From the craggy pinnacles of the Minarets Range, to the igneous splendor of the Long Valley Caldera, to the sublime ski slopes of an extinct 11,000 foot volcano, a winter experience in this corner of California’s Eastern Sierra promises to be, well, mammoth.
Mammoth Mountain, located in Mono County, is one of the great North American ski resorts, the dream of consummate mountain man Dave McCoy, with humble beginnings in the years around World War II.
In the late 1930s, McCoy took a job skiing the Eastern Sierra wilderness, charting snow depths for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. His love of skiing led him and his friends to set up portable rope tows on several of the local mountains, powered by a Ford Model A truck. And all the while McCoy was honing his considerable ski racing skills.
In 1942, a terrifying race accident hobbled him, but it didn’t deter him from his dream of operating a ski area. He noticed that Mammoth Mountain held a lot of snow and kept it longer, so he and wife Roma concentrated on building up rope tows and a little ski business there, mostly on federal land with permits from the U.S. Forest Service. In 1955, after getting funding from a wealthy ship salvager, they built their first chair lift, Chair 1.
The response from skiers was immediate and legendary. The McCoys were on their way, and in the coming years, they painstakingly and methodically built Mammoth into a world-class resort. The base area was subsequently developed, anchored by the Main Lodge and the Mammoth Mountain Inn, a ski-in, ski-out lodging and dining facility. In 1996, the McCoys entered into a partnership with Intrawest, which built The Village, a complex of hotels, residential and commercial spaces at the mountain’s base, mirroring the resort company’s other creations at Whistler B.C., Stratton in Vermont and Mont Tremblant in Quebec.
The McCoys sold their interest in the resort, which also included the nearby June Mountain ski area, to the Starwood Group in 2005. Now 98, Dave has hung up his skis, but he and his wife still actively pursue their passion for photographing the Eastern Sierra from their all-terrain vehicle.
Today the mountain, with its 28 lifts, including three gondolas and 12 high-speed chairs, 3,500 skiable acres and 3,100 feet of vertical, takes its place in the pantheon of continental ski areas. Its high altitude, California’s loftiest, and an annual average of 400 inches of snow ensure great conditions and long seasons. The area frequently makes it to July 4 before closing, and has even endured into August!
My best day of skiing ever was an early-April morning on this hill, where we awoke to 3 feet of fresh powder, zero degrees, no wind, bluebird skies and the muffled blasts of avalanche charges. Skiers were so delirious and hell-bent that seemingly every square inch of powder was gone in 20 minutes.
The mountain is ringed by three large lodges; Main, Eagle and Canyon, which is linked to the Village by a gondola. If you’re an advanced or expert skier or rider, take the Panorama Gondola from Main Lodge to sample the treats of the upper mountain. At 11,053 feet, you’ll savor the awe-inspiring views of the Minarets Range, the Long Valley Caldera, high desert and the far slopes of the Sierra and White Mountains. The Mammoth Lakes area is considered an active geologic zone, and evidence of volcanic and thermal features dots the landscape. There is even a fumarole, a volcanic vent, on the mountain off of Chair 3.
From the top, experts can drop off into steep, double-black Climax, where the snow quality is sometimes so good, it doesn’t bump out, only fills back in after you carve through. Or, instead, try the aptly named Huevos Grandes. For more expert terrain, head right to the Dragons or left to Dropout and Wipeout chutes, which also are accessed via the venerable Chair 23, a preferred ride, especially in breezy conditions.
Advanced skiers can conquer the upper bowl on groomed Cornice Bowl or sometimes-groomed Scotty’s, both of which offer challenging but less-scary steeps. Try the Face-Lift Express for sustained-pitch black runs. Intermediate blue cruisers are scattered about the mountain, with good concentrations off of Outpost 14, Chair 13 and Eagle Express. Sample the trails off of Cloud Nine for more challenging cruisers. Beginners will gravitate to the greens off of Schoolyard and Discovery chairs.
Mammoth uses a six-level slope rating system instead of four, which allows you to dial in your ability to the slopes more accurately.
For snowboarders and freestyle skiers, the resort serves up perhaps an unequaled system of terrain parks, from the beginner Disco and Wonderland parks to the advanced South Park and Main Park, with its humongous 22-foot Superpipe and giant jumps where the pros play. Try the new Unbound Playground, which offers progressive features for upwardly mobile freestylers to gradually learn new skills.
For cross-country ski enthusiasts, the mountainside Tamarack center offers Nordic skiing and snowshoeing on miles of groomed trails.
Catching a slope-side lunch is easy on the mountain. In addition to fresh and eclectic fare at the lodges, the Mill Café features barbecued treats, and its mobile mini-me, the Little Mill snowcat, pops up in different locations on-slope with casual offerings, including pulled-pork sliders. For sandwiches piled high and amazing views, head up to McCoy’s Station mid-mountain. McCoy’s is also home to fine dining at Parallax, which hosts special mountain events as well.
Heading for après-ski, take the Village gondola down for some perfectly timed happy hours at the local eateries and lounges. Try Gomez’s for fine Mexican food, your sports TV fix and people-watching. Campo has wood-fired pizzas and rustic Italian cuisine. For a little beer-tasting, the Mammoth Brewing Company is just across Minaret Road from the Village.
There are several night spots in the Village. Lakanuki, the Underground Lounge and Whiskey Creek offer live music and/or DJs , food, happy hours and a raucous time. If afterward you find yourself still awake, snag some breakfast at the nearby New York Deli.
Mammoth Lakes, a real, live town, is minutes from the Village and has a multitude of nice restaurants and watering holes. Local favorites include the Mogul Steakhouse, fine dining at Rafters, the Red Lantern for Asian fusion and the legendary Shea Schat’s Bakery for breakfast. And for great Greek seafood, wood-grilled meats and authentic appetizers, not to mention a fun ambience, drop by Jimmy’s Taverna.
During your travels in town you might run into Steve Searles, Mammoth Lakes’ official “bear whisperer.” His job is simple; to convince frisky black bears who wander into town give up on their typical shenanigans, dumpster diving and such. Cool job, cool guy.
Looking for a little vacation variety? Take a jaunt 20 minutes north of town, on the free shuttle, to Mammoth’s sister ski resort, June Mountain. June, which didn’t open last season because of economic concerns, is rarin’ to go this year with seven chairs, 1,400 ski acres, 35 trails and a very respectable 2,590 vertical feet. The area is fully 80 percent beginner/intermediate terrain, which makes it a family-friendly mountain, and you can use your Mammoth ski pass there.
If you have a car, continue on along the June Lake Loop, nicknamed the “Switzerland of California” for its stupendous views of glistening lakes and vertical-faced rocky peaks. Stop in at the Double Eagle Resort and Spa for a fine meal or a rejuvenating massage. Further north on Highway 395 is one of the treasures of the county — the alkaline and very ancient Mono Lake, with its strange limestone Tufa deposits, vast colonies of brine shrimp and very salty water. An important migratory bird refuge and complex ecosystem, the lake was in danger of drying up and dying by the 1980s because of water diversions from Los Angeles. Subsequent successful lawsuits by conservation groups restored replenishing flows into the lake and its viability.
Further north, at Highway 270, is the junction to Bodie, a late-1800s gold-mining boomtown and now a state park, one of the most fascinating ghost towns in the U.S. Down a 13-mile road stand the remaining 110 structures of what was once a city of almost 10,000 people.
The locale is a windswept, God-forsaken, middle-of-nowhere, high-desert plateau where residents were subjected to 100 mph winds, 20-foot snow drifts and minus-30 temperatures. Not only were there physical hardships for residents, but Bodie was also lawless and wicked, exemplified by a young emigrant girl writing in her diary, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.”
The buildings are now in a state of arrested decay, and many are just as they were when abandoned more than 50 years ago by the last residents, with dinner plates on the table and food in the pantry. The park is open year-round but may be difficult to get to. If the road is closed by snow, the only way in is by irregular scheduled snowmobile tours or a long cross-country ski journey. Check local tour companies for status updates.
There are plenty of other adventures awaiting you including hot springs soaks, cultural events and local snowmobile and snowcat tours. Check with your lodging desk or tourism websites.