Mammoth Mountain Road Trip

Soaring above the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the saw-toothed eastern Sierra, Mammoth Mountain is California’s best ski resort, bar none. High above tree line with a base elevation over 8000ft, Mammoth is actually a dormant volcano, and from atop the sky-punching 11,053ft-high summit, you can see clear across the entire state to the Coastal Range. Three miles of wide-open bowls stretch across the mountain’s 3500-acre face, some nearly vertical with gulp-and-go chutes, others gently sloping, ideal for ballroom-style shooshing.
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The cross-country center looks like a scene from a snow globe, with 19 miles of groomed trails wending through dense pine forests dotted with icy-blue lakes. At its center is the Tamarack Lodge, a vintage 1930s log-cabin-like lodge surrounded by rustic cabins. Downhill skiers do better staying at the Village at Mammoth or the new Westin Monache, both near nightlife and walkable to the village gondola, which whisks skiers to the base of the mountain. Alas, the town of Mammoth Lakes is strictly utilitarian—a patchwork of condo complexes, subdivisions, and strip malls—but with skiing so great, who cares?
When you’re driving through such majestic scenery, you hardly notice the clock. I made the seven-hour trek from San Francisco last week—and the time flew by. US 395 is among California’s most spectacular roads, rivaled in beauty only by coastal Hwy 1.
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Mono Lake always catches me off guard. As US 395 wends south along the Walker River, your eye grows accustomed to whitewater, tall pines, and narrow mountain passes. Everything rises so high around you that you forget you’re at elevation. Then suddenly the sky opens up and the Mono Basin unfurls a thousand feet below in eerie vastness. At the South Tufa Trail, you can sit on this bench and apprehend space in ways not possible in the city.
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I’m forever amazed how few Northern Californians make the trip to the eastern Sierra. Whenever I need to hit the reset button, to find new perspectives on day-to-day life, this is one of my favorite places to go. The mountains hang like curtains from heaven. Everything is so big, it’s impossible to judge distance. Consciousness snaps into the present.
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Nothing beats the exhilaration of skiing in a Sierra snow storm, but after three days of powder-skiing, my legs burned out and I was ready for home. On the way, I detoured north around Lake Tahoe to see the snow depth at Donner Pass, near Sugar Bowl ski area. At one point during last week’s storm, snow fell at a rate of two inches per hour, dumping a whopping four feet in a single 24-hour period. That house in the above image is buried to the second floor eaves. Spring skiing will be fantastic this year.