The Fern Lake trail near Mammoth is a short and steep hike, which makes it an ideal spot to get a quick escape into the High Sierra.
Mileage: 3.4 Miles Round Trip
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1580 feet
Day(s) Hiked: 7/14/15
Dog Friendly: Yes
On our recent family trip to the Mammoth Lakes, I was left with the nearly impossible task of finding a couple of hikes that would be suitable for our two year old son but still rugged enough to keep my attention. Finding a sub four mile hike which arrives at a place that feels nearly indistinguishable from the backcountry proved to be just as hard as planning a 5 day off-trail route in the same area. Last summer, Owen was content to stay in our backpack carrier for the most part, which meant that we could do some moderate day hikes as long as we were willing to carry the extra weight. Now, Owen’s patience for the backpack comes in short doses, and we have to plan activities with that in mind. The Fern Lake trail’s short length and big payoff made it seem like the perfect hike for our group. Somehow I had glossed over the fact that it gains about 1000 feet of elevation per mile when averaged out, with an especially steep section towards the end. Owen would make sure that we wouldn’t forget that steep section.
The trail starts out at a tucked away trailhead in between Silver Lake and June Lake. The initial section crosses an aspen forest that is sure to be beautiful during fall color. Riss started the hike out with Owen on her back to help her train for our upcoming backpacking trip. I wasn’t about to complain.
As the trail transitions from the lower aspen grove to the evergreen forest higher up, a fantastic view of Carson Peak looms overhead to help remind you that you are indeed entering the High Sierra.
From there, the trail begins a series of switchbacks up the hill, which quickly placed us above the valley floor and helped provide stunning views of Silver Lake, June Mountain, and the surrounding landscape. The open panoramas are unrelenting and continued to have us take pause at the immense beauty that unfolded around us. The only negative thing that I can say about this stretch is that it also showcases the development in the area and helps remind hikers that they aren’t in the backcountry quite yet. Fortunately, the second part of the hike remedies that.
After about a mile of ascent, the trail reaches Fern Creek, where the trail to Fern Lake splits off from the main trail. The main trail leads past the creek to Yost Lake, which was further than we intended to go for the day. With an anxious child in tow, we turned right and began heading up towards Fern Lake via the side trail.
At this point, the grade of the trail steepens dramatically, and Riss was wiped out from carrying Owen up the first mile of trail, which meant that I was the lucky recipient of a 45 pound pack for this tough stretch. Carrying a heavy load up an extremely steep trail like this is tough at a slow pace. Having spent about an hour in his backpack carrier already, Owen was no longer in the mood for a slow pace. The second that I would stop to try to catch my breath, he would begin screaming and poking at me to continue up the trail. It didn’t take long before I was unable to perform to these high standards.
I did what any experienced parent would do in this situation and decided to let him hike up the rest of the mountain himself. I was simultaneously very proud of my son’s adventurous spirit and very disappointed in my sad lack of conditioning.
The trail flattens out as it approaches the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which allowed Owen to continue to stroll along towards the lake without any assistance. Our pace was slowed, but our backs appreciated the reduced weight. Getting to see our son enjoy the trail was the highlight of the day anyways.
After close to two miles of climbing, we reached Fern Lake where we could finally take a load off and relax. This lake is very nice, and due to its rugged surroundings and relative lack of popularity, we suddenly felt transported into the Sierra backcountry.
Owen and Callie immediately took to the water. Owen focused on finding whatever objects he could throw into the water, while Callie’s objective was to harass any wildlife that she could come across. They both accomplished their missions with great success.
Our objective was to simply enjoy spending time in this amazing place with our family, which comes quite naturally here. There are often some trying moments when trying to take your kids on an adventure like this, but the rewards almost always outweigh the additional effort.
We lingered at the lake for a couple of hours, watching as a number of groups of dayhikers came and went, and eventually it was our turn to head back down the trail. The views heading down were spectacular as the trail regularly framed the beautiful June Lakes Loop for us down below.
This was Owen’s last Sierra adventure for 2015, and as I write this, I am already excited for where our next family Sierra adventure might bring us.