Mammoth for all seasons
It is a perfect snow day. The sun is shining, but in a place where the sun shines 300 days of the year that is not a surprise. Being the first day on our first visit to this legendary Californian ski resort, we study the trail map on the way up the Panorama Gondola, which sweeps us up and over a spider web of runs to a dizzying 3,369 metres. We scan the map with its 28 lifts dotted over 1,416 hectares of terrain, work out a plan and step outside the gondola to the aptly named Top of the Sierra.
Exploring the various areas of the mountain, out to Eagle Lodge, down to the Mill, over to the Outpost, skiing hither and yon, left us with tired legs that the concierge said could be fixed with a visit to one of the 100 or so hot springs out on the valley floor. So we find ourselves at Wild Willy’s, a small hot spring with outstanding views over the surrounding mountain ranges. We sit in the pool with some locals who generously share their beer with us, and watch as the Eastern Sierras turn all shades of orange and pink in the fading light. Like I said … a perfect day.
It is not only in winter that Mammoth struts its stuff; it is just as wonderful in summer, spring and autumn, with all kinds of outdoor adventures attracting lovers of fresh air and mountain scenery. Read on for some of the best things to do in the various seasons.
FIVE THINGS TO DO IN THE GREEN SEASON
Yosemite National Park is an easy 45 minutes’ drive from Mammoth Lakes courtesy of the scenic Tioga Pass, which is open between May and October. Yosemite is scenic overload with its waterfalls, hiking trails, lakes and Mariposa Grove, where the giants of the tree world – the Sequoias – are sure to be permanently embedded into your memory banks. Once you have had your fill of famous sites like El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and the Half Dome, head back into the cooler climes of Mammoth Lakes.
Head to a ghost town
Bodie Historic State Park is a ghost town you can walk through to get a taste of what life would have been like for miners back in the 1800s. The official ghost town of California, 10,000 people lived here back in the day but now only two brave rangers live on site to protect it. Stroll down Main and Green Streets, peering into houses, a school, hotels, a church, a shop full of dusty merchandise and even the morgue – all still with furniture inside. Old cars and mining equipment lay on the ground, old outhouses skew at odd angles, and carriages sit in sheds, never to see a horse’s rump again.
Whatever you do, don’t remove anything from the site as rumour has it that you will be cursed if you do.
Go mountain biking
The world has gone mad for mountain biking and if hurtling downhill on two wheels tickles your fancy, Mammoth Lakes is the place for you. The Mammoth Mountain Bike Park offers more than 128 kilometres of tracks for downhill, cross-country and beginner riders, all accessed by the gondola. Intermediate riders will love lapping Off the Top, a trail that covers the west face of Mammoth Mountain from the summit back to the gondola. Pedal the Paper Route loop for a moderate cross-country ride, or climb Uptown to Beach Cruiser for a longer ride. Adrenaline junkies head straight to advanced trails like Bullet and Flow that incorporate features like high bridges, banked paver turns and tabletop jumps. Road riders also have plenty of choice – you can even cheat a little by hiring an electric bike. Afterwards, talk up your efforts over a beer on the patio at Lakanuki, the world’s highest tiki bar.
Hike to Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls
Hiking is on another level in this part of the world. Head up the Panorama Gondola and walk down into the Mammoth Lakes Basin, trying not to be distracted by the vistas that surround you. Chalk up more astounding views by taking the bus from Mammoth Lakes main lodge out to Red Meadows and hiking to Devils Postpile, a photogenic formation of 18-metre high, six-sided basalt columns formed by a lava eruption 100,000-odd years ago. Stroll for another seven kilometres or so to see Rainbow Falls, where the waters of the San Joaquin River rumble and crash over a 30 metre drop, sending rainbows of colour into the mist. This beautiful sight is best seen around noon.
Go kayaking at Mono Lake
Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America, is a mere 30 minutes from Mammoth Lakes. Pink Floyd fans might think that the somewhat lunar looking limestone formations rising out of the mirror-like lake look familiar, and they would be right. A photo of a man supposedly diving into the lake featured on the inside front cover of the Wish You Were Here album. The man wasn’t diving – he was doing a handstand in the shallow, ultra-salty water. The lake has a salinity level three times greater than the ocean and attracts an array of wildlife including 300 species of birds. The best way to explore these strange tufa pinnacles is in a kayak or stroll along the boardwalks in the South Tufa area. Kayaking, stand up paddle boarding or fishing are also very popular at June Lake, Mary Lake, Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Twin Lakes, Lake Mamie, Lake George, Horseshoe Lake, Crowley Lake, Convict Lake and Gull Lake, just some of the pristine lakes in the impressive Mammoth Lakes Basin and Mono County.
FALLING INTO THE WHITE SEASON
Fishing in fall
Locals argue that fall (autumn) is perhaps the most beautiful of all the seasons in Mammoth Lakes, with the forests of the Eastern Sierra painted gold, crimson and orange. Go for a scenic drive around the June Lake loop, venture up the Tioga Pass for a peak into Yosemite in full colour, or for the best and most relaxing views, hire a dinghy or fish for trout on the shore of one of the many lakes and streams. If you wantto go out with a guide for a spot of fly fishing, there are a number of operators who can assist, such as Performance Guide Service, the Trout Fly and the Troutfitter and the Sierra Drifters Guide Service.
Ski and snowboard heaven
Come November, the temperature drops and Mammoth Mountain opens for the season, one of the longest in the USA. Normally open from November to June, there has been so much snow this season that people will be skiing or snowboarding up until August. Mammoth is the official training base for the US Olympic team, so the terrain has serious credibility. But, it is also perfect for mere mortals, whether you want to potter down a green run, cruise down an intermediate or tackle a double black diamond. You can even have a day at sister property June Mountain. Cross country skiers are also looked after at Tamarack, which has 30 kilometres of groomed trails in beautiful, pristine surrounds.
Whatever time of the year you go, and whether you cycle, bike, fish or ski, you will come home to your accommodation of choice in Mammoth Lakes, relax with a drink at one of the many bars and enjoy a wonderful meal in one of the many restaurants across town. •
Photography © Josh Wray Mammoth Lakes Tourism and Mono County Tourism.
• Qantas, Delta, United and Virgin Australia fly into LAX. Mammoth is a five-hour drive from Los Angeles or Las Vegas and a 60-minute flight from LAX. Alaskan Airlines and United both operate flights, or it is a three-hour drive from Reno. qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com; united.com; alaskaair.com; delta.com
• Transfers from the airport to town can be arranged through the Mammoth All Weather Shuttle, who also offer sightseeing tours. mawshuttle.com
Where to stay
• Westin Monache Resort has beautiful apartments along with a great location. westinmammoth.com