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California's Mammoth Lakes puts families in adventure mode, with fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and creek-leaping. (Photograph by Todd Bigelow)

Great Family Trips: Mammoth Lakes

The family vacation, like the concept of family itself, has evolved. Kids are traveling with grandma or a single parent or an indulgent uncle (or all three). However you define your kin, this California itinerary is all relative.

> Why Go:

Fishing’s a big part of the summer lure at pooch-friendly Mammoth Lakes, in California’s eastern Sierra, but families will find much more than fins to occupy them.

Thirty-two miles south of Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain and Mammoth Crest tower above the town and a basin with nearly two dozen glassy lakes.

A happy byproduct of coming here with your young ones? Invaluable yet ever elusive one-on-one time while waiting for a bite on the line.

> The Plan:

After arriving at Mammoth Yosemite Airport and renting a car for a week at the lakes, the family can throw up the tent at Coldwater Campground near Lake Mary, pick a cozy cabin at Tamarack Lodge along Twin Lakes, or go comfy at Westin Monache Resort, which also provides a “Heavenly Dog Bed” for the family pet.

Get your bearings with a sweeping panorama of the dramatic Sierra at Minaret Vista. At the Main Lodge, take the Reds Meadow Shuttle Bus down to Devils Postpile, a weird wall of multisided volcanic basalt columns 60 feet high. Kids love sliding down broken columns at the base.

For noontime rainbows, hike two miles to 101-foot-tall Rainbow Falls. Later, Mammoth Fun Shop is a must-stop for a root-beer float, gummy bacon, and air freshener redolent of popcorn.

The free Lakes Basin Trolley hauls visitors and their gear from town up to the Lakes Basin trailheads. Choose among five one-mile trails to trout-stocked lakes. Bike level paths and then coast five miles downhill back to town.

If Rover gets muddy, Tailwaggers Gourmet Dog Bakery & Boutique has a self-serve dog wash. Its best-selling doggie treat is the peanut-butter-and-bacon bone cookie.

Another day, take a kayak tour on Mono Lake with Caldera Kayaks, gliding past bizarre gray tufa spires jutting like ghouls out of the water. Continue driving to Bodie, a gold-mining ghost town so well preserved that it looks as if everyone got spooked and fled one afternoon. Alas, no nuggets got left behind. Snap dizzying selfies next to cockeyed buildings, outhouses, and gravestones.

Mom starts the next day with a strong cuppa at Looney Bean. Then it’s off to the Adventure Center across the street from the Main Lodge to zoom on a 100-yard-long zip line, go bungee-trampolining, and scale a 30-foot climbing wall.

Tonight’s dinner is tacos at Gomez’s Restaurant & Tequileria, where dogs sit on the patio next to kids playing in a sandbox—while mom samples one of 150 tequilas.

Drive to Rock Creek the following day and hike a nearly flat trail at 10,000 feet in wildflower-filled Little Lakes Valley. The challenge: who’s first to spot a chipmunk, ground squirrel, marmot, or deer.

Stop at Pie in the Sky Café to indulge in a slice of mud pie: chocolate crust with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, fudge sauce, whipped cream, and nuts. (There’s apple or blackberry for mom.)

> Don’t Miss:

Ride the scenic gondola to the summit of 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain for a 360-degree view of where you’ve been playing.

Ambitious older kids can hike or mountain bike down, although you might want to avoid bike trails named Skid Marks and Kamikaze.

This piece, reported by April Orcutt, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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