Hard Days, Soft Nights: Adventures Around Mammoth Lakes

Things to Do — By Josh Steinitz on September 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm

When the call of the weekend getaway sounds, most Bay Area adventure enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward Lake Tahoe, naturally. After all, it’s a straight shot up Interstate 80, with a combination of tourism infrastructure and iconic lake views. Too often however, they overlook one of California’s premier mountain getaways, and one with mountains that are most certainly bigger, badder, and more beautiful — Mammoth Lakes.

While SoCal residents may be well-versed in Mammoth’s charms, my girlfriend Sylvia and I set out from San Francisco over Labor Day weekend to discover some of the eastern Sierra’s best adventure experiences with relatively fresh eyes. The kicker is that, after a backcountry camping trip the weekend before, I wasn’t in the mood for roughing it, and we both wanted to enjoy the pleasures of civilization at night…with more than just a rustic roof over our head.

After a pretty drive through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass, we cruised up to the Westin Monache in the heart of Mammoth around dusk. Immediately we were struck by the quality of the place — unlike the typical well-worn sixties/seventies-era motels and lodges typical of Tahoe (and other spots around Mammoth), the Westin was stylish and modern (the property is only 3 years old), while still reminding guests that they were in the mountains. I can think of only a few properties that live up to the “4 star” billing in Tahoe (like the Resort at Squaw Creek and the Hyatt at Incline Village), but none of them are as well-designed or offer the same luxury-for-the-money as the Westin Monache.

Our room was a suite, offering up a large living room with plasma TV, couch, and dining table, plus a modern kitchen area and a small den, along with an ample bathroom and bedroom. We overlooked the pool and Jacuzzis, which we dipped into to refresh after the long drive.

Determined to get into the heart of the Sierra, the following morning (after room service breakfast to fuel up) we drove south on Highway 395 to the junction at Tom’s Place, where we turned up Rock Creek Road and followed it southeast into the mountains, eventually reaching the road’s terminus at close to 10,000 feet at the foot of the Little Lakes Valley in the John Muir Wilderness. As we expected, the trailhead was crowded given the holiday weekend, but as we headed up the trail the crowds thinned out quite a bit. Soon we were hiking through a wonderland of alpine lakes, set like a chain of blue pearls surrounded by granite peaks with late-season snow clinging to their high northern faces. Each lake was prettier than the last, and the easy trail took us straight into the heart of some of the most stunning mountain scenery in North America, with Bear Creek Spire rising at the head of the valley. While Sylvia relaxed by Gem Lake, I scrambled off-trail and explored higher, heading up the “Hourglass Couloir” on Mount Dade. Above 12,000 feet I reached a steep snow slope that, while not technically difficult, required some sturdier shoes, crampons and an ice axe, which I hadn’t brought. I took in the amazing views of the entire Little Lakes Valley before heading back down, hopping boulders and “scree-skiing.”

After the day’s adventures, Sylvia and I were ready for a bit of indulgence, so after a hot shower in our room, we walked down to the Westin’s Whitebark Restaurant. Often a resort hotel’s restaurant is overpriced and underwhelming, but, even with the high standards characteristic of San Francisco locals, we were quite impressed. The restaurant has a stylish look and feel, with an open sushi bar and a partially open kitchen grill, along with a bar area. The cuisine could be characterized as a mix of Asian fusion and American classic with a California twist. We sat at a booth by the oversized windows, and relaxed over some tasty cocktails. Our meal was a mixture of some intriguingly unique appetizers, fantastic steaks, and a truly special dessert.

Perhaps inspired by all the mountain bikers that Mammoth attracts, and never one to lie around, I decided to try to mountain bike my first “fourteener” the following day — one of California’s 14,000 foot peaks. Arising early and leaving at dawn, I made the long drive to White Mountain Peak, which was an adventure in itself. South of Bishop, I turned east at Big Pine and drove up from the desert floor of the Owens Valley into the White Mountains, which roughly parallel the Sierras to the east. Near the 8,000 foot mark, I turned north and drove up the spine of the range, with ever more impressive views of the Sierra Crest and the desert below. At 10,000 feet, where the Schulman Grove of bristlecone pines grows, the pavement ended, and the next 19 miles were on a gravel road. Climbing higher, the amazing road entered a moonscape, and eventually ended at the Barcroft Research Station at 12,000 feet.

I started pedaling my mountain bike from there, but my heart rate instantly red-lined as I climbed up the steep, rocky fire road. It quickly became a “hike-a-bike” situation, at least for the initial steep section. Once past that however, I was able to maintain a relatively consistent climbing pace as the road/trail flattened out and then climbed gently. Eventually, after a short downhill, the trail began switchbacking more steeply up the final summit pyramid, and here again I had to push the bike uphill, as the combination of extreme altitude, rocky talus, and steepness made biking impossible (though I have no doubt that some of those guys who climb the Powerline Trail at the Leadville 100 could do it). Approaching the summit, I found one other cyclist among the 50 or so people enjoying the panoramic view from over 14,000 feet. Of course, all those people who looked at me with pity as I pushed my bike uphill now stood by in envy as I bombed the 7 miles back to the car in only 45 minutes…

On our final day, Sylvia and I took the gondola up Mammoth Mountain. Whisked easily up to 11,000 feet, we were treated to a fantastic wind-whipped view of the signature Minarets to the northwest in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and the high peaks of the John Muir Wilderness to the south. Since I wasn’t geared up for serious downhill mountain biking (motocross helmet, full body armor, heavy bike with a huge front suspension, etc.), I rode the incredible cross-country trail network on the mountain. As a biker used to the multi-use trails of the Bay Area, I was grinning from ear to ear as I cruised up and down the purpose-built trails, which have an entirely different feel than trails not made for bikers. Skidding around corners filled with sandy volcanic soil and weaving through rock gardens, I could have spent days exploring every trail on the mountain. There’s no doubt that, as resorts go, Mammoth is one of the premier mountain biking destinations in North America, and it’s obvious why they hold the California state championships there.

Heading home, just a half hour out of town, we made a short stop and explored the otherworldly tufa towers of Mono Lake. The contrast between the stark beauty of the desert and the lushness of the mountains was the perfect bookend for our trip. We resolved to make Labor Day weekend in Mammoth an annual tradition – our weekend was the perfect combination of outdoor adventure, relaxation and indulgence.

Tags: california, hiking, little lakes, mammoth lakes, mono lake, mountain biking, tufa, westin monache