Everything You Need to Know About Family-Friendly Ski Trips to Mammoth Lakes
Jul 13, 2021
This post was originally published on Matador Network.
Riding Mammoth Mountain in the right conditions is as good as it gets. Averaging 300 days of sun and 400 inches of snow a year, the ski season here is among the longest and sunniest in the US. And it’s not just the ski hill itself but the vast surrounding wilderness — one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 — that feels so surreal, especially given you’re only a five-hour drive from Los Angeles…and minutes from crackling fireplaces, hot cocoa, fresh snow, and take-no-prisoners snowball fights.
As we’ll explore in this guide, there are many factors that make Mammoth Lakes an ideal first (or 10th) family ski destination. Start with these suggestions, add a little creative planning, and you’ll have everything you need for a memorable trip.
Let’s bundle up and head for the Sierra.
An Overview of Mammoth Lakes
Great ski trips are about more than just the sport. Ultimately, they’re bonding experiences — both for your family and with the place itself. After all, the best travel experiences feel as if you’re not just visiting a place but starting a relationship with it.
So as you’re considering your itinerary, consider — and include — the space. Block out some time for the unexpected excursion off the mountain. For going back wherever you and the kids enjoyed most. For rest and recovery, some unstructured play time in town. For exploring.
Here are the basics of what’s in store in Mammoth Lakes.
Getting to Mammoth Lakes
The Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) is 10 minutes from town. Connect from flights anywhere in the States or abroad through Los Angeles year-round, as well as seasonally through Denver or San Francisco on United Airlines. JetSuiteX also makes the trip from smaller regional California airports like Orange County and Burbank in the winter. Check the flight schedule for more info.
The other option is driving from LA — an incredibly scenic five-hour ride up US-395 through the Owens Valley — or from Reno, equally scenic and right under three hours.
Hotels & Lodging in Mammoth Lakes
Possibly the hardest decision when it comes to Mammoth Lakes is where to stay. There are tons of lodging options in the centrally located Village at Mammoth — including the upscale Westin Monache Resort, which offers their own rental facility and ski valet service so you don’t have to deal with getting gear on the mountain or bringing it back to your room. For a pet-friendly option, consider the Edelweiss Lodge, which has a number of rustic cabins. Similarly, Tamarack Lodge & Resort offers various studio, deluxe, and two- or three-bedroom cabins right along the Nordic trail system near Twin Lakes. Browse all of the Mammoth Lakes lodging options and find the perfect place to stay in Mammoth Lakes.
Mammoth Mountain is the highest lift-serviced resort in California (11,035 feet), and anyone can make it to the top via scenic lift rides on the Panorama Gondola. Kids 12 and under ride free on scenic rides.
It’s a perfect first-day activity, as it introduces your clan to the volcanic landscape of the Sierra. At the top is one of the most unique interpretive centers in the country, Eleven53. And it all starts with being in the mountains, away from your home terrain, up at elevation.
Exploring the Town of Mammoth Lakes
This mountain town is super fun to explore. From the skating rink to the bowling alley to the food scene, there’s plenty to check out. After the ski day ends, the Village at Mammoth comes alive with people enjoying drinks, food, and heated outdoor spaces. And you’ll find plenty of upscale shopping and boutique gear stores, craft distilleries, and some amazing restaurants. Check the local guide section below for more detail.
Off-Mountain Activities in Mammoth Lakes
To fully appreciate Mammoth Lakes, you have to spend some time off the mountain. Try the Mammoth Ice Rink or bowling at Mammoth Rock ‘N’ Bowl. And definitely pick at least one front-country adventure via snowshoes, cross-country skis, or fat bike. There’s also Woolly’s Tube Park & Snow Play in between the Village at Mammoth and Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge, or you can just toss a sled in the back of the car and drive the Scenic Loop looking for perfect hills.
Consider pairing a half-day lesson skiing or riding with side trips to nearby Convict Lake, Hot Creek, or Mono Lake. We’ll cover more options in the off-mountain activities section below.
Before You Go: Notes for First-Timers in Mammoth Lakes
Being on the mountain is physical. It quickly exposes everyone’s comfort level when it comes to being in the sun, wind, cold, up at elevation, etc. Proper gear is essential.
Of course, there’s a certain stoke that helps push through all this: a sense of learning. Of progression. Whether it’s your kids’ first run in the terrain park or just getting more comfortable on a snowboard and overcoming those initial jitters, it’s all one endless learning experience.
When to Visit Mammoth Lakes in the Winter
There’s plenty of space at Mammoth Mountain for even holiday weekend crowds, but if you can avoid the peak days/times by skiing midweek or early morning (be at the lifts at 8:30 am), it can help everything go even more smoothly.
As far as seasons, Mammoth Lakes often gets great snow early (November), and the warm days of spring skiing (mid-March to end of the season) can be absolutely unreal. Both late and early season will see fewer crowds. That said, high season is also a fun time to be in Mammoth Lakes, with holiday events and other festivities filling the calendar.
Winter Gear Rentals in Mammoth Lakes
Picking up your gear (skis, board, boots, helmet) can be quick and easy. That said, if you have a lesson scheduled, make sure to get to the rental shop at least 45 minutes (an hour is better) before it starts, just in case.
There’s a discount when you reserve gear at least a week in advance at some rental locations, and there’s also a premium rental service that makes getting your gear even faster and comes with locker service.
If you’re a seasoned rider/skier, consider the demo option. You can test out various new (sometimes brand new) boards or skis over the course of your stay.
What to Pack for Mammoth Lakes in the Winter
You’ll want to bring: goggles (all kids taking lessons must have protective eyewear in addition to their helmet), ski socks, thermal underwear (tops and bottoms), snow pants, jacket, and hat, plus a balaclava to keep in a pocket in case the wind comes up. Shopping for these items (let the kids help choose!) and trying it on beforehand can be a fun way to build anticipation and get kids used to gearing up.
What to Expect on a Ski Trip to Mammoth Lakes
Novice skiers and riders start off on gently sloped areas, runs with easy conveyor-belt-style lifts. From there, instructors will work on fundamentals. The big breakthrough comes when students can stop on command, turn, and stay in control, which allows instructors to take them up on the chairlift for the first time, giving learners their first real taste of the mountain.
It’s important to remember that each person learns at their own pace. Alleviate the pressure. Whether or not people make it up on the chair the first day, second day, or not at all on this first trip doesn’t really matter. The goal is having fun and a positive first experience.
On the Mountain Fun at Mammoth Mountain
To understand Mammoth Mountain, you have to start with the terrain. As storm systems come in from the Pacific, they sometimes drop heavy snow on the Eastern Sierra. Mammoth Mountain averages 400 inches of snowfall or more each season — with some seasons extending into August. Storms of three feet, four feet (sometimes more!) can be routine.
At times, these big weather events can be accompanied by winds, creating temporary lift closures. But the moment they’re open again, a kind of feeding frenzy occurs, with powder-crazed riders and skiers looking for first tracks down their favorite lines. And this is when Mammoth Mountain turns legendary. The infrastructure is built around four base lodges (as well as the Village at Mammoth, which has its own Village Gondola up to the mountain):
- Main Lodge — summit access via Panoramic Gondola. Gets the first sun in the morning.
- The Mill — less than a mile before Main Lodge, easier parking. A good meeting point between Main Lodge and Canyon, yet limited services and storage.
- Canyon Lodge — accessible from Village Gondola. Busiest of all four lodges.
- Eagle Lodge — closest to the center of town, yet limited parking.
Lift tickets can be purchased directly at any of the four bases (as well as the Village at Mammoth), and each has food options as well. Ski school is available at Main Lodge (which also offers daycare), Canyon Lodge, and Eagle Lodge.
While not directly part of the lift-accessed infrastructure, a “fifth” lodge — Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center — is a quiet alternative located on 19 miles of groomed Nordic trails.
Skiing & Snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain
The 25 lifts at Mammoth Mountain give access to more than 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, with 3,100+ feet of vertical, over 150 named trails, and several different terrain parks. The terrain breaks down to 15% expert, 20% advanced, 40% intermediate, 25% beginner. Download the free Mammoth Mountain Mobile App for interactive trail maps, lift ticket purchasing (and specials), mountain cams, events, and more.
The Panorama Gondola gets you from Main Lodge to the summit comfortably in 10-15 minutes and runs (as do all lifts) from 8:30 am to 4 pm. Conditions permitting, the protected steeps off Chair 22 (Avalanche Chutes) are classic expert runs. Intermediate riders, try lapping Chair 12 for some sweet (and often uncrowded) features, as well as the overlooked glades on the mid-to-lower mountain.
Mammoth Mountain Ski School
At Mammoth Mountain Ski School, you’ll meet passionate instructors from all over the country. Kids’ (or adults’) group lessons are a fun way to get started; you’ll work through a proven method for developing mountain IQ and riding/skiing.
Group lessons are offered daily in both the morning and afternoon. There are also full-day lesson + childcare packages for days when you might want to just leave the kids and spend the day shredding. Private lessons are also available for riders of all skill levels, which really accelerates learning curves.
On-Mountain Dining at Mammoth Mountain
Midway up the Panorama Gondola, there’s a food court at McCoy Station with lots of options open 10:30 am to 3:30 pm. At the Main Lodge, Tusks is a sports bar with live music on weekends.
If your crew makes it to the backside of the mountain, The Outpost is a really cool sundeck/open-air sandwich stop with plenty of craft beer. If you’re basing out of Canyon Lodge and it’s still warm and sunny when you’re done, The Beach Bar is a great outdoor hang spot. If folks are cold, head upstairs to The Grizzly Bar. Just keep in mind that some spots stop serving food at 3:30.
The IKON Pass
The IKON Pass — which gives access to the world’s best ski destinations — naturally includes Mammoth Mountain. But you get more than an unlimited, no-blackout-date pass to the slopes. Here, your IKON Pass comes with serious discounts: 25% for up to 10 Friends & Family lift tickets, as much as 20% off your Mammoth Mountain lodging, and more discounts at local restaurants and retailers. Then there are the reduced lesson and rental rates, the special events like “Early Up” days (where pass holders score early access to the lifts and a free breakfast)…the list goes on.
Off-Mountain Activities in Mammoth Lakes
Beyond being on the mountain, there are so many ways to explore the Sierra and enjoy the town of Mammoth Lakes. Some, like ice skating, make great early evening or after-dinner activities. Others, like side trips to Hot Creek or Mono Lake, are awesome rest-day activities.
And still others, like snowshoeing or exploring Mammoth Lakes by fat bike or snowmobiling, can be their own half-day or full-day adventures, which give you a totally different perspective on the terrain.
Ice skating in Mammoth Lakes
Something about watching people ice skate around in circles makes it impossible not to smile and have fun. The Mammoth Ice Rink is especially enjoyable, with a dramatic outdoor setting: the Sierra towering along the horizon.
Operated through a partnership of the local school district and the town, the rink has a youthful, welcoming vibe. Open fairly late (till 10 pm some nights), it makes a great pre-dinner or later evening option. Check for special events such as hockey matches and “superhero skates” for the kids.
Snowshoeing & Cross Country Skiing
Some of the most beautiful forests in all of the Sierra — with huge Jeffrey pines and other conifers — can be found along the secluded trails leading from the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center. Here, you can rent Nordic skis or snowshoes (also gear sleds for hauling toddlers and/or picnic supplies), and day passes are very affordable (kids 12 and under are just $5).
The trail systems include over 19 miles around Lake Mary, across Twin Lakes, and way into the Mammoth Lakes front-country, with every kind of distance and difficulty, from flats and gently sloping glades to awesome vistas like Panorama Dome. If your visit coincides with a full moon, don’t miss the opportunity to take a guided full moon snowshoe hike.
Visiting Hot Creek
After having spent time on the slopes, Hot Creek will deepen your appreciation for the landscape. The same volcanic forces that created Mammoth Mountain are still visible here. As subsurface magma heats the waters within the gorge, it creates a variety of steaming, bubbling hot springs and otherworldly colored, mineral-rich pools.
The road should be passable in the winter, especially for an SUV, but you’ll want to check conditions before heading out. After big storms, snowshoes might be necessary to make the trip.
Visiting Mono Lake
Mono Lake is among the most surreal landscapes and unique habitats you’ll ever see. Nearly all California gulls are hatched here, their parents flying inland from the coast to Mono Lake’s super saline waters.
Perhaps the most notable features of Mono Lake are the hundreds of bizarre “tufa” towers, formations that are actually the petrified remnants of freshwater springs. And at the center of the lake you’ll see the volcanic dome of Paoha Island, which was created in an eruption less than 500 years ago. A gentle hiking trail leads down through the sagebrush to the water’s edge, where it’s hard not to spend hours marveling at the formations.
This one is a great DIY adventure. You can rent fat bikes (with huge studded snow tires) that also have electric assist, allowing you to pedal virtually anywhere. This makes for fun local explorations: You can start right in town, taking the Sawmill Cutoff Road across from one of the Starbucks up to the Shady Rest area for a variety of quick and easy loops through the front-country.
For a bigger day, follow the road from Main Lodge (closed in winter to cars) all the way to Minaret Summit (or as far as you can).
Mammoth Lakes Locals’ Guide
Mammoth Lakes has a special vibe for a number of reasons. It feels very familial here, part of which may be the legacy of the ski area itself, which David McCoy ran as a family business for more than 60 years.
Leaving the Village at Mammoth and heading south along Minaret Road to Main Street, you’ll find Mammoth Lakes’ business district. Between Main Street and Old Mammoth Road is everything you’ll need, from restaurants and shopping centers, to gas stations and the local Vons grocery store, to the pharmacy and a Bank of America. Note that during peak winter season, reservations at restaurants are a great way to ensure you have a table waiting for you after a day of adventures.
Getting to and Around Mammoth Mountain
Getting up to the mountain is super easy. Many lodging options are within walking distance of the slopes, but even if yours isn’t, there’s a free shuttle service, Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA), that runs every 20 minutes around town and to each lodge.
Park your car and download the Transit app, which shows you in real-time where and when the next ride is coming.
Where to Eat in Mammoth Lakes
Powerhouse breakfasts and refueling lunches are critical. Strong on-mountain/Village at Mammoth options include Toomey’s and the Old New York Deli & Bakery Co. (open at 6 am).
Down in town you’ll find a lot more. Shea Schat’s Bakery is a Mammoth Lakes institution, having powered skiers with their fresh breads, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches for decades. The Stove is likewise a 40-year-plus hearty breakfast institution. For crack-of-dawn organic coffee & pastry runs, Stellar Brew and Looney Bean are two beloved local java houses.
Two more local favorites that have bigger menus and also serve lunch: Base Camp Café (with trail-meals packed to go) and Good Life Café (with healthy Mexican options).
Dinner Mammoth Lakes dining can be a full-on event (like The Lakefront Restaurant at Tamarack Lodge), or more of a low-key, booth-seating fuel-up (like sushi and ramen at Samurai). If your clan is worn out and wanting to keep it close to the mountain, the Village at Mammoth has solid options, like Campo for wood-fired pizza, Smokeyard BBQ for ribs, and Mammoth Brewing Company for burgers and craft beer. There’s also The Yodler down by the Panorama Gondola for quick pub fare, and the Mountainside Bar & Grill at Main Lodge for a more expansive dinner menu. Heading into town, Roberto’s Cafe is your spot for margaritas, homemade tamales, and SoCal Mexican; Giovanni’s is your go-to pizza parlor. Study the Mammoth Lakes dining guide for more info.
Shopping & Arts in Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes has the most wonderful slew of mountain gear stores and rental and repair shops you’ll ever see, from Footloose Sports and Mammoth Mountaineering to Wave Rave. The folks at these shops are great resources for local activity recommendations as well.
If you’re looking for clothing, try Mammoth Lakes’ discount outlet mall, which includes several luxury brands. There’s also a superb independent bookstore, Booky Joint.
Finally, check out local fine art photography from the Eastern Sierra at the Vern Clevenger Gallery.
Family Fun in Mammoth Lakes
There’s plenty of off-mountain family fun to be had in Mammoth Lakes. One classic is the Mammoth Rock ‘N’ Bowl, which features plenty of bowling, darts, and pub-style eats. If your crew is feeling like a movie night, there’s Minaret Cinemas, a funky, retro cinema with comfy seating and both new and classic releases.
Finally, if you’re looking for a great sledding/tubing area, check out Woolly’s Tube Park & Snow Play, which has fun little sled runs and a variety of slide-y toys to play on.
Special Events in Mammoth Lakes
Throughout the ski season, Mammoth Mountain hosts weekly special events. Seeing amazing pro riders go off during slopeside races and freestyle competitions can really open kids’ eyes to what’s possible on the mountain. Then there are just fun family festivities, like the kid-favorite Woolly’s Saturday Parade that takes place each Saturday afternoon in the Village at Mammoth.
The town of Mammoth Lakes also hosts several important cultural happenings, like the annual spring Mammoth Lakes Film Festival. It’s also around this time when Mammoth Mountain’s infamous Pond Skim takes place, where costumed skiers and riders bomb down Canyon before hitting a 110-foot pond. Check the Mammoth Lakes event calendar for more.