If you’re looking for excellent day hikes in Mammoth, The Skelton Lake Trail is an easy 3-mile long hike that leads to a pristine alpine lake. You also have the option to do this trail as a loop and visit three different lakes along it (which I highly recommend doing!)
This is a trail that I’ve hiked several times including an overnight camping trip on Skelton Lake itself. It’s an incredibly rewarding hike that is great for beginner hikers, families, and dogs.
In this post, we share what you can expect if you plan to hike the Skelton Lake Trail including where to park, trail difficulty, what route to take, and what to bring. Let’s get started!
Location & Parking
The Skelton Lake Trail starts at the Duck Lake Pass Trailhead, next to the Coldwater Campground. This trailhead can be easily accessible from Mammoth Lakes town within a quick 20-minute drive.
There is a designated parking lot that is located at the far end of the Coldwater Creek Campground for hikers. If you’re doing an overnight backpacking trip along the Duck Lake Pass Trail, this is where you would park as well.
There is usually plenty of parking available at the trailhead unless you come on a busy weekend. The earlier you start your hike, the better chances you will have at finding a parking spot.
About Skelton Lake
Skelton Lake is one of the most gorgeous lakes in Mammoth that is accessible to visitors via a 3-mile-long trail. Along this trail, you can expect to see dramatic mountain landscapes, crystal clear lakes, and just overall incredible scenery.
The trail that leads to Skelton Lake has a gradual climb that gains nearly 900 feet in elevation with some rocky sections.
This is not a technical trail so it’s doable for most people and kids as well. You might be feeling a bit winded from the altitude – if you do, take frequent breaks, go slow and drink plenty of water.
For the best hiking route, I recommend stopping at Arrowhead Lake first, then hiking to Skelton Lake and on the way back looping around to Emerald Lake. This option extends the trail into a 3.5-mile-long loop but you get to see not just one, but three different lakes on the same visit.
There are many activities that you can do at Skelton Lake including fishing, swimming, camping, and backpacking. If you plan to camp at the lake, you will need a wilderness permit – we’ll cover more about that in a bit.
For those who are interested in fishing, here are some things to keep in mind:
- At Skelton Lake, you can catch & release only. All trout must be returned to the lake unharmed
- Only artificial lures are allowed
- Flies with barbless hooks can be used
- Baits or scented products are not allowed
Skelton Lake is also a very dog-friendly trail. The last time that I hiked this trail I brought my pup Quito with me and he had the best time hiking and playing with other doggies on the trail. Here’s a couple of things that I bring along when hiking with my dog:
- Collapsible dog bowl. A collapsible dog bowl is essential for hiking, camping, and road-tripping with a dog. This bowl collapses small and is lightweight so you can throw it in a backpack and easily carry it everywhere.
- RUFFWEAR dog boots. I always keep these in my backpack when hiking with my dog in case the sand gets too hot for his paws or the trail has very sharp rocks.
- 2 Hounds No Pull Harness. I love this harness because it comes with multiple clip-on points providing more comfort for my dog and extra control for me when hiking.
- Biodegradable poop bags. Dog’s waste can be harmful to wild animals and nature. It’s always good practice to bring extra poop bags and carry dog waste out on day hikes. These poop bags are also biodegradable – even better for Earth! If you forget to bring any or run out, there are doggie bags that you can grab at the trailhead.
Day visitors don’t need wilderness permits to hike the Skelton Lake Trail. But if you plan to camp at the Skelton Lake overnight, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit ahead of time.
We camped at Skelton Lake by accident one year – our goal was to backpack all the way to Duck Lake but a few miles in the trail was completely covered in snow and Skelton Lake was as far as we could get.
Depending on weather conditions, hiking and backpacking in Mammoth can be a hit or miss. The higher in altitude you go, the higher chances you will have of encountering snow.
For Inyo National Forest wilderness permits you can go on the Recreation.gov website here and see what permits are available:
- Click on “Explore Available Permits“
- It will ask “Is this a commercial guided trip?” – select “No”
- For Permit Type, select “Overnight”
- Enter the group size (ex. 2 people)
- Select the date that you are interested in camping
Skelton Lake is part of the Duck Pass route so getting a permit for Duck Pass will allow you to camp at Skelton Lake as well. Scroll down to “Duck Pass” and it will show how many permits are available on the nearby dates.
For overnight camping trips, you will need a bear canister because bears are very active in Mammoth. We’ve had a run-in with a bear on just about every Mammoth trip we’ve been on and a bear canister will keep both you and the bear out of harm’s way. We have the BearVault BV500 canister which is very spacious and fits all of our food, toiletries, and other scented items for backpacking trips.
If you’d rather stay in an established campground, the Coldwater Campground is located near the trailhead and offers campsites for around $23 a night. For Coldwater Campground reservations see more here.
Hiking Skelton Lake Loop
So what can you expect to see along the trail? Here is the detailed breakdown of the Skelton Lake hike covering what the trail is like and highlighting some of the main stops.
To start the hike, park at the Duck Lake Trailhead parking lot where you will see a restroom and a large trailhead sign.
From there follow signs for the “Duck Pass Trail”. The trail will venture to the left and start climbing up in elevation across sandy, rocky terrain. Most of the trail is covered under trees but it can still get pretty hot out in the mountains.
About a mile into the trail you will reach a junction for Arrowhead Lake. I recommend going on a short detour to this lake – it will only take a few minutes.
After Arrowhead Lake continue on to the main trail and keep going to Skelton Lake. The trail will get a lot rockier but the path is easy to follow.
1.5 miles into the trail you will reach Skelton Lake. Here you can walk around the shore and enjoy the scenery.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous and are looking for a longer trail option, you can keep going to Barney Lake or even to Duck Lake. I personally decided to turn around after Skelton Lake and start heading back.
On the way back you have the option to venture into the Emerald Lake Trail. The section that leads to Emerald Lake is very rocky and steep but it’s well worth the visit.
Emerald Lake is small but it’s one of the prettiest lakes in Mammoth and consists of a deep green color and jagged mountains as its backdrop. After exploring Emerald Lake you can follow the trail back to the parking lot.
Things To Keep In Mind
- Bring bug repellant. The lakes and meadows along this trail attract tons of mosquitos and they are very persistent. I even saw people turn around and head out because the bugs were too much to handle.
- Use trekking poles. Overall, this is not a technical trail but some sections are pretty steep. Trekking poles can definitely help, especially in the rocky section that goes from Skelton Lake to Emerald Lake.
- Carry plenty of water. I always carry several bottles of water, even on short day hikes. Our California summers are just getting hotter and hotter so bring plenty of water. You’ll be passing several lakes so if you don’t want to carry heavy water bottles, you can also bring a Sawyer water filter and get freshly filtered water from the alpine lakes and rivers in Mammoth.
- Pack mineral sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, and a hat to help with the sun. It’s easy to get sunburned on elevation hikes, even on trails that pass through a forest like this one. Nothing ruins a trip more than a bad sunburn.
- There is a public restroom at the trailhead for visitors. This restroom even has running water and a sink for washing hands – a true luxury for the outdoors. For going #2 outdoors, I recommend using a trowel like The Deuce by TheTentLab. Keep in mind that waste has to be buried at least 100 feet from water sources and all toilet paper needs to be packed out.
- This is a “No Drone” zone. While Mammoth Lakes is not a National Park, drones here are still not allowed.
Other wonderful hikes to explore nearby:
- 7 Incredible Day Hikes In Mammoth Lakes
- McLeod Lake Trail In Mammoth Lakes
- Convict Lake Hike In Inyo National Forest
- Crystal Lake Trail In Inyo National Forest
- Horseshoe Lake Trail In Mammoth Lakes
- Barney Lake Trail In Mammoth Lakes
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