WHY MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN IS (DEFINITELY) OUR FAVORITE PLACE
Alex and I have been going to Mammoth together now for nearly 8 years - but he's been heading up to Mammoth to camp and fish with his family since he was just 5 or 6. It's always been kind of a magical place for him, full of childhood memories with his brother and parents, and when we started dating he started taking me up for summer trips, too. I immediately fell in love with the whole lakes region - it reminded me of the perfect combination of Maine and California. The warm, lush summers and occasionally bitter cold winters, four full seasons, tons of wildlife - it really is the best of both worlds!
We started heading up every summer to camp around Lake Mary, bringing the dog, a tent, and all our gear with us, spending our days hiking and paddling through the lakes. I event spent my 25th birthday celebrating in Mammoth! There's always plenty to do for an outdoorsy couple like us, and if the weather is good - and since were in California, it usually is - we can also rent bikes or take trail runs with the pup. It's the perfect summer vacation. And the best part? It's pretty freaking rad in the winter, too. We'd been going up for a few years together before we finally decided to make the drive up in winter to ski and play in the snow. The first trip up we made in the winter time, we headed out almost immediately for a hike in the snow near Tamarack Lodge and got engaged (!!!). Yup, Alex proposed in the snow! We'd made so many trips up at this point that it had kind of become our special place - and after that sweet memory, we loved it even more. This year we wanted to head up on a different kind of trip...because Alex was turning 30! Instead of just camping for the week or skiing for the weekend, we hit up Mammoth Lakes Tourism to see what kind of other fun activities we could have fun with. They helped us fill our weekend with fun adventures and they recommended some great eats and scenic views along the way! Also they are SUPER nice - if you have questions or need great cross country ski trail recs, give 'em a call.
We rented a car for this trip so that we could make our way to a few fun pit stops on the way up and could more easily keep all of the winter gear we were dragging up with us contained. We got a pretty early start and packed the car full of snacks and gear, including our skis, snowshoes, and poles. Alex had spent his bachelor party a year earlier in Mammoth and had made a stop with the boys at a place called Fossil Falls. Full of cool glacial rock formations and great photo ops, he had told me all about it afterwards and I made it the first official stopping point on our way up the 395 North. We pulled over at Fossil Falls about 2 hours into our trip, took a quick pee break and then traipsed around the rock formations, enjoying the views and taking photos. I even crawled up into a crow pose on top of a small rock formation and totally freaked my husband out. So much fun!
We jumped back on the road for another hour or two before arriving at the Manzanar National Historic Site, the concentration camps where 110,000 Japanese Americans were held during WWII. Alex had been through the tour before but not in years and I never had, so we took the time to stop and do both the walking and driving tours of the area. It was hard to read some of the stories, but important. It was incredible to see how the people inside survived and made their spaces habitable. The cranes in the photo above are from the memorial at Manzanar - they had hundreds, maybe thousands, of paper cranes in chains lined along the memorial.
We made one more stop on the way up to Mammoth, in the city of Bishop. Alex needed to renew his license and we knew the line would be super short, so we swung in and we back in the car within 10 minutes. We headed over to our favorite little juice bar in Bishop, Eastside Juice, and got ourselves some simple but super satisfying acai bowls to well our hunger until we got all the way up to the mountain. They totally hit the spot, so we got back into the car, bumped our Always Sunny playlist and made the final hour-ish drive up to Mammoth from there. We climbed another 3,000 ft of elevation in the last part of the drive and my ears were popping like crazy!
We drove into and through the cozy little downtown of Mammoth Lakes and right up onto the mountain as soon as we arrived. We knew the road up the not-skiable side of the mountain was still open, if only up to Tamarack Lodge, and Alex insisted on testing out the AWD to see if we could find some ice. As we neared the lodge, Alex lit up - there was ice, if only a bit. Growing up in Maine, I learned very early on about safe ice and skating on ponds - and I promise, this one was safe. The ice formations were beautiful, but the ice was nice and thick on the side of the lake we were on. Alex threw the car into park, grabbed his skates from the back seat and ran down onto the ice. He's only skated a handful of frozen ponds in his life, and they still light him up! He threw his skates on and started taking laps, and I ran up to the car and grabbed his pocket stick and puck to fool around with. When I got back to the ice, some small kids had also made their way onto the ice. We skated around, playing with the puck and impressing the smaller kids for about a half an hour, as we the sun set. The kids cleared out and we had the lake all to ourselves. Such a perfect first afternoon in Mammoth!
After skating we headed back down the mountain to Mammoth Lakes proper, the downtown region at the base of the mountain where all the restaurants and ski shops are located. This area is just down the hill from Mammoth Village, the shops and restaurants located closest to the lodge and base of the mountain. We were staying at the Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa, a lovely little 4-star spot right off the main road in the center of town, so we parked and lugged our gear into the beautiful, classic old ski lodge entryway to check in. The thing about Mammoth - and this check in was no exclusion - is that everyone is SO NICE. Maybe it's because it's a small town, maybe it's because they know almost everyone who comes and goes, but either way - just wonderful, friendly people everywhere you go. After checking in and falling in love with our old-ski style room, we bundled up and walked about a quarter mile to the Garden of Eat'n Cafe for a vegetarian curry dinner. A super small place but super cozy, we were one of only two couples in for dinner that evening. We each got the curry plates with lots of water on the side (extra hydration is totally necessary is higher elevations!) and then walked over to the one real grocery store in the lakes, Von's, to grab some kombucha before heading back to our room for the night.
The next morning we were up early so I could get over to the Yoga Lab studio in the Village to teach a yoga sculpt class at 8 am. It was so much fun - but I hadn't counted on the elevation in the workout and was totally exhausted midway through. Luckily I only had a few students, so I was able to sneak back and grab all kinds of water breaks! Even though we'd just gotten a killer workout in, Alex and I had agreed to go skiing after class, so he scooped me up and we grabbed a quick round of vegan breakfast burritos from Stellar Brew, our favorite place natural food on-the-go in the Lakes region. We ate, threw on all our gear, and made out way up to the mountain. It's not a long drive up from the Village, just a few miles really, but you'll need to find parking and walk or shuttle to the lodge and lifts. Not hard, just a heads up if you're dragging your gear - wait for the shuttle to your lot and you won't have to hoof it.
Lucky for us the weather was beautiful, sunny, and in the mid-50's. Crazy great weather for the first week in January, though admittedly at this point the mountain still hadn't gotten it's heaviest dumps of snow. It's much less green up there this month than it was last month - just in time to celebrate the Winter Olympics! We ended up ditching a few layers pretty early on in the day - we were literally skiing in sweatshirts in January. It was amazing! Pictured below is the view from the top of one of the east side lifts.
We're big fans of glade skiing and while the lack of snow prevented us from getting too deep in the woods to explore, we were able to find some cool off-the-trail paths while we were our way back and forth across the mountain. We have a real love for chair 12 and started there, on the east (and far less busy) side of the mountain, before working our way to the left side of the mountain, nearer the main lodge. We stopped at about 12:30 for some lunch and unfortunately had forgotten to bring much more than a granola bar between us. Luckily we found a salad bar and veggie burger on the menu at the lodge, plus a couple of kombucha's, and we split them slope side, watching people take on the unbound terrain park.
We skied for the rest of the afternoon until the chairs closed at 4 pm - which was good, because it started getting pretty windy and far colder around that same time. We went back to our place at the Sierra Nevada Inn, showered and relaxed for a few hours before heading to Petra's Bistro in the Village to meet Mammoth Tourism rep Miles Weaver for dinner. Miles not only works with the board to greet and hang with visitors like us, but is the head of photography for Mammoth Mountain, which means he's in charge of all photo operations on the mountain, and even handles his own special action and event photography. It was an incredible meal - one of the better ones I've had in a long time - and Miles was great company!
Our 2nd full day in Mammoth was also Alex's 30th birthday, so we decided to celebrate with a hike up to Mono Lake, our favorite spot to visit in the summer months. The problem? You had to hike to the base of the hiking trail itself - about 2 miles - in the windy cold; once you arrived at the hiking trail, the snow deepened so that even our snow shoes couldn't keep us afloat. We had been trying to get up to the trail, above the snow line and up to Mono Lakes in hopes that it was frozen and we could use the skates we'd brought on a nearly untouched ice surface. Obviously, we did't get that far. We had to give up a little up the trail and head back, but after the hike up we were exhausted anyway - and secretly I was kind of glad we didn't need to hike another 2 miles uphill in the snow and wind. We headed back down the railway to Tamarack Lodge, stopping at the spot where we got engaged 3 years ago to snap a few photos, smooch and reminisce on being married for 6ish months already.
We headed back to our room at the Inn for a quick lunch and knew we still needed to find some ice for Alex's birthday. He wanted to skate so badly - and it seemed like it should be cold enough! We had hope. So we tracked down some locals and asked for the best spots to look for skateable ice. We got some solid recommendations, but only a couple within about an hour's distance. June Lake was the first and closest we'd heard about, and wasn't far from Mammoth Lakes village - about a 30 minute drive north. We hopped in the car with our skates and followed the signs up to the June Lake Loop, a road that follows a series of small lakes ponds around the Southern Rim of the Mono Lake Basin.
When we got to the lake we could immediately tell it wasn't frozen - the wind was literally blowing small waves across the surface of the lake! But since we'd driven that far, we decided to get out and explore. We ditched the skates and parked the car at the top of the narrow gravel road (road is generous - see the rocky path below) leading down to June Lake and near the June Lake Marina. It was gorgeous with or without the ice, and we so enjoyed walking along the rocky beach line and snapping pics of the brush-covered marsh. As we pulled back out onto the roadway we realized we were just a few miles south of the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, and decided to continue our trek up to see the famous 'salt glaciers'.
Guys - I was BLOWN AWAY. Just when I thought I'd seen all the beautiful places, we stumbled upon this gem of a place. It's other worldly, like a movie set depicting some alien planet; I couldn't get over first how beautiful it was and second, the unique the mix of terrains, fauna and salt formations that made of the preserve. We walked around for about a half hour with our jaws in the sand, in total admiration of the stillness and tranquility of the super cool place we had found. There was only one other family walking around and after we exchanged photos, we quickly separated and had the place to ourselves. The walked along the preserve as the sun was setting, which added even more magic to the visit. We snapped tons of photos and hung out until almost dark, then headed back to the car and back into Mammoth Lakes. We were getting hungry at this point but since we hadn't found ice - and I had promised Alex we'd skate for his birthday - we decided to make a quick visit to the always frozen Mammoth Ice Rink right in the heart of downtown Mammoth Lakes. It was a cute spot, full of families and kids skating on a well lit but rarely resurfaced rink, and me and my hockey-playing husband had no trouble skating laps around the crowd. We skated for about 45 minutes, until my legs were too tired to keep going and Alex was ready to find some birthday dinner.
Again we traded our skates for snow boots and this time headed just up the road from the rink to the Mammoth Brewing Company for dinner. Alex had also visited this place during his bachelor party weekend at the mountain 6 months earlier, so we decided to head over for a few drinks and delicious greasy bar food to celebrate my dude turning the big 3-0. Lucky for me they had house brewed root beer on tap, so I sipped one while we waited to order food at the in-brewery food spot, The Eatery. We ended up ordering a host of deep fried things, but most notably the tots. Oh mannn they were great! Giant, puffy, fried potato puffs with some kind of spicy seasoning, a crispy outer layer and a bunch of dipping sauces. It was reallllly good. Almost got a second order, good. Almost. Afterwards we headed back for an early night to bed. We had connected online with a local photographer and agreed to meet her at sunrise for a photo shoot.
There was one last thing I had really wanted to do this visit to Mammoth, and that was find and enjoy some of the local hot springs. When I mentioned this to the photographer, she agreed to show us a local spot that morning, so I was stoked for the session. We got up super early and bundled up in the dark - it was only 13 degrees out, though warmer than we had expected before the sun rose. We met our photographer, Jade [Jade Woo Photography] at a secret spot and had an incredible time watching the sun come up as we shot romantic photos in the brush. We made our way to Wild WIlly's Hot Springs after finding a few local ones totally packed (even at sunrise!) and stopped down to our suits for some gorgeous in-water shots that are super steamy and just for us. We also got a ton of gorgeous, totally bundled up photos, too! Jade really wowed us with the quality of these shots - we cannot wait to work with her again the next time we're up there. And the hot springs were AMAZING! One of the coolest things I've ever seen/ done. Ever. Hands down. Hot Creek is located nearby and while too hot for swimming these days, it does feed all these smaller nearby hot springs year round. It was so fun being in hot tub-temperature water while icicles formed in my hair and on Alex's beard. After over an hour soaking in the mineral-rich springs, we layered back up and headed back to the hotel for warm showers and to pack up. We checked out and headed back toward home that afternoon, making one last Eastside Juice pitstop in Bishop before we left town.
Mammoth - the mountain, the lakes, the village - has become such a special place to us. We talk about the someday that we'll bring our kids there, and how lucky we are to both love spending so much time there. Between the winter skiing, snowshoeing, and skating and the summer biking, hiking and camping - there's literally something for everyone. Even if your kind of activity is just grabbing a beer and hanging out until après ski! Get yourself up there and enjoy some the crazy natural beauty, it's literally everywhere you look. Swing by the VisitMammoth.com for upcoming events, travel info, snow conditions + to plan your next trip!
*DISCLOSURE: We partnered with Mammoth Lakes Tourism to create this post. They comped our room and helped arrange our activities for the weekend as well. Regardless, we LOVE Mammoth and would've spent the time there anyway. It's the greatest place on earth.*