Red's Meadow and Mammoth Lakes
Red's Meadow and Mammoth Lakes
While the volcano known as Mammoth Mountain has been dormant for about 50,000 years, the Mammoth area and the Long Valley Caldera to the east are one of the most geologically active regions in the western hemisphere. The thermal steam vents, hot springs and other features that riddle the landscape are a constant reminder that the earth here is very much alive, with thousands of small quakes recorded every year.

For northbound hikers who didn't stop at Vermilion Valley, Red's Meadow Resort (800 292- 7758) may be the first time they've seen a paved road in 10 days. That road, and the shuttle bus that runs on it, are the most important features at Red's. This is a key trailhead from the very substantial city of Mammoth Lakes. The other important feature is the resort's resupply package service, which could be essential to hikers who skipped VVR. See the current instructions on the Web site.

The resort operation itself -- cabins, store and a restaurant -- is vastly overpriced and overrated. (If you're planning on resupplying out of the store, figure on paying roughly double what you would at the supermarket just over the hill in Mammoth.) Despite a comfortable stay in a well-appointed A-frame cabin, we came away with the feeling that the operation was little more than a sidelight for a company whose main business is pack trains. The only meal we'd eat again in the restaurant is breakfast. Avoid the store and restaurant entirely if you can. Get a shower at the campground a few hundred yards north and keep moving. If you're in *really* good shape time-wise, you might even be able to make Garnet Lake for the night, one of the most beautiful and overlooked spots in this area.

(Note that if you're planning on having someone meet you out here no private cars are allowed onto Minaret Summit Road past the ranger kiosk at the summit after 7 a.m. The shuttle from Red's Meadow to the Mammoth Mountain ski area main lodge is now $7 each way. In other words, there's no free ride into town anymore.)

Going over the hill into Mammoth Lakes may be a good option here, if you have the time. At least you're getting a full-service supermarket and a shot at better food. As for lodging, there are seven standard chain motels clustered along a four-block stretch of Main Street. Look carefully, as some of them are set well back from the road. While most ski towns steeply discount their lodging stock in the off-season, Mammoth has a sufficient summer tourist trade that it can hold prices relatively high. It's worth it to put in a little legwork: The rate variance can be as much as $40 or $50 from one generic motel to the next. Our go-to pick for value is the Quality Inn (3537 Main St., 760 934-5114). Roberto's Cafe (271 Old Mammoth Rd., 760 934-3667) is a local favorite for Mexican food and the Stove (644 Old Mammoth Rd., 760 934-2821) is the popular place for a hearty breakfast. We didn't much care for John's Pizza Works (3499 Main St., 760 934-4065) and should have listened to the locals who recommended Giovanni's (437 Old Mammoth Rd., 760 934-7563), which is conveniently located in the same strip mall as the supermarket. One block north of there, we liked the burgers at the Fireside (383 Old Mammoth Rd., 760 934-3077). We have yet to try Whiskey Creek (24 Lake Mary Rd, 760-934-2555), but have heard that this bistro is one of the nicest dining spots in town.

Just five minutes south of Mammoth Lakes, in a glacial cirque high above the valley, you will find one of the hidden culinary gems of the East Sierra -- Convict Lake Resort (760 934-3800 for the resort office, 760 934-3803 for the restaurant). The resort, mainly a fishing destination, has what is possibly the only four-star restaurant for hundreds of miles. It is expensive and worth it, with a great selection of big-bodied California reds -- the only Wine Spectator award-winning list between Tahoe and L.A. The closest comparable food may be at the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room in Yosemite Valley. Compared to the Ahwahnee the Convict Lake Resort is a better fine dining value, less pretentious and blessed with more professional service. (Still, you'll find a lot of the 395 locals won't go there even for special occasions because they find it "snooty.") The housekeeping cabins at Convict Lake are clean, with fully furnished kitchens, and represent a good value compared to condo rentals in Mammoth Lakes.