February 25, 2012

Two Stunning Snowshoe Adventures in Mammoth

Downhill skiing is not my thing.  Growing up in suburban Chicago, the closest ski hill was an icy, snow drenched landfill that was about as attractive as a a real landfill in 110 degree heat. I'm much more at home hiking - with snowshoes strapped to my feet and poles in my hands.  Hence a trip to one of the largest mountains in California with no skis in sight...

I receive a few weird glances and snickers from SoCal snowbirds when they see the bag I load off the plane. It's not hiding a snowboard or skis, but my snowshoes. Little did they know I was going to play in the snow for free, amidst the fluffy white powder they could only dream of on the overworked slopes.

Mammoth Mountain
While it rises to 11,000 feet, Mammoth Mountain doesn't loom.  It creeps up behind, innocent and timid, like a child trying to catch your attention behind the leg of its parent.  In its shadow, I expect the hustle and bustle of Lake Tahoe towns, but instead I get the serenity of a small town awakening. It's President's Day weekend, and while the visitors are supposedly swarming the town and clogging up Main Street, I'm in the back country surrounded by nothing but trees, powder and sunshine.

Lake Mary Loop
Starting along Lake Mary Road, I'm in the company of cross country skiers and snowshoers, all in search of the back country to be found a mile up the road.  Tamarack Ski Center attracts a crowd anxious for groomed trails and the peace found outside the chairlifts. Tamarack grooms more than 18 miles of trails and the surrounding hillsides are open to snowshoers.  There are endless possibilities of falling into powder or scurrying along packed trails and I could be occupied for weeks.  

Instead, I'm packing it all into one day and heading up Lake Mary Road from the Ski Center.  Lake Mary Road connects to Lake Mary Loop and shortly after veering left I see the lake - snow covered, glistening and beckoning.     

I timidly step on the lake.  Is it frozen?  Will it hold me or will I be like Harry in It's a Wonderful Life and just fall through?  

Lake Mary crossing
My poles push through the snow, strike the ice and don't move an inch.  The ice seems solid so I take a short stroll along the lake.  All seems well so I start to cut of the trail and head across the lake.  I make it across and head up the inclined shore.  A local lets me know the lake has been completely frozen over since December so I feel a bit better about my excursion. I immediately dart back down to the lake to head to the other side.  How cool to walk across a lake?!  

Plenty of room in the Tamarack Lodge Bar
After reveling in the lake crossing, I head back down Lake Mary Loop to the main road.  The powder off to the side is at least 2 feet deep and sinking along the hills proves more fun than the groomed trails. Back at Tamarack, I head to the lodge for a beer and warmth by the roaring fire.  Couples, groups of friends and families surround me and I wish I were staying in one of the property's cabins so I could just stumble home. There's always next time.

Minaret Vista
The next day, I'm dropped off at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and I quickly head off for the Minaret Vista point.  The trail starts at the base of the mountain near the main lodge and the first quarter mile is actually the end of the beginner's ski/snowboard run.  I veer off the run to get fresh powder and then reconnect with the main trail after it leaves the ski hill.  The trail to the vista point is a road that isn't plowed for the winter and while it's uphill and at 9,000 feet, it isn't as hard as it would be ungroomed.  

The back country here is spectacular.  Just 200 feet off the main trail and there is no one around. The lack of fresh tracks confirms I'm the first one here in at least a few days.  Anyone snowshoeing to Minaret Vista needs to make time to get off trail.

Minaret Vista
The final quarter mile up to the vista point is unassuming until I reach the plateau.  I'm suddenly transported to a Lord of the Rings novel and feel as though I'm headed to Middle Earth. The scenery is stunning.  The 17 granite Minarets rise above the valley, captivating my attention.  

From the viewpoint, I'm consumed by the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the John Muir Wilderness and Mammoth Mountain - all within a 180-degree swing of my head.  A Snowcat makes its way up the trail and I'm enjoying the view with a few families.  A small child sweetly tells his mom as he plays in the snow, "I'm having so much fun, this is the best day ever." I feel the same.  

Mammoth is a special place. After two short snowshoe hikes, I feel it and want more. Three days is nowhere near enough to explore this outdoor paradise.  

Getting there

Mammoth is a hike from San Francisco, and not a pleasant one by land.  In the winter, the drive is more than 350 miles to reach the town of Mammoth Lakes.  Compare that to 200 miles to Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe and its easy to understand why the Bay Area flocks there instead.  However, with flights now available from SFO, you can reach Mammoth in 39 minutes by plane and be a short 15 minutes from the town. 

Staying there

There are numerous slope-side hotel options, but I chose to stay at Mammoth Creek Inn. A few miles from town, the inn is off the beaten path, cozy and complete with hot tub and sauna.  I loved relaxing by the fireplace in the lobby and felt entirely spoiled by the hospitality of our shuttle driver Tom, someone who has lived in Mammoth, left, then came back because it felt like home.  I wanted to bring him back to Oakland, but am happy he'll be there so I can hang out with him when I go back.

And...where there is great snow...there is great beer...

Mammoth Brewing Company Line Up
Ten minutes after pulling into town, I visited the newly renovated tasting room of Mammoth Brewing Company. Ski bums behind the bar, free tastes of at least 10 beers and tasty suds would keep me coming back here every visit.  The car repair garage look on the outside completely masks the greatness on the inside. Specialty beers like the Devil's Post (and the Root Beer) were favorites.  The tasting room is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., but their beers are available all over town. For an after-hours over-the-top beer selection, check out Clocktower Cellar. I highly recommend their tot-chos (tater tot nachos) after a hard day of snowshoeing (or time on the slopes).  

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I love Yosemite.  After this trip, I'm becoming a Mammoth convert.  I'm already planning my summer camping trip for the Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza!



  1. Jill. First, I love this blog: great writing and solid info. Second, your post brings up a great point about the variety of things one can do in the High Sierra. While I downhill ski, I also love cross country and back country skiing because of the quiet. Sometimes it's nice to get away from everything and just be in the wilderness.

    Can't wait to hear more of your adventures!

  2. Thanks so much Christie - I love telling others about all the incredible things there are to do in our area. Would love to know any other High Sierra places on your list. Thanks for following!

  3. Jill, as a Mammoth local I am thrilled to hear that you thoroughly enjoyed your stay here! I am ashamed to admit that I have never hiked to Minaret Summit in the winter! You have inspired me to break out the snowshoes and head out this week-end! Thank you for that - and please come back in the summer - you will be blown away by the beauty and serenity that is the back country of Mammoth Lakes!

    1. Susi - I so loved my trip to Mammoth! Already looking for flight deals to come back and have started planning a summer trip. I'm jealous that you live there!


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