Inland Valley Ski Getaways in the Sierras
By Nick Anis
There is a variety of exhilarating weekend getaways for Inland Valley residents during the winter, but a ski holiday at Mammoth Lakes (325 miles Northeast of Ontario) is about as good as it gets. Californian flatlanders who vacation in the Sierras may have a bit of a drive, but they can avoid the hassle of getting to the airport, airport parking, airline flights, baggage handling, car rental and so on.
Getaway is supposed to mean, getting away, leaving it all behind. Right? The old mountain axiom "a change of altitude is all thats required for a change of attitude" couldnt be more true. Whether driving or flying, any time of the year, traveling to Mammoth is a vacation in itself.
Mountain Air Express of Long Beach, California, offers convenient 90-minute service between Long Beach and Mammoth Lakes, but most visitors come by car. According to Dana Hartshorn, of the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau, about 1 million motorists visit in winter and 1.5 million in summer. Traveling from the Inland Valley after a scenic drive on US 15 north and US 395 north, you and your family can ski, snowboard, snow mobile, sleigh-ride, dog-sled ride, or simply warm yourself at a fireplace drinking warm cider while admiring some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in the world. The scenery above ground is equally great. On clear nights, because of the high altitude and absence of bright city lights, you can see so many stars its almost like youre at a planetarium.
Californians frequently boast (especially around Rose Bowl time) about how the desert, mountains, and beaches are all within hours of each other by car. This praise is not misplaced. Although the beach is about an hour in the opposite direction, you can travel by car from Ontario to Mt. Baldy and Wrightwood in only 30-45 minutes, Big Bear in 60-90 minutes, or all the way to wondrous Mammoth Lakes in the High Sierras in about 5 1/2 hours.
Apparently the right geology plays a big role in making for world class ski resorts. Our beautiful local San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, which are on the Pacific Plate, get a respectable amount of snowfall. They even have the distinction of being the only East/West ranges in North America. But their cousins to the North, the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are on the North American Plate and run North/South, get quite a bit more snow. The Sierras are also considerably younger, higher, and much more jagged and rugged.
On your journey to the Sierras and Mammoth Lakes you pass through the lower and upper deserts, the Owens Valley, and just east of Death Valley National Park, where you will be treated to some of the most interesting geological phenomena you may ever see anywhere on the planet. Evidence of the ice age, ancient oceans, and awe inspiring violent volcanic activity is everywhere. There are many mining sites -- some still operating. Ancient lava flows and colorful cliffs flank the highway. The US Park Service even offers auto tours to some of the volcanic sites and geological formations not visible from the main highway.
The upper desert has ancient tall bristoecone pines (frequently mistaken for Joshua trees) that may well be thousands of years old. US Highway 395 follows the desert contour traversing occasional rolls and dips, downgrades, and grades. During the winter when the snow is deep in the mountains, large herds of wild elk come down to graze in massive grassy meadows and salt flats that span hundreds of miles.
Traveling northward as you pass colorful high country small towns like Lone Pine and Independence, you can see a majestic snow capped mountain to the west. Unlike other mountains over 10,000 feet that are frequently obscured by clouds, Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States, elevation 14,495 feet, is frequently visible.
To this day, between San Bernardino and Reno, the California town of Bishop remains the main hub of activity. Up until about 20 years ago, Mammoth visitors and residents traveled 60 miles south to do their shopping and dining in Bishop. Today, Bishop continues to have the most restaurants, supermarkets, K-marts, and so on, but Mammoth Lakes now has about everything you'll need, including supermarkets and movie theaters, and several excellent restaurants and inns that rival offerings in major metropolitan areas.
In summer, the fishing, boating, hiking, and camping throughout the area are excellent and understandably popular. Summer mountain biking has also become very popular, especially at the Mammoth Mountain ski areas.
But for snowsport enthusiasts, the Mammoth Mountain Ski area located in the alpine town of Mammoth Lakes is the E-ticket. As you approach Mammoth Lakes, you may be surprised to find yourself at a winter wonderland where the snowfall is so plentiful it's measured in feet instead of inches, dozens of palate tempting restaurants, phenomenal skiing and snowboarding, and other recreation that rivals Colorado, Utah, and even the Swiss Alps. (Dont worry about how you are going to get around the village and to the resort, you can get anywhere you need to go with the Mammoth Area shuttle which is a free service.)
There's a reason the town's ski resort is called "Mammoth" -- it's H U G E! It is also consistently rated one of the top 10 ski areas in the world. Mammoth's ski season starts in November and frequently runs all the way past the fourth of July.
As part of the 1997-1998 $18 million renovation plan, Mammoth Mountain has added three new high-speed quad chairlifts, an expanded terrain park, and halfpipes. The Mammoth Mountain Inn has also been renovated. This season, night skiing is making it debut on Friday through Sunday and holiday evenings, from 4:00pm to 9:00pm, under the stars and new lights.
Now that chair 18 and the T-Bar have been retired and chairs 2, 3 and 6 were replaced with new high-speed quads, Mammoth is moving more skiers than ever before. According to Joe Rizzo from Claremont, whose family has been coming to Mammoth Mountain during the Christmas and New Year's holidays for the past 10 years, there were "hardly any lift lines at all!"
Rizzo and his two sons, age 8 and 11, were having a great time taking the new Chair 2, the Stump Alley Express, and trying out "Unbound" on the way down. Unbound is Mammoths premiere freestyle terrain park for snowboarders and skiers designed with the help of celebrity snowboarders Billy and Jeff Anderson. One of the Rizzo family ski chumbs, David Anis, age 8 (AKA "The Torpedo") of Diamond Bar can take Chair 2 (2-3 minutes), and the entire run in less than 10 minutes. (David slows down to subsonic speeds and takes a little longer when he detours on the way down through Unbound for a couple ski jumps.
This season the slopeside Mammoth Mountain Inn has undergone an extensive remodel including the addition of a new general store, a total face-lift for 118 rooms, and various enhancements to the lobby and lounge.
The legendary 82 year-old, Dave McCoy, Mammoths founder, who still skis and mountain bikes, continues to play a significant role in day to day management, after selling 51% of the resort to Intrawest Mammoth Corporation over the course of the last three years.
The resort management is now operating the Mountainside Grill, which was formerly a concession. The ambiance, service, and food are quite good and at prices much more reasonable than you would expect in a hotel restaurant and ski resort. The Mountainside Grill has seating capacity for 140. Trendy restaurants at resorts tend to be too small and aren't really geared for families because they typically only have seating for only 2 or 4 guests. In contrast, the Mountainside Grill, which can accommodate groups of up to 16 people, is well suited for family dining, has a great kid's menu, and has family friendly selections and prices.
Families will also appreciate Mammoths new pricing promotion. According to spokesperson, Pam Murphy, "The Mammoth Club has rolled back its daily lift ticket to 1994 prices. Adult club members who pay a $60 membership fee and their spouse can ski or snowboard for just $33 a day and get the 12th day FREE." (Memberships for teens are $45, and children and senior memberships are $30.)
Whats unique about Mammoth Mountain is it is truly a four-season destination resort. Even in peak season Mammoth is relatively uncrowded because its typically 100% open, can handle up to 53,000 skiers per hour, and has over 3,500 delightful skiable areas.
Mammoth Mountain Statistics
24 Hour Recorded Snow Report
Website and resort cam.............. ...........www.mammoth-mtn.com
Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau
Local Information and Referrals........888-GOMAMMOTH
Minaret Loop Ride Approximately a 25 minute family ride through mountain forest, Adults $45, Children 12-4 $19, Children 3 and under with parent, free.
Minaret Vista Lookout Ride approximately 1 hour a romantic ride through the backcountry beauty, Adults $75, Children 12-4 $28, Children under 3 with parent, free.
Wintermoon Dog Sled and Dinner Ride wrap yourself in a warm wool blanket and "mush" along under a star-filled ski to spectacular Minaret Vista. Enjoy a glass of champagne in the light of a romantic winter moon and Sierra sunsets, includes dinner at Mountainside Grill or Yoddeler Restaurant, $85 per person.
Whiskey Creek 760-934-2555 American style steaks, chicken, and fresh fish and microbrewery, live entertainment nightly.
Nevados 760-934-4466, Continental 3 course meals. Elegant but affordable. One of the oldest and most respected restaurants in Mammoth Lakes. Excellent presentation, extensive wine list, and exceptional service.
Giovannis 760-934-7563, family operated pizzeria, Italian restaurant, and sports bar equally popular with locals and tourists. Offer 20% discount for cook at home pizzas, and moderate prices.
Paul Schats Bakery 760-934-6055, world famous bakery that invented the notorious Sheepherders Bread offering a huge selection of breads, pastries, pies, and cookies. Serves full breakfast and lunches. Opens early and very popular on cold mornings.
Breakfast Club 760-934-6944, at the intersection of Main Street and Old Mammoth Road. Large variety of baked goods. Specializes in Mexican breakfast specials. Very popular with generation Xers and locals.
8,000 rooms, over 100 restaurants,