Hours in between Yosemite National Park and the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous states lies an action-packed town called Mammoth Lakes.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it; Mammoth Mountain has remained a secret for many on the West Coast due to its remote location in the Eastern Sierras. Though it has always been popular for skiers and boarders from Los Angeles and SoCal, seasonal flights have started to trickle into Mammoth in recent years, quickly making it California’s next premier destination for winter sports. I went out to Mammoth to experience everything that the mountain has to offer and brought back the best of the best for you right here.
Best time to go. If your schedule permits, the best time to plan a trip to Mammoth is during a full moon. Aside from the obvious romance of snowcapped Sierras lit up by the moonlight, the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center offers seasonal full moon snowshoe tours guided by a bona fide Swiss Alpinist. The tour will take you through the woods to a seldom visited ridge where you can take in views of the entire Mammoth Lakes area; a genuinely memorable experience. The only thing that tops it is the cozy finish of a hot cup of cider by the fire in the Tamarack lodge.
Biggest non-boarding thrill. Sign up for a snowmobile tour from Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures and take a guided thrill-ride through Mammoth’s 300 miles of snowmobile trails. The highlight is an unbounded excursion through powdery snow fields and an oval snowmobile track. The guided tours last 90 minutes, which is just about as much time as you’ll want to spend on the machines before returning to the Yodler for the end of the day activities.
Best way to get there. Without a doubt, Horizon Air’s seasonal services from Los Angeles and Seattle / San Jose are the best ways to get to Mammoth. With one-way fares as low as $39 on slow days, there’s nothing that beats a 55-minute flight over the snowcapped Sierras. The best and most under-promoted feature of the service is the fact that Mammoth Mountain will give you a free lift ticket on the same day as your flight from San Jose or Portland if you present your boarding pass at the lift ticket window. You can be trapped in Southern California smog in the morning and on top of California’s tallest ski resort in the afternoon; need I say more?
Best off-mountain adventure. Since Mammoth Lakes is a geologically active region on the edge of the Long Valley Caldera, there are dozens of natural hot springs to discover and take a wintertime dip in. The best advice? Ask a local where to go and you’ll get pointed in the right direction for hot springs that are near (and safe) for taking a dip.
Best chair on the mountain. Want the best untracked powder and tree runs while staying away from the busy weekend lift lines? Cut to the south side of the mountain for the Cloud Nine Express. For years, this corner of the mountain was serviced by a painfully slow double-chair lift that was replaced in 2007 with a high-speed six-person chair. Because of its location on the mountain, the chair rarely accumulates large lift lines despite its choice terrain and remains one of Mammoth’s best kept secrets.
Best Aprés Ski. One of the great aspects of Mammoth is that there are plenty of options in close proximity for skiers to unwind and cozy up after a long day on the mountain. The best seat in the house? The Yodler Bar & Pub’s fireside lounge. This historic building across from the Main Lodge has tasty aprés ski beverages and snacks, a lively crowd, and a cozy atmosphere. Catch a 6pm shuttle outside the Yodler for an easy ride back to the village before the nightlife gets started.
Best dinner table. There are plenty of diverse spots in and around Mammoth to grab a solid meal, but if you’re looking for something above and beyond, the table to have is a cozy spot next to the fireplace at Petra’s, just across from Mammoth’s village complex. The wine bar is highly recommended, the service is great, and the food is enough to impress the packs of highly discerning LA socialites that frequent Mammoth’s slopes.
If Petra’s is full, or you’re looking to commemorate a special occasion, then consider making the journey out to the Lakefront Restaurant at the Tamarack Lodge. The dining room is delightfully tiny and the food is meticulously prepared by Chef de Cuisine Frederic Pierrel. The atmosphere alone is definitely worth the 10 minute drive from the center of town; even if it’s only to have a warm drink in the lounge with some tasteful jazz buzzing in the background.
Best nightlife. Perhaps it’s the LA blood that trickles through the mountain, but Mammoth loves to party. If you still have enough energy to venture out after dark, there are a few fun options for socializing and finding a new ski partner to pair up with – and the best news is that they’re all in walking distance to the Village. The brand-new Hyde Restaurant & Bar has a great-looking crowd and LA-priced (read: expensive) bottle service to match. It seems a little out of place in a mountain town like Mammoth, but naturally attracts a very specific clientele.
If you prefer a more local & low-key vibe, then head down to the Clocktower Cellar Pub where pool tables, jukeboxes and cheap draft beer will help loosen your sore hamstring muscles. There’s plenty of dancing to be had at Lakanuki, but if you’re over 30 it’s likely that you’ll be feeling out of place among the throngs of college kids and Hawaiian decor.
Best way to stay connected. Anything but AT&T. Everything from 3G to basic cell reception with AT&T is appalling in and around most places in Mammoth – except on the actual slopes. Verizon and T-Mobile seem fine, but iPhone customers should be running to download the “Mark the Spot” application to file complaints with the provider. While this is solely AT&T’s problem, it’s a sign that Mammoth is still transitioning into being a major resort/destination. But it’s also a convenient excuse for why you “couldn’t be reached” all weekend.
Stephen Greenwood ventured out to Mammoth Lakes on a trip sponsored by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. No editorial content was guaranteed and Stephen was free to openly report on his experiences (pending his survival of the outdoor winter activities that demand motor skills he generally lacks).