Destination Snowshoe: Mammoth Lakes

I slip into Stellar Brew for a soy latte and energy muffin before heading to Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center to snowshoe. It’s 6:30 am and the temperature has only reached two degrees above zero. Windows are steamy from bodies crowded around Stellar’s eclectic mix of diner-style tables, benches, sofas and wing back chairs. Despite the crowd, it’s quiet and there’s a palpable contemplative mood. Perhaps because it’s a Monday morning after a busy weekend or maybe because it’s bluebird but the winds are gusting. The evidence is large circular plumes of snow blowing skyward from Mammoth Mountain’s upper ridgeline.

As I drive Lake Mary Road towards Tamarack I repeatedly check the outside temp reading hoping it will somehow make a leap past 30. But it hovers between six and eight degrees. The wind buffets the front of my Element, occasionally pushing me sideways as I make my way past the ski area’s ‘Dragon’s Tail.’ There are a dozen ski tracks that drop from Old Faithful – the last run on the Tail – down to the road. A red and white sign warns against stopping on this section of road due to avalanche danger. I obey and hurry forward. The drive is two and half mile from town and gains more than 1,000 feet in elevation. I am reminded how quick and easy big mountain access is from Mammoth.

Mammoth Lakes has long been a weekend warrior destination for Southern Californians looking to escape the smog and crowds. The drive takes about five to seven hours but is picturesque as it slowly ascends the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On average Mammoth receives over 400 inches of snow every winter and, like most California destinations, the sun shining is generally a safe bet.

The small mountain-town charm is also a draw. There is a lively night-time scene, art galleries, and dining that runs the gamut – all tucked away in an amphitheatre-like setting on the eastside swell of the Sierra. Everywhere you stand in town the view is about jagged mountain peaks, smooth high altitude plateaus, and rushing creeks descending to lower elevations. Mammoth’s year round population is roughly 7,000 but during winter, the weekend population can swell to over 50,000 and in recent years Alaska Airlines and United have added daily air service from places like Los Angeles, San Jose and Portland. Because most visitors opt for skiing and riding Mammoth Mountain’s 3,500 acres, the rest of spectacular landscape is relatively unvisited during winter months.

I arrive at the end of Lake Mary Road at 7:30 am and it’s already crowded with four-wheel drive SUVs and Subarus. Cold and dry, the sun has yet to warm Tamarack’s access point. Three women don skinny skis and skate off as I drop my snowshoes on the snow. The surface is firm and crunches as I step in and secure the straps.

Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center is set up for multi-sport use including cross country skiing, track skiing, snowshoeing, and backcountry ski touring access. The main trail follows Lake Mary Road, closed in winter, and leads to and past Mammoth’s namesake lakes – Twin Lakes, Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Mamie and Horseshoe Lake. The right side of the road – reserved for cross country skiers – is groomed and set with ski tracks but requires a day ticket or pass. The left side of the roadway is also groomed but available for free to anyone wishing to access the forest.

The last time I snowshoed Tamarack we opted to for the entire length of Lake Mary Road, a 10k out and back. Views were stellar and up-close. We stopped for hot tea and snacks on our way back at a half-buried picnic table on the shores of Lake Mamie. A single set of ski tracks bisected the tiny Lake in two. It was a brilliant day and I’ve wanted to revisit this area. Though this time I’m alone and decide to follow the Atlas Snowshoe Trail up and over Panorama Dome.

Access to the trail is a short distance past the Dome cross country ski trail. My first two hundred steps take me straight up and across a side hill. I feel like I’m on a Stairmaster, repeating a motion of upward movement with nothing to show for my efforts. The wind whistles and pulses through the pines. I keep step with its simple rhythm, encouraged to keep my pace up as if I were listening to a drumming beat on my iPod. Leaving Lake Mary Road behind, I am thrilled by the solitude and my adventure.

As the incline begins to roll toward the summit, my face is the first to dip into the warmth of the sun. The now brilliant landscape appears lunar and the all white plateau is scoured by wind. I am almost dizzy by constant movement of small granular specks of snow that dance in an endless procession across the scalloped surface. Mammoth Rock, a towering monolith, looms closer as I stride to the summit.

Panorama Dome levels out at 8,892 feet. Views are expansive and 360 degrees. I look down on affluent Juniper Ridge homes and Snowcreek Golf course. Beyond the rolling Benton Hills sit the White Mountains. They seem small in comparison to what’s behind me – the entire length of Mammoth Crest, a rock headwall that forms a glacial cirque and acts as a boundary above the Lakes basin.

I follow a faint snowshoe trail from the day before. It’s drifted over with fresh powder. The soft snow absorbs the sound my feet make. I hook back up with Lake Mary Road at its intersection with Old Mammoth Road – drivable only during summer months. Returning to my car I descend past a quartet of backcountry skiers. No doubt they are using the groomed road as easy access to the many skiable descents located along the Crest. Aside from them, I encounter no one else.

It’s noon, still cold and the sweat of my exertion sends a chill down my spine. The wind bangs my car door shut and offers a perfect excuse to stay indoors until dinner.

My day ends as faultless as it started – celebrating adventure with friends over happy hour at Rafters Lounge. Recently remodeled, clean lines and upscale atmosphere offer a great meeting spot and the happy hour specials are a good deal. We share stories of our adventures over signature martinis, crispy calamari, and warm polenta cakes with goat cheese. I return to our condo and sleep well knowing I am lucky enough to explore Mammoth under my own power another day.

Tuesday dawns perfect and warm. I pursue my new routine, stopping by Stellar Brew for a latte and a hearty breakfast burrito to go. Today I decide to snowshoe Inyo Craters. The Mammoth Scenic Loop Road takes me to a marked spot for parking and access. It’s my first time here. The snow is heavier than yesterday and the trail winds through the trees and slightly uphill. I follow someone else’s snowshoe tracks to the South Crater. Its center is filled with snow but the rim is identifiable. In all there are three craters here, each formed during the most recent volcanic blast some 600 years ago. I grab a snack and return to the car.

From here I drive to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s main lodge. My parking karma is good and I snag a spot near Mammoth Mountain Inn, the access point for my snowshoe out to Minaret Vista.

The trail to Minaret Vista is groomed daily. I share it with skiers and boarders returning from Mammoth’s Chair 12 area. Riders zip toward me the first quarter mile. After that, I follow the faint imprints of another snowshoer. At the Vista I am rewarded with views of the Ansel Adams Wilderness’ famous landmarks, the rocky spires of the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. I tempted to linger but I hope to meet up with my friends for a Mammoth Mocha at Tusks Bar inside the main lodge. I cruise back toward the main lodge in no time.

We settle into to a comfortable booth at Tusks and my friends are talkative. They discuss their day of dropping the Tail’s headwall, sliding down Avy One, and debate the variable conditions found beyond the groom lines. The hot liquid and slight taste of alcohol tingles my throat and warms my belly. In the din of the bar I silently reminisce about my own day. It was filled with perfect powder and the soothing rhythm of going it on my own. I smile to myself and wordlessly repeat my mantra: remember today, savor it; winter comes but once a year.

If you go:

Snowshoes are available for rent from a variety of retail shops, including Mammoth Mountaineering Supply, Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, Kittredge Sports, Footloose Sports and Brian’s Bicycles and Cross Country Skis.

VisitMammoth.com provides information on getting to Mammoth as well as lodging deals, dining venues and what to do once you arrive.

For information about Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center visitwww.TamarackLodge.com. A trail map is available and highlights suggested routes for snowshoers.

To find out about mountain activities, visitwww.MammothMountain.com. The Ski Area does not require tickets or permits for snowshoe access to Minaret Vista.

About the author

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Cathleen Calkins

Cathleen Calkins is a California-based writer and award-winning photographer. After 15 years in the corporate arena, she opts for the quiet of her office and works with national consumer and trade magazines, newspapers, online publications and custom print and web advertorial communications. Her specialties include adventure, sustainability, travel, health, fitness, lifestyle, tourism, and branding.

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