The first time I drove to Mammoth from LA was at night with a group of friends to celebrate New Year’s sometime around 2008. I had just flown from Connecticut and remember the dark drive as creepy and eerie. Fast forward 12 years later and I’m finally returning to the ski the mammoth mountains of California, which has been put off for far too long as the tales of joy from neighbors and friends about “Mammoth” (the snow, the conditions, the town) has echoed in my mind the entire time I’ve lived in Los Angeles.
Founded as a mining town in the late 1800s due to gold and silver found in the volcanic rocks above present-day Mammoth Lakes, the spectacular beauty of Mammoth Mountain and the Minarets that dominate the skyline around Mammoth Lakes, have attracted visitors for centuries. When the mines ran out, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, biking, and skiing became the major industries.
Cross country skiing
Visitors flock to Mammoth’s natural beauty and the town’s modern conveniences. In winter, Mammoth is the ultimate place for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing in the wilderness. Mammoth Mountain is the highest resort in California offering snowy mountain conditions – from easy learning terrain to wide-open bowls and expert chutes. It is hard to believe ski season often continues through Memorial Day weekend and sometimes into the early summer.
While some people choose to fly to Mammoth non-stop on JetSuiteX, Alaska, or United, I was excited to road trip the 5- 6 hours and split the drive up with some outdoor adventures along the way. What better feeling to be on the open road aka California’s backbone (Highway 395), thirsty for adventures as we slide out of a pandemic!
Making the trek in the new GMC Yukon Denali made the drive that much more enjoyable with roomy comfy seats and plenty of trunk storage for skis and provisions. The quiet Diesel and plush air suspension made for a smooth ride. Most importantly, I felt safe in this beast, especially when traversing some wilder roads off the 395; plus exterior cameras were extremely helpful as they provide a complete view around the car which helps when maneuvering this full-size luxury SUV.
On the drive up from LA my husband used the backseat as a standing workspace office for his laptop when we made road stops. Also, the three 8-inch infotainment screens (two in the back) are a handy way to keep kids occupied in the backseat for long trips. The heated seats I call “bun warmers” are always appreciated, especially when the sun sets and temps drop.
Consider the following pitstops and mountain tops when making the trek and turn your winter woes to winter “whoas!”
As soon as you escape the LA traffic grind and you’re out of Palmdale, the road seems less daunting. We had the sunroof cranked in the Yukon to feel the fresh air and after a few hours, we pulled over for an hour hike through Red Rock Canyon State Park, an overlooked park with impressive rock formations, scenic desert cliffs, buttes, and Joshua trees. The entire area was once at the bottom of a massive lake ten million years ago. A short loop hike with somewhat of a marked trail takes you up and over the landscape with dramatic shapes and colors where you may peek out of a window rock cave, spot a rock that looks like a camel’s head, and find scurrying lizards with striped tails. Walk along the former riverbed oases too.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Once owned by a German immigrant who acquired the land by buying mining claims, he eventually led a small outpost where he built a diner with bar, primitive lodging, and post office. He operated Red Rock Canyon as his own private park, offering maps of rock formations. The land transferred within his family until it became a state park in 1969.
Before you reach the small town of Lone Pine, veer off west to Alabama Hills for a drive through this awe-inspiring range of hills and rock formations near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Many films have been shot here and for those who really want to get into nature, there are two main options for camping and a short loop hike to Mobius Arch.
Alabama Hills in California
Local ‘yocal’ towns like Lone Pine and Bishop are worthy of some snack stops. Beloved Copper Top Barbecue has a new location while Mahogany Smoked Meats offers takeout barbecue sandwiches, smoked meats, and expensive unique jerkies like turkey, elk, buffalo, salmon, ahi, and wild boar since 1922. Also, in Bishop, you might not expect to find Erick Schat’s Bakery, a European-style bakery and deli known for their made-to-order deli sandwiches, sweets, and specialty European stone hearth oven breads. This century-old establishment operated by a Dutch family has us leaving with the Dutch Crunch Pullaway with sweet doughy knots – almost like a Cinnabun – coated with baking spices, sugar, and walnuts.
On our drive back to LA I was determined to see Convict Lake. Surrounded by snowy mountains, we walked around this luscious setting carved out of glaciers and were amazed to see one guy hop into the icy waters. You can catch trout here and boats are available to rent in the summer. In 1871 a group of convicts escaped from a prison in Carson City, Nevada and took refuge near the lake. Pursued by a posse, a shootout ensued, and most were left dead. The surviving convicts escaped again only to be captured and lynched in the end.
Convict Lake – April 2021
On our next trip, I hope to spend time in the Ancient Bristlecone Forest and the natural hot springs, such as Wild Willy’s Hot Springs with several soaking pools for the brave nudist. That seems like a delightful soak in the middle of nowhere after a day of skiing. An old bathing house called Keough Hot Springs is also 7 miles south of Bishop. Devils Postpile happened to be closed this time of year but this unusual rock formation of columnar basalt is on my list along with nearby Rainbow Falls, June Lake, and Mono Lake and Hotsprings.
Mammoth Mountain Tops
Boasting a summit elevation of 11,053 feet, Mammoth offers 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, 150 runs, 28 chairlifts and two gondolas. Mammoth Mountain is the official training mountain of the U.S. Olympic Team, hosting numerous events annually for both professional and up and coming athletes.
Did you know that Mammoth Lakes sits on the edge of the Long Valley Caldera, a 20-mile wide extinct supervolcano that erupted around 750,000 years ago? The eruption released 500 times more volcanic material than Mount St. Helens did in 1980 and volcanic ash traveled as far as Nebraska and Kansas! Present-day Crowley Lake, located 8 miles south of Mammoth Lakes, sits roughly in the southeastern limit of the ancient crater.
From our mountainside room with small balcony on the ground level, we could watch the sky in the evening turn various hues at sunset in sharp contrast to the dusted white mountain. One evening the winds whipped through the mountains all night long while a pack of coyotes awakened me as their howls echoed through the mountain range.
View from our room at Mammoth Mountain Inn
Rustic Mammoth Mountain Inn reminds me of a classic Vermont ski chalet. Located at the Main Lodge, it makes an ideal location to stay since you can rent ski equipment in the lobby and ski right out the door. After a day of swooshing down the slopes, the outdoor heated jacuzzi on-site helps relax sore tired muscles. Due to COVID, guests are reminded to stay 6 feet apart at the heated pool and are allowed 20-minute intervals in the hot tub with immediate family members or single household.
When staying at Mammoth Mountain Inn you don’t need to go far for apre-ski since upstairs is the Mountainside Bar and Grill with an A-frame structure perfectly framing the mountains. Due to COVID, limited capacity is offered daily from 5 – 9 PM. A free nightly shuttle starts at 5 PM for those who wish to head to the village.
Mammoth Mountain Inn follows all safety protocols from the CDC such as suspended daily room stay-over service, required face coverings, removal of decorative items, special laundering, as well as additional in-room sanitation procedures.
Averaging 300 days of sunshine a year and 400 inches of snow a season in Mammoth, skiing here makes a lot of sense. After a 5-year skiing hiatus (although I grew up skiing as a kid in Vermont), I’m not going to lie; I was a bit afraid. Now that I am older the daredevil is gone and my only wish is to not break anything. While my husband is a phenomenal skier, I begged him to not take me on any black diamonds. The blue square trails were challenging enough– some with steep expansive drops and others with curvy narrow paths through the forest. From the Main Lodge I enjoyed the Lower Road Runner run that meandered into an easier pleasurable green circle trail where I could look up from time to time to savor the mountain and forest views as I cruised down the mountain.
Other blue trails like Bristlecone, Secret Spot, and Critters were doable while we took several long runs from the summit where an Interpretative Educational Center teaches about the Sierra and the Eleven 53 Café offers snacks. After swinging in the wind on some of the chairlifts with no bar protection, I made my husband take me to the gondola for a more comfortable breathtaking ride to the top. After your panoramic gondola ride, snap a picture at the summit before choosing amongst black diamond trails, or blue trails from the backside of the mountain.
One day we skied down to Canyon Lodge, then took the lower level gondola to The Village for lunch. After popping our skis off we were a short traipse to town where dining outside in 68-degree weather felt burning hot. I was tempted to just rip off my shirt. At Side Door Wine Bar and Cafe we noshed on lemon powdered sugar crepes, a hearty Nicoise Salad with seared tuna, and a grilled chicken pesto panini. Hot chocolate with whipped cream may have been the wrong choice on such a sunny day, but it hit the spot.
For apres-exercise, a wine shop exists in the wine bar inside the café. Their wine bar has a deep wine list with many of our favorites from Paso Robles. This place is also great for breakfast pick-me ups (i.e. coffee, croissants, quiche), dessert crepes, charcuterie plates, salads, and paninis. Check out The Mountain Italian Panini or the Beef and Bison Chili.
On our second day we cross country skied at Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, just a short drive from the inn and a welcome exercise after a day on the mountain. My knees and lower legs were in such pain from the boots that swishing my legs to and fro through the snow seemed like a much easier endeavor. Between Twin Lakes, visitors can glide on groomed ski track pathways through the winter wonderland but ski cautiously on the loop back since it is downhill. Leaving the marked tracks and scissoring my skis made it possible not to fall on the downward return slope. Lessons and snowshoe are also available with 19+ miles of secluded trails at the Mammoth Lakes Basin.
Perfect cross country skiing pitstop
It took a second full day of downhill skiing to start feeling confident again on the slopes. Each day’s breakfast hop felt like needed sustenance while post-ski dinners felt like an earned reward and welcome respite. Check out some of these other excellent food options.
No trip to Mammoth is complete without apres-ski beer tasting flights (seasonal and original) at Mammoth Brewing Co and The Eatery. Savor those microbrew suds with sips of their Epic IPA, a Double Nut Brown, or a fruity hard seltzer, but stay and dine at one of their outdoor picnic tables a la beer garden in view of the mountains. Soak up the alcohol with yummy pub grub like the “Best Dam Burger’ made with ½ pounds of ground brisket and smoked gouda, Crispy Cod Filets and Waffle Fries, and fondue with bread stick-like fries for dipping. They offer root beer on tap too.
Newly reopened, satisfy your longing for comfort food with a GIANT bowl of noodles at Noodle-LY. The regular size ($12) is easily two meals and if you plan to order takeout, order at least an hour in advance because this restaurant dishing up house-made rice, egg, and spinach noodles, is super popular. Try the #2 Pho with Braised Beef or the #3 Khao Soi with minced pork for post-ski satisfaction.
Before your snow activities, grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee or fresh bagel of your choice loaded with homemade cream cheese and/or lox at the Old New York Deli and Bakery where you can eat outside. It’s impossible to not leave with a few cookies to-go or some of their tantalizing pastries.
Another stellar option for breakfast or grab-and-go items is bleu Market & Kitchen, an artisanal food shop filled with everything a gourmand’s heart desires like a counter of farmstead cheeses, an organic bakery, charcuterie plates with specialized meats from the butcher, sustainable seafood and grass-fed meats, wines and craft beer and spirits, and a dizzying array of unique handcrafted and small-batch products. I couldn’t leave without some of their fun kitchen items like a rose gold coffee press and wood and rose gold accented cooking utensils. Even the $10 bottle of red vino from Paso we picked up here was delicious and the charcuterie plate for our drive home was a good call too.
Full hot dinners to-go are available with options like Duck Confit, Pan Roasted Scottish Salmon, and Boneless Braised Beef Short Ribs. Guests can also order cocktails and dine inside now with shared small plates and entrees such as Raclette, Lamb Meatballs, Seared Scallops, and House Smoked Salmon Mousse.
One of our most memorable meals was dinner at Petra’s Bistro & Wine Bar where guests clamored to get a table in April. Some people knew of their Happy Hour specials from 5 – 6 PM and beelined to the bar inside thanks to Covid times starting to loosen up a bit. We ordered appropriate winter cocktails like Austrian Gluewein (mulled wine) and a Hot Toddy to celebrate a successful day of skiing and soon enough were seated outside dining under heat lamps. An Italian family next to us raved about many dishes so we knew were in a good place.
Our meal was unforgettable. To start, gnocchi with mushrooms in a sage cream sauce will be on my mind for a long time and the appetizer could have easily been my dinner with several more orders, but we moved onto the Lamb Shank that tenderly fell off the bone atop truffle mashed potatoes along with a juicy New York Steak – all cooked to perfection. Somehow we managed to find room for their sinful generously portioned desserts – a lemon blueberry cheesecake with sugary graham cracker layer crumbled on top and chocolate mousse in an edible cookie pastry cup. I wondered for a minute if I was in L.A. because my food expectations for the whole trip were beyond surpassed. Thank you to the chef for such an exquisite meal! Due to the pandemic, I savor these times more now than ever.
Stellar Brew coffeehouse made the perfect stop on our way out for chia seed yogurt covered in nuts and fruit, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, and fancy coffees like iced dark chocolate mocha. They also serve fresh fruit smoothies, protein-packed shakes, acai bowls, and light breakfast and lunch fare. The little blue shack reminds visitors upon entry that “You are Loved.” Reminiscent of Vermont, we had to take home some of their local Jake’s Family Maple syrup from Vermont but bottled in Mammoth.
While Mammoth is lauded for its skiing, apparently summer and fall are incredible times to visit too. Mammoth Lakes with the motto “No Small Adventure” certainly rings true.
Comment below if you found the ‘LaLaScoop’ helpful or share with us your favorite stops.
2 thoughts on “A Mammoth Road Trip – California’s Outdoor Adventure”
You forgot to stop at The Mogal Steak House. Best piece of meat you cook yourself. Carey the owner is the best.
Thanks for the tip. On my list for next time.