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VISITORS TO MAMMOTH LAKES, CA, will find new signs to help navigate the hundreds of miles of recreational trails that wind in and around this area in the eastern Sierras.

arrow From the Summer 2009 issue of American Trails Magazine


Finding your way at 8,000 feet

big trailhead sign

Trailhead sign for Mammoth Lakes Trail System


Picture yourself hiking along a remote trail through the Sierra Nevada mountain range looking out over lakes the color of the sky. Now imagine getting lost in the forests that surround those lakes, and having no idea how to find your way back to your car. That’s the type of situation visitors to Mammoth Lakes, California, sometimes find themselves in throughout the year.

Help is on the way, thanks to a new signage system developed by Michigan-based wayfinding firm Corbin Design in conjunction with the Town of Mammoth Lakes. The region, high in the Eastern Sierra mountain range, is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. The town shares the range with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (one of the nation’s top ski resorts) and is encircled by Inyo National Forest, which features two million acres of public land and access to national treasures including Devils Postpile National Monument and Yosemite National Park. Lakes, streams, and natural hot springs dot the rugged terrain.

While the local year-round population is just 7,500, the range of recreational opportunities draws nearly three million visitors to the town each year. The new signage system, the subject of a demonstration project being installed this summer, will help visitors and residents locate and better navigate the hundreds of miles of recreational trails that wind in and around Mammoth Lakes. It will also help them identify whether they’re in the Town of Mammoth Lakes, on U.S. Forest Service land, or at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area—presently a tricky task given the maze of interconnected trails and the expanse of wilderness involved.

Steve Speidel, principal planner for the Town of Mammoth Lakes, said the signage system is part of a new Trail System Master Plan that considers the town’s—and region’s—trail needs for the next 25 years. It updates the town’s original trail system plan from 1991, looking beyond its four-square-mile urban core to its entire 25-square-mile footprint and beyond.

graphic of trail signs

Sign height can be adjusted to be visible above

high snow levels

The Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA) Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for planning and stewardship of the trail network, has been working with the Town on the master plan, in coordination with the Forest Service and with support from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. In 2007, MLTPA and the Town brought in Jeff Corbin, founder of the wayfinding firm Corbin Design and one of the founding members of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, to educate the community on what a coordinated wayfinding system could do for the region. The Town was already working with the Forest Service and Alta Planning + Design, a planning firm out of Seattle with offices in six states, on the Trail System Master Plan update. Corbin Design joined the team in 2008 to develop the wayfinding portion of the plan.

The result is a family of 11 sign types, including vehicular and pedestrian guides, park and trail portal identification markers, trail information kiosks, trail guides and interpretive kiosks. The signs display the types of use that a trail is designed for—hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, dog walking, etc.—along with the location or trail name. Information signs also display maps of the area, and signs in more remote locations include a special rescue location number that emergency personnel can use to pinpoint the location of a hurt or stranded person.

The signs are also designed to cope with the region’s harsh weather—more than 30 feet of snowfall per year coupled with high altitude and the intense sun that comes along with it. (The Town of Mammoth Lakes sits about 7,900 feet above sea level, while Mammoth Mountain’s summit rises to more than 11,000 feet.) Structural steel beam frames hold painted aluminum panel signs with a protective clear-coat finish or fiberglass panels with embedded graphics. Trail information kiosks sport a corrugated metal roof to shield people viewing the kiosk maps.

The signs are designed to blend with the environment, with an earth-tone color palette and steel beams that oxidize slightly to give the signs a weathered look. Several sign types use a unique extension method developed by Corbin Design that lets the sign face be easily raised or lowered on its post as snow depths change. The Town plans to install a prototype version of the system around the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center this summer, involving 25 sign locations. “It’s the first opportunity for us to greet people as they come into town,” Speidel said. “The purpose (of the prototype installation) is to receive public input on a trial prototype basis, to familiarize the public and the users with the proposed system, and to also demonstrate integration with the Forest Service sign type array.”

Speidel noted that the U.S. Forest Service is currently working on interpretive signage for several Forest Service facilities, and that the signage system developed for the Town of Mammoth Lakes is having an impact on those designs. “The Forest Service was very impressed with that,” Spiedel said. “Corbin has kind of set the tone for the area. Now other interpretive work that’s outside the Town of Mammoth Lakes is reflecting that as well.”

Learn more about Corbin Design at

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