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Mammoth Emerges as Major Summer Vacation Destination


Bob Goligoski

Mammoth Emerges as Major Summer Vacation Destination

Mammoth Lakes, CA -- Thousands of people have long thought of Mammoth as their winter place. And why not. With 150 runs, 28 lifts and more than 400 inches of snow each winter, Mammoth Mountain is a paradise for skiers and snowboarders.

But in the last two or three years, Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding terrain has emerged as a hot summer vacation destination. Each year, new attractions, athletic events, concerts, cooking contests, beer and wine tastings, bars, cafes, art galleries and bike trails are being added to the electric mix of adventures here in the Eastern Sierra. The Mammoth Mountain ski resort at Mammoth Lakes expects to count about 1.1 million skier and snowboarder visits before its announced closing date on Memorial Day.

John Urdi, executive director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism, said new records were set each of the last two summers for visitors to the Mammoth Lakes area. The town, with a population of 8,200 nestled in the mountains at 7,900 feet, reports that the occupancy fee that the town gets for lodging guests has risen sharply during the last two summers.

Clearly, the crowds are now larger in the summer then in the winter.

The summer events schedule grows annually. Five triathlons are staged each year. The Mammoth Half-Marathon Inaugural Race will debut June 23 with runners starting at 9,000 feet and racing down into town. There is an annual jazz jubilee, a new margarita festival, a bluegrass gathering, an Oktoberfest with traditional German fare, the Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza, several arts and crafts shows and California’s highest rib and chili cook-off.

Some of the most popular events and shows draw crowds of 6,000 to 8,000. The complete events schedule is at www.visitmammoth.com

After skiing at Mammoth for more than a decade, I started coming in the summer a couple years ago. The drive from Los Angeles usually takes about six hours. From the San Francisco Bay Area, the slog takes about an hour less.

There are several airline flights a day during the winter from various California cities. But during the summer, there is only one flight into the Mammoth Lakes airport, and that comes out of Los Angeles.

Mammoth looks a lot different in the summer. The striking multi-colored rock formations are revealed. You are quickly aware that there is a ring of lakes and ponds around the town. Hiking and biking trails head off in every direction. And you discover one of the largest skateboard parks in the state, a truly gnarly wonderland with more than 45,000 square feet of concrete.

In the winter, I do not think I really notice Crystal Crag (spelling is correct) at the West end of town. But in the summer, the snow-free, volcanic 10,364-foot monolith dominates the landscape. It could be described as the Gibraltar of the Eastern Sierra.

Of course, all is not perfect in paradise. Some complain about mosquitos on the hiking trails. Others lament the fact that the natural outdoor hot tubs had to be closed to tourists as the water got too hot for safety.

And then there is the gripe that Mammoth Lakes has no downtown. The town, surrounded by two million acres of forest land, has no clearly defined town center with a plaza or shopping hub.

Fortunately, when the Villages lodging and shops complex was built several years ago near the ski resort, it quickly blossomed as the hotbed of Mammoth Lakes activity. It boasts about a dozen restaurants, numerous shops and is the venue for many of the festivals and events. Check it out for the free summertime movies.

All the events and concerts probably are just a bonus to the many visitors who come here to explore the outdoors.  The next-door Inyo National Forest has about 300 miles of trails for hikers, bikers, horseback riders and others.

When the snow melts, Mammoth Mountain ski area becomes perhaps the largest downhill mountain bike park in the country. Some 80 miles of single-track bike trails are opened with three lifts, including the Panorama gondola, in operation. The gondola takes bikers and tourists to the top of 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain. The view from your cafe table at the top seems to cover much of California.

(An aside about altitude sickness, which can strike visitors at these heights. I tried a prescription drug called acetazolamide, now favored by many doctors, and it did the trick. It worked perfectly. No nausea, dizziness, weakness or vertigo.)

This summer, the ski resort is debuting the Bike Park Discovery Zone. Served by a dedicated lift, the zone’s three new novice trails provide a great setting for new mountain bikers to perfect their skills, navigate obstacles and ready themselves for the more challenging trails higher up the mountain.

Be sure to peddle up the nearly three-mile paved biking path that links the town to the Mammoth Lakes Basin, a collection of five nearby lakes.

One attraction that drew me to Mammoth Lakes was a chance to play the highest 18-hole golf course in California – the 8,000-foot high Sierra Star golf course. It is an adventuresome layout and the ball really does fly further in the thin alpine air.

And if you are a golfer, also be sure to play Snowcreek Resort golf course, a nine-hole experience that is full of unusual challenges.

A number of people come to Mammoth just to fish. The lakes and streams abound with trout including brown, rainbow, brook, golden and cutthroat. Those who fly fish, frequent Hot Creek and the Owens River. In addition, there are several children’s fishing events during the summer.

Wandering around town, I wanted to see a piece of Mammoth history – the Sierra Nevada Lodge. This hang-out, which has recently been upgraded, was a favorite watering hole for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the Hollywood Rat Pack. John Wayne and his buddies could often be found here.

The lodge spawned three unusual restaurants that all sit in the same block – Jimmy’s Taverna, Red Lantern and Rafters. This will be the first summer for Jimmy’s which is modeled after a Greek tavern and features Spanish octopus flow in fresh daily. Rafter’s has been a town landmark since 1967, and visitors flock to the Red Lantern for the lychee martinis and wok squid.

Accommodations in and around Mammoth Lakes range from campgrounds to the luxury Westin Monache.  Summer rates typically are about $50 to $75 for a budget motel on up to $200 to $300 a night for a stay at the Westin.

One of the fascinating sidelights to Mammoth Lakes is a stable population of 26 brown bears. Town officials do a good job of keeping the bears and tourists separate. One highlight is always seeing a 300-pound bear ambling down a city street in the early morning hours

Tourism officials also have noted a recent upsurge in international visitors. They are coming mostly from Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

Part of the lure of Mammoth Lakes is that it is a central base location for branching out to visit many of the main attractions in the Eastern Sierra.

Mono Lake, with its unique biosphere of salt water, is 30 miles north of Mammoth Lakes. It attracts millions of migrating birds. The general region lures many bird watchers because more than 300 species of birds have been identified. These include bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons and dark-eyed juncos.

Yosemite National Park is a 45-minute drive north.  Head in the other direction and you are at Mount Whitney. At 14,495 feet, it is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Or visit Death Valley, the lowest point in North America.

Motor two hours down to Big Pine and you are in the ancient bristlecone pine forest. These pines thrive at elevations between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. They were alive before the Egyptians built the pyramids, over 4,500 years ago.

One of the most remarkable places I have ever visited in California is Bodie. It is the largest unrestored ghost town in the West. The place is so perfect you would swear you are on a Hollywood movie set.  Bodie State Historic Park is just north of Mono Lake.

One does not have to travel more than 30 minutes from Mammoth Lakes to visit attractions such as Devils Postpile National Monument or Rainbow Falls

Eons ago, when lava flowed from volcanic activity, the lava eventually cooled and created thousands of columns of basalt rock. The Postpile is worth a look. Nearby, 101-foot high Rainbow Falls plunges into a rocky canyon.

After you think you have done everything around Mammoth worth doing, there is one more thing to try – the annual Mammoth Mud Run. It’s a five kilometer sprint filled with obstacles and mud pits. The date is August 24. Put it on your calendar.

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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