Real Snow: Taking the kids to Mammoth Lakes
This post was originally published on Matador Network.
“Can we move here?” That was my daughter Layla’s first reaction, stamping through moonlit snow and into the Village at Mammoth, the gas log fires and twinkling holiday decorations making it feel suddenly as if we’d walked into wonderland.
I’m with you baby, I thought. I had to admire her 11-year-old sense that anything was possible. Then again, over those 11 years we’d spent seasons in so many one-of-a-kind places (think Puerto Escondido in Mexico, or the Alpujarra region in Spain) that her spontaneous idea of moving here made perfect sense.
Meanwhile, her brother Mica didn’t need to say anything to express how he felt. He just ran along the top of a flagstone wall and launched off, 8-year-old parkour style.
The thing was, somehow in those 11 years I’d missed getting them started snowboarding. Anchoring all of our travels abroad was a home base in Asheville, NC. It was a place we loved, but still, every time we’d get a few inches of snow (slush) I’d start geeking out, breaking out my ancient Burton, giving them little sit-down rides in our neighborhood forest.
Inevitably this would lead to tales of my long-ago seasons in the Rockies and the Sierra, floating through steep powder, carving endless waves, being in, as I described it, “real snow.” Ah yes, the glorious pow, the proper high country. “One day,” I promised, “We’ll all get there.”
This had been building up now for several years, and Mica called me out with the very first flurries in Asheville last fall. “Papi?” he said. “Will you take us snowboarding?”
Family-Friendly Snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain
By day two, it felt like I was back in the flow, working across the glades, looking for little banks and wave features, picking up right where I’d left off years before. This element of snowboarding, the way it became a lifelong progression, was one of the things I was most excited about sharing with the kids. I didn’t know Mammoth Mountain at all yet, but these glades — cathedral-like forests of Jeffrey’s pine and Douglas fir — were perfect for little surf turns, especially down in the gullies.
My friend Scott Sporleder, who’d joined the family trip as both photographer and helpful “uncle,” had been riding with me on the lower mountain while the kids were down in snowboard school. We kept traversing across — Avalanche, Side Show, and then under Canyon Express (Chair 16) — before working back towards Schoolyard Express (Chair 17) and the fenced-off learning area by the magic carpet where the kids were on their second afternoon of lessons.
I sat for a while just watching them. Layla was braking, practicing her heelside edge, timid but more or less in control. Meanwhile, Mica was strapping himself in — something he still needed help with yesterday. And I felt that stab of sweetness: a parent seeing their kids out in the world doing something new. Learning.
Now Mica was up — wobbling — and then sliding heelside about 15 feet, semi-under control. I could see him trying to get his weight back on his back foot (go buddy!), but then he just let the board swing downhill and tried to ride it out. Halfway down he caught an edge and fell.
Layla was slowly pushing back to the magic carpet. At the end of their first lesson yesterday, their instructor Max had said how they were getting it; they just needed “more mileage,” to which I thought: Don’t we all?
A Surprise Trip to Mammoth Lakes
I hadn’t told the kids where we were going. Better to make it a surprise. I’d just said we were going to have some major adventures and left the rest to their imaginations. Now that we were here, it didn’t disappoint. Mammoth Lakes — both the town and the entire Mono Basin — is one of those places with palpable, undeniable energy. It’s something I’ve only felt in a handful of places, say surfing off the Olympic Peninsula or in our grandest parklands (Yellowstone, Badlands). It’s an energy that derives from wildness, vast open spaces, extensive wildlife habitat, migratory routes, ancient forests.
Geographically, Mammoth Lakes is the backdoor to Yosemite National Park in the summertime (via the Tioga Pass), and there’s limitless access from the front country back into the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness areas. It’s a place where, as noted by local David Page (in his indispensable Explorer’s Guide: Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada), “a person can still walk 200 miles from the porch at Tamarack Lodge without crossing a single road.”
We’d had the option of flying directly to Mammoth Lakes (the Mammoth Yosemite Airport is only 10 minutes from town and offers year-round flights from LAX.) But, given this was the kids’ first time in California, I thought it would be more fun to link up with Scott in Los Angeles and share the mini road trip together.
The best setups always feel a bit surreal. In just a few hours we’d gone from eating overpriced oatmeal and checking glassy six-foot swells at Venice to one of the most remote mountain towns in the US. To reach Mammoth Lakes from LA you blaze across the Mojave, past airplane graveyards and wide-open desert terrain before heading up the Owens Valley on 395 (Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway).
From here it gets truly spectacular: You pass alongside Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and the backside of Mt. Whitney — the tallest peak in the lower 48. The sun was just setting when we reached this point, the kids begging to stick their heads out the window as the sky lit up gold and pink over the valley.
That first morning, we had a window of bluebird conditions and took advantage with a gondola ride to the top of Mammoth Mountain. This is the highest lift-accessed summit in California (11,053 feet), and even if you don’t ski or board, the panoramic views into the Sierra are worth the trip. At the top of the gondola is the Eleven53 Interpretive Center and cafe — perfect for getting the lay of the land. Little scopes aimed through the glass help you identify different features across the Long Valley Caldera and the Sierra beyond.
What becomes immediately apparent is that for all the jaggedness of the Sierra, Mammoth Mountain is itself very smooth and rounded — a complex of lava domes. According to the USGS, the eruptions that created Mammoth Mountain happened between 220,000 and 50,000 years ago. Since then, numerous eruptions have continued along this chain (the Mono-Inyo), each adding new domes to the landscape.
“Literally every chairlift here goes to the top of a lava dome,” explained Julie Dorio, an interpreter at Eleven53.
Then she brought out a collection of pelts from local mammals — red fox, bobcat, mountain lion, beaver, weasel, black bear, mule deer — as well as antler and skulls. There was a horn from a bighorn sheep. Teeth, claws. Molds of bear paws and a mini sandbox to make tracks. It was a strange juxtaposition — all of us touching the fur, noticing things (“You can see the cat’s whiskers!”) — in this high, sunny, glassed-in space where just outside people were skiing off the top.
Back at snowboard school at the bottom of Schoolyard Express (Chair 17), I high-fived Mica and Layla as they got off the magic carpet. Their instructor, a Californian in her early 20s, came over with a look of having made progress.
“So, a bit more practice before they go up on the hill, no?” I said.
“Yeah, they’re getting it. Layla has it, she’s just…”
“Papi, watch me!” Mica said, strapping in and then heelsliding again in his goofy foot stance. He did this funny move with his back hand, some kind of kung fu counterbalancing.
I huddled up with Layla. She didn’t remember it, but back when she was two we’d walked up a snowcat road together deep in a coihue forest in Patagonia. I carried my board, and the two of us took a few rides sitting down on it sled-style. She’d squeal each time and yell, “Más!” How did all these years go by without taking her to the mountains more times?
“Listen, baby, don’t worry, you’re doing awesome,” I said. Layla looked at me like she wanted so bad to show me that she could do it, but that she was also kind of cold, and tired, and needed like six cups of hot chocolate and a slice of pizza.
“I’m super proud of you,” I went on. “You don’t have to go up if you’re not ready. We still have a bit more time, though. Do you want to keep practicing or are you done? If you want to keep practicing I’ll go do one last run and then come back and get y’all.”
“I’ll keep practicing.”
If anything, this was a trip of firsts. The kids’ first time in California. Their first time ice skating (which ended up being so fun we did it twice). Their first time bowling (I guess I deprive my kids). And earlier that morning we’d visited Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center for their first time snowshoeing. Mammoth Lakes has plenty of accommodations for even the busiest holidays, and a range of options from cozy B&Bs to 200-guestroom hotels to upscale condo developments. Truth be told, I was more than comfortable in our vintage ’90s diagonal-pine-paneling and wall-to-wall-carpet condo. Besides a VCR (and bonus tape of Bette Midler in Beaches), we had what mattered most: a working fireplace/firewood supply that occupied an entire balcony, and a five-minute walk to Canyon Lodge.
But as soon as I saw the little rustic cabins along the Nordic trails at Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, I knew I’d found where to stay the next time we come to Mammoth Lakes.
Like all the best places, these cabins would require you to go just a bit further. To take a little sled with you to help haul in your gear and groceries. But then when you stepped outside, there was no parking lot, no garage, no pavement. You were stepping onto snow. You were already in the quiet forest, the miles of trails around Twin Lakes and into the backcountry beyond.
We snowshoed in a ways until the kids took the command decision to just stop and make a snowman. Meanwhile, little parties skied by. A group of women in their 40s. An older man with a pair of birding binoculars. I carried my board (old habit) and explored some unnamed glade, strapping in beneath a gigantic, rather guardian-like Douglas fir.
The art of travel — something kids are naturally good at — is allowing yourself to be drawn into random spots like this. Spots that give you a strange sense of arrival, as if they were there waiting for you. It’s like a delayed reaction sometimes: Long after the plane has landed and the car has parked and the first travel objectives are checked off, you slow down enough to just wander into the terrain and realize, I’m actually here.
Winter Sightseeing in Mammoth Lakes
That evening, high lenticular clouds were setting up to the east for potentially mind-bending colors. Scott made a spontaneous call for a sunset mission to Mono Lake.
Perhaps from all the hours in my goggles in the snow, as we sped along across the edge of the Great Basin, the dry ground — endless thickets of greasewood, sagebrush, and rabbitbrush — seemed to form a blanket of the most beautiful muted earth tones. I thought back to the animal skins — the red fox, the mountain lion — and how they fit into this palette.
As we entered the South Tufa area, the land seemed strangely abandoned. From a distance, we could see Paoha Island, a volcanic dome rising in the middle of the lake, formed by the Mono-Inyo Craters’ most recent eruption less than 300 years ago. The full moon was huge over the water, with rolls of passing clouds that reflected so much ambient light we didn’t need headlamps as we hiked in (or out).
Piling out of the car, Layla started skipping ahead, singing to herself. Scott ran ahead to set up some long exposures. It’s as if we all received sudden shots of energy. Mica’s eyes were alert, studying the terrain, maps, and signs with me.
“See, Bubba? Those towers are actually petrified springs. They’re where fresh water used to flow into the lake, and as the lake has evaporated, the water’s lowered and it leaves those formations. It says here to look for evidence of fresh springs near the lake.”
As we crossed the valley floor, the dry air was pungent with sage. At the water’s edge, Mica just plopped down in the sand, taking it all in. From here we examined the tufa towers, their textures sparkling in the moonlight. Half of the lake reflected the deep indigo sky above the Sierra; the other side glowed with the moon. After blowing for hours, the wind had finally died down. A vast stillness prevailed over the terrain.
“Look, Papi.” Mica’s voice, a few feet away. He was inspecting something in the beach. “I found one.”
“What is it, Bubba?” He scooted over and showed me: a hole leading down into the sand at the water’s edge. A spring.
Soaking in the Mammoth Lakes Magic
Heading up Canyon Express one last time, I realized with a kind of shock that it had been 18 years since my season in Tahoe. I’d joked with a couple kids in rentals about how I’d used to work at a resort, too. How I envied their mountain time. How before you know it you’re on the other side.
The Mono Lake mission ended up being a pivotal, before-and-after moment for our crew, locking us into this trip, this place, and giving the next two days around Mammoth Lakes an air of silliness and congeniality: Layla’s behemoth Philadelphia Roll at Samurai (the server moving her hands like snowboards, saying, “I love it here, I ride the mountain”). A local Mammoth Lakes boy befriending Mica and Layla and making their day at the ice rink. Our Shea Schat’s Bakery misadventure, where, faced with a paradise of pastries — ham, egg, and cheese croissants (an all-time breakfast sandwich), cinnamon rolls, donuts, chocolate, and every kind of fresh bread imaginable — Mica asked for Sour Patch Kids.
It was there throughout, this kind of effortless access, as we scouted the greatest sled hills of all time. (Look for the pull-offs as you drive two or three miles out of town on the Mammoth Scenic Loop. Bring the snow surfer.) As we made quick side trips to Hot Creek and Convict Lake. As we boogied with Woolly, the world’s only skiing pachyderm, at the Saturday Parade.
In the meantime, I still had a few turns left. I was starting to really get how my board (a never-ridden K2 87 I demoed) wanted to flex and float and turn off the nose. I kept looking for this one maneuver: the old dad ollie onto the log (to mini backside carve), and somewhere back in the glades, untracked, right there on the lower mountain, I found it.
When I ducked back in by the magic carpet, both Mica and Layla were wanting to show me how they were doing.
“Yeah, y’all!” I said. “Starting to feel it?”