It’s one of those snapshots probably taken with a Kodak Brownie camera in the 1950s. It shows a young boy (me) with a radiant smile standing shirtless and using a pair of much-too-big wooden skis and poles. The picture was taken at Mammoth Mountain in California’s Eastern High Sierras. Those mountains are very special to me as they were for John Muir and Ansel Adams. I’ve been hiking, backpacking and skiing their trails for so long, the Sierras are now part of my DNA.
I was initially introduced to skiing by my father, a transplanted New Yorker who was avid. In those days Mammoth Mountain and the Mammoth Lakes Village were a far cry from the world-class destination they are today. In winter hearty skiers would make the long two-lane drive up State Route 395 from Los Angeles in order to ride up the mountain on three rickety chairlifts, a rope-tow, a poma lift and a T-bar. In summer, long before there was an REI in sight, adventurous mountaineers would explore wilderness trails and scale peaks while fly fisherman leisurely cast their lines into a multitude of rushing streams and glittering lakes.
Today, the myriad ski runs of Mammoth Mountain and the recreational wonderland known as the Mammoth Lakes Basin attract visitors from around the world. Where once you couldn’t find a cappuccino to save your soul, there are now luxurious resorts such as the Westin Monach, more modest family destinations like the High Sierra Lodge and every kind of dining-out menu imaginable, from fast food to haute cuisine. And then there’s the most unusual dining spot of all — the Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Bowl, where you can dine upstairs on chef-created delicacies like wild mushroom strudel, medallions of elk and the finest cabernet, while downstairs a slew of rambunctious bowlers strive for strikes and spares.
Once a sleepy mountain community, Mammoth Lakes has become a major year-round travel destination akin to Jackson Hole in Wyoming or Aspen, Colorado. There’s a new village center replete with Alpine atmosphere that bustles with a wide variety of shops, wilderness outfitters and eateries. There are sprawling condo complexes along with all the other amenities of a modern tourist town.
There is however, one very special place that has managed to maintain the rustic charm of Mammoth’s past — the Tamarack Lodge, which began life as a private mountain escape on the shore of Twin Lakes in 1924. It lies nestled high in the pines at an elevation of 8,500 feet, just 2.5 miles but a world away from the bustle of the village. The rough-hewn lodge features 11 guest rooms and 35 exceedingly comfortable cabins of varying sizes. In addition to its idyllic isolation, the lodge also boasts one of California’s most intimate culinary treasures — the 10 tables of the Lakefront Restaurant, featuring a menu that highlights locally sourced ingredients.
The most serene time of year to visit Mammoth is in the fall, the months between Labor Day and the onset of ski season, which is rarely before Thanksgiving. The air is crisp, the great groves of aspen have begun to turn and the trails are yours for the hiking. One the most beautiful hikes in my memory took place at this autumnal time of year. We’d been on the trail all day and were heading back when the first gentle snow of the year settled over the Sierras. Gradually the air was laced by softly falling snowflakes that filtered down through the trees before settling on a rainbow carpet of gold and ruby aspen leaves.
Because of its unique location, Mammoth Mountain boasts a ski season that can last well into June; people have even been known to ski on the Fourth of July. Over the years since it opened for skiing in 1953 (the brainchild of a man named Dave McCoy) the mountain’s ski runs have been greatly expanded with the addition of high-speed chairlifts galore and gondola access to the summit at 11,053 feet. It is also possible now to stay in Mammoth Lakes Village and board a chairlift within easy walking distance. For skiers or snowboarders of every stripe, Mammoth Mountain combines a zillion world-class runs with views of the Sierras that are, without exaggeration, breathtaking. At the same time, the Tamarack Lodge is the ideal departure point for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Summer is the time for hiking, fishing, canoeing and mountain-biking. The gondola from the Mammoth Mountain Lodge, which during winter ferries skiers to the top of the mountain, becomes a mountain-biker’s paradise. Miles of ski trails are transformed into bike paths with varying degrees of difficulty. And there are mountain-biking classes available for all skill levels, from beginners to daredevils.
Summer is also the time when the backcountry road to Devil’s Post Pile National Monument, Rainbow Falls, Agnew Meadows and the Reds Meadow campgrounds are open. Here hikers, backpackers and mountaineers can strike off through the glorious expanses of the High Sierra, the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails.
One thing’s for sure about Mammoth Mountain and the Mammoth Lakes is that you’ll never run out of things to do, whatever your interest. There’s a lot of there, there!