sierra Nevadas to the west, the White Mountains–home to some of the oldest living trees on the planet–to the east.

The Top Three

The crowd favorites all come in that mountain forest variety. Glass Creek Campground (GPS: 37.7515, -118.9892), about 15 minutes from Mammoth Lakes, is all about the large, trout-laden creek for which its named, running immediately through the campground. It is an official campground, with 66 designated sites, some directly adjacent to the water, and all fairly well spread out. Expect to be able to see your neighbors here, but great cell service, easy access, each site having a picnic table and fire ring, and clean vault toilets make this one of the most visited locations in the area. Despite being an actual campground, there is no fee to stay here, and the sites are all first-come, first-served. No other amenities, including water and trash service, are to be had.

Note that the entire region is bear country, and bear boxes are not provided at most of the free camping areas, so be sure to store your food and other scented items safely in your vehicle.

Nearby, Owens River Road (GPS: 37.737, -118.9677) foregoes the campground model in favor of dispersed camping, i.e. finding an already established open spot in the desert to call your own. Aside from pristine forest and the occasional commanding view of distant mountain ranges, there are no other services here, so bring everything you need, and don’t forget to pack it all back out when you leave.

The bronze medal goes to Deadman Campground (GPS: 37.7206, -119.0094), also in the same area as the two previously mentioned free campgrounds, and another example of an official United States Forest Service campground provided with no fee. Like Glass Creek, each of the 30 campsites comes with a picnic table and fire pit, there are vault toilets on site, and Deadman even has a few bear boxes. Deadman Creek flows between the Lower and Upper divisions of this campground. Unlike Glass Creek, it’s a little further off the beaten path, which gives you a slightly higher chance of scoring a spot here during busier times of the year.

It’s also important to remember that fire permits are required in the Inyo National Forest and nearby BLM land, where all of these free sites are located. Permits are not required in developed campgrounds. Fire restrictions throughout the year may make it illegal to have any type of fire.  Campfire permits can be obtained online here.

Hot Springs Camping Near Mammoth Lakes

Leaving the Inyo National Forest behind in favor of BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), free camping in the desert east of Mammoth Lakes often comes with easy access to natural hot springs.

The Rock Tub Hot Springs (GPS: 37.6475, -118.8078), south of Mammoth Lakes, is little more than a few wide spots in the road where it’s cool to setup camp, within walking distance to a not drastically hot spring. The available spots, and hot spring tub itself, tend to fill up quickly, but if you can score a place to camp here, you can just wait out the crowds and often have the hot spring all to yourself, for awhile at least. Just be aware that you may have a difficult time comprehending just exactly how spectacular the Eastern Sierras, rising tall and unobstructed in the distance, truly are.

In the same vicinity, free camping can be found along Whitmore Tubs Road (GPS: 37.6592, -118.8092) and on Benton Crossing Road (GPS: 37.6602, -118.7896). Shepherd Hot Springs is within a half mile’s walk of the GPS coordinates posted above for Whitmore Tubs Road, while the Rock Tub is just under a mile away. Pulkey’s Pool, also known as the Hilltop Hot Springs, are mere feet from the GPS coordinates marked for Benton Crossing Road above.

Here is a list of the hot springs open to the public in the area:

Caution: There are many more hot springs than just those listed above. Don’t enter hot springs if you’re not absolutely sure that they’re safe, as there are springs in the area that can downright melt you!

You may also want to be aware that these will not be your personal hot springs, and you’ll almost definitely be sharing them with another group. That group may have come to party, and they may intend to do it all night long. Which could drastically affect how comfortable it is camping so conveniently near one of these pools of rejuvenating delight. At worst, you’ll be able to get up before the crowds roll in and enjoy the spring to yourself come dawn.

Additional camping near springs can be found at Hartley Springs Campground (GPS: 37.772, -119.037), a more formalized (but still free) campground north of town, back in the Inyo National Forest, which provides vault toilets, picnic tables and fire rings, but no bear boxes or trash service. Across US 395, Big Springs Campground (GPS: 37.749, -118.94) offers the same type of setup.

More Free Camping Near Mammoth Lakes, California

  • Glass Flow Road (GPS: 37.7703, -119.0177) Sandy spots with great views in the forest, just west of 395, between Mammoth Lakes and June Lake.
  • Hot Creek Hatchery Road (GPS: 37.6458, -118.8396) Dispersed camping along a dirt road, surrounded by sage brush and unobstructed views in all directions.

Full Hookups RV Camping Near Mammoth Lakes California

One thing the area doesn’t have, surprisingly, is abundant access to paid, full hookups camping. Mammoth Lakes itself only has one full hookups campground, Mammoth Mountain RV Park (GPS: 37.6452, -118.9584), which is located directly in town and therefore walking distance to much of what a happening ski town has to offer. They have a hot tub on site, an indoor, heated swimming pool, playground and rec hall, as well as laundry, showers, flushing toilets, trash service and a general store — everything you won’t find at the free spots above. The convenience of it all will run you $70 per night for full hookups, $55 if you can make do with water and electric. This RV park is open year-round, though no water or sewer are available from November through April.

The other option is Camp High Sierra (GPS: 37.639, -118.991), also in town but on the opposite end, near the ski mountain’s village. At around $40 per night, it’s a bit more affordable than Mammoth Mountain, but they only offer electric hookups. Camp High Sierra takes a more rustic approach to camping, without all of the glam and glitz of Mammoth Mountain.

RV Camping Near the Mammoth Lakes Basin

Just east of town, and accessed from US 395 by driving through Mammoth Lakes, the town, are the actual lakes for which the community is named. Lakes George, Mary, Mamie, Horseshoe and Twin are all very cozy neighbors, and there is no shortage of camping on their shores.

These campgrounds are all run by the Inyo National Forest, and they all cost $24 per night.

Lake George (GPS: 37.602, -119.009) and Pine City Campground (GPS: 37.604, -119.0) hold a total of 25 campsites between the two, all of which are first-come, first-served. Don’t want to take any chances? The remaining three, Coldwater (GPS: 37.5993, -118.9965), Twin Lakes (GPS: 37.616, -119.01) and Lake Mary Campground (GPS: 37.607, -119.007) all accept reservations.

You’ll find flushing toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, trash/recycling and bear boxes at all of the campgrounds. Pine City and Twin Lakes have showers available. Trails abundant lead into the Sierras, and fishing and kayaking are ripe for those looking to enjoy the lakes for the watery playgrounds they are. A BBQ joint offers waterfront deck dining on Mary Lake, and the Tamarack Lodge–on the shores of Twin Lakes–has a restaurant as well.

Inyo National Forest Reservations

Convict Lake, a 15 minute drive south of town, offers a similar experience to the above campsites. For $25 per night, you’ll be camping on a creek, beneath towering cottonwoods, with rugged mountains breaking up the skyline in the distance. Showers, and a bite to eat, can be had at the nearby Convict Lake Resort.

Convict Reservations

In a state practically blanketed with endless beauty, the Eastern Sierras, US 395 in general, and especially Mammoth Lakes can be one of the most stunning visual and spiritually reviving places to visit. From here, you can easily drive north to explore Lee Vining and continue on to Yosemite’s eastern entrance. Have fun!

Cover photo via Wikimedia.