Mammoth: Consolidated Gold Mine to Heart Lake Trail
Date Hiked: August 5, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: Inyo National Forest (760) 873-2400
- Distance: 3.2 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 520 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: Dirt
- Difficulty: Moderate
On our recent family vacation to Mammoth, once Jeff and I realized that the 5-mile hike down from the summit of Mammoth Mountain wasn’t going to be feasible for our kids, we scrambled to find a Plan B hike to tie in with our lunchtime tram ride up the mountain. Jeff did some quick searching online and came across several write-ups touting this hike as short, easy, super scenic and full of history. So we scheduled it for early (early for our family) Friday morning, in time to catch the gondola and enjoy lunch on Mammoth Mountain.
The best place to catch the trailhead is from the day use parking lot at Coldwater Campground off Lake Mary Road — just minutes from the town of Mammoth Lakes. Follow the campground road all the way through the very large campground until it dead ends at the day use lot. Plan to get there by late morning if you want to guarantee yourself a parking spot. This lot provides access to many popular hiking trails and it fills up fast. We arrived around 9am, and by the time we finished our short hike, cars were already circling the lot waiting for people to leave.
The trailhead is accessed from the northeast end of the day use lot, where you will see a larger historical marker highlighting the history of the mine. Mammoth’s gold mining boom lasted less than 4 years, from 1877 to 1881. This trail takes you to the site of the last major gold mining effort in the area — the Mammoth Consolidated Gold Mine, which operated on Red Mountain from 1927 until the Great Depression led to its closure in 1933.
The trail to the mine and lake is soft, lush and heavily shaded by spectacular pines — reminding me of the trails in Big Basin Redwoods State Park along the northern California coast.
After just a few minutes on the trail, you reach a sign that forces you to choose whether to make the mine ruins the first leg of your hike, or to tackle the lake trail instead. We opted to turn left and visit the mine. The bunkhouses are immediately visible after a few steps, and a faint stone-lined trail leads you through a self-guided tour of the buildings that once made up this active mine site.
Upon returning to the main trail, you immediately come up on yet another trail junction sign, which seems a bit confusing since it once again forces you to choose between the mine and the lake. Jeff and the kids thought this referred to the mine buildings we just visited. I noticed a faint trail off to the left heading up above the site, so I wasn’t convinced.
Despite grumbling kids, Jeff and I opted to explore this upper trail, and we were glad we did — it leads to a gated up mine shaft and spectacular views of Lake Mary and the backside of Mammoth.
We once again returned to the main trail and finally started making our climb up to Heart Lake. The trail from this point up to the lake is only about 1 mile each way and just over 500 foot in elevation gain, but it’s a pretty decent workout considering you’re climbing in thinner air at a starting elevation of 9,125 feet. This became quite apparent shortly, when our 13 year old son started hyperventilating (our kids have never done high elevation hikes). After a short rest, he felt calm and acclimated enough to continue the hike — what a trooper!
Each stretch leading out of the tall pines provides exquisite views of the rugged Eastern Sierras, still covered in snow. We even ran into a few small patches of snow along the trail. Set alongside the trail-side meadows full of blooms, this hike is one of the prettiest we have ever seen.
Heart Lake is a tiny beautiful heart-shaped lake that sits like an oasis at the end of the trail. The water was so clear that we could see every single rock and fish under the surface. If you follow the narrow footpath to your left, you will come across a nice shady spot at the northeastern end of the lake that provides the most beautiful views of the lake and makes for an excellent picnic spot. Take a seat on one of the big rocks at the edge of the lake, dip your toes in the water, sit a spell and enjoy your lunch or snack before making the return trip.
Despite the hike being a there-and-back trail instead of a loop, the return scenery is still impressive as you hike with the back of snow-capped Mammoth Mountain in full view most of the time (our lunchtime destination). The soft trail is easy on the knees, but do watch for a few spots with small slippery rocks. Follow the trail back to the mine trail junctions and proceed to the parking lot.
View Mammoth Consolidated Mike and Heart Lake Hike in a larger map