I just spent a week skiing at Mammoth Mountain in California. This was my fourth visit to Mammoth, and it was a week of mixed results.
Mammoth lives up to its name: it claims more than 3,500 skiable acres, a rise of 3,100 feet (from a base of about 8,000 feet), and 28 lifts (not including the 5 magic carpets). Despite its large size, it is surprisingly easy to traverse. It offers a good range of terrain, with open bowls, glades, and standard runs, supporting beginners through experts in good distribution.
Mammoth is situated on the east side of the Sierras and draws its primary clientele from southern California. A drive of 5 or 6 hours is all it takes to get there from Los Angeles, and 8 hours will bring those as far south as San Diego. Those coming from the eastern states can fly into Reno and drive (or bus) some 4 hours south to get there, passing the eastern entrance to Yosemite on the way.
The town of Mammoth lakes is located a few minutes drive from the base of the mountain. It is certainly a town in its own right, but geared toward the vacationers. It has many restaurants, its share of shops, some outlets, a movie theatre, a large grocery store, and all the other trappings of a town. It also has a free bus system that gives transportation across the town, between several locations at the base of the mountain, and between the mountain and the town. Highly recommended for sandwiches and baked goods: Schat’s Bakery and Café.
New this year is a free gondola between the so-called “Village” area of the town and Canyon lodge, the busiest area of the mountain base. The Village is an odd place, having new restaurants and shops that appeal to the visitors, except that most of them are closed in the evening when they would receive the most business. I was staying in the Village area and took advantage of the new gondola (and the deli there for breakfast).
Mammoth is famous for its snowfall. When I arrived, the base was claimed to be 12 to 14 feet. It’s hard to know what to do with a number like that, since I could see that the snow thickness was only about a foot around some trees. But it did mean that all the terrain was open and I encountered no bare spots. Snow had fallen a few days before my first ski day of Monday, and the conditions were excellent, with the snow just right in the trees and on the bumps. Of course, there were a great many groomed runs as well. For the first three days, the cloudless days were a perfect complement to the stunning views on and around the mountain. But the sun also melted snow on the southern side, and ungroomed areas with too much solar exposure became crunchy. By Thursday, some clouds and strong winds came in, with the wind making some of the runs more scraped. Monday through Thursday were wonderful, and I was loving life.
Friday began with a dusting of snow, very high winds, and a scourge of new arrivals. The winds closed the middle and upper lifts, making traversal across the mountain impossible, and trapping the far-too-many people at the bottom. It was a zoo that I found to be intolerable. (It was nearly impossible to get lunch, even at 11:00.) I quit at noon in disgust. More determined members of my group found fewer crowds by taking buses to alternate areas of the mountain and waiting for more lifts to open in the afternoon. Despite some snowfall throughout the day, Saturday was even worse, with wall-to-wall people driving many of my group off the slopes, except for a few determined souls that found some isolated areas of relative calm.
My summary: Mammoth is a beautiful, expansive place to ski that can easily entertain for a week. But if the Southern Californians decide to come in force, you may wish to skip the weekend skiing.