Horses and Hills At Mammoth Lake CA

View of Lake Mary in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
View of Lake Mary in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Horse Riding at California’s Biggest Lake, Mammoth

By Carrie Dow

Horses do not walk and pee at the same time. Bonanza, the horse I am currently astride, has stopped to pee and our trail ride cannot continue until he finishes. My trail guide Courtney instructs me to stand up on my stirrups so I won’t put pressure on his kidneys. He pees for a good long embarrassing minute. We are only five minutes into our trail ride in

On the trail in Mammoth Lakes, California.
On the trail in Mammoth Lake, California.

the Lakes Basin area of Mammoth Lake, California, and the two young girls at the front of the pack are getting antsy. The girls’ moms laugh hysterically.

“He pees like a racehorse!” says one while they both cackle. Courtney politely ignores the joke with her broad smile. Finally Bonanza is done and we can all continue.

Mammoth Lake Pack Outfit in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains has been offering adventures on horseback since 1915, a whole century. The Outfit offers all kinds of horse trips from daily trail rides to all-inclusive overnight pack trips and covers every rider’s age and ability. The daily rides are the most popular and reservations must be made days, sometimes weeks in advance. Today I am taking the morning trail ride.

Thirty-five people have signed up this Friday morning. Two families who arrived without reservations are turned away. They split us into smaller groups of five, each with its own guide. Our guide Courtney, a pleasant young woman with a long dark ponytail flowing from behind her cowboy hat, has sized us up with one look and selected our horses. She tells us to grab a helmet and a saddle vest and follow her to a wooden deck built up to make it easier for short city folk like me to mount horses.

Riding Bonanza

The registration lodge at the ranch.
The registration lodge at the ranch.

Bonanza, a cinnamon brown beauty with a thin black nose and slight reddish tint to his mane, stands patiently while Courtney helps the two young girls, who are about 9 or 10. She puts them up front since they have never ridden before. One of the moms is a bit nervous so Courtney lines her up next. The other mom claims to ride horses regularly and is at the back with me.

Courtney starts by giving us a short lecture. She shows us how to hold the reigns and takes the time to adjust the young girls’ hands. She tells us if we want the horse to go, we are to give a little kick with our heels and say ‘yah,’ just like in the movies.

If we want to the horse to stop, we are to pull straight back on the reigns and say ‘whoa,’ also like the movies. If we want the horse to go right or left, we simply tug the reigns in that direction. She asks us to stay single file and keep a few feet between each horse.

That’s because the horses will poop while walking so if you don’t want to get a whiff, stay back. Courtney also tells us that

View of Lake Mary from the trail.
View of Lake Mary from the trail.

although horses will poop while walking they won’t while peeing. So if our horse starts peeing we are to shout out so the group can stop and wait. Hence my awkward stance just five minutes into our ride.

Like waves of runners in a 5K, each group leaves in five minute intervals. We cross a paved road and enter the trees. The pumice that makes up the dirt in this region kicks up chalky clouds under the horses’ hooves. Courtney, who can handle the amazing feat of riding while looking back at us, is talking, but since I’m at the back, I can’t always hear. What I can hear are the girls’ delightful giggles, which is only annoying if you can’t appreciate the joy of a first horse ride. The mom who rides asks Courtney how long she’s been doing this.

A Coyote in the Woods

She says she has been with Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit for nine years now, but has been involved with horses her whole life. She grew up in Central California and spent time in Kentucky. She is about to tell us more when a high-pitched bark pierces the air. Courtney points to the trees.

“Can you see that? A coyote is following us!”

I have a hard time finding him until he takes a few steps. He is tiny and yipping away. Courtney says he is calling his pack and that isn’t a good thing. One coyote is not a threat, however, an entire pack could be so she keeps us going.

Horses waiting for riders.
Horses waiting for riders.

After rounding a switchback, we head in a different direction and come upon the rusted remains of mining equipment and rundown buildings. The Mammoth Mining Company was how the town got its name, but it wasn’t named after prehistoric creatures. It was named so investors would think there was a “Mammoth” lode of gold and silver. That proved not to be true and the mine shut down after only three years.

We arrive at a clearing and Courtney has us stop to view Lake Mary, the largest lake in the basin. The deep blue lake is filled with brightly colored kayaks and canoes, as if large crayons floated around on it. Courtney allows us a few minutes to take photos. That means the moms could take cell phone pics without getting chastised about paying attention.

Back in the shade of the trees, the rest of the ride is relaxing as Bonanza keeps a steady, almost hypnotic pace. I hardly move the reigns. Every so often, one the girls’ horses would wander off the trail and Courtney would effortlessly coax them to pull their horse back. The mom in front of me gets her hair caught in the pine needles of tree while trying to take pictures.

Before long we return to the main road and cars wait for us to cross. Hot and sweaty, I am glad to be done, but sad to say goodbye to Bonanza. Courtney has us line up next to

Courtney, the guide on the trail ride through Mammoth Lakes.
Courtney, the guide on the trail ride through Mammoth Lake.

another raised wooden deck for dismounting. She easily moves down the line helping each one of us. Standing on the deck I give Bonanza a pat on the neck and thank him for the ride.

Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit is located at 3244 Lake Mary Road in Mammoth Lakes, CA. Daily rides are for ages 7 and up and can be done in 1 hour, 2 hour, half day and all day rides and cost from $43 to $160 per rider. Visit the website for more information or call 760-934-2434 or toll free 888-475-8747.

Get there:  Alaska Airlines offers direct flights to Yosemite Airport from Los Angeles and United offers flights from San Francisco. Guests can stay anywhere in Mammoth Lakes and get to the Pack Outfit using the town’s free Lakes Basin Trolley. Mammoth Lakes is 325 miles north of Los Angeles, 259 miles east of San Francisco and only 164 miles from Reno, NV.

Stay:  Westin Monache Resort Mammoth is located the town of Mammoth next to a trolley stop. Twin Lakes Campground and cabins are located in the Lakes Basin area, but reservations must be made in advance. Use the Visit Mammoth website for more lodging information.

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Carrie Dow
Carrie Dow



Carrie Dow is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in regional and national magazines including Islands, International Living, and IntervalWorld. She is also the founder of What’s Pawsitive, a website about animal welfare issues around the world. She has been writing for The Drink Nation since September 2012, putting over 25 years of imbibing to practical use. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, she is married to a Chicago sports fanatic and mom to a Siberian Husky. 


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