HILLS NEWSPAPERS: March 7, 2016
March has come in like a lion. That’s welcome news in the Sierra, where at this rate, ski season could last through July. We’re talking Tahoe, but also Mammoth — the monster mountain that ranks in the top 10 of most skiable acres in North America.
Mammoth is getting a big dump of snow this week to add to an already impressive base at the summit (165 inches and counting, as of Sunday). Ask any serious skier — like the guy I met from New Zealand — and you’ll find out how much buzz this place gets worldwide.
“It’s just the scope of the mountain,” he told me on his third trip to Mammoth. “You can ski all day and never cover all the terrain.”
As it turns out, size matters. Twenty-eight lifts covering 3,500 skiable acres on a mountain that’s 11,053 feet at its peak. Mammoth is so big on weekdays you can carve up corduroy well into the afternoon. Fresh tracks make you feel like you’ve got the resort all to yourself — unless a “woolly” mammoth finds you.
Even with winter conditions, there’s a spring vibe in the air as Mammoth’s mascot “Woolly” cruises the mountain like a rock star. Talk about a popular proboscid — more people want selfies with this guy than Will Ferrell or Gwen Stefani, two stars who frequent the Mammoth Lakes region.
“They like it because it’s laid-back,” says Lucas Ropke, the owner of Mammoth All Winter Shuttle. As a tour company owner, he likens Mammoth Lakes to Aspen, where people respect your space — even if you’re a celebrity.
Ropke helped me check off a bucket list item — Mono Lake. Surprisingly close to the airport, we drove through a 20-mile long caldera (volcanic crater) with high chaparral and ringed by mountains and glacial lakes.
Mono Lake seems lonely in March. More birds than tourists visit in early spring, and the Tufa Towers stand guard as if they’re protecting this otherworldly wonder — a saline lake at least 760,000 years old.
I saw Mono Lake by daylight and moonlight. Moonlight was courtesy of United Airlines, which has one nonstop a day between here and SFO, servicing one of the smallest airports I’ve seen near a major ski resort.
And that’s part of the charm. Mammoth Yosemite Airport is so small, people sit outside in lawn chairs to wait for their flight. The runway has that private airstrip feel, like you just jetted in for the weekend. But be warned — the weather can be unpredictable and flights do get canceled, leaving visitors “stranded” — if you call another night in paradise “stranded.”
It happened to me. Headwinds forced United to lighten its load out of Mammoth. All Winter Shuttle drove one group back to the Bay Area, but I opted to stay another day.
It was one of the world’s biggest no-brainers — another night in a lively mountain town and a fourth day of skiing. When I returned to the airport the next evening, it was like déjà vu all over again, only this time, the flight took off uneventfully.
Which was a bit of a letdown, to be honest. As the plane gained altitude in a tangerine sky, there was this almost-surreal sheen off the shoreline of Mono Lake. And I was left wondering why I had waited so long to realize a dream.
The Sierra Nevada Resort has three acclaimed restaurants and an alpine lobby bar (with a piano once owned by Clark Gable): http://thesierranevadaresort.com.
For an itinerary of activities in every season, see Mammoth Lakes Tourism: http://www.visitmammoth.com.
Mammoth All Winter Shuttle offers sightseeing tours of the Mammoth Lakes region at http://www.mawshuttle.com.