MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. —
The view from the top of California’s Mammoth Mountain took my breath away — and not just because of its stunning beauty.
At 11,053 feet, I stood at an elevation only slightly beneath the summit of Oregon’s Mount Hood. My heartbeat was rapid and my breathing was shallow. Even though I could look west across the High Sierra to the heights of Yosemite National Park, and east for more than 100 miles into the Great Basin lands of Nevada, I was subdued by the rare air.
Not that I needed an altitude adjustment. The snow at this height was light and dry, the breeze as quiet as a whisper. The temperature was a balmy 20 degrees. I could have sworn that my skis were talking to me. “Go the distance,” they seemed to say.
The “distance” was more than 2,200 vertical feet below me, at the base of the Panorama Gondola. It had taken less than seven minutes for the eight-passenger cab to climb nearly a mile from the Main Lodge to the peak of Mammoth Mountain. It took me at least that long to climb a half dozen steps from the offloading ramp to put my skis on.
At this latitude, 140 miles south of Lake Tahoe, it’s only the highest summits that capture the snow. No other U.S. ski area west of the Rocky Mountains exceeds 11,000 feet in elevation. Although Mammoth is among the country’s most southerly resorts, the alpine climate generates an average annual snowfall of 400 inches. As elsewhere in the West, precipitation was down in the three seasons preceding this one. But as of a week ago, as much snow (175 inches) had fallen on the mountain this year as in all of the 2014-15 season.
Because Mammoth is the nearest major ski resort to Los Angeles, most of its market is Southern Californian. On busy weekends, its lift capacity (21,000 skiers per hour) is strained, even with 28 lifts (including three gondolas and 22 chairs) and 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, the most in California. My midweek visit was well timed, as all but one lift remained open, and I had no wait cruising 9 miles, chair to chair to gondola, between Dragon’s Tail and Santiago Bowl on this sprawling mountain.
Let Dave do it
From the top of the Panorama Gondola, there are three ways to descend Mammoth Mountain. Turn to the right, Upper Road Runner follows a crest that drops into a series of chutes and cornices before it eases into intermediate glade runs. If you decide to head straight down, you’re faced with the experts-only headwalls of Climax and Huevos Grande. I chose the left-hand option, a broad bowl called Dave’s Run, steep and fast.
It bears the name of Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. McCoy was a young hydrographer whose job, beginning in the late 1930s, was to measure the winter snowpack and forecast water needs for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He spent much of his time alone, on skis, in the backcountry of the southern Sierra Nevada.
He thrived on that lifestyle, and when he returned to civilization on weekends — according to a story by Peggy Shinn, in the current edition of “Snow” magazine — he installed portable rope tows on more accessible hills to share his passion with friends.
Granted a Forest Service permit to build three lifts on Mammoth Mountain, McCoy opened with rope tows in November 1953. The first chairlift was installed two years later. “Unlike other ski area founders, he did it without investors, taking out small loans and pumping any profit back into the mountain,” wrote Shinn.
For another 50 years, McCoy developed the resort and coached scores of champion skiers. Two of his own six children, Dennis (“Poncho”) and Penny, were U.S. ski team racers in the late 1960s. Finally, in 2005, the McCoys sold their mountain operation to the Starwood Capital Group. The company also owns the Westin hotels, whose luxurious Mammoth Mountain hotel is the resort’s largest.
McCoy once said, “I am in this business to manufacture fun” and to make skiing “as cheap as possible.” With new corporate owners, prices could not remain forever affordable. Today, one-day lift tickets are priced as high as $125, with discounts for youth and seniors.
McCoy, now 100, still lives in nearby Bishop with Roma, his wife of 74 years. He no longer skis, but devotes much of his time to photographing his beloved eastern Sierra region and selling his work through a website. It benefits the Mammoth Lakes Foundation, an educational charity that he founded in 1989.
Although the family is no longer a part of daily operations, the McCoys are still highly honored at Mammoth Mountain. After my descent on Dave’s Run into Saddle Bowl, I paused for lunch at — where else? — McCoy Station, the resort’s mid-mountain restaurant. As I enjoyed my burger, I surveyed a collection of ski photos of the entire McCoy clan.
Mammoth Lakes, the town at the foot of the slopes, has a population of nearly 8,000 and an elevation (7,880 feet) of just under that. Located 3 miles west of U.S. Highway 395, it has been around for longer than Dave McCoy himself. Originally settled as a gold-mining town in the late 1870s, it emerged as a logging community in the 1900s, and its first post office was established in 1923.
Residents numbered only a few hundred until year-round tourism burgeoned, both around the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and a plethora of summer activities — including day hiking and backpacking, mountaineering, horseback riding and mountain biking.
The ski area has four separate access points. Most visitors, it seems, begin their days at The Village. This contemporary complex of hotels, restaurants and shops is clustered around the base of a short gondola that carries skiers over the roofs of vacation homes to the Canyon Lodge, hub of four chairs and two beginners’ lifts. Other lifts rise from the Eagle Lodge at Juniper Springs Resort, in the heart of Mammoth Lakes, and The Mill Café, 3 miles from town. There’s also a tubing play park just below The Mill.
Four miles east and 800 feet higher than The Village, at an elevation of 8,900 feet, the Main Lodge is home to three chairs and the mountaintop gondola. Overnight lodging and dining is available here, and a snowmobile concession explores adjacent Inyo National Forest lands.
In summer, Minaret Road continues another 8 miles past the Main Lodge to Devils Postpile National Monument, its hexagonal black basalt columns evidence of a lava flow that cooled and cracked 100,000 years ago, when Mammoth Mountain was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. In fact, the area remains geothermally active today: As recently as 10 years ago, three ski patrolmen died when they fell into a toxic vent they were working to fence off, and posted signs continue to warn skiers to stay away from emissions of natural gases.
The waters from which Mammoth Lakes takes its name are clustered about 3 miles southwest of town. Carved in the last Ice Age about 14,000 years ago, they include Lake Mary, a mile long and half a mile wide, with several lodges and campgrounds around its shores; and the upper and lower Twin Lakes, home to the Tamarack Lodge Resort and the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center.
Several smaller lakes are accessible only by trail at any time of year. That doesn’t stop the outdoors enthusiasts who trek for miles, by Nordic skis or snowshoes, on trails leading past Lake George and Horseshoe Lake, or to historic sites of erstwhile mining operations. In all, more than 19 miles of maintained track emanates from the ski center, including an extensive section designated for snowshoe travel only.
Sleeping and eating
We stayed a couple of miles from The Village, at the Sierra Nevada Resort. Located on Old Mammoth Road in the original town of Mammoth Lakes, this resort hotel was built in 1967 and once hosted such Hollywood stars as John Wayne, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack.” Stories abound of their late-night escapades beside the grand fireplace in the hotel bar.
Today, however, after a multimillion-dollar remodel, things are a bit quieter at this 149-room, family-owned property. We were delighted to be able to rent our ski equipment from a shop right in the hotel; Black Tie Ski Rentals will even do custom fittings in hotel rooms and swap out equipment on the slopes if you’re dissatisfied. We also enjoyed the use of a large spa and indoor sauna after skiing, and were pleased to have three restaurants within the resort premises.
Jimmy’s Taverna was one of two outstanding dining experiences we had in Mammoth Lakes. On the upper floor of a two-story restaurant building (Red Lantern Chinese is below), Jimmy’s has recently altered its focus from Greek cuisine to a more creative steak and seafood approach under chef Jeremy Graham. Dungeness crab cakes were a wonderful opener for a dinner of filet Oscar (her entrée) and Atlantic salmon (mine).
Our other great meal was at Petra’s Bistro & Wine Bar, just across Minaret Road from The Village. A casual atmosphere, with many patrons gathered around the central wine bar, belied the quality of food offered by veteran chef Radisson Williams. My companion and I shared an arugula salad. She was blown away by her entrée of pan-seared scallops (“maybe the best ever”) with black-pepper spaetzli and sautéed snow peas. I paired a generous appetizer of duck-leg confit with leek risotto and sautéed crimini mushrooms.
Even in winter, we found Mammoth Lakes to be a good central location for exploring some of the other beauty spots of the Eastern Sierra region.
June Lake, 20 miles north via U.S. 395 and State Highway 158, is a sister community to Mammoth Lakes. Although the aquamarine waters of the 1.2-mile-long lake are typically frozen over in winter, its namesake village of 600, on its southwestern shore, bustles year-round. Fishing is a popular summertime pursuit, while June Mountain Ski Area, just west of the little town, has six lifts that serve an area that rises to an elevation about 10,000 feet.
Lift tickets from Mammoth Mountain, which bought June Mountain in 1986, are interchangeable here.
Another 10 miles north is Mono Lake, a mysterious inland sea that author Mark Twain, in his book “Roughing It,” called “the lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth.” A distant sister to the Great Salt Lake, which lies at the opposite end of the Great Basin, Mono Lake is more than twice as salty as the ocean. Thirteen miles long, 9 miles wide, it was formed nearly 800,000 years ago in a volcanic basin which, as recently as the 17th century, erupted to create 3½-square-mile Paoha Island in the middle of the lake. There are no fish in this strange sea, but tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies provide sustenance to waterbirds — gulls, grebes, phalaropes, cormorants, 325 migratory species in all — that flock here by the millions.
Perhaps the most remarkable features of Mono Lake are the tufa towers that rise up to 30 feet above its southern shoreline. Formed by freshwater springs that percolate upward from the lake bottom, forming mineral deposits as they mix with the salty waters, these ghost-like landscapes are a magnet for fascinated photographers.
The tiny town of Lee Vining, near Mono Lake’s western shore, is well known to summer visitors as the gateway to Yosemite National Park’s high country. State Highway 120 branches west here, off U.S. 395, to climb to the park’s east entrance at Tioga Pass, at 9,943 feet the highest pass in the Sierra Nevada. This road is typically closed by snow through May.
The air may be thin at Tioga Pass, but it’s even harder to gather a breath at the top of Mammoth Mountain. I can attest to that.
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