Mammoth Mountain, California: Four Seasons of Outdoor Fun
About 110, 000 years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions created a massive lava dome known today as Mammoth Mountain.
Towering above the Central California landscape, the mountain continues to be an active geological site. Best known as the tallest ski area in California, it is actually a gateway to outdoor adventures of all kind, throughout four distinct seasons. Centrally located no more than a seven-hour drive from almost every major city in the state, it is a highly popular weekend getaway.
In the summer adventurers come to hike, mountain bike, fish in the lakes and streams, and rock and mountain climb. Ski gondolas are converted to transportation for mountain bikers and hikers and shuttles are available to take hikers and campers into Yosemite and the John Muir Wilderness National Park as the weather warms up. When nearby Tioga Pass opens after the hot summer sun melts the winter snow pack, Yosemite becomes an enticing day trip. But a much closer and less crowded adventure awaits visitors to the John Muir Wilderness area, which covers 584,000 acres in the Sierra and Inyo National Forests.
The area, which gained 81,000 acres from the California Wilderness Act of 1984, extends along the crest of the Sierra Nevada from Mammoth Lakes southeastward for about 30 miles. It then splits around the borders of Kings Canyon National Park to the Crown Valley and Mt. Whitney regions. This is a land of snow-capped mountains dotted with hundreds of lakes, streams, and meadows. Elevations range from 4,000 to 14,496 feet at Mount Whitney and many peaks are above the 13,000-foot range. Lower elevation slopes are covered with stands of Jeffrey pine, incense cedar, white and red fir and lodgepole pine, while the barren higher spots are marked by granite and glacially-carved lakes.
The breathtaking Rainbow Falls and the geological formation known as Devil’s Postpile are just a few of the easy hikes within close reach of Mammoth, but other curiosities like Bodie Ghost Town and Mono Lake have proven equally popular. Bodie State Historic Park, a genuine California gold-mining ghost town, invites visitors down the original streets of a community that once boasted a population of nearly 10,000. The town, named for Waterman S. Body (William Bodey), who had discovered small amounts of gold in hills north of Mono Lake, hit pay dirt when an 1875 a mine cave-in revealed untold riches.
After the Standard Company purchased the mine 1877, people flocked to Bodie, transforming it from a sleepy backwater of a few dozen to a bone fide boomtown almost overnight. Only a small part of the town survives, and interiors of shops remain as they were left, many still stocked with goods. Designated as a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park in 1962, the remains of Bodie are being preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” Today, this once thriving mining camp is visited by tourists, howling winds, and, of course, an occasional ghost. Spectacular summer thunderstorms are common in the area and give visitors a good idea of the harsh conditions residents had to endure.
Nearby Bodie is Mono Lake, geologically one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere. Eerily beautiful, reflecting the snow-capped Sierras in its brilliant blue waters, Mono Lake is essentially an immense inland sea, filling a natural basin 695 square miles in size. Its most distinctive features are its tufa towers — mineral structures formed when freshwater springs bubble up through the alkaline waters of the lake. The lake’s salty water not only makes you float like a cork, but sustains trillions of brine shrimp, attracting millions of migratory birds in search of a feast. A paradise for birdwatchers and photographers, Mono Lake also provides hiking, kayaking, interpretive trails, and a peaceful haven for taking in nature in all its grandeur.
A host of other activities keep Mammoth a lively place all summer. Several pro mountain biking races, an incredible July 4th celebration, and an August Blues festival keep the summer fun sizzling in the downtown area, though fall may be the most beautiful time to visit Mammoth. The summer crowds have gone, and cottonwood, willow, and aspen trees explode into a myriad of autumn colors. Lakes and streams gush with fresh summer rains and melted snow pack, and the air is crystal clear, making for spectacular photography opportunities.
But it is the winter season that outdoor adventurers most associate with Mammoth. With an average of over 400 inches of annual snowfall, thousands of acres of incredible terrain from advanced expert to beginner, and an altitude that keeps the snow from melting well into the summer, Mammoth turns winter into a six month-plus season for snow sports. That equates to one of the longest ski seasons of any resort in the country. Twenty-eight state-of-the-art lifts and gondolas lift skiers to the most advanced peaks and a variety of runs for all skill levels (including seven terrain parks).
Mammoth Mountain is rated as a top destination by most well traveled skiers and snowboarders. From the top elevation of the ski resort at 11,053 feet, there are over 3,100 vertical feet of ski area and over 150 trails. Lift tickets can be expensive during peak season, but there are a variety of discounts available, including reduced lift tickets and vacation packages. While nearby June Mountain offers limited runs and a shorter season, it’s also a cheaper alternative if you’re looking for budget skiing during peak season. But the best deals are offered during my favorite time to visit Mammoth: spring. Cheaper lift tickets, warm, sunny weather, and slushy snow (which is better for less experienced skiers and snowboarders) add up to a great Spring Break at the resort.
There are a variety of other winter and spring activities available at Mammoth. For the vertically-challenged seeking a snowy adventure, escape to the serene tree-lined trails of Mammoth’s majestic Lakes Basin. Nineteen miles of freshly groomed skating, classic, and snowshoe trails await cross-country skiers and snowshoers of all abilities. With the beautiful backdrop of snow-covered peaks and the serene sounds of winter birds you can traverse the forest paths on the edge of glacial lakes. If speed is you your addiction, you may want to rent a snowmobile. Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures is the perfect outfitter for first-timers or seasoned experts. Experienced guides and top-of-the-line equipment grant you access to California’s greatest playground, including: thousands of acres of trails, pristine backcountry, spacious meadows, historic landmarks, and lush pine forests.
A plethora of restaurants and accommodations await you in downtown Mammoth. From a Motel 6 to luxury condos for rent with a ski lift right outside your door, there is a place to stay for most any budget. Some of the popular bars and eateries provide venues for live bands and there always seem to be something going on into wee hours.
For more information on where to stay and what to do, visit the Official Mammoth websites: