Mammoth Mountain is a massive sleeping volcano that last erupted some 50,000 years ago when it was even bigger, perhaps as high as 18,000 feet. The Main Lodge is bottom right.

Mammoth Mountain is a massive sleeping volcano that last erupted some 50,000 years ago when it was even bigger, perhaps as high as 18,000 feet. The Main Lodge is bottom right.

With daily flight service from the Bay, Mammoth lures Nor Cal skiers to the High Sierra

By Pete Gauvin  •  Photos by MMSA/Peatross

It is only by virtue of geographic inconvenience that Mammoth Lakes is considered more a playground for Southern California than Northern California. If it were not for a wall of snow-caked mountains in the way — chiefly Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness — Mammoth would likely be Nor Cal’s winter alternative to Tahoe.

Look at a map: Mammoth is directly east of the Bay Area, at virtually the same latitude as Hayward and San Mateo. By way of the bird, the Bay Area is closer to Mammoth than Los Angeles. If you had wings, you might care.

Without them, the drive to Mammoth in winter is more than most Nor Cal skiers want to undertake; some 6-8 hours from the Bay Area on clear roads. Plus you have to drive right by the temptations of Tahoe — and we hear there are some decent mountains to ski there, too.

Indeed, for Bay Area and other Nor Cal skiers, “Mammoth” … well, that might as well describe the drive. And so, heretofore, Mammoth has largely been left to Southern Californians, who have no significant mountain passes to cross, nothing approaching Tahoe in their path, just a few hundred miles of sagebrush-lined asphalt to channel them up the backside of the Sierra.

That’s not going to change. But with the advent of direct flights from San Francisco and San Jose this season, Bay Area skiers and boarders can now jump the topographical fence in little more than an hour and find themselves at one of the most unique, dramatic and naturally well-endowed ski mountains in North America.

Winging It
Through April 25, there is one flight daily out of SFO on United (departing 3:50 pm), and one flight out of San Jose on Horizon (12:30 pm weekdays; 3:10 weekends). (There are two daily flights from LA.)

And the cost of flying is on par with driving. Flights range from as low as $29 one way from San Jose, $59 one way from SFO. If you’re flexible, there are some tremendous weekday deals. Through February, Mammoth is offering a four-day/four-night midweek fly, ski and stay package for $99 a day from San Jose, $109 from SFO. (Check for details.) For comparison, a one-day adult lift ticket runs $92.

Once on the ground, it’s easy to get around without a car. It’s only an eight-mile shuttle ride from the airport to the closest lift. In town, the free Mammoth Trolley runs every 20 minutes until 2:30 in the morning.

You can grab a coffee in town at the Looney Bean and head for the mountain, enjoy a pint of Real McCoy Amber Ale from the Mammoth Brewing Company at the popular Whiskey Creek restaurant and bar, or head to the actual brewery tasting room (open daily 10-6) two blocks away for a full sampling. There’s the also the Euro-style pedestrian village at the base of the mountain with a selection of shops, bars and eateries.

Blessed by Geography
There’s the Sierra and then there’s the High Sierra. Though often used interchangeably, they are not one in the same. The true High Sierra, as noted author/guide John Moynier has pointed out, begins near the northern boundary of Yosemite and Matterhorn Peak, the northern most 12,000-foot peak in the Sierra, and extends southward 175 miles through the Whitney Zone.

Mammoth and sister resort June Mountain are the only developed ski areas in the true High Sierra, where the relief from sageland to summit is most dramatic.

Due to its geographic position and altitude, Mammoth often gets more snowfall than Tahoe resorts, an average of 32 feet annually. This season it nearly equaled that by January with an astounding 370 inches.

Sitting on the eastern flank of the range, one would guess the mountain might suffer from the rainshadow effect. But the San Joaquin River canyon funnels Pacific haymakers up to a low section in the Sierra Crest allowing moisture-laden air to cross to the east side, where it’s wrung out by the broad volcanic peak topping 11,000 feet.

The mountain, which has been snoozing since its last eruption some 50,000 years ago, is the remains of a humungous volcano that may have been as tall as 18,000 feet. Imagine, for a second, the vert we’d be talking about had it not blown its top!

Still, Mammoth more than justifies its name. The resort’s base of nearly 8,000 feet is as high as some Tahoe resorts, yet it still offers more than 3100 feet of vertical. It’s all sprawled over 3500 acres served by 28 lifts (including three gondolas) and three base areas: Canyon Lodge, Eagle Lodge and Main Lodge.

All this in a stunning Alps-like setting framed by the steepled summits of the High Sierra and long views of the Great Basin out east.

On the Mountain
Mammoth’s upper mountain is entirely above treeline and offers some of the steepest skiing in the West, including the famous Cornice Bowl. Beginner and intermediate skiing can be found all over the mountain.

The backside, close to a thousand acres and served by only two lifts, Chairs 13 and 14, is a good place to find both sunshine and powder. It features big bowls up top and well-spaced tree skiing below. Hemlock Ridge just beyond Santiago Bowl is a great place to hike for turns. After about a 400-foot vertical hike, a steep descent leads down to Chair 14.

Though not well publicized, Mammoth has an open-gate policy. The most popular expression of this is skiing off the top of the Mammoth Crest, a big palisades running right behind Mammoth Mountain toward the south, with multiple runs that all drain back to the Tamarack/Twin Lakes area, where the Tamarack Lodge and cross-country center are located. The most popular and unique out-of-bounds run is “Hole in the Wall,” a steep chute through a lava tube that forms a natural tunnel.

From Tamarack, you can catch a free shuttle bus that runs every hour on the hour back to the village and town.

If you work up an appetite but don’t want to leave the slopes, keep an eye out for Mammoth’s latest culinary creation, the Roving Mammoth, a snowcat that roams the mountain like an all-terrain taco truck, selling burritos for $5.50.

If you like your burritos with lots of corn, wait till spring. That’s when Mammoth’s ‘Great Corn Factory’ produces that buttery hero snow ripe for carving and serves it typically longer than any resort in the country. Last year, Mammoth was open until Independence Day.

June Mountain
For a change of pace, Mammoth tickets are also good at June Mountain, a hidden gem of a resort about 10 miles north on Hwy 395. There’s a shuttle roughly every hour, opening the possibility for a double day.

Overlooking the June Lake Loop, with jagged mountain peaks right behind it and views of austere Mono Lake out east, June is more of a purist’s mountain. No roaming burrito snowcats here.

Although it gets less snow than Mammoth, about 250 inches a year, June is known for its powder because it’s so uncrowded for its size. While a weekend at Mammoth can draw 20,000 people, a big day at June is 2000 people. And its acreage is still substantial, about two-thirds the size of Mammoth. It has seven lifts and 2,500 feet of vertical with a variety of terrain, including some great tree skiing.

Tamarack Cross-Country
Another great way to mix up a week of skiing at Mammoth is to stretch out the legs and lungs on the 19 miles of groomed trails at Tamarack Cross-Country in the scenic Lakes Basin. Adult day passes are $27. The ski school run by two-time Olympian Nancy Fiddler can help iron out your skating or diagonal stride imperfections. Snowshoe trails are also offered.

However you choose to wrap up a trip to Mammoth, with the new flight service there’ll be no worries about fatiguing yourself because you’re facing a long drive home. Enjoy your wings.