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Crystal Lake

Inyo National Forest

June 27th, 2009

2.6 miles
850 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:04

Starting elevation
9036 feet
Max elevation
9734 feet

Rating: 8/10

Directions: From Mammoth Lakes, take Lake Mary Road up to Lake Mary. Turn left onto the road toward Lake George. If you can, park at the near side of the parking lot, as the Crystal Lake trailhead is on the right as you are heading up.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

While it was warmer at the lower elevations, it was comfortably in the 70's at the trailhead at about 9000 feet elevation. The Lake George parking lot was completely full when we arrived, so we had to park down below, on the side of the road, then walk back up. Note, this is also the same parking lot for the TJ Lake trailhead, a hike we did a few years earlier.

People always worry about mosquitoes in the Sierras in June and July, but they were not a problem at all on this hike. Everything seemed perfect as we started up the trail through the forest.

We quickly passed several cabins on the left. We were also passed by many hikers, including many with dogs. It's a fairly popular trail, but it never felt too crowded. The one problem we encountered was snow. As we reached a little higher elevation, we encountered patches of snow on the trail. Some of these were easy to walk around, and some were easy to walk on, but a few were difficult for the kids to navigate. It was also quite easy to lose the trail. At one snow patch many people continued straight while the trail actually did a hairpin left turn.

There's no real danger of getting completely lost, however, because of the geography. As long as you keep going up and stay more or less to your left, you'll reach the lake eventally. We mostly stayed on the trail as we climbed up to great views of Lake George below (to our left) and the surrounding mountains. We met another couple with two older kids. I took a picture for them, and they went ahead of us. A few minutes later, however, they turned around, saying it was too hard to follow the trail.

View of Lake George from the trail

Trail leading up

We weren't planning to give up, but it was slow going and we were hungry, so we stopped on the ridge above the lake to have lunch. While we couldn't enjoy Crystal Lake on our lunch break, we did have a great view.

Lake George and Lake Mary

After lunch, we continued up the trail. At first. Pretty much everyone else decided it was easier to head off trail because of the snow. Eventually, we had to do so, too, although we tried to roughly follow the trail as much as we could. Going off trail here means that it's much steeper, and it's hard to make your own switchbacks because of the snow patches.

View from our lunch spot

Shortly thereafter, though, we reached the crest of the climb and could see Crystal Lake in front of us. After a few minutes of descent, we reached the outlet stream (which eventually flows over a cliff and down to Lake George). There are trails on both sides of the outlet stream (which was easy to cross by hopping rocks). Since the afternoon sun was on our right, I decided to stick to the trail on the right side of the lake. If it were morning, I would have chosen the opposite side. As a basic rule of thumb, if you're taking photographs it's usually better to have the sun behind you (although of course that's not always the case).

Mammoth Crest above Crystal Lake

Split rock at Crystal Lake

The trail along the shore is very narrow, and it probably goes around the whole lake. We went a little ways up the shore before finding a perfect spot to stop, with a large rock at the edge and ample room to lie down and rest. The lake is a very pretty sight, with Crystal Crag mountain rising up like a sharp fin on the opposite (eastern) side, and snow-covered mountains rising up on the southern side. The snow reached all the way to the water's edge in a few small spots.

Closer look at Mammoth Crest above Crystal Lake

Rocks in the waters of Crystal Lake

Crystal Crag reflecting in Crystal Lake

Despite all the hikers we saw during the hike, we had our spot by the lake all to ourselves. There was another small group sort of next to us, but because of the dense brush along the shore we hardly noticed them. We spent more than an hour here, enjoying the lake. Finally, we pulled ourselves up and started back the way we came. At the outlet stream I noticed several small fish (maybe 6-8 inches long) swimming around in the outlet stream. I'm not sure if there are larger fish in the lake. There were some people fishing, but not a lot.

View from the outlet stream

The descent was very quick, as we knew basically where all the snow patches were and how to best avoid them. We quickly made our way down to the ridge overlooking Lake George, down past the cabins, and back to the trailhead.

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