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California’s ski season was hindered earlier this winter by a little detail – no snow.  But that didn’t stop Mammoth Mountain from pumping out, well, mountains of the stuff, about two feet deep, making for fantastic skiing — and a great time to visit the resort. 

She’ll be coming ’round the mountain … my son and I have the mountain to ourselves

Now that January’s winter storm dumped more than five feet of fresh powder on the slopes, and it keeps falling, the weather is a moot point; but nonetheless, even when Mother Nature teased that snow would be a no-show, Mammoth showed why it reigns supreme as a premier Golden State alpine resort.
For starters, the resort didn’t pout about the snow.  It just got to work.  Cold nights made for long hours for the snow blowers and groomers who put in overtime making runs pristine for skiers and snowboarders who come from across California and beyond for the mountain’s legendary top-notch skiing and snowboarding. 

Living Large in Mammoth

Eager for some awesome skiing and snowboarding, I headed up to the mountains with my posse – my family and another family traveling with us, for a four-day vacation.   The Mammoth Mountain website (www.mammothmountain.com) made planning easy, with information on everything from lift tickets and lodging to dining and nightlife.

Our group of six wanted to lodge together, and we lucked into Tallus, a gated community of vacation rental homes near the heart of Mammoth Lakes, overlooking the Sierra Star Golf Course.  If you crave creature comforts, Tallus is the only venue in town that offers truly five-star luxury accommodations.  Though developed as a member-owner community, currently the homes are available for rent by the day, week or longer stays.  The beautifully appointed four- and five-bedroom mini manses were designed with families in mind, featuring well-thought-out amenities such as downstairs children’s rooms with bunk beds and a kid’s dining and play area.

One of the luxury homes at Tallus, just minutes from the resort

Each of the eco-friendly wood-framed chalets boasts a super-sized central living room with a ginormous sectional sofa, a giant flat screen TV, and a huge glass encased gas fireplace, smartly located just by the door leading to a covered deck and Jacuzzi.   There’s nothing like relaxing in a 102-degree outdoor hot tub looking out over a snow covered lawn and pine trees, then stepping inside to warm up next to a glowing fire.

Home is where the hearth is.

The spacious living room of our house at Tallus.

The staff at Tallus thought of everything, from a basket of towels by the hot tub, to a plethora of dishware including table settings for twelve; crystal wine glasses, champagne flutes and tumblers; and top-of-the-line cookware, serving dishes and utensils.  Dishwasher and clothes detergent, food storage baggies and Tupperware were in the cabinets too.  All the amenities of home were included, if only my home had a full collection of splendid professional Viking appliances, including the range, refrigerator, dishwasher and even the microwave.

Shiny Viking appliances are just one of many upscale amenities at Tallus.

The home design was ideal to share with another family, as we could all spread out in the three master suites.  A downstairs media room with a theatre quality AV system and lounge seating and bean bag furniture was heaven for the kids, and the prodigious long wood table in the dining room was large enough to seat a small army, so we could all sit down to dinner together.  For casual meals and socializing, we sat around the kitchen counter on bar stools or relaxed in the grand living room.  It was like our own private boutique hotel lounge.

Munching popcorn in the media room in our house at Tallus.

Besides R&R in our luxury home away from home, Tallus offers plenty to do on the property, including a private clubhouse for residents with a large indoor swimming pool, hot tub, fitness room, showers, and game room.  An inn keeper in residence is available to arrange concierge services, such as a private chef, and a private Mercedes Benz shuttle van is on call to transport guests to the slopes, dining or other activities.  Our accommodations at Tallus were so luxurious we almost didn’t want to leave the house.

The private clubhouse at Tallus features a heated swimming pool, hot tub, fitness room, showers, and a game room.

Gearing Up

Ski and snowboard equipment rentals are available at many locations in and around Mammoth Lakes, but we found the most convenient service was Black Tie (www.BlackTieSkis.com).  We booked our order online a few days before our trip, and the friendly and knowledgeable technicians came to us with a van full of equipment the night we arrived.  The service carries a range of packages at various price points, including premium packages of newest and best equipment available. 

The friendly tecnicians from Black Tie deliver ski gear to order and expert fitting with a smile

Not only did they deliver free to our door, they gave each of us an individual fitting session and a demo of all the equipment and features.  Though our equipment suited us to a T, they promised if we had any concerns whatsoever their slope-side service would come to us on the mountain to adjust our equipment as needed.  Besides eliminating the rush and stress of renting skis the morning before skiing, they also arranged to pick up the skis at the end of our trip, so we didn’t have to deal with returning equipment after a tiring day on the slopes.  What a great concept.

Ski Bunnies and Cocoa Breaks

To start our trip off on right foot, we signed up our kids online for ski lessons on day one which would get them ready for some downhill fun and give us some time to get in some runs ourselves.  The Mammoth Kids Ski School offered everything from morning and full-day sessions with built-in hot chocolate breaks, lunch and fun activities for extended daycare options.  We went with the 9am-12 noon program, with equipment rentals and lift tickets included, the latter being free for children under age six. 

Suited up for a first ski lesson at Mammoth Kids Ski School

At first it seemed the session was off to a slow start.  The chipper young instructors couldn’t have been more friendly, but they appeared to be spending a long time indoors, batting around a balloon and horsing around in the kids lounge.  What we soon learned was that they were evaluating the students’ coordination, balance and confidence in their ski boots as they played, which helped with sorting the kids into skill-appropriate groups.  The instructors tracked this part of the session, along with each child’s progress in the lesson, on a report card given to parents at the end.

Soon the kids hit the snow, excitedly loading onto the “magic carpet” conveyer belt that took them up the bunny slope.  My son Stephen proudly executed his “pizza wedge” snow plow as we captured his first moments on skis on video tape, along with all the other parents with their handicams gathered at the fencing at the bottom the hill. 

While my partner and I played tag team watching Stephen’s lesson, we took turns warming up on the slopes ourselves.  One great perk of the poor snow reports was that the runs were wide open, as were the chair lifts.  Though there were few to none of the double black diamond trails open for advanced skiers, as an intermediate skier the ample open blue dot trails were perfect for me. 

Despite the mild daytime temperatures, around the lower 50s, the snow stayed powdery and smooth.  Though I saw an occasional rock that got kicked onto the trail, I never saw a spot of ice.  It was ski paradise.  Meanwhile my partner hit Sesame Street West beginners slope to get her snowboard legs back after a hiatus of six years.  Besides one face plant boarding the chair lift, in which she was graciously assisted back onto the quad bench by one of the friendly operators, she had an awesome day of shredding.

Ready for our first run.

Eat, Ski, Lounge

When it came time to kick off our boots and grab some grub in the lodge, like the slopes, the two restaurants and Tusks Bar at the Main Lodge were nearly empty.  There were plenty of open tables where we enjoyed the view of the Disco Park half pipe.  Despite its designation as “Size S” for beginners, the pipe offered plenty of excitement for mini shredders learning to rip it up on small bumps, rollers and beginner jibs.  For those who crave more progressive unbound terrain, the resort features 10 parks and two other pipes, rated up to “size XXL,” where riders can push their limits.

The self-service lines at the Broadway Marketplace were short, and the cashiers were extremely efficient in hurrying customers through, which is always appreciated when you are shuffling around in bulky ski and snowboard boots.  The food was basic ski lodge fare, though the spicy Southwest chili blend was more exotic – and spicier – than I would have expected.  For those who want more gourmet offerings, there’s the Mountain Side Grill, adjacent to the Main Lodge at the Mammoth Mountain Inn.  We saved this option for another night, which was a superb treat (see more below).

We didn’t see it, but we heard there was a roving snowcat that served food and beverages, which sounded like a novel fun idea for replenishment on the slopes.  Another fun attraction is the gondola based at the Main Lodge.  Passengers can ride up to ski or snowboard down or to grab a quick bite at the Lookout Lunch snack bar at the summit at 11,053 feet elevation, offering magnificent 360-degree views of the Eastern Sierra.  Visitors can also learn about the mountains and their landmarks and learn the area’s history through exhibits at the Sierra Interpretive Center at the peak.  

After a day’s downhilling, we went for a sit-down meal with more ambience than the lodge at the Mountain Side Grill.  The restaurant offers hearty winter favorites like Cheese Fondue with Gruyere, Emmentaler cheeses and white wine; Bison Chili served with blue corn bread; Steak Diane flambéed with brandy; and Vegetable Curry Pie with a coconut curry sauce.  For finishers, the Banana Bread Pudding was delish with peach crème anglaise. 

Off and Running

The resort has three lodges, the Main Lodge, the Canyon Lodge and the Eagle Lodge. We chose to make the Main Lodge our basecamp since it was convenient to the ski school and rental shop.  The only hitch was the ticket window, where despite a very short wait in line our ticket transaction took about 15 minutes due to our special requests, i.e., my ticket and my son’s ticket for two consecutive days, my partner’s ticket for two non-consecutive days, but once we got the details straight, we were off and running. 

The hi-tech RFID lift tickets are light years from the old paper hang tags of yesteryear.  These computer-chipped credit-card-sized passes can be tucked away in a coat or pants pocket and are read by scanners as you pass through the gate to the chair lift.  Just make sure you keep the pass away from cell phones or cameras which interfere with the readers so that you are not “that guy” who holds up the line digging out your pass when the gate will not buzz you in.

The resort boasts over 150 trails, serviced by 28 lifts, on more than 3,500 acres of terrain, open for skiing up to seven months a year, from November to July.  Owing to the unique climate of the Sierras, the skies are generally clear and sunny, making for great days of skiing without freezing your face off, though it can get rather nippy up high in the chair lifts.

Shop Around

Besides the mountain activities, there’s plenty of great shopping in Mammoth Lakes, particularly if you are a fan of mountain casual style.  Another perk of the slow start to the season this year has been some surprisingly great prices for a resort town on everything from gear to clothing.  Highlights include the Village shopping plaza on Minaret Road and the shops on Main Street, where I picked up a warm and chic Hi-Tec Madison Avenue Down Parka, perfect for milling about town in Mammoth on chilly days.  If you are staying in house, condo or other accommodations with kitchen facilities, you will also be glad to find a full-service Vons store that even features a sushi bar.

Getting There

Mammoth is a solid 5.5 hour drive from Los Angeles, although with no snow or ice on the roads, driving was a breeze.  We didn’t bother with tire chains which are normally recommended on the mountain roads up to the resort.  In any case, we were fully equipped in our Madza5 Grand Touring which I was testing out on the trip. 

The Madza5 has a rear sliding door but is smaller and more maneuverable than a minivan.  It was perfect for our trip with plenty of room for two adults and a child in a child car seat plus luggage, ski and snowboard equipment, a 20 gallon cooler and several bags of groceries.  The upgraded version of the car features a deluxe entertainment center with a flip-down screen for DVD viewing and games, remote control and wireless headsets.  Though I am not normally an advocate of kids plugging in and tuning out, the feature that allowed our son to watch movies while we listened to our own CDs and satellite radio was a welcome amenity on a long trip.

The Madza5 was the first vehicle I’ve ever driven with a third row for extra passengers, and now I’m sold on this feature.  When our group of four adults and two kids headed out all together, we easily fit in one car, even with two kid car seats installed.  We found that a convertible child car worked best, as such as the Evenflo Big Kid High Back Booster Car Seat, which we converted to a backless booster to make folding down the car’s seats quick and easy to load in backseat passengers; and then we used the more comfortable full seat for long driving stretches.

The hatchback made for easy loading and unloading in the drop-off line at the resort, and the front seat warmers came in handy on the ride back to our chalet after a chilly day on the slopes.  To boot, it got great gas mileage.

Early and Often

Our trip was a perfect excursion.  We were all very glad we did not listen to the negative reports about the lack of snow.  In fact, less was more in this case as less snow meant no traffic, no tire chains, short lines and wide open runs.  Mammoth proved it was as grand as its namesake, and for sure we will be back again.


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