CALIFORNIA SNOW: What to do in Mammoth Lakes
By Helen Wright
When you think about California the mind is instantly drawn to an image of palm trees and golden beaches. In fact, North America’s third biggest state has a landscape that covers all seasons and does so with style. Without leaving the state you can embrace the ultimate U.S. road trip, cruising through national forests, wide desert plains and the tallest mountain ranges in the west. And yes, there is such a thing as California snow. Follow our travels and find out what to do in Mammoth Lakes.
We were on a California U.S. road trip and having already ticked the main game players (Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Francisco, Palm Springs) we wanted to explore some lesser known Californian places. I had already ticked off a place I’d always wanted to visit, Lake Tahoe, so from here we headed south and began an uphill climb into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
What to do in Mammoth Lakes: our trip and tips
Just five hours from Oakland International Airport, which has direct routes from London on low-cost airline Norwegian Air, you will come across the quaint alpine town of Mammoth Lakes. With an elevation of 2,400 metres, the drive up to Mammoth is spectacularly scenic.
We took our time on the drive as we were really enjoying the beautiful scenery. We passed a lot of vast open space, a few odd-looking remote towns before winding roads of towering pines give way to snowy peaks and postcard-worthy log cabins.
WHEN TO GO TO MAMMOTH
When to visit Mammoth Lakes really depends on what you plan to do there. When the snow has fallen, Mammoth is home to some of the best slopes for skiing and snowboarding in the USA. Mammoth Mountain carries over 400 inches of annual snowfall, so pros with their own kit can show up and show off. I discovered lots of A-list stars go skiing in Mammoth. Recently, Gwen Stefani, Kendall Jenner and Harry Styles were spotted speeding down the slopes. There is also a ski school on site for beginners or anyone who needs to brush up on their skills.
For those who merely want to reach the peak just to admire the views (as we did), a gondola operates year-round from the foot of the mountain. The Scenic Gondola starts from $27 per adult (children under 12 are free) and it’s cheaper if you can buy more than seven days in advance. Sadly, skiing was off the agenda for us as we had our five-month-old baby Finn with us, but we were just interested to see what Mammoth was all about. It was actually really easy to explore and reach the area around Mammoth mountain. There is a shuttle bus that takes you from the village to the foot of the mountain and this is where you can buy tickets for the gondola and rent equipment.
As well as the mountain itself, Mammouth is a quaint and quiet mountain town out of season and very easy to walk about and explore without getting too lost. We had our pram with us and even on the snow, which was pretty compacted at village level, it was never a huge issue. Plus, the altitude meant it was actually quite warm. Where possible I even wore my fiip flops!
MAMMOTH LAKES IN THE SUMMER
The time of year we visited (May) is actually end of the ski season in Mammoth but this year adventure-seekers had enjoyed a record amount of snowfall so were still snowboarding and skiing all day. As we hadn’t anticipated snow, and hadn’t planned to ski anyway, we were just lucky to get to enjoy some incredible views.
If you’re wondering what to do in Mammoth in the summer months, the area is actually ideal for hiking and mountain biking and the adrenalin-filled Mammoth Motocross is held here annually. Since snow in the foothills had mostly melted, we did manage to take a small hike with Finn and the fresh air and beautiful scenery were well worth researching the open trails and pulling on our walking boots.
This was exactly the type of holiday we loved to do before becoming parents and it was great to be able to enjoy a trip like this with our son. We found Mammoth very baby friendly and accessible, even though the snow was unexpected. Despite being the summer season in Mammoth, the area was still buzzing with families and kids of different ages enjoying the outdoors.
Find out more about our travels with a baby in this post
WHERE TO STAY IN MAMMOTH
Like any ski resort there is a range of high-end hotels and dorm-style accommodation in Mammoth but one of the cosiest places to stay in Mammoth is the Village Lodge, a traditional alpine resort nestled at the foot of the mountain.
The hotel has apartment-style rooms with small kitchens and a living space, ideal for families or small groups. We checked in and a log fire was burning nicely in the lobby – with the snow still settled outside the door, this was perfect. The resort actually sits at the top of the Mammoth village, a popular retail area with shops, restaurants, live music and bars. This is also great because it means you have the opportunity to explore on foot without needing the car every time you venture out. In peak times, a chair lift to the top of Mammoth Mountain is also situated here making it so easy to get up and go exploring.
The staff in the hotel were so friendly and since we arrived largely clueless about the area, they helped us make some plans for the next few days. If you don’t fancy venturing too far there is a large outdoor heated pool at the resort, a hot tub and a bonfire for toasting smores while drinking hot chocolate until the sun sets.
What to do around Mammoth Mountain
As we didn’t know much about Mammoth Lakes and had spent enough time in our car driving from Oakland, we took a recommendation to do a private tour with Mammoth All Weather Shuttle and let someone else do the driving.
They had everything arranged, even a car seat for Finn, and collected us outside the hotel for our tour. We headed out to the neighbouring area of Mono County to explore the stunning landscape and alpine lakes that surround Mammoth – and, wow – I was blown away by how beautiful this area is.
When you reach the Twin Lakes in Mono County, have your camera ready as you won’t be disappointed. Twin Lakes are two connected lakes at the base of the southeastern slope of Mammoth Mountain within the Inyo National Forest. Snowfall had been plentiful so we were greeted with the most glorious winter scene with the white peaks and pine trees reflecting in the water. It was gorgeous!
The June Lake loop is around 15 miles from Mammoth on U.S. 395. The road winds around the landscape, passing forests following the mountain edge and eventually leading to crystal clear mountain lakes and streams that have been left by the melting snow. We stopped off whenever we saw a beautiful spot with a place to park, had a walk around and took in the view. June Lake itself has a beach area where we could sit and have a picnic and dip our toes in the (cold) water.
Be sure to grill the drivers for as much information as you can – they are experts and, most-importantly, superfans of the area. Our tour was absolutely brilliant and if you’re looking for the perfect Mammoth Lakes itinerary, these guys should be your first port of call.
Where to eat at June Lakes
For some of the best food in June Lakes, refresh and replenish at Ohanas395 and the June Lake Brewing Co – a food truck and local institution serving Hawaiian-style grub and craft beef to compliment. This place is quite hard to find – in the middle of a residential street – but we loved the chilled out vibe and the Hawaiian tacos were delicious.
Best restaurats and bars in Mammoth
Whether you have been skiing, snowboarding, hiking or just being silly in the snow, you’ll definitely work up an appetite. For breakfast, we ate with the locals at low key pancake joint Toomeys. The diner, which isn’t much to look at from the outside, is surrounded by baseball memorabilia and its owner, Matt Toomey, famously started as a chef inside a mobil gas station at the entrance to Yosemite National Park (which later became a cult restaurant). The house specialty is the famous coconut pancakes but I’m going to go out there and say the fluffy French toast is just as awesome.
Toomeys also has a casual bar and restaurant next door, which opens in the evening. We had gone for breakfast three times (it’s that good!) and so it was only right we were to check out whether they did dinner as well as morning treats and we weren’t disappointed. Simon had meatloaf, which he says was fantastic, and I gobbled up a clam chowder. Perfect food choices for a cold night and the servers were chatty and fun.
Surprisingly, the best food we had in Mammoth was at the Mammoth Brewing Company, which is at the start of the road that leads to Mammoth Mountain’s main gondola. This bar, which is a cross between hipster cool and local charm, has self-brewed craft beers and a deck with mountain views. The food was unexpectedly fantastic too – the menu changes regularly but we had a Banh Mi Sandwich (pork belly with cabbage, carrot and jalapeño peppers) and Naan tacos to share. They were both sensational.
Another decent dinner option would be The Smokeyard in Mammoth Village. This is right next door to the Village Lodge, so very convenient. On the menu you will find ribs, pork chop and BBQ-chicken cooked on an open grill.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Before you leave, make a toast to your unique stay in California, via the Gondola, at the après ski cocktail bar, Eleven53 Café, midway up Mammoth Mountain. While people shake off snow from their skis and get ready for their downhill adventures, you can enjoy a tropical tipple with a scenic snow view. But don’t miss the last ride down because I’m sure it gets pretty cold up there overnight!
GETTING TO MAMMOTH LAKES FROM THE UK
We flew with Norwegian Air on a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner between London Gatwick and Oakland International Airport, which is xx miles from Mammoth Lakes.
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