California’s Mammoth Mountain may not beat as loud a drum in Australia as flashier North American resorts, but it is now impossible to ignore. That’s because, slowly but surely, improvements made over the last decade or so have dovetailed with the mountain’s many natural assets to create a rocking resort operation that is everything winter visitors want.
From lively nightlife and après to stunning thermal hot springs, from sickeningly steep runs to an enormous focus on its ski school and catering for families, Mammoth Mountain seems to have it all.
Virtually all older lifts have been replaced with high-speed versions, The Village pedestrian area, built at the base of the ski runs in 2003, has bounded back from an economic downturn around 2000 and the town of Mammoth Lakes continues to evolve with increasingly funky, fun bars and restaurants.
More improvements are imminent judging by news which broke this January: in a huge accolade for Mammoth, two-time Olympic gold medallist snowboarder Shaun White bought a minority stake in the resort and the two others it owns nearby, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. White will “play a key role in reinventing the resorts which have a reputation as homey local operations without the high-end, ritzy developments found in major Colorado resorts,” Mammoth Resorts’ chairman and chief executive Rusty Gregory told the LA Times.
The champion will no doubt continue his interest in Mammoth’s Unbound Terrain Parks. There are no less than eight of these parks and all are regarded the best in the country – yet another reason why Mammoth is a must-visit especially for anyone who loves their jumps, jibs and tricks. White, who won his gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, practised at these parks as well as the renowned 18ft (5.5m) Super Pipe and the 22ft (6.7m) Super-Duper Pipe, the latter a rarely found feature anywhere in the world. Mammoth also has a Mini Pipe, which makes this resort the only one in North America with three half pipes. The most popular Unbound terrain park is Unbound Main next to Main Lodge.
All that aside however, Mammoth has always had a lot going for it: at 1,461 hectares it is not only the largest resort in California, but the most popular. There are 28 lifts and 150 trails and it is hard to ski out during an average week-long vacation.
THE REAL MCCOY
Mammoth’s California-style vibe is another attraction. The place feels relaxed. Jeans and designer ski-wear can co-exist here quite happily. It clocks up about 300 sunny days a year, yet is blessed with one of the longest winter seasons in the US and a whopping 10m average snowfall. The season generally starts earlier than anywhere else in the US, within the first few weeks of November, and runs through to June. Sometimes snow sticks around into July. (The fact the mountain held more snow than others around it was the reason it caught the eye of founder hydrographer Dave McCoy. He opened a ski lift here in 1955 and the rest is history).
Then there is where Mammoth sits – nestled in the tallest mountain range in the US outside of Alaska, the High Sierras. This gives Mammoth phenomenal extreme slopes among steep angular peaks that make skiing here feel similar to the European Alps. Mammoth’s Panorama Gondola summit sits at a literally breath-taking (until you become used to the altitude) 3,368 metres (11,053 feet). Views from here are so beautiful – billed as the most spectacular in California in fact – many foot passengers ride up the gondola in winter as well to simply take in the surrounding landscape and warm up with a hot chocolate or soup at the Eleven53 café.
Mammoth is easy to reach, linked by regular flights from LA and San Francisco, and easy to get around once there. Gondola access from town and excellent public transport are areas of pride for the resort. Ski buses run from Mammoth Lakes to the ski field and most lodges, and of course, the more upscale resorts such as The Westin have free shuttles to and from the airport as well.
At Mammoth ‘double black diamond’ means exactly what it should, that is if you fall you’re generally tumbling to the bottom of the slope unless you are an expert at the technique of self-arrest. The names of these slopes match their fear–inducing qualities: Hangmans, Paranoids and Wipe Out. Fear not if less skilled. Mammoth’s size means more than enough places exist to enjoy a relaxing cruise down the mountain, or a thigh-burning high-speed run. There are also plenty of gladed areas that are especially fun in the oodles of fresh powder that fall here. Mogul runs abound and of course there is a large beginners area. Refuel and rest at any of three main lodges, Eagle, Canyon and Main.
A typically relaxing way to ski Mammoth is to follow the sun to Main Lodge or the back of the mountain, or simply take the gondola from Main up to the 3,368 metre summit. While this is the place to access some of Mammoth’s more exhilarating steep runs, a more mellow way to descend is down Santiago and cruise through glades. When stopping for a rest enjoy the views of the Minarets, their jagged peaks scratching the sky.
EAT AND DRINK
With a population of 8,000, Mammoth Lakes definitely has some excellent places to dine, drink and après ski which has a lot to do with the influence of the Los Angeles market. Even though the sprawling metropolis is a solid five-hour drive it does nothing to stop LA skiers and snowboarders descending en masse on weekends, especially when good snow conditions prevail. And with that many people from LA in its midst, Mammoth Lakes has stepped up somewhat to deliver what they expect.
One of them is the Clocktower Cellar – there are over 160 whiskies and more than 70 beers here to try. Not surprisingly, it is held in great esteem as the best après ski
spot in Mammoth. Find it by following the distant hum of happy people as you alight from the Village Gondola at the base. The Clocktower Cellar is underneath the clock tower above the Alpenhof Lodge.
The Mammoth Brewery is another one to hit after a day on the slopes. Here beer is taken so seriously that there is even a tasting room. There’s also a terrific eatery, beer garden and always new brews to try. If in search of the kind of Mexican we seem unable to find in Australia hit Roberto’s – very highly recommended as the best place to eat in town too – and also Gomez’s in the Village. It has a Tequileria, the largest and highest in the world it claims, with more than 200 tequilas and “mammoth margaritas” behind the bar.
Should you need to entertain children, the best place to head for is the Fun Shop. Not only does it serve old-fashioned style ice-cream which will placate any child but it stocks a whole host of interesting games and toys (inflatable beards anyone?) that will also keep them occupied for hours. For a full-on dose of true blue American food you cannot go past Toomey’s. From the best burgers in Mammoth Lakes to huge servings of pancakes, crab cakes, chicken wings and even buffalo meatloaf. To play indoors, go to Mammoth’s Rockin’ Bowl which has two restaurants and bars as well as 10 lanes and four virtual golf bays.
Off-mountain, Mammoth has the wonders of Yosemite National Park about 50 kilometres away, and being in an active thermal area there are some beautiful hot springs to visit in the surrounding and expansive landscape.
As for future forecasts, there is good news. Avid skiers will probably be aware California had a fabulous 2015/16 season after suffering a severe lack of decent snow for several winters. (Indeed almost all Californian resorts rebounded this past season after languishing through four years of record drought.)
But now the big snowy winters are set to continue thanks to the favourable El Nino pattern, which is back to stay for some time yet. •
Photography courtesy Mammoth.
JUNE MOUNTAIN: TAKE A WALK ON THE QUIET SIDE
Mammoth Mountain is usually uncrowded to the point where it’s possible to ski straight onto the lifts. But when crowds become too much on popular weekends a good tip is to head to June Mountain about 30 km away where your Mammoth ski lift pass is valid. At 607ha, June is 200ha larger than Thredbo, so certainly not large, but a super pretty place with great views, ideal for the timid and a ski field on which it is impossible to get lost. The jibbers in the group will be happy to know that there is an Unbound terrain park here too as well as the Super Pipe.
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. United flies from SFO to Mammoth during winter. delta.com; qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com; united.com; alaskaair.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
WHERE TO EAT
• Roberto’s: +1-760/934-3667; robertoscafe.com
• Fun Shop: +1-760/924-1111; mammothfunshop.com
• Toomeys: +1-760/ 924-4408; toomeysmammoth.com
• Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Bowl: +1-760/934-4200; mammothrocknbowl.com
• Mammoth Lakes Tourism: visitmammoth.com
• Mammoth Mountain: mammothmountain.com
• Mogul Ski World: mogulski.com.au
• June Mountain: junemountain.com
• Black Tie Rentals: blacktieskis.com