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Mammoth Mountin Ski Resort

Bob Goligoski

Mammoth Mountain, one of the best ski spots in the United States, has long been out of reach and out of mind, for most skiers and snowboarders. Prior to last season, you could not fly into Mammoth, a massive Southern California resort, on a commercial airline flight.

You could of course, fly into Los Angeles and drive to Mammoth. But that meant 5 to 6 hours behind the wheel. It was worse yet to fly into San Francisco as you then faced a 6 – 7 hour drive to the slopes.

But Mammoth, long a favorite of Los Angeles area residents, has suddenly become a viable national and international destination because Horizon Air has launched direct, non-stop daily 50 – 55 minute flights from Los Angeles, San Jose and Reno with one-stop Horizon connections to Portland and Seattle.

The flights land at the Mammoth-Yosemite airport about 8 miles from the slopes and the funky little town of Mammoth Lakes. Shuttle service is available to the resort.

Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory said, “We have changed Mammoth from a Los Angeles – San Diego drive-in resort to a true destination resort. Now more destination travelers will come to ski for the week. We expect to get many skiers and snowboarders from the Bay Area and also we have opened our market broadly across the United States and to people in Asia and Europe.”

Indeed, approximately 90 percent of Mammoth’s customers have been coming from Los Angeles and San Diego. They usually arrive on weekends and can quickly swell the population of the town from 7,000 to 30,000 people.

On one of my earlier long-drive trips from the Bay Area to Mammoth, I recall chatting with several skiers in a lift line. Everyone barked out where they were from – Glendale, West Hollywood, San Diego and Long Beach – but when I yelled San Jose, they all looked at me and said, “What are you doing here?”

Mammoth, with a vertical drop of 3,100 feet, is a nearly perfect skiers’ mountain with every kind of ski terrain imaginable. From the top of the 11,053 peak, rocky cliffs, sharply angled bowls and narrow chutes spill down for the experts.

Below that, miles of tree-lined cruising intermediate runs and flatter novice terrain fan out to the base village. Mammoth Mountain is six miles wide and many of the runs roll on for two to three miles before exhausted skiers and boarders hit the next lift. There are 26 ski lifts plus six carpet lifts for bunny skiers.

A couple years ago, I discovered a relatively easy way down from the top. Look for the blue square intermediate designation sign off the backside and head down Upper Road Runner, which later morphs into Lower Road Runner. It is a high-altitude scenic ride that spins down for more than three miles before you arrive at the main lodge.

My main impressions of Mammoth are its laid-back lifestyle, vast terrain and the steady sunshine. Mammoth gets about 300 days of sunshine a year, making it a good choice over Western resorts with bad weather reputations such as Whistler and Mt. Bachelor which can often be enveloped in snowstorms, rain and fog.

Mammoth is meteorologically blessed as it lies directly opposite a low saddle in the Sierra that funnels storms in from the Pacific. Mammoth Mountain is the first major geological feature in the storm path and catches about 400 inches of snow a year.

New this season is the Village Ski Back Trail which gives skiers and snowboarders the option of skiing or riding – rather than downloading on a gondola – from the slopes back to the Village at Mammoth, a restaurants-condo-shops development near the base.

Mammoth is basically a ski-in, ski-out resort with hotels, condos, cabins and homes near the lifts. The resort essentially has only one luxury, full-service hotel -- the Westin Monache Resort that opened about three years ago.

The resort records more than 1.1 million skier-snowboarder visits a year, making it the third most popular ski resort in the country.

A growing number of those visitors come lugging snowboards to test the seven terrain parks scattered around the terrain. The parks include some huge snow pipes and challenging park features. Ski industry magazines consistently rate Mammoth one of the top snowboarding spots in the U.S.

The allure of Mammoth extends far beyond the ski resort slopes. Nearby cross country trails cut through a wilderness of forests. We took one of the dog sledding trips through the Mammoth Dog Teams firm years ago and had a rollicking adventure bouncing and gliding across the tundra.

Some come to ride snowmobiles across nearby meadows or ice skate on the frozen ponds.

There are also about 15 to 20 hot springs bubbling to the surface in and around Mammoth Lakes. They are popular landing spots for many to soak tired muscles after a day on the slopes. Ask any “local” for directions to some of the most popular springs.

If skiers and snowboarders want a change of pace from Mammoth, they head 20 miles north to June Mountain, a medium-sized ski resort also owned by Mammoth. A daily bus shuttle service runs between the two resorts.

Mammoth has been operating since the 1950s when legendary ski pioneer Dave McCoy founded the place and really put the town of Mammoth Lakes on the map. If you want a taste of Mammoth’s history, drop into a joint such as Whiskey Creek, a Mammoth staple for more than 30 years.

On our last trip to the resort, we wanted to try something different and visited The Yodler, a classic après ski spot that this year marks its 50th year in business. The Yodler, with its wide-ranging menu, was a tasty choice and it was nostalgic talking to some of the old-timers who have been coming to the restaurant and the slopes for half a century.

For something quirky and different, sign up for a gourmet snowcat lunch or dinner. Snowcats haul guests halfway up the peak to the Parallax Restaurant for dinner and also to vista spots on the mountain for picnic lunches – or hors d’oeuvres and champagne -- with stunning scenery.

McCoy, by the way, no longer owns the resort as most of it was sold several years ago to Starwood Capital. Starwood CEO Barry Sternlicht, who achieved considerable success as head of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, has numerous resort upgrades and expansions on the drafting board. Resort developer and operator Intrawest owns 15 percent of the company.

All Horizon flights into Mammoth are on 76-seat Bombardier Q400s. These are high-speed, relatively quiet, technologically advanced, twin-engine turboprop planes. The airport is in a different micro-climate than Mammoth Mountain and it usually is dry and calm at the valley airport while the snow is coming down on the slopes above.

Adult, one-day, weekend lift tickets are priced at $87 but look around for various discount deals. This season, Mammoth has started offering a 10 percent discount on tickets if they are purchased seven days in advance on-line or via 800 – MAMMOTH. The resorts email link for tickets and lodging information is www.mammothmountain.com

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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