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(Above) El Capitan, a vertical rock formation rising 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen. Click on images to view larger versions.

Off-season, after the snowmelt fed frothy waterfalls and before the aspen groves shed their glorious amber leaves, that’s when California’s Mammoth Mountain and its two neighboring national parks reveal their true colors.

28-Feb-23 – With an average snowfall of 400-plus inches and a summit above 11,000 feet, Mammoth Mountain in California is the third-most visited ski area in the country. That’s after Vail and Breckenridge, both in Colorado.

I wasn’t here for the powder.

I came off-season, after the snowmelt fed frothy waterfalls and before the aspen groves shed their glorious amber leaves. That’s when the landscape reveals its true colors, a palette of pine forest, sapphire waters, ecru desert, steely mountains, and azure sky. The moderate temperatures are ideal for basking in the wonder of it all.

I anchored my stay in Mammoth Lakes in Mono County on the border between California and Nevada. To the south is Inyo National Forest, and to the northwest is Yosemite National Park. My hotel, The Westin Monache Resort, is an all-suite lodge designed with a contemporary woodland vibe. It sits atop a hillside overlooking The Village at Mammoth, a social hub of chic restaurants, trendy boutiques, luxe lodging, and an agenda of special events. The elevation is 8,000 feet above sea level.

As part of the Eastern Sierra region of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the terrain is mostly vertical, formed eons ago by volcanic eruptions and glacial creeps. But whenever folks talk about “the mountain,” they mean Mammoth Mountain.

The name refers not to extinct elephantine mammals or the mountain’s size. It’s big but not the biggest. (That distinction goes to Mount Whitney, also in California, which, at 14,505 feet, is the highest in the continuous United States.) Mammoth was named after an aspirational but failed mining camp in the late 1800s.

Where the mountain does lay claim is to the Golden State’s highest ski resort and bike park. And more than 1.1 million visitors a year.

Dave McCoy

By all accounts, those impressive stats are credited to adventurer and visionary Dave McCoy (left), who put in the first tow rope in 1942 and then built the first resort. The growth in skiing led to tangential development including the incorporation of the town of Mammoth Lakes in 1984, year-round tourism, and a present population of about 8,000. A statue depicting McCoy, who died in 2020 at the age of 104, hunched over snow skis stands prominently in The Village at Mammoth.

How to find a wild mustang

Between the mountains is a constellation of 140 lakes of varying sizes, depths, hues, and elevations. The largest and weirdest is Mono Lake, an ancient inland body far saltier than the ocean. The lake’s most dramatic feature is the tufa towers, which are stalagmite-like mineral structures formed when freshwater springs bubble up through the alkaline lake water.

Tufas remind me of the termite mounds I’ve seen in the African savannah.

Mono Lake has no fish, but it teems with brine shrimp and alkali flies, a menu that entices more than 80 species of migratory birds. Also flocking to the waters are hikers, kayakers, swimmers, and photographers.

Convict Lake is where escapees from Nevada State Prison in 1871 took refuge until their ill-gotten liberty ended in a violent shootout. Today, it’s the site of a mountainside resort with cabin rentals, marina, campground, hiking and horseback riding, martini lounge, and casual and upscale restaurants. As we dined on fresh rainbow trout and bananas foster flambéed tableside, a family of deer paraded past the picture windows.

June is the name of a village, a lake, and a mountain ski area popular with the locals. If this were a skiing story, I’d tell you kids aged 12 and under ski for free.

“The way you find them is to look for the dust clouds they kick up as they run together.”

– Helicopter pilot Edward Roski on how to spot wild horses from the air.

The alpine lakes and more are optimally viewed from the sky, as demonstrated by Edward Roski, who piloted my hour-long SkyTime Helicopter Tour in a five-seat Robinson R66 chopper. We soared above aspen groves, statuesque pines, and stark wildfire scars. Some mountains are striated with mineral deposits, and others are pocketed with last year’s snow. Mammoth Mountain is bisected with ski runs.

As we approached Mono Lake, where the desert is dotted with scrub, Roski was on the lookout for the herds of wild horses who hang out in these parts.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

I watched, too, but we were flying too high for me to distinguish between plant and animal.

“The way you find them is to look for the dust clouds they kick up as they run together,” he told us.

Suddenly, the horses were in sight, and Roski swooped down to get a better view. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, mostly sable-hued or mixed with white, were racing and frolicking, unbothered by the helicopter’s din. The dramatic scene would be impossible to capture had we been on foot.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Decades ago, such sightings were rare, says Roski. The horse population grew exponentially, augmented by illegal dumping of unwanted equines.

He’s spotted plenty of vehicles pulling horse trailers through the dirt during his flyovers.

Peaches takes a hike

Within the vastness of the Eastern Sierra, visitors have dozens, if not hundreds, of trailheads from which to choose. I trekked several, each one a different adventure and different degree of difficulty.

Hot Creek Geological Site is a volcanic basin within Inyo National Forest. A placid, winding waterway is disrupted by steam vents, fumaroles, and the occasional geyser that percolate from deep underground.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The creek is naturally cool, but hot spots are unpredictable. A hairpin trail takes you to the bottom of the gorge for fantastic views up close and far beyond.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

A true geological oddity is Devils Postpile National Monument. Ginormous columns of basalt that erupted from volcanic vents stand side-by-side and tower up to 60 feet high.

A secondary trail winds to the top of the posts where the smooth surface resembles perfectly formed hexagonal floor tiles.

An easy two-mile trail leads from Devils Postpile to Rainbow Falls (right), a waterfall plunging more than 100 feet over a rocky cliff. On a clear sunny day, a spectrum of color sparkles in the mist.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Take the steep staircase with 130 steps down to wade in the water, if you wish, but remember you’ll have to come back up again. Or simply admire the falls from the paved stone overlook like I did.

Nearly everyone I passed on the trails was accompanied by a dog, including my guides. Everyone except an engaging young couple from Los Angeles, who were on a weekend getaway. She walked their dog, but he carried their cat named Peaches in a sling across his chest. They couldn’t get a cat-sitter on short notice, they said, and Peaches is mellow. Obviously so.

Sites and sights in Yosemite

I couldn’t visit Mammoth Lakes without a sojourn to Yosemite National Park, about a 30-mile drive to the Tioga Pass entrance. A full-day excursion was arranged for me by Mammoth All Weather Transportation, colloquially known as MAWS, which runs airport transfers, sightseeing tours, and private car service. We zipped through the entrance, an off-season perk. In summer, two-hour waits are typical, said MAWS guide and driver Ian Scott. Reservations, required during the past two summers because of pandemic concerns, will not be needed in 2023.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Our first stop was Olmsted Point (left) on Tioga Pass Road, a spectacular postcard vista with views of Half Dome and Tenaya Lake.

Giant boulders called erratics are staggered throughout smooth granite slopes, just where the last glacier left them.

The point is named for much-lauded landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., both of whom were instrumental in the protection of Yosemite. Olmsted Sr.’s design portfolio includes New York City’s Central Park and the entire village of Riverside in suburban Chicago.

We hiked through Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias (right) amid old-growth Douglas firs and sugar pines. In the springtime, Pacific dogwoods sport delicate white flowers; in the fall, their leaves turn brilliant red.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

In jest, Scott described the steep hairpin trail as “one mile down and two miles up.” Now that I have accomplished this feat, I believe it is true.

The sequoias drop pine cones that are fleshier than my forearm, I was amazed to note. They are tempting souvenirs, but a hand-drawn sign with a sweet cartoon squirrel implored, “Please don’t take my food.” They and other forest denizens depend on the seeds to get through the ferocious winters.

After the challenging hike, Scott found a secluded spot for a hearty lunch on the banks of the Merced River, which runs roughly east and west through the park. Then we paused for a while at El Capitan Meadow, where folks gathered with binoculars and picnic baskets to watch the climbers scaling the smooth face of the famous granite cliff. We counted about 20 ambitious souls that day.

Conviviality in The Village

Hours and days on the mountains prompted me to move on to more leisurely pursuits, namely at The Village at Mammoth. After a yoga session with Après Zen, I strolled the sidewalks to check out the myriad shops for sporting goods and artisan wares.

Photo by Dakota Snider

Dining possibilities are both abundant and varied. Some establishments have been around so long as to be considered iconic.

Photo by Dakota Snider

Others are more recent, compounding the Mammoth energy. Petra’s Bistro & Wine Bar celebrates its 50th anniversary and second generation of contemporary American cuisine at the Alpenhof Lodge. At Side Door Wine Bar & Cafe, owners Deb Radcliff and Ryan Radcliff were frequent Mammoth visitors who stayed to present an award-winning boutique wine list and menu of European classics.

Burgers Restaurant & Bar might serve up the best cheeseburger and seasoned fries I’ve eaten. Mammoth Rock Brasserie is an upscale establishment with an international menu on the second floor of a bowling alley. Shelter Distillery was founded by snowboarding friends who shared an appreciation for great spirits and bold craft cocktails.

The Village at Mammoth is a vibrant neighborhood gathering spot all year with a dance party every Saturday night, even in winter. But this isn’t a skiing story.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.