Crystal Lake Trail is one of the best wilderness day hikes within Inyo National Forest that offers incredible views for somewhat little work.
Crystal Lake Trail is 3 miles long round trip and overlooks Lake George and Lake Mary along the way. This hike ends at Crystal Lake, an alpine lake in Mammoth that’s known for its pristine water and clear reflections.
In this post, we cover tips for hiking Crystal Lake Trail in Mammoth including trail location, difficulty, the time needed, and what to expect.
Crystal Lake Trailhead Location
Crystal Lake Trailhead starts by Lake George in Inyo National Forest. There is parking near the Crystal Lake Trailhead but it is limited and shared with people visiting Lake George and staying at the nearby campground.
Crystal Lake trail is one of the most popular day hikes in Mammoth so it can get very crowded. If you plan to hike the Crystal Lake Trail, we recommend getting there very early to secure a parking spot, especially on the weekends. This parking area also has basic restrooms and trashcans.
After finding a parking spot, it was very easy to spot the Crystal Lake Trailhead right off Lake George Road.
Crystal Lake is part of the Mammoth Lakes Basin that includes over a dozen alpine lakes from which most are easily accessible. Some other lakes that you can visit nearby include Lake Mary, Twin Lakes, TJ Lake, McLeod Lake, Horseshoe Lake, and others.
Crystal Lake Trailhead: Lake George Rd, Mammoth Lakes, Inyo National Forest, CA 93546
About Crystal Lake Trail
Crystal Lake Trail is a straight forward 3 mile out and back trail that can be rated as moderate. This trail is very short but can be a bit strenuous due to the altitude and 800 feet elevation gain.
This trail climbs up for the first mile and a half and ends at Crystal Lake. After visiting the lake hikers can turn around and backtrack the same way down.
It took us a couple of hours to hike the entire Crystal Lake trail plus some time at the summit to take in the views and snatch a few photos.
Despite the elevation gain Crystal Lake trail is not very technical although parts do travel over rocks and tree roots so good hiking shoes are a must. This hike is very family-friendly so many people bring their kids and dogs.
Mammoth is known for abundant wildlife so be cautious of bears that you might run into along the trail. We saw a bear around Lake Mary going through some people’s food after they failed to properly store it in a bear canister.
We’ve encountered a bear at every trip to Mammoth and while most are just as scared of people as we are scared of them, following proper food storage ensures the safety of people – and the bears.
What To Expect
Mammoth Lakes is one of my favorite regions for hiking in Central California. We came up to Inyo National Forest to do a few day hikes on the 4th of July weekend. Crystal Lake Trail was listed as one of the top hikes along with Convict Lake that we hiked the day before.
Crystal Lake Trailhead is well marked on Google maps and we followed the directions to Lake George parking lot. We had no reception up in Mammoth so it’s best to set directions ahead of time.
We knew that we would face large crowds on this busy holiday weekend so we arrived at the Crystal Lake Trailhead super early in the morning. There were no spots left in the paved parking lot but people were parking all over the place anywhere cars could squeeze in.
After eating a quick breakfast we set out on the trail. It immediately started to climb up in elevation with lots of switchbacks that continued steadily up to Crystal Lake.
Most of the trail follows along a narrow dirt path with some sections of rocks. The hike was easy to navigate although quite busy so we had to keep moving over to let people pass.
As we started to gain more elevation, we could see views of Lake George and Lake Mary appear through the trees. The higher we climbed, the better the views got.
At the highest point, we had a completely clear panoramic view of the surrounding lakes in Mammoth. It was just breathtaking and my favorite view of the entire hike.
The next section of the trail turns away from the Mammoth Lakes viewpoints and follows through a forest to Crystal Lake.
As you get closer to Crystal Lake you have the option to go left or right. We opted to cross a dried up creek and head to the left on a path that seemed more well-traveled.
Once we reached Crystal Lake the towering mountains in the background looked incredible set against the turquoise lake. The water was crystal clear although very cold.
A few brave souls jumped in the water for a swim but we could hear their joyful screams from the freezing alpine water carry all around the lake.
Although the hike itself was quite crowded, there is plenty of space for everyone to spread out once you reach Crystal Lake.
We even found a secluded pond with beautiful reflections where we sat for a while in complete solitude while enjoying a break and a snack.
Some people even bring their fishing gear and fish off the rocky bay. Crystal Lake is popular for catching rainbow, brook and golden trout.
After visiting the lake, the way back is downhill pretty much the entire time. During the way back you get to enjoy more of the beautiful views of Lake George and Lake Mary in front of you. The sun was shining bright by now and the lake color looked especially stunning.
I even put on a zoom lens on my camera and spotted some people paddle boarding down at Lake George.
Overall, Crystal Lake is one of the best short day hikes that we’ve done in Inyo National Forest.