In the Shadows of the Monache

While it has proved a wonderful tool for sharing useful opinions and experiences, I have found that Yelp’s decision to impose a word limit on reviewer’s ramblings to be a blessing and a curse all at once – a blessing because it forces reviewers to express their opinions as briefly as possible, a curse because so much important detail is left out.  What follows is an expansive version of my Mammoth Mountain reviews from that website, preceded by a (characteristically long-winded) introduction to set the stage.  The purpose of this review is to catalogue and comment upon an experience wholly tied to Mammoth Mountain itself, which thus means an evaluation of everything connected to the Ski Area experience.  As such, we will forego evaluating, except on occasion, other local businesses, the town, or the region.  For those who prefer to forego the scene-painting and get to the heart of the matter, simply scroll down to The Review.

It is a story that plays itself out time and again upon a myriad of California canvases – a wandering artist sees in an insignificant  pile of tumbled boulders a slate on which to build a monument to his faith and soon that monument is adopted as an indispensable element of California’s kitsch culture; a producer sees in a rural orange grove the perfect locale for building the ultimate toy-box and soon that absurd toy-box is claimed by generations as the land of every child’s dream;  a surveyor measuring the winter snow pack sees in a remote outcropping of volcanic rock the opportunity to build the ultimate skier’s mountain and soon pilgrimages to that mountain are ingrained in every Southern Californian’s calendar of family traditions.  What began as a passion for one becomes a love affair shared by millions – where memories accumulate through the decades and the expectation of many more future memories conspire to create an endless loop of ritual re-visitation.

California’s Last Frontier

Such a canvas is Mammoth Lakes and such an institution is Mammoth Mountain.  Set forward from the Sierra Nevada’s granite crest, its arcing, lofty heights bearing hemlock and whitebark forests and cliffs of volcanic glass are a milemarker of the millennium – a place whose lung-burning elevation and ice age caliber snowfalls helped it defy permanent Euro-American settlement during America’s first hundred years.  A firecracker of a gold rush brought a flurry of activity to the crimson slopes of the nearby Sherwin Range, soon to whither away as quickly as the mining company superintendent could sneak away with sacks full of the diggings’ richest ore.    Summer fishermen who braved the same treacherous double-track road used by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to claim the potable liquid gold of the Owens Valley reveled in a summertime wonderland of jewel lakes choked with trout introduced by the miners of yesteryear, only to be chased out by the returning frost each September.  Although it seems hard to fathom in an era of freeways and air travel that bring tens of thousands of people to its alpine valley each weekend, Mammoth Lakes was nearly as far-flung in the American mind 70 years ago as the Pamir Knot of Pakistan remains today.

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Snow Devils on Lake Mary, Mammoth Lakes Basin (Photo by Spencer Spellman)

It was not until the 1930s that the illustrious government of the State of California, in its infinite and expensive slowness to achieve anything of practical use to its people, paved and improved the rickety dirt road that threaded through the Eastern Sierra hamlets of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop, and the settlements of Mono County for highway travel.  As is so often the case with new highways built during the twentieth century, the frontiers that the newly completed US-395 traversed beckoned to those seeking a life removed from that which they were familiar with – a siren’s call to wed tires to tarmac and seek what fortune lies at road’s end.

Such was the call that El Segundo native Dave McCoy felt compelled to heed, drawing him and his motorcycle to the seat of Inyo County and a fortuitous chain of events that brought him love, marriage, and ultimately, as his family began to grow (reaching six children), his profession – measuring the depth of the annual Sierra snow pack for the LADWP.  An avid skier (introduced to the sport by his Eastern Sierra neighbors) it was during his surveys that he discovered the presence of a geographic anomaly that produced a snow-pack of Yellowstone proportions on a reliable basis – the convergence of two Sierra mountain passes that cast snow laden clouds around an 11,000 foot behemoth of a mountain, wringing out every last drop of moisture onto its forest-clad slopes. Climbing the mountain on foot, with skis strapped to his back, he found terrain of a sort unheard of west of the Rockies, and his studies revealed the potential for a ski season that begins in October and ends in June.  He had found the ultimate skier’s mountain.  He had found his destiny.

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Dave McCoy at his first Mammoth Mountain rope tow

As is so often the case with dreamers, his vision was met with disbelief – Mammoth Mountain was too far from Los Angeles.  It was too high.  Too cold.  Too snowy.  But with the help of friends, McCoy and his wife set out to develop a ski mountain – going so far as to ferry skiers from the highway to the mountain base via unplowed town roads using skip-track army surplus vehicles.  With the help of high-school students, he constructed the first chairlifts and summit gondola when a Swiss lift manufacturer took one look at the terrain and wanted nothing to do with such an ambitious project.  Season after season, year after year, he expanded his operation until his lift system and base lodges circumnavigated an entire mountain, the town of Mammoth Lakes organically growing along with his almost-one-man-enterprise.  Only in 2005 did McCoy withdraw, content with his legacy (and, undoubtedly, his selling price), leaving Mammoth in the hands of Intrawest Corporation and a team of his own apprentices.  Today, at age 100, he spends his days exploring the Sierra foothills in an all-terrain-vehicle alongside the girl he met 80 years ago when he rode into Independence, California with nothing more than a motorcycle and a t-shirt to his name.  Meanwhile, Mammoth Mountain retains a special skier’s mentality unique among the big-mountain ski resorts of the American West – a mentality that enshrines the resort in the popular imagination of Californians as something uniquely their own.

The Review

Eleven years following Mammoth Mountain’s metamorphosis from owner-operated enterprise to rising corporate behemoth, it is more remarkable to consider how little has changed than how much has.  It is by these parallel considerations that Mammoth rises and falls against its competition when apples-to-apples comparisons are undertaken.  In the aggregate, however, when considering a visit to this high-elevation playground, one must remember that Mammoth is first-and-foremost a skier’s mountain.  At such a mountain the experiential emphasis leans heavily toward providing the skier with a plethora of runs of all types and an integrated lift system designed to provide the fastest and most efficient access to the most terrain.  Such mountains tend to invest in on-mountain improvements like snow-making, terrain park design, and grooming equipment as opposed to dining experiences, spas, and clubs.  On the whole, such mountains come across as more of an outdoor experience rather than a luxury getaway, and those seeking to be pampered are likely to be disappointed.

Mammoth Mountain remains the most iconic big mountain resort in America that has largely retained it’s skier’s mountain identity even after a decade of expansion and attempts to position itself as a true destination resort. While a new pedestrian village, Club 33-like premium experience package, and a slate of gourmet dining options have appeared where previously 7-11 stores, a snowcat garage, and a cafeteria once stood, the mountain still hums with a bohemian vibe where it’s profit depends much more upon ticket sales engendered by enthusiasm over the local snow pack rather than upon the latest condominium project. In fact, even after the pre-2008 building boom, the mountain still does not operate a true luxury hotel, instead pitching a series of condominium units as its most desirable lodging offering and managing a 1950s-era inn at its highest base lodge that provides the bulk of its guest bedrooms. Indeed, Mammoth is the antithesis of a company town – competition for the skier lodging dollar is quite intense, and the visitor is rewarded with a host of reasonable, quality options at which to lay his weary head (but, perplexingly, no true resort hotel). The end result is a funky vibe lacking the Disney-like uniformity of a Northstar at Tahoe or Beaver Creek – an eclectic town where a Craftsman village stands near to a 1960s A-frame ski chalet liquor store and a gingerbread house of a bakery obscures a public housing project.

As the mountain resort industry advances and evolves into a business more resembling a REIT that happens to operate ski mountains rather than ski mountains that operate a REIT, Mammoth remains a place where the skier experience necessarily takes precedence over other considerations – a refreshing virtue that, as Jackson Hole gentrifies, Utah consolidates, and Colorado evolves becomes a rare find at so large a ski area. It is a place that dedicates itself to staying open as long as snow is on the ground in an era where April closures are dictated by the corporate bottom-line. It is a place where a blackout-day-less season pass is still to be had for under $700. It is a craft beer in a champagne industry – a mountain adored by and accessible to locals and tourists alike that buzzes with a can-do, down-to-earth attitude – a palpably populist yet individualistic California mountain.

Mountain Tour

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Mammoth Mountain from the Old Mammoth Meadow.  Lincoln Peak rises on the right.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is a rare example of a ski mountain that literally encompasses an entire topographically prominent and attractive natural feature rather than a forested ridgeline, standing in company with a small elite of highly scenic resorts like Big Sky, Montana. Rising above the west end of Mammoth Lakes from a base elevation of 7,953 feet at Eagle Lodge to a summit elevation of 11,053 feet, its 3500 foot rise yields over 150 trails, many of them miles in length, spread over 3,750 acres that receives 400 inches of snowfall a year. The mountain is a veritable maze of criss-crossing trails and provinces each possessing their own unique characters – depending on where one skis, one may find sheltered groomers descending through alpine glades, ungroomed and bumped up runs careening through creek beds, windswept glacier-like snowfields above treeline, toe-curling chutes where free-falls are a necessity, and divergent personalities ranging from gentle Vail-like forests to Alp-like bluffs where the skier feels like he is flying into a craggy wilderness of serrated granite peaks. Moreso than most destination resorts, a visit to Mammoth yields a most impressive diversity of terrain, vistas, and conditions – there is something (and a lot of something at that) for everyone from park rats to ski racers to cruisers to beginners. And all of it is dizzyingly scenic. While each and every base area is largely accessible from one or the other thanks to Mammoth’s uniquely integrated lift system, a primer describing each base area and the terrain associated with them is the best way to get acquainted with the mountain’s personalities.  What follows is intended to provide a guide to what each base area has to offer, and each section can be read independently.

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Mammoth’s painterly trail map by James Niehues

Eagle Lodge

The Scene: Set at a (seemingly contrived – its actually slightly lower according to my GPS) elevation of 7,953 feet at the western end of Meridian Boulevard, Eagle Lodge is Mammoth’s newest and most readily accessible base area.  It is here that Mammoth’s only true ski-in, ski-out accommodations and homes may be found nestled along the Bridges and Lupine ski runs, all within reach of the flying couch of Chair 15.  With its eastward orientation and lower elevation, this part of the mountain is the first to meet the rising sun and, as such, on those cold groomer days is the best place to begin one’s adventure.  The comfort that Eagle lends those cold winter days, however becomes a curse by late spring, when snowfall is rare and the sun is more generous with its intensity.  At that time this area of the mountain becomes chopped up, bumped out, and slushed to the point of nonrecognition by noon.  Inexplicably, in spite of its convenient location, Eagle Lodge regularly sports the shortest lift lines out of any base area on the mountain – even during peak season.  For this reason, more often than not, whenever it’s open (usually by Christmas each year and closing by the middle of April) I choose to begin my ski days here.

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Eagle Lodge Skier’s Plaza – Main tent entrance on left, Rental tent in center.

Of the four full-service base areas, Eagle Lodge offers the most obvious glimpse of Mammoth’s growing pains.  Indeed, while a comfortable and luxurious Whistler-style “condotel” (Juniper Springs Resort and its outlying buildings, Sunstone and Eagle Run Townhomes) is present on its south side, the lodge itself is no more than two large canvas yurts – affectionately referred to by locals as “the big top.”  The temporary nature of the structures lends a sense of tenuousness to the facility, but since 2005 they have proved relatively permanent.  Inside, they sport open floor-plans, the southwestern Yurt housing a ticketing desk, ski school shelter, coffee shop, Talon’s bar, Eagle Sports, and Talon’s Diner and Barbecue, while the northeastern Yurt offers rentals and ski-tuning services.  Their carpeted interiors and bright, flowing layouts are surprisingly comfortable – probably the most comfortable and spacious base lodges on the mountain… which says a lot more about the quality of the other lodges than it does about Eagle’s quality (the fruit of Mammoth’s skier’s mountain mentality is on its most obvious display in the often lackluster base facilities).

The Terrain: Outside, a single chair (and two ski-school magic carpets) lend access to the ski mountain.  Chair 15 (Eagle Express to the neophytes), one of Mammoth’s two six-pack Doppelmayer Express lifts (fun fact: this lift may be converted into a Gondola by simply replacing its chairs; indeed, that appears to be the plan), whisks riders 900 vertical feet to a notch at the foot of Lincoln Peak, crossing a skier’s bridge over Old Mammoth Road in the process, and then bisecting the Eagle area’s wedge of trails.  The lift is the most sheltered major base area lift on the Mountain, although that doesn’t say much as winds swoop down Mammoth’s slopes on stormy days here with nearly as much readiness as the notorious Chair 1 gusts.  The ride is quick, however, and once deposited on the snow the rider may elect to ski down to the glades of Canyon Lodge or explore the multitude of groomers accessible from this point.

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Eagle Express loading area.  Main Eagle Lodge tent rests on the left.

Beginners will delight in a two-and-a-half mile long descent following Holiday, Pumpkin, Sleepy Hollow, and Lupin.  The slope is uniformly gentle, with its steepest portion being a dedicated slow section at the top of Lupin (where every Eagle Run eventually meets up like a funnel).  Holiday is perhaps most scenic, providing teasing glimpses of the granite peaks that rise above the Mammoth Lakes Basin.  Intermediates and beginners of confidence will find Manzanita and Bridges to be the best progression runs, followed by the slightly more challenging Christmas Tree and Water Tank.  The Chickadee run provides a quick blue bomber down into the Canyon Base area (where Eagle can be reached again by way of Chair 8).  In general form, this area of the mountain possesses a very Colorado or Utah-like vibe – a domain of green and blue runs with the occasional semi-advanced run cutting down the middle.

The most advanced skiers will want to turn their gaze above treeline and hop on the Chair 9 six-pack (Cloud Nine Express) or take the longest ride on the mountain up the shoulder of Lincoln Peak on Chair 25.  From Chair 9, skiers may traverse to the steepest and most challenging glades on the mountain – the Dragon’s Back – or access each of the mountain’s other base lodges by way of cattracks leading to  various bowls, or simply return to Eagle by way of the relatively advanced (and long) runs of Ricochet, Goldhill and Slot.  During peak season, these last three runs are my absolute favorite on the mountain, providing a mix of steeps and cruisers that thread through one of the West’s last remaining healthy whitebark pine forests, providing stunning views of the Mammoth Lakes Basin’s wicked crags and icy pools before dropping 2,500 feet in elevation back to the Eagle base area.  Chair 25 likewise provides access to the similarly extensive runs of Quicksilver and Back for More, while also also serving as Eagle’s portal to the expert steeps of Lincoln Peak that drop into Canyon’s base area.  Park rats will find themselves disappointed by the lack of freestyle terrain – a beginner’s “playground” and a “groomed tree run” called Voodoo Chute being the only such terrain to be had.  Indeed, this side of the mountain is a dedicated cruiser’s paradise.

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Portion of the Dragon’s Back;  Ricochet cuts across the left corner of the photo. (Photo by author)

In short, the terrain accessible from the Eagle Base is the most family-friendly and merciful terrain the mountain has to offer – beginners and intermediates will thrive here, and those seeking to improve their skills will find the best tools for doing so between lapping the miles-long beginner run, moving to Bridges, Manzanita, and finally trying their hand on the short (but much steeper) Juniper.  A day or two here will build up a first timer’s confidence such that they can ski and cruise much of the mountain, and there is enough variety to be found that familiarity and boredom will come slowly, if it comes at all.

The Base Area: Unlike other base facilities, there is no cafeteria to be found at Eagle Lodge.  Instead, Talon’s Diner provides sit-down dining while the Eagle Barbecue provides outdoor sundeck counter service.  Talon’s Diner is a comfortable experience – set at about the same price as any of the on-mountain cafeterias ($12 for a burger), its cordoned off table service area (provided by minimalist planters filled with pine cones) is relaxed and slow in pace.  Service is generally congenial and helpful, although at peak times a little exasperated.  The classic American fare on menu is the same as can be found at the Broadway Marketplace with certain additions – bison burgers are a noticeable upgrade, while occasionally fish tacos appear as a special.  This last offering is, curiously and unexpectedly, the best food the mountain serves – the Pollock (or halibut) is huge, crispily battered and topped with a creamy, smoky and addictive chipotle tartar salsa.  Why it isn’t on the menu at all times, I cannot say.  Between the fish’s delightful crunch, the soft warmth of the tortilla, and aromatic brilliance of the salsa, Mammoth’s dining division proves it knows what it is doing when it decides to try hard.  When it is not available, however, the chicken tenders and burgers are all universally satisfying: Mammoth’s ubqiutious beer-battered French fry makes an appearance as a highly addictive side dish.  Outside, the Eagle Barbecue serves regular burgers and hot dogs – a good bet for when the Diner is packed and the weather is fair (which is usually every day).  Here, the quality is a little hit-or-miss – sometimes the burger is charcoal and overdone, other times perfect.  The quality seems to oscillate with the magnitude of the crowd.  As with all on-mountain dining, the price point is disappointingly steep for what you get – at least the Diner provides table service for its premium.  At closing time, Talon’s Bar fills with apres revelers, while the coffee shop dispenses Mammoth’s characteristically sweet and surprisingly rich hot chocolate.  On the whole, the dining experience is satisfying, and the presence of a waiter-served restaurant on the mountain (the only other ones being The Yodeler and Mountainside up at Main Lodge) provides a sense of luxury and sophistication rare to Mammoth Mountain… even in spite of the big top surroundings.

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Inside Eagle Lodge (Photo by Robert K.)

A huge sunken parking lot fronts the facility, which is usually full by 10 AM, with spots opening up by Noon.  This past season saw the introduction of “courtesy cart” wagons for schlepping gear across this asphalt corral.

The Mammoth funkiness is alive and well at Eagle – at once luxurious and sophisticated with its well-appointed and comfortable hotel rooms at Juniper Springs and table service dining at Talon’s, while also hopelessly incomplete and seemingly amateurish with its yurt lodge facility.  In the end, however, the focus here, as elsewhere, is on the skiing experience – at few resorts is such a variety of terrain so easily accessible from one or two lifts, let alone runs of such impressive length and diversity.  Plans are afoot to remedy the temporary lodge situation, as illustrated below – but even if such plans take a few more years to materialize, Eagle Lodge will remain the preeminent and ideal starting point for the Mammoth adventure during peak season.  Without fail, its closure every April inspires a nagging sense of disappointment during each late season ski trip.  Its long reach into town, its scenic approach along the Sierra Star golf course, and sheltered, temperate climate are aspects unique to this base lodge alone.  No doubt when the time comes to pull down the Yurt and install a permanent point of embarkation, Eagle will assert itself as the mountain’s flagship base area.

 

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Proposed Eagle Lodge Plan – complete with ice rink, hotel, restaurants, and condominiums.

Canyon Lodge

The Scene: It seems that the Canyon is the most traditional starting point for the Mammoth visitor, which makes me ashamed to admit that I have never started a single ski day from this point on the mountain.  Set at 8,343 feet above the level of the sea in a box canyon of sorts, bounded on the south by the Eagle slope, on the west by Lincoln Peak’s volcanic cone, and on the north by a rolling hill, it is the mountain’s most sheltered and densely forested region.  It is here that the 1970s vibe of the Town of Mammoth Lakes smashes up against the new world order of luxury ski homes and condominiums with comic effect.  Titularly “ski-in, ski-out condos” are one or the other but never both, and A-frame chalets rest next to large, beautifully appointed group homes.  Sporting a massive parking lot and no fewer than 4 chairlifts out of its immediate base area (with an additional two located further up the slopes) the area is built to handle a crowd, and the crowd descends upon it with regularity.  The Canyon skier can bet on a far larger crowd than the Eagle skier, but also find, perhaps, a much larger spread of terrain to explore from a single lift ride.  Here, unlike at Eagle where runs are largely grouped according to difficulty, double-black chutes feed into wide-blue cruisers and slaloming beginner runs.  When the mountain’s summit is closed due to storms, conical Lincoln Peak becomes the expert playground, and is often forgotten when the top pops open, leaving an entire mountain of airy descents wide open for the occasional skier who remembers it exists while the hordes descend on Cornice Bowl.  As a further attraction, in late season, when Eagle is slushed out and chopped to the point of nonrecognition, Canyon’s sheltered location creates a refrigerator-like microclimate that keeps the snow where it belongs and in comfortably skiable condition.  In spite of its status as a crowd magnet, the large number of lifts disperse the crowd with relative ease – indeed, lines here are usually shorter than at the Mill.

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Chair 17 is visible at far left, while Canyon Lodge is at center, Chair 16 to the left.  The Village Gondola appears to the right of the lodge, while Chair 8 is in the trees on the bottom right hand corner of the photo.

Of the four full-service base lodges, Canyon is, without a doubt, the least satisfyingly designed and the funkiest.  A four-level concrete bunker straight out of East Berlin serves as the principal, one-stop-shop for skiers – everything is in there, in a semi-efficient yet hardly hermetic arrangement.  The approach from parking lot level to skier plaza level provides, at level one, lockers; at level two, rentals and ski school shelter; at level three, ticketing, sport shop, skier access, and coffee shop while, outside, a bar and barbecue are to be found; at level four, cafeteria and meeting rooms.  The Mountain seeks to obscure the Siberian Prison of a building behind colorful and multi-surfaced appointments, but they can only go so far to mask the lack of aesthetic appeal.  Furthermore, the building is much smaller inside than it looks, and the public areas get very crowded very quickly – an effect exacerbated by a curiously small ticketing counter.  It is difficult to find seating indoors during lunch hour when dining at the Grizzly Square Food Court, and during stormy days well-nigh impossible. Canyon gets the job done, but that’s about all it does.  It’s almost a little too funky –even for me – because it lacks any character that lends charm or inspires pleasant memories.  The first-time Mammoth visitor is best advised to start their day elsewhere or, if they must visit Canyon, start at the Village for your rentals, ticketing, and food, and take the gondola to the Canyon slopes, bypassing the lodge entirely.

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Entering Canyon Lodge (Photo by Gino I.)

The Terrain: Once outside, however, Canyon quickly assumes a far more satisfying identity.  Two chairs rise out of the immediate skier plaza, while two more are located 100 yards to the north.  The southernmost chair, Chair 8, is an old-school fixed grip chair providing access to the Eagle Lodge runs and a number of blue cruisers (Swell, Hully Gully, Redwing) that return to Canyon from its summit.  A rather long advanced “race run,” Bluejay, may be found off of Chickadee – a good warm up before tackling the Lincoln Peak runs.  On the whole, the Canyon runs serviced by this lift are short, and it is best enjoyed when Chair 16 or the other Canyon lifts are slammed or when the skier wishes to return to Eagle Lodge.  As just suggested, the major attraction of the base area is Chair 16 (Canyon Express) – the four-person high-speed lift that moves skiers to the northern shoulder of Lincoln Peak, providing access to the Stump Alley base area, the Rollercoaster sub-base, or myriad blue cruisers falling back into Canyon Lodge.  The ride begins among the dense forests of the Canyon glades, rising quickly into the (much windier and exposed) northern slope province.  Beginners beware that the Canyon intermediate runs accessible from this lift are quite steep  (although beginners should have no trouble reaching Stump Alley from here on a multitude of beginner runs), and are a confusing spaghetti – some drop into the principal run, Downhill, while others skirt Lincoln Peak or fall into the Canyon beginner area.  Stick to Downhill if you seek to return to Canyon.  Two surface Poma lifts round out the principal Canyon Base.

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Bluejay Run – Chair 8

Set aways to the north from and a schush away from the lodge are Canyon’s two beginner chairs.  Chair 17 (Schoolyard Express) is a four-person high speed lift of rather impressive length for a dedicated beginner’s chair, carrying the skier to the knob atop the canyon’s northern shoulder, from which a criss-crossing arrangement of ski runs return to the base of the chair.  Chair 7, a fixed grip chair, provides similar access to the beginner level Wonderland Terrain Park, complete with an eleven-foot beginner half pipe and the top of the Village Ski Back Trail (from which skiers who elect to forego riding the Village Gondola may return to the Village at Mammoth – officially making the Village a “ski-in” destination, I guess.  Be warned that there are several flat portions on this run; snowboarders should consider taking the gondola otherwise there will be much hopping and cussing.) Keep an eye out for “Huck’s Drop” (aka Alligator Pit) for a short (but thrilling) adventure of a drop.

While the principal Canyon base lifts are suitable for beginners and intermediates, Chair 22 located further up the Downhill ski run lends fixed grip access to the most experienced skiers who seek to conquer the windy summit of Lincoln Peak.  The ride is slow, and the runs are scary things – powder days are heavenly, while more typical between-storm days are icy and treacherous.   The expert skier will find a great many options here, Grizzly being perhaps the most exciting and complete run.  Those who seek to bail out may take the Follow Me cattrack (marked as blue-black merely due to its narrowness – if you can ski in control you can make it through this one) halfway down the run or circle the summit of Lincoln Peak and link to the upper Eagle runs.

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South Park

While each of the five discussed lifts provide skiers with a great many options and a seemingly endless array of terrain ranging from glades to steeps to bunny hills to cruisers, the park rider will want to ride to the top of Chair 16 and make a beeline for South Park and Rollercoaster – the dedicated intermediate park region of Mammoth Mountain.  Serviced by Chair 4 (Rollercoaster Express) and (very rarely) the fixed grip Chair 20, the park’s 18 foot halfpipe, dedicated bump and jib runs, large (but not too large) features, and annoyingly psychedelic alternative soundtrack invite a healthy congregation of go-pro adorned Shaun White wannabes and professionals alike – if you seek to be humbled (or find Darwin Award candidates) look no further than a Mammoth terrain park, which according to most magazines and snowboarder friends are the best parks in the industry.  Take note that Chair 4 is also accessible from its own tiny parking lot and ticket office on the south side of Highway 203 (Minaret Road), and is thus technically Mammoth’s third base area (after Eagle and Canyon) and a good place to find a parking spot that is reasonably close to a lift when the other lots are full.

In short, the terrain accessible from the Canyon base area provides a full spectrum of runs for every ability and skier type.  Boarders will find a never-ending assortment of things to do between South Park, Jibs Galore, X-Course, and Wonderland Park, while experts, intermediates, and beginners will find much to explore.  When the wind kicks up on the rest of the mountain, Canyon can be relied upon to remain open in full, and during midweek is just as fun as anywhere else on the mountain.  Take care, however, as here, more than anywhere else, you are likely to encounter rather unconfident people plugging up the run and getting in the way.  Stay in control – these runs often resemble Disneyland’s Main Street after the fireworks are over.

The Base Area: As can probably be ascertained from my comments above, I have spent little time at the Canyon base area.  Only on three occasions in recent years have I braved the Grizzly Square Food Court, discovering that it provides many of the same offerings as Broadway Marketplace or McCoy’s Marketplace – complete with a taco bar, Asian stir fry station, and grill station.  The food here is largely the same as what can be had at the other cafeteria locations – only in a much smaller space.  As such, the burgers are fine (chargrilled and large, with the aforementioned fries available with the combo), while the Asian stir fry station seems forever changing in its offerings, sometimes offering flavorless and mostly-terrible ramen, other times offering a very good orange chicken (each piece crispy and sweet, with a citrus heat that doesn’t burn the palate too readily – they give you a ton of it).  On a culinary level, the Food Court provides a classic Mammoth cafeteria meal: plenty satisfying, large portions, quite expensive.  The problem arises in finding a place to sit.  The dining room may be bright and colorful and rather comfortable even if it lacks character, but on any given weekend at high noon you will NOT find a place to sit.  Outside the Food Court, the Grizzly Bar occupies an indoor sunroom with a picture-window view of Lincoln Peak.  The third floor provides twin decks – one serving the Canyon Beach Bar and Barbecue, which on weekends is a good bet when the indoor cafeteria is slammed, while the other provides outdoor seating for the Grizzly Bar and Food Court.  In the aggregate, the Canyon facilities are the most casual and utilitarian dining opportunities on the mountain.  For those seeking a more continental and satisfyingly themed experience, the nearby Austria Hof restaurant (independently operated) at the north end of the Canyon parking lot makes the best Beef Wellington I’ve ever had… but we’ll showcase that in a Yelp review.

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The Canyon Future

If only one area of the mountain had to be upgraded, Canyon would be the first on my list.  In 2007, Mammoth Mountain revealed a master plan for upgrading the Canyon facilities, which would add two buildings to provide the principal skier facilities and a boutique hotel, while retaining the current Communist Prison structure as a conference center.  However, Canyon is seldom the subject of discussions for impending upgrade.  As such, it seems that the Mammoth visitor will be consigned to dining and suiting up here for the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, however, us Mammoth regulars can look at the plans… and dream.

The Mill

The Scene: Far away from the hustle and bustle of the town lodges, resting in a forest clearing several miles up snaking Highway 203, The Mill represents everything I have come to love about Mammoth Mountain.  Evoking a remote wilderness flavor, this base area conjures up a feeling reminiscent of what it must have been like to be here during Mammoth’s infancy – three chairlifts rise in two divergent directions, while a tiny warming hut, complete with fireplace, offers shelter and sustenance to the cold and hungry skier.  While tiny and largely unequipped to handle the crowd that descends on it during popular weekends, The Mill, at 8,790 feet in elevation, serves as a lesson to the rest of the mountain on the sort of aesthetic it should strive for – rugged and outdoorsy, highly themed with an eye toward historical relevance.  It represents the sort of void Mammoth can fill in a universe of cookie cutter luxury Vail resorts – rustic luxury with a Sierra spin.  The Mill is the first satellite base lodge to open and the last satellite base lodge to close, often open by early November and remaining open through Memorial Day weekend.  The high elevation and confluence of canyons pouring into the base area render the weather here far more variable than the other base lodges, but with the saving grace that the snow quality remains better here than anywhere to the East and for far longer.  This is where the legendary Mammoth Sierra Cement holds on with tenacity, and where the real Mammoth experience is easily discovered.

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The Mill Cafe Interior

Comprising two parking lots (the eastern one providing access to Chair 21 and a snowcat shed) and a small base lodge building containing nothing more than restrooms, a tiny restaurant and a bar, the Mill lacks the rental facilities and lodging facilities present at most other base areas.  However, its three chairlifts, terrain, food, and remote character lend it a special appeal that captures the hearts of many.  And this place gets busy as a consequence: the parking lot will be full by 10 AM and will not begin to empty until 2 PM.  The lodge itself is quite small, with a curious lack of indoor seating (there are about a dozen tables – the remainder of diners must eat on the outdoor decks (many of which are heated).  Centered around a stone fireplace, decorated with antique lumber mill equipment and sepia-toned photographs of Dave McCoy and Mammoth’s first days, and graced with a bar whose mirrored shelves carry everything a skier could desire, the lodge’s aesthetic is comforting and fun, detailed and thoughtful.  If it was any larger, it would cease to be charming.  And in that sense the Mill is perfect the way it is.

The Terrain: The principal Mill base area consists of two high-speed quad lifts.  Chair 10 (Gold Rush Express) trending to the southeast is the longest chair (measured by distance) on the mountain, zipping up to the northwestern saddle below Lincoln Peak’s summit, providing access to Canyon Lodge and Eagle Lodge by any number of routes.  The easiest way back to The Mill consists of taking Solitude (whose name belies a bitter irony during peak season) to Easy Rider and the Comeback Trails – the best of the set being the one that travels furthest west before pouring back into the Mill base.  However, more advanced skiers will want to take a look at Wall Street (a wide, steep cruiser) or Lower Dry Creek (a trough of a run that rides like a winding half pipe through a forested creek bed before popping out at Chair 21.)  The most advanced skiers will want to find Chair 5 (High Five Express) on the return journey and score some extra vertical – The Face of Five and Sanctuary providing a fun lap, while a traverse to the west and discovering China Bowl, Christmas Bowl and the very exciting (and hard to find… good luck) Coyote will delight.  Terrain park seekers will want to head straight to South Park and the Chair 4 runs (see the Canyon Lodge section above).  All of these runs are a skier’s paradise, and the views within the ski area itself are impressive – the skier will find himself surrounded by sheer cliffs and dramatic chutes, while the vast volcanic tableland, pockmarked with craters, cones, and domes, spreads to the north.

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Chair 5 (Photo by Mammoth Ski Club)

Chair 2 (Stump-Alley Express), trending up a southwesterly canyon along its namesake ski run, is an iconic conveyance.  From its top, skiers may seek the remote forests of the Backside, the varied and popular runs of Main Lodge, or return to The Mill by way of any number of routes.  The most popular is to simply take Stump Alley – a freeway-sized blue run that drops straight down the mountainside.  Alternatively, advanced skiers may seek out “secret” gladed runs like Knee-Deep and Rodger’s Ridge, while the more timid may seek to wind through the woods on Mambo (one of my all-time favorite runs).  It is from the top of this chair that the skier may bear witness to the vast expanse of the Ansel Adams Wilderness – the Minarets and Ritter Range rising as a jagged skyline, separating the Eastern Sierra from the gentle wilderness of the western slope.

Hiding across a snowy flat, accessible from the eastern parking lot and a number of Chair 10 runs, Chair 21 is a fixed grip triple chair treasure that has never had a line – even during the busiest weekends.  Servicing a small knob of a peak, the chair serves exclusively intermediate terrain.  Runs called Lost in the Woods and Big Bird slip off its summit, some snaking back through a dense forest to the Chair 21 base, others (like Big Bird) careening eastward and reaching the base of Chair 4 near Canyon Lodge.  It is a little known treasure – a perfect example of where Mammoth rewards those who dare look closely and explore the outer reaches of its slopes.

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The Mill Exterior (Photo by Sam C.)

The Base Lodge: Famous for sandwiches stacked with tri-tip and pulled pork, the Mill’s restaurant serves some of the best sandwiches I have found anywhere – so much so that I must commit San Diego sacrilege and anoint The Mill’s sandwich as far superior to any of Phil’s Barbecue’s sandwich offerings.  The sauces, with their honey rich, hickory smoked glaze, settle perfectly atop tender and lean shredded meat – the two temperatures of sauce (mild and hot) both delicious… the hot being the most satisfying.  A menu rounded out with pulled pork nachos (and French fries… depending on the day) as well as burgers and sandwiches and the BEST corned beef sandwich (when available)… this is a meat lover’s paradise, and makes a credible run at besting Talon’s fish taco.  For a time, Mammoth offered to-go options out of the Mill at the close of the ski day.  PLEASE BRING THIS BACK.

It might seem contradictory to complain about crowding at Canyon yet turn a blind eye to The Mill’s ubiquitous lines and small quarters.  However, when one takes into account the location, the wide array of runs, the views, the quality of the food, and the aura and aesthetic the place holds, one cannot help but find himself completely won over.  If Mammoth, in its future upgrades, follows its own lead with what it has done here, I have no doubt that it will find itself amassing an impressive resume of accolades and an ever increasing level of satisfaction.  They did it right here – they showed how a skier’s mountain can always show up the Vail REIT.

Main Lodge

The Scene: At 8,909 feet, this is where it all began – the original Mammoth base area.  A haphazard jumble of buildings surrounding an impressive statue of a Woolly Mammoth offers the most complete base facility on the mountain.  On the south side of the parking lot, a two-block-long assemblage of buildings serves as corporate headquarters (in the clocktower) and lift ticketing (which may be reached through the automatic doors directly opposite the skier drop-off area), rentals, lockers, sport shop, and food service (in the swiss-looking wings).

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Main Lodge Complex

This main building began its life as a sundeck and warming hut where Tusk’s is today.  From there, the building grew by means of various additions until it became the ad hoc jumble it is today.  As such, certain sectors of the building, such as the ski shop and dining levels, maintain a cute Swiss-inspired (circa 1950s) theme that is cozy and warm and welcoming, while other areas, such as the rental shop and locker area, are comprised of particle board, cinder block, and carpet – 1970s brutalist decorating to the extreme.  It is kitschy, obviously built by-the-seat-of-their-pants.  Across the street, a second building serves as the lower Panorama Gondola station, transporting visitors to Mammoth’s mid station and summit, while its lower level serves as a ski school shelter.  Next door, another Swiss themed building – The Yodeler – serves as a slopeside full service restaurant, while yet another haphazard assemblage of buildings at the rear is the ski-in, ski-out Mammoth Mountain Inn.

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Iconic Mammoth Statue at Main Lodge

The Terrain: Main Lodge’s convoy of lift options provides skiers and boarders with terrain of every sort.  Chair 1 (Broadway Express) is the historic first page of the Mammoth story, quickly rising out of the base area and depositing skiers atop a volcanic knob, from which they  may choose to return to the base area via the expansive, football field wide Broadway or circle the knob and return via a number of advanced race runs.  The most adventurous may ski directly off the front of this knob into a series of volcanic chutes that fall directly below the chairlift towers (Gravy Chute).  Alternatively, skiers may ski to the Mill or the backside of the mountain by taking St. Anton toward the Chair 12 area. From the top of Chair 1 (and Chair 2 from the Mill) skiers will discover their first means of reaching the epochal summit of Mammoth Mountain – Chair 23.  The fixed-grip three-person chair is a slow, nearly vertical ride into a glass encased shelter at the summit – the most efficient means of reaching the fabled Dropout and Wipeout Chutes and Paranoid Flats; runs that better resemble those served by helicopters in Jackson Hole than an in-bounds run.  Those who chicken out, as I so often do, may escape via the Upper Road Runner cattrack off the back of this chair.

Paralleling Chair 1 for much of its length, Chair 6 (Unbound Express) provides access to the infamous Main Park of Mammoth Mountain and its 22 foot half pipe.  This place – the domain of professionals and fools alike – is a heartstopping sight.  Jumps that catapult riders 100 feet in the air are here all season long, and more than a few will eat it before your eyes.  The rest of us mere mortals may slip off the top of 6 and find St. Mortiz – a fun and easy green run returning guests to Main Lodge.  This run, with its many intersections and stepped descent winding through a forest, is Mammoth’s best progression run, and tests a number of first-timer skills.  To its left, the beginner/intermediate Forest Trail Park represents the next logical step up from the Disco Park off Chair 11, and features a really fun groomed tree run called Twilight Zone – basically the advanced version of Woolly’s Woods, ending with an airy drop back that catapults fast-moving skiers into the air and back onto the ski run.

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Mammoth Mountain Main Park.  Broadway descends to the right of the photo.

To the west of the Panorama Gondola building, Chair 11 (Discovery Chair) was the first chair I rode as a Mammoth obsessed youngster.  A short ride to a tiny volcanic outcropping provides access to two lengthy green runs – Sesame Street and “Apple Pie” (formerly Sesame Street West) – and a tiny terrain park (Disco Park) complete with a depression that resembles a half pipe.  The “Woolly’s Woods” tree run is the site of many yard sales on my part – the only reason I have any semblance of control today is owed to this run.  It is a fun slalom through the trees, with tight turns ideal for the toothpick-sized skis that the little ones are issued.  For the adult, it will prove much more of a challenge and you will very often find air. For the budding intermediate, skiing off the back of this chair down Road Runner to the base of Chair 12 and the backside lifts is a quick means of escaping the crowd. Of all the Main Lodge chairs, this one possesses the slowest moving line on account of the ski schools that are constantly seeking access to its services.  Be warned – if you get in this line you will be waiting for awhile.

In short, the Main Lodge terrain represents what most Mammoth regulars imagine when they hear the name Mammoth.  Being the first to open and last to close – sometimes keeping the lifts turning until Independence Day – this high elevation world provides park fans, beginners, intermediates, advanced, and backcountry skiers with just about everything they could want… and lots of it.  The weather may be brutal at times… when the wind blows, the upper lifts here close first, and every year sees a few days where the entire base area is shut down… but set at an elevation higher than that of the summit of most ski areas, Main Lodge provides the most consistent, quality ski conditions of any California resort, and often the longest season in America.

The Base Lodges: In addition to harboring diverse terrain, Main Lodge possesses an equally extensive array of food service options.  The Broadway Marketplace – the second largest cafeteria on the mountain – serves the familiar grill option (burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries), taco bar, and pizza.  Because of the Mammoth markup, the pizza bar is the spot I most often claim – a satisfyingly large slice of delicious, thick crust, with three or four options available: cheese, pepperoni, and certain specialty pizzas.  Wait for the fresh one to come out and grab it.  The seating area here is far more extensive than at Canyon, including an upstairs loft with a great view of the Main Park.  Also in the seating area, the gluten free and vegetarian crowd may find The Green V, while those seeking to imbibe may visit the “old house” and enjoy a Mammoth Brewing Company lager at Tusk’s.  A very large sundeck is also to be found outside, though be warned that of all the sundecks on the mountain this one is most prone to wind.

The best Main Lodge food offering is to be found at The Yodeler across the street, to the east of the Mammoth statue.  As mentioned in my Yelp review, this building maintains a curious history, its origin being an honest-to-goodness ski hut from a defunct ski resort in the Swiss Alps that was boxed up, shipped, and reassembled here.  The Yodeler definitely has a special charm once you look deeper than its sundeck – inside, murals and stone fireplaces, along with gingerbread-trim create a warm, Disney-ish atmosphere.  A large indoor bar welcomes visitors, while an upstairs loft provides additional seating on the busiest days and a fondue offering during peak season.  Sit-down table service dining, meanwhile, provides a Bavarian inspired menu – including a delicious and savory whiskey-fennel rope sausage sandwich as big as your face, while Jagerschnitzel and Chicken Schnitzel sandwiches are hearty and huge.  Set at $16 each, these sandwiches are the best value at the Mammoth Main Lodge base area – large, tasty, and of stupendous quality.  Service is hit or miss… as in much of Mammoth… but generally friendly and at the very least ambitious.  Another sit-down option – the Mountainside Grill – located in the Mammoth Mountain Inn, provides continental dining with steaks and chicken in the evening hours and a Disney-style character breakfast in the mornings with Woolly – the mountain’s mascot.  At these establishments, children are provided with a delightful coloring book – one that I stole from my brother for its brilliance.  It is a little thing, but the details are what make or break the skier experience.  Also attached to this restaurant is the fabulous Dry Creek Bar – rather indistinguishable from Tusk’s or Talon’s on a libationary level, but possessing by far the greatest view of all the on-mountain bars: a grand picture window framing an unencumbered view of the Mammoth summit in all of its glory.  It is the best apres ski destination at main lodge – open deep into the evening, from where visitors may watch the meditative movements of snowcat headlights moving up and down Broadway, preparing it for the next group of skiers to shred come sunup.

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Mammoth Mountain Inn and Chair 11

As far as lodging is concerned, the Mammoth Mountain Inn is ancient.  I stayed here on two occasions – once during an impromptu June ski trip and again the following year in early spring, once staying in the “old house” – where the room was well furnished but definitely bore the scent of age – and once in the “new house” – where loft units are available.  This latter was more comfortable, but the heating left something to be desired in both units.  The beds were comfortable, and the sheets were fine, while concierge services were remarkably friendly and knowledgeable – a ski lesson was set up at a massive discount for the youngest in our group.  Indeed, the experience is not without its positives – they try hard and they are largely successful on a service level.  However, the entire Mammoth Main Lodge complex is slated for demolition upon completion of a Big Sky-style land trade deal with the forest service, which will result in the construction of a mountain village of condominiums, timeshares, and shopping where the Inn and Yodeler stand today.  The completion of the deal is all but certain, and it appears that Mammoth’s next step in its evolution is to grow here first.  As such, the days of funky, organically expanded Main Lodge and the crash-pad rooms of the Mammoth Mountain Inn are numbered – even the Yodeler is rumored not to survive if the plan shown below has anything to say about it.  It’s probably for the best – Mammoth Mountain has never had any extensive resort real estate to speak of, and such a development will provide it with its first real taste of such a luxury… and presumably funds to upgrade the rest of the mountain.  Let’s hope that a change like that won’t cause the mountain to lose its skier identity.

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The New Main Lodge – Proposed

The Backside

The Scene: Mammoth regulars have their traditions – and many Mammoth regulars are content sticking to the beaten track, happy lapping Broadway and Stump Alley to their heart’s content or until their knee seizes up and a stiff drink is necessary for the purpose of soothing stiff joints.  But for those who brave the summit, or seek the St. Anton ski run, a vast expanse of terrain lies on the mountain’s western slopes – a place that is often uncrowded and untracked even on the busiest weekends, where terrain parks disappear and are replaced by dense forests of fir and hemlock, where Clark’s Nutcracker swoops from branch to branch planting next year’s spring brood even in the dead of winter.  It is a place where Mammoth’s alpine views give way to a tremendous vista of monumental proportions – thousands upon thousands of miles of serrated peaks, glaciers and frozen lakes disappearing into the western horizon; an endless landscape where the boundaries between in-bounds and backcountry terrain are irrevocably blurred.

The Terrain: It is at old Chair 12 that Mammoth truly begins to regain the remote character of its infancy.  Here, a 300 acre portion of the mountain’s northern slope provide skiers with a massive selection of intermediate runs that are the visitor’s best bet at fresh tracks, with Critters, Lodgepole, and Bristlecone dropping off the knife-edge point of embarkation.  Off the back of Chair 12, a bowl of runs cradled on three sides by the Ansel Adams Wilderness may be found.  Partly serviced by fixed grip Chairs 13 and 14 while the remainder is serviced by your own two feet, the Backside of Mammoth is an airy, open world that appears deceptively small on the map.  Once here, the skier finds runs that average a mile in length, and crowds of a far less intrusive caliber than most anywhere on the mountain.  A trio of blue runs (Training Wheels, Surprise, and Oops) drop from Chair 12 to the Chair 14 Outpost (sporadically open – serving up large hot dogs on most occasions), while Chair 14 – the chair most famous for being buried in the deepest snow years – penetrates much of the same terrain served by Chair 23.  Wide open, unencumbered views of the Minarets arrive in spades, and the stunted trees, usually buried under tens of feet of snow, open themselves to incredible off-piste opportunities.  The most ambitious can hike the Hemlock Ridge to the south of the Chair 14 Outpost to discover an in-bounds backcountry experience.  To escape, one must take Chair 13 or 14 and ride either Road Runner or one of the “front” Chair 12 runs back to Main Lodge.

While skiing back to Main Lodge, keep an eye out for areas where the forest browns and dies.  These pockets of trees have fallen victim to Mammoth’s volcanic provenance, succumbing to a soil that has become saturated with carbon dioxide to the point that its nitrogen has been depleted.  In recent years, young trees have begun repopulating these areas, suggesting that the carbon dioxide leak has ceased.  However, Mammoth Mountain remains an active volcanic feature – the mountain itself is actually an assemblage of no fewer than five volcanoes clustered together, and a steam vent occasionally opens and spews near Chair 3.  Geologists tell us that while Long Valley and Mammoth Mountain are indeed active in a geologic sense, they are dormant and will remain so for the foreseeable future – this is no Yellowstone waiting to happen.  Any apocalyptic event is at least 50,000 years into the future… think about leaving around that time.

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The Backside (photo by Mammoth Ski Club)

McCoy Station

The Scene: Halfway up the Panorama Gondola from Main Lodge and accessible from Chair 1, Chair 2, Chair 9 and Chair 5, the old Mid-Station, sitting at 9,343 feet and remodeled in 2007, rechristened with the name of Mammoth’s founder, provides Mammoth’s largest bar and cafeteria and a locker room.  While not particularly pleasing in aesthetic – veering on the utilitarian side – it is a comfortable and well-sized respite; an ideal place to escape inside when the weather goes south.  The McCoy Marketplace – with its familiar grill station, taco bar, pizza and pasta bar, stir fry station, bakery section, and other offerings – is little different culinarily from the Broadway Marketplace and Grizzly Square.  However, this is the one spot equipped to handle a huge crowd – even on the busiest days you’re out of there in five minutes.  Moreover, of the three cafeterias, the Marketplace maintains the largest dessert selection – Mammoth bakes a very satisfying chocolate chip cookie, my favorite “inexpensive” snack completed by pairing one with a hot chocolate.

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Parallax at McCoy Station

In the dining area, a large wall of picture windows facing toward the Stump Alley run provide stupendous view of the upper mountain, while a lower (and rather sketchy) level provides overflow seating… don’t go down there unless you have to.  And if you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you – it leaks, and there’s always water on the floor.  To the south side of the main dining room, Steep’s Bar, with its wall of televisions, is extremely popular during March Madness, and also serves a small outdoor sundeck.  To the north side, a walled off section of distressed, aged wood is signed “Parallax: Private – Mammoth Black” – the dining room for Mammoth’s $10,000 a year premium pass program (which, among other perks, provides front-of-the-lift-line privileges, early morning ski sessions, unlimited use of everything Mammoth Mountain owns, and transferability among family members.)  Members dine on a daily buffet of carved prime rib and omelets, while for the rest of us the mountain occasionally hosts “snowcat dinners” with various winemakers and celebrity chefs.  These events are well worth the effort in securing a reservation for about $125 a person.

Just inside the McCoy Station gondola ntrance and exit area, near the restrooms, the mountain operates a quick service bar dubbed “McCoy Express,” offering soups, sandwiches, coffee, beer, wine, and… donuts.  The donut station was a new feature for 2015, allowing guests to customize a glazed donut with any number of icing and toppings.  This is the latest incarnation of a constantly-changing carby dessert bar at this location – for several years this was the “Wafflewich Co.” where guests may design and gorge on two waffles sandwiched with all sorts of stuff, while before that it was a crepe bar.  Bring back the crepes.

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McCoy Station Exterior

The Terrain:  Outside Midstation, Chair 3 (Face Lift Express) carries skiers to the top of yet another volcanic peak, where a selection of blue runs may be accessed – Center Bowl is fun, while West Bowl is allowed to bump up for an exciting mogul run.  Slipping down the backside of this peak brings skiers to the point where Indiana Jones crash lands in an inflatable boat onto a Himalayan mountainside in The Temple of Doom.  True story.  Keep an eye out for a steaming, hissing, and sulfur-smelling fumerole.  Rather than taking Chair 3, skiers may also choose to drop down Stump Alley to The Mill or cut off Mambo or St. Moritz to reach Main Lodge once again.

Eleven53

The Scene: For those who betray a slightly suicidal personality, The Panorama Gondola or Chair 23 will carry you to the 11,053 foot summit, where the less adventurous may nosh on chili bread bowls (which are quite delicious – the sourdough possesses a crunchy crust and the chili itself is very hearty; spicy, smokey and yummy) while taking in a 360-degree view of the Sierra Nevada.  In addition to soups, daily special sandwiches are available – the grilled cheese is particularly comforting when stuck up here in a sudden blizzard.  Bear in mind that, generally, this place fills up quickly and finding a seat is very difficult.

A new interpretive center, calling itself “Eleven53,” replaces the former “Top of the Sierra” Interpretive Center.  Here, guests may speak with knowledgeable hosts about the geography, geology, flora and fauna of Mammoth Mountain, and take in a spectacular view.  Landmarks are pointed out, and the old story about being able to see Yosemite Valley from Mammoth is thoroughly debunked (Balloon Dome is often mistaken for Half Dome, hence the rumor).  A theater attached to the building displays a running selection of films, including a very well-done tribute to Dave McCoy.  In general, the facility is reminiscent of a National Park visitor center, only with less moralistic lecturing on the part of a park ranger.  This facility is open year-round for scenic riders, and is well worth a look for the view alone.

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Eleven53 Interpretive Center – (photo by SheetNews)

Outside, a corrugated metal stair descends (or is buried… depending on how heavy the snow has fallen that year) to a large wooden sign that points the way toward various means of descending the mountain.  Off to the west, toward the top of Chair 23, a low stone wall with three bronze plaques may be spotted.  This monument is a tribute to three members of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol who passed away in 2006 after falling into a snow-cave that they were working to fence off, which subsequently filled with carbon dioxide and sulphurous gas emanating from a nearby fumarole.  The tragic story rattled the town of Mammoth Lakes, and underlines the danger that belies the adventurous job descriptions of those who seek to put their own safety at risk in order to render a fickle mountain safe for the average skier’s enjoyment.  When skiing, remember that closed areas are closed for a reason – they’re not trying to ruin your fun, but to save your life.  Do yourself and the ski patrol a favor and follow the signs; in the end, the mountain will always win.

The Terrain: From the Summit, numerous descents may be selected.  The easiest route is to follow the intermediate cattrack “Road Runner” to the backside and, subsequently, Main Lodge.  The run is rather narrow in places, but for those who can ski in control few problems should be had.  The route is also the site of the famous Kamikaze downhill bike race during the summer months, or the extraordinarily difficult Ezakimak (Kamikaze spelled backwards) race during the spring months, when racers may choose to cross country ski, snowshoe, or bike up the run from Main Lodge to the Summit. Even the most rugged will be severely tested.

A short hike behind the Eleven53 building will bring skiers or boarders to the true summit and the airy, well-nigh airborne runs of Huevos Grande and MJBs.  Less advanced (but still accomplished) skiers delight in Dave’s Run and Cornice Bowl.  Indeed, Cornice Bowl is the ideal first true advanced run from the top of the mountain, usually perfectly groomed and devoid of its namesake cornice except during powder days.  Backcountry skiers with the guts (and low IQ) may elect to ski out of bounds from the summit along Dragon’s Back and seek out Hole-in-the-Wall: a natural lava arch tube above Twin Lakes and Tamarack Cross Country Ski Area.  Be aware that this area is not patrolled, and it is very easy to get lost.  In the end, skiing the top of this mountain – however one chooses to descend – is a rite of passage that transforms an ordinary skier into a pro… at least in their own minds.

The Village at Mammoth

Although not a base lodge of consequence except in title, The Village, at 8,050 feet, is Mammoth’s version of the now-common practice of populating the base of a ski mountain with a mixed lodging, residential, and retail development.  The Village at Mammoth was a controversial aspect of life in Mammoth Lakes when it first opened, and its master plan suggests it is supposed to be three times bigger than it is.  What has been constructed, however, has been largely embraced by locals as a “downtown center” substitute they never really had (and still don’t.)  Comprising three lodging facilities – The Village itself (operated by Mammoth Mountain), The Westin Monache, and the 80|50 Private Residence Club – each unit in each of these complexes is a full condominium complete with kitchen and possess shopping and dining opportunities on their ground floors.  The Village has assumed a base lodge character in recent years with the completion of the (rather flat) Village Ski Back Trail and the construction of the Mountain Center – a rental and ticketing building – and Village Gondola.  The gondola is open to all regardless of whether they possess a lift ticket or not, ferrying guests to Canyon Lodge, where the true skiing is to be found.  For whatever reason, of all the ticketing and rental facilities, the Mountain Center is usually the least busy.

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The Village at Mammoth – Gondola Plaza

In the end, the Village is about providing a resort experience.  A number of independent dining options are available here (each the subject of independent Yelp reviews, and not fully considered in this Mammoth Mountain-only guide)  – Gomez’ Mexican Grill and Tequileria being the most popular, while The Smokeyard Barbecue is the best dinner option, and Side Door Café is popular for fondue and crepes.  Downstairs in the 80|50 building, Toomey’s Breakfast Lunch and Dinner is renowned and possesses a cult following.  Mammoth Mountain itself operates a trio of restaurants here: Campo (a Tuscan grill of sorts – largely forgettable), Sushi Rei, and – my personal favorite among their offerings – 53 Kitchen and Cocktails. After many years of seeking an appropriate portfolio of restaurant offerings, including a couple of ill-fated attempts at creating nightclubs, Mammoth Mountain seems to have settled on this portfolio of restaurants, and for the most part they are satisfactory.  The Village also offers a Starbucks Coffee, Old New York Deli and Bagel Company, Bear Creek Pizza Den, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and Pita Pit.   Although small compared to other alpine villages in places like Whistler and Northstar, the Village at Mammoth provides a nice slate of alternatives – most of them quite good, and more than worth visiting.

53 Kitchen and Cocktails is perhaps the most deserving mountain-operated restaurant here.  Opened in early 2015, the restaurant comprises a high-contrast dining room consisting of black, white, and red colors and abundant natural light.  A creative hodge-podge of modern decorating and 1950s sensibilities, the restaurant  is named to evoke Mammoth’s summit elevation AND the year its first chairlift began operation.  With its punchy atmospheric music and California-casual menu of creative burgers, sandwiches, and steaks, the place is meant to be a hangout.  It is during brunch, however, that this place shines: a banana split pancake, consisting of a spongy buttermilk cake, four deep-fried chunks of banana, and whipped cream is childhood decadence… available in “regular” and “hubcap” size.  The regular size is already massive, and at $7.50 the cheapest 100% filling breakfast in town.  Alternatively, a yummy and fruity blueberry streusel pancake might tempt you, while the 53 Breakfast (at $13, providing three eggs, four slices of toast, bacon/ham/sausage, and rosemary-sea salt potatoes) is the closest thing to healthy that is also hearty enough to last you a full ski day.  For some unknown and uncharacteristic reason someone in the Mammoth Mountain dining department decided to offer a good value that is also delicious and exciting… and, in the case of Mammoth Mountain-operated Village restaurants, actually good.  Other places in the Village (Toomey’s jumps to mind first) are objectively superior, but 53 holds its own.

The lodging situation, however, is more nuanced.  If staying in the mountain-operated condominiums that comprise the Village itself, ensure you request a unit in Lincoln House or Grand Sierra Lodge (the green and red buildings on the west side of the plaza) – the White Mountain Lodge, though the newest and very well appointed in its own right, is notorious for being noisy at night due to its being surrounded by a pedestrian corridor on three sides.  Regardless of the building, however, each is modern and luxurious – Mammoth Mountain provides high thread count sheets and daily housekeeping, and for the most part the service is on par with a 4-star hotel.  Each building possesses its own workout room, lounge, and hot tub facility. The best offering, however, is if you can manage to use VRBO to find a room at the 80|50 private residence club.  With its valet parking, private bridge connecting to the Village Gondola, HUGE and quiet rooms with all the luxury appointments you could want, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to a 5-star hotel in Mammoth Lakes today.  A rooftop spa and workout facility is a clever touch as well, and the residence club also provides a complimentary breakfast at Toomey’s each morning.  Meanwhile, The Westin, located at the top of a steep staircase across the street from the main Village, is perhaps the quietest offering and provides the best views (as well as an incredible meal at Whitebark).  But bear in mind that the climb up the stairs in ski boots from the gondola can be a bit of a workout and a little rough for kids.

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Village Gondola Station

The Village at Mammoth provides the closest thing Mammoth has to a destination resort experience.  As such, the Mammoth funkiness is nowhere to be found, and there is much that is convenient about it.  Its location far from the ski area (except for the ski back trail), however, is a curious shortcoming – but one largely abrogated by the presence of the gondola.  Compared to other facilities at the various Vail resorts, this Village may seem small or incomplete, but what is here is undoubtedly great – food and lodging of this sort are seldom clustered so closely together, and the fact that it is not entirely owned by the mountain itself lends an element of price competition that is very welcome in a resort town.  The twin Town Center and Gondola Plazas are the site of many concerts and festivals throughout the year, and it truly seems that the place has come into its own as a Mammoth institution even if it seems like the mercenary transplant from British Columbia that it was when it was first built.  Maybe someday it’ll grow…

Other Holdings

Apart from the ski mountain and its associated services, Mammoth Mountain operates a cross country ski facility with 20 miles of trails of varying difficulty, a cabin lodge, and a restaurant in the Mammoth Lakes Basin: Tamarack Lodge.  Located a short drive up Lake Mary Road from the Village, the facility is a hidden gem – an idyllic, almost Hobbiton-like scene of old fashioned cabins lining a hillside above the often-frozen Twin Lakes.  For those of us who visit often in the summer, when the area is humming with the noise of laughter and generators, the wintertime experience seems like something out of the Pleistocene.  All is silent, except for the scratching of cross country skis, and all is still.  There is something magical about penetrating the depths of the Basin, once the site of the Mammoth Gold Rush, and reveling in a picture postcard of a wilderness before it became touched by the hand of man, who sought to recreate in this glorious place and brought with him all of his creature comforts.

Tamarack
Tamarack Lodge Lobby

The Tamarack Lodge itself houses Mammoth’s titularly finest dining experience: The Lakefront.  The lodge itself possesses a fishing lodge motif, where even the chandeliers are adorned with tiny canoes.  The rock fireplace and leather chairs are inviting and baronial in character, and the tiny dining room housing the Lakefront itself possesses a stupendous sunset view of alpenglow should you be fortunate enough to score an early reservation.  Indeed, the entire Tamarack experience is completely removed from the typical fast-paced Mammoth Mountain aesthetic and clientele.   One visit here and you’ll understand why the locals treasure it so much.

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Tamarack Ski Area Map

In addition to activities that involve strapping skis to one’s feet, the mountain operates a groomed and lift-served tubing area on the north side of Highway 203 between the Village and Mill, including select nights where they light up their sled reds with neon and other colorful lights and make a party of it.  During the summer, the mountain strings zip lines and climbing walls to accompany its large mountain bike park containing 100 miles of singletrack trails, and (usually) operates an 18 hole golf course in the center of town.  The Village restaurants and Lakefront continue to operate as well, but for the most part the summertime activities involve the mountain far less than the wintertime.

Insider Information

If you have read every word to this point, you should have a good idea of the breadth that the Mammoth experience offers.  That said, there are a number of considerations you should keep in mind when planning and executing a Mammoth visit:

  • Follow the Wind: Mammoth may lack the champagne powder of the Wasatch resorts and be subject to far more wind than one would like, but the wind brings with it the blessing of “buffed” snow.  Seek the windward side of the mountain after a brisk storm, and you will find the equivalent of fresh powder tracks even weeks after the last storm.
  • Buy tickets early or buy the Mountain Collective each March: Mammoth, like Vail resorts, now gouges those who do not plan ahead – $135 for a peak season ticket purchased the day of.  Purchasing two weeks in advance saves 20%.  The best deal, however, if you plan to ski four or more days, is to be had with purchasing The Mountain Collective Pass early each year.  Providing two included days (three if you buy early) at Mammoth plus 11 other resorts, and 50% off all additional tickets with no blackout dates, it makes for a good deal if you plan to ski during the holiday seasons (3 days of paying walk-up price alone will pay for your pass).
  • As of 2016, daily on-mountain rentals were $36.  Look around town for better rental deals – Footloose Sports usually offers them for $32.
  • Follow the Sun: on those icy spring mornings, begin your day at Eagle and, as the snow softens in each area, move progressively westward, exploring each area at its prime, corny time.
  • For planning out your day, or for better wayfinding, a member of the Eastern Sierra Forum created a “homemade” professional trail map, which can be seen here.  It is an invaluable resource and highly recommended reference guide.

Conclusion

As the years have passed, Mammoth Mountain has sought to assume a number of different identities.  For a time it courted the destination skier, but with the challenges of economic turmoil it returned to its roots, now focusing on galvanizing and maintaining the “legacy” guest – the Southern Californian.  As a result, this mountain, more than any other top 20 ski mountain, has deep seated roots in tradition.  As tastes change, so too does the industry change.  And yet, much like any other classic California institution that has managed to catch the popular imagination, there are some things quintessentially Mammoth that never change.  No matter how much gloss, how much luxury, how many Black Passes are sold, Warren Miller’s hypothesis that skiing is “the great equalizer” remains true here.  We all smile and laugh with excitement on the same run no matter who we are or where we come from.  We all gaze with wonder on the forever dreamscape of powder that pours out from Mammoth’s feet.  We all rush to win that first track.  We all count down the days till the snowflowers fall once again.  We all crave the freedom that skiing provides.  Dave McCoy saw the dream first, and today – 60 years later – we still rush to join in chasing that dream.

Dave Mccoy

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